Archive for Charles Coburn

Got a light?

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on July 18, 2017 by dcairns

This is the water and this is the well…

Drink full and descend…

The horse is the white of the eye…

And dark within.

Words from Twin Peaks, images from OF HUMAN HEARTS.

OFH has lots of good scenes and good actors — Beulah Bondi, Walter Huston, James Stewart and Charles Coburn, but alas it’s all building up to a deeply bogus scene with a deeply bogus Abe Lincoln, played John Carradine from under a terrifying waxy residue applied by Jack Dawn and/or Josef Norin. It’s totally inflexible apart from the crease at his upper lip that lets him talk. They’d have been better off with an animatronic version, even though animatronics in them days would have meant building a face the size of King Kong’s mechanical mask and having Mickey Rooney run around inside it pulling levers.

Twin Peaks, meanwhile, is slowing down time. And not just with daring choices of pacing, like three minute shots lingering on a floor being swept or two people looking at a third person smoke a cigarette. The weekly dosage is making my weeks seem longer, due to the suspense. Seven days suddenly feels like seven days again.

Although, I’m not sure I’d recommend watching episode eight alone in a foreign hotel with apparently no other guests. Good thing I’m a tough SOB. Fear is a stranger to me. A grubby, bearded stranger with fingers that can shatter bone.

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Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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Male Practice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by dcairns

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THE DOCTOR AND THE GIRL is an MGM film before it’s a Curtis Bernhardt film — no glimmers of expressionism here. And what Fiona called “the worst title ever” — certainly the most generic. But it does stretch a bit at the limits of what can be said about the world in an L.B. Mayer production. Arrogant junior doctor Glenn Ford, product of a tyrannical surgeon father (Charles Coburn NEARLY in KING’S ROW mode) falls for and is humanized by Janet Leigh, who is of humble origins, mans a taffy-rotating mechanism for a living, and has a lung abscess, though you would never know those things to look at her. Surprisingly, he sacrifices his dream of neurosurgery to become a slum doctor, and finds happiness. It’s the sacrificed dream bit that’s surprising — most Hollywood confections would find a way to give him his heart’s desire twice over.

Meanwhile. his sister (Gloria DeHaven) gets pregnant out of wedlock, which means she’s sentenced to death by the Hays Code.

What’s unsettling is the glimpses the film offers us of Bellevue — Leigh only survives the place because Ford pulls strings and gets her the top surgeon — it’s made pretty clear that with a regular doctor she didn’t stand much chance. If she hadn’t been young perky and white, what chance would she have had? What chance do these characters have?

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