Archive for Charles Crichton

My City #5

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2010 by dcairns

Princes Street (screen right). The word “Directed” is slapped on top of Edinburgh Castle.

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES is one of a trio of post-Ealing comedies directed by Charles Crichton, which sought to replicate, perhaps a little self-consciously, the “gentle humour” associated with that studio’s output. Crichton’s cinema career rather sputtered out over the course of these productions (THE LOVE LOTTERY, LAW AND DISORDER), although he remained active in television. It took the injection of some Monty Python acidity to give Crichton a sudden boost — A FISH CALLED WANDA ended his  career on a high.

In TBOTS, Peter Sellers gets to demonstrate his celebrated versatility as an elderly Scotsman, whose tweed company is threatened with modernization by American businesswoman Constance Cummings. I don’t know how faithful the treatment is to James Thurber’s source story, The Catbird Seat, but the action largely plays in Edinburgh, which is where I come in.

This is one of those productions that snatch a few set-ups in Edinburgh then decamp to an English studio (in this case, Independent Artists Studios, Beaconsfield, now the National Film School). Crichton chooses some prime tourist spots, cramming Edinburgh Castle into the background whenever he can swing it ~

The columns screen left are part of the National Gallery, an eighteenth-century neoclassical affair. The castle is arrayed along the horizon. Robert Morley is meant to be in the cab but I’m not sure he is.

However, the stars of the film did make it up here, so we get a nice “and did these feet in ancient times” feeling from seeing Sellers and Cummings in situ.

Here’s Sellers on the High Street, with the law courts and St Giles Cathedral behind him, where, exactly forty years later, we’ll film the hanging of William Burke in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL. I think the little side-street (or “close”) Sellers has just emerged from was also used in that short.

The street is Castle Wynd, the Castle is silhouetted at screen top courtesy of a graded filter, and the building with all the windows at screen left is Edinburgh College of Art, where you’ll find me on teaching days. But not in 1959, when I was minus eight years old.

This one really looks like a glimpse into another time. Yet only the traffic has really changed today. The building screen left was the North British Hotel and is now the Balmoral, otherwise unaltered. In the far distance is the volcanic jut of Salisbury Crags, which hasn’t moved about for tens of thousands of years, at least. The bridge leads up to shops which are still shops and newspaper offices which are now a hotel. Oh, I guess that nice lamppost has gone. If I were really ambitious I’d go up town and take a snap from the same spot, but the zoom’s broken on my camera so I might not be able to match the framing.

Here’s an odd one. To save money, when Sellers and Cummings head north to visit the crofters who make the tweed his company deals in, the scenes are actually shot in around Arthur’s Seat, the big volcanic hill in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Park. Essentially the same crags seen in the distance in image 4.

The movie itself is mildly funny, sinisterly sexist, and suffers from the unadventurous spirit of much 1950s British filmmaking. The burst of energy released during wartime, which lasted to some extent into the early 50s, boosting the ambitions of modest talents and allowing great ones like Powell & Pressburger to attain amazing heights, has now largely dissipated. In a few years, a whole new energy will be unleashed, in which Sellers’ former TV collaborator, Richard Lester will play a major role…

UK Shadowplayers can buy BATTLE here:
Battle Of The Sexes [1959] [DVD]

And Crichton’s more interesting wartime opus, POINTED BOATS, here:
Painted Boats [DVD] [1945]

“It rhymes with joy”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2009 by dcairns

Froy! Froy! Froy!

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Dame May Whitty, reminding me somewhat of my late maternal grandmother.

Charles Barr, the master of English Hitchcock and the author of English Hitchcock, makes much play of the fact that the vanishing lady in THE LADY VANISHES, Miss Froy, sounds like an uncompleted “Freud”. A Freudian slip of a girl. Likewise he structures this analysis around those moments when Margaret Lockwood, as plucky heroine Iris Henderson, loses consciousness: falling asleep in a hotel bed, then knocked silly by a falling window-box; fainting from accumulated stress, and then pretending to pass out after being drugged. Each of these moments is a further step into Dream Country — the last one may be an embracing of the logic of nightmare. 

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I like this idea, but I got interested in another one. Fiona, who hadn’t seen the film in years, was of course totally charmed by it, and while noticing how weird it was, which certainly ties in with the Barr vision of the film as a surreal odyssey into the realm of nightmares, she was also struck by how unsympathetic everybody in it was. Everybody but Miss Froy, who rhymes with joy.

So there’s a potential reading of the film which takes its theme as the human, humane element of our nature being lost, and recovered through a struggle. As the struggle goes on, characters who are capable of nobility start to manifest it, and by the end, with Miss Froy restored to them, they (more or less) all pull together and win through against the forces of oppression. This ties in with the film’s reputation as a key pre-war movie which, while taking place in a fictitious European locale, Bandrieka, and avoiding making strict sense in plot or political terms (“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rational explanation for all this,” remarks one character, a touch optimistically), does capture a feeling of international jitters (“England on the brink” does not just refer to the test match) and projects a strong desire for cooperation across class barriers. Authors Launder & Gilliat were fairly left-leaning at this time in their lives.

Hitch had just visited America on a fact-finding mission, hoping to score a contract. Feelers were being sent out by both David Selznick and MGM-British, following Hitchcock’s escape from the patronage of Michael Balcon, who had thoughtfully “protected” him from American offers. Laying aside a Nova Pilbeam project in which she would have played a Catholic schoolgirl whose father gets mixed up in a murder (will she protect him and be damned?), an intriguing-sounding idea, Hitch took over a project begun by Roy William Neill (a brief spoof of Sherlock Holmes anticipates Neill’s celebrated work with Basil Rathbone as the sleuth) which had run aground amid location problems in Yugoslavia. 

The plot is a helter-skelter affair, with constant, breakneck narrative development after the opening act of character introductions and comedy (the film has the strongest and most integrated humour of any of the British thrillers). So I want to concentrate on the people, using them as guides through the maelstrom of plot. It’s often pointed out how bizarre the MacGuffin is in this one, another of Hitch’s musical motifs, “the key clause in a secret treaty between two European nations” — the Hitler-Stalin pact? — coded as a melody, but nobody talks about how strange the whole story is. Bad guys abduct a British spy, Miss Froy, on a train, and hope to smuggle her off swathed in bandages as an accident victim. Fair enough. When Margaret Lockwood asks after the missing woman, they pretend she never existed, and all the other passengers, for private reasons of their own, fall into step with this deception. In the case of the Italian magician (a Hitchcock invention: sleight-of-hand is very important here), the answer is simply that he’s been bribed. The Bandriekan Baroness (Mary Clare from YOUNG AND INNOCENT) is apparently the ringleader, since she turns up at the very end where she has no other reason to be. But how could the bad guys count on the British characters to back them up in their absurd confabulations? It’s a terrific example of Hitchcock damning the plausibilists and going full steam into dreamland.

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Margaret Lockwood is a superb heroine, and it’s regrettable she never worked with Hitchcock again, although she certainly made more films of this kind. Apart from her work as a wicked lady in THE WICKED LADY and similar Gainsborough melodramas, she showed plenty of pluck in thrillers for Carol Reed (NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH) and Roy Ward Baker (HIGHLY DANGEROUS — Baker was an assistant on THE LADY VANISHES). Here she’s sexy, snappy, and funny without seeming to try.

Mind you, she partakes of the film’s deliberate lack of sympathy early on: she and her two friends (a young unknown, plus Googie Withers, a great survivor of this era) are pretty shameless in their exploitation of the hotel manager, and despite being new money, they’ve picked up some class prejudices: seeing that the hotel is crowded, one remarks, “Don’t tell me Cook’s have started running cheap tours here?” Although that’s pretty mild compared to Charters and Caldicott. When Miss Froy asks for help finding a bag at the station, they basically blank her. But Mags redeems herself by picking up the old dear’s fallen spectacles, a good deed that promptly gets her beaned by a would-be assassin.

There’s also the moment where she bribes the hotel manager to have noisy guest Michael Redgrave evicted. We’re clearly meant to see this as not cricket, and it’s used to justify Redgrave’s subsequent caddish behaviour. (Selznick would later object to Hitchcock’s tendency to have heroes behave like boors.) Now, I like my sleep, and we live in a neighbourhood where it’s often disturbed by late-night revellers, so I’m on la Lockwood’s side here. In pursuit of a good night’s kip, anything up to small-arms fire is acceptable. We even cheered when the serenading folk-singer gets throttled a minute later.

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Anyway, what keeps us on Margaret’s side despite the more abrasive moments is probably her mock-melodramatic speech where she explains that she’s getting married out of ennui. It’s so neatly written and perfectly delivered that we just can’t wait to see what mad adventure is going to knock this world-weary lass out of her tired expectations.

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Michael Redgrave. The man to whom Hitchcock is supposed to have said “Actors are cattle.” Redgrave said he realised later that Hitchcock was trying to shock him out of a superior attitude. He had been shocked by the speed with which Hitchcock demanded a take. “in the theatre we’d rehearse this for three weeks.” “In this medium we have three minutes,” said Hitch. It was Paul Lukas, whom Redgrave respected, who talked him into taking the work seriously. But there’s no trace of this diffidence onscreen: Redgrave is an amusing and eccentric hero, maybe even better than Donat (the previous benchmark). 

The character, an eccentric researching a book on European folk dances, is about as whimsical as one might safely try to get away with in a thriller, and maybe it’s the quality of the execution that makes it work so well, rather than any brilliance in the concept of the character. But L&G have shrewdly calculated that, in a film crowded with stereotypes and repressed Brits, both types that must conform to certain expectations, a free-wheeling Bohemian makes a refreshing blast of anarchy for the audience. And since Redgrave’s hero doesn’t play by the rules (there’s some very funny dirty fighting in the battle with the magician), he’s free to surprise us and break from genre expectations.

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Paul Lukas as the suave doctor, suggesting plausible psychological reasons why Miss Froy must be a hallucination, ought to be obvious as the villain, but he’s not. Hitch cleverly sees the point where the audience is likely to catch on, and tips us the wink with a shifty reaction shot from P.L. Then he can build suspense as the medico tries to press doped drinks on our unsuspecting protags, a weighty low-angle shot making the glasses loom like henchmen. Lukas is still standing at the film’s conclusion: “As they say in England, jolly good luck to them,” he smiles. Does he represent the still-lurking threat of fascism in Europe?

A character composed largely from cliches, the bad guy is brought to life by Lukas with a fine display of simpering when he unveils his true nature. And there’s really little change in how we feel about him when he goes from sympathetic brain specialist (no pesky distinction is made between psychiatry and neurosurgery here) to villainous spymaster: the guy offering the rational explanation is always the enemy in a film like this.

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Basil Radford (seen in YOUNG AND INNOCENT) and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott got whole new careers out of this film, having played assorted roles beforehand. They can be seen as a double-act in the Charles Crichton comedy episode of DEAD OF NIGHT (generally derided as the film’s weakest part, but I still like it), and Thorold Dickinson’s THE NEXT OF KIN, and actually reprised their roles as C&C in a whole series of films. The aforementioned NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a gloves-off version of LADY, with proper Nazi bad guys, and Rex Harrison squiring Margaret Lockwood through the alpine thrills. When Harrison drags up as an SS officer, it’s almost too much stimulation to bear. Charters and Caldicott are again along for the ride. 

In CROOK’S TOUR the duo got a film to themselves. All I remember of it is one of them opening a door marked bathroom and nearly plunging down a sheer crevasse into the raging Bosphorus below. “That’s not the bathroom, that’s the Bosphorus,” he remarks. “The sign’s wrong, then,” says his chum, “It shouldn’t say bathroom, it should say Bosphorus.”

Thereafter, Lauder & Gilliat brought them along for luck when they because producer-directors, showing them in wartime in MILLIONS LIKE US, but when they tried to deploy them in I SEE A DARK STRANGER (Trevor Howard and Deborah Kerr, maybe L&G’s best film) the actors proved awkward, so they replaced them with two identical stooges named Spanswick and Goodhusband. S&G are almost as good as C&C, but not quite.

“They’re horrible!” Fiona protested, and it’s true that, in embodying the Englishman abroad, C&C are twin concatenations of snobbery, bigotry, prudery, arrogance, thoughtlessness and selfishness. However, they do redeem themselves by being good in a scrape. A pretty sharp portrait of Britain at the time. Radford’s underplaying when he’s shot is priceless: he looks slightly let down. When he manages to cut off some innocent fellow’s important phone call, he becomes a portrait of sheepishness, as if he might confess to the whole thing, but Wayne shushes him with a slight casting-down of the eyes. “Leave it,” say the eyes.

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Even more unpleasant is Cecil Parker, as an aspiring legal somebody, off on a fling with a married woman, Linden Travers (Yay! Miss Blandish!). He’s the one who lies for the basest of reasons, to avoid a scandal. He also gets one of the film’s best jokes, when Travers complains about his fussiness in booking separate rooms. “You weren’t so particular in Paris.” “That was entirely different,” he blusters, “The exhibition was at it’s height.” “I realise that now,” deadpans Travers, “No need to rub it in.”

(Launder & Gilliat topload the script with dirty jokes, most of them genuinely witty, aided by uncredited contributions from Val Guest and whoever else happened by the writing room. Redgrave gets some good ones about illegitimacy and toilets, and the hotel manager squeezes some good malapropist double entendres in: “You can have the maid’s room. But first she must come to your room and -” here, he gestures at his own attire – “remove her wardrobe.” Emile Boreo, by the way, is great as the hotelier, a distant cousin of Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, perhaps.)

Parker is not only a weasel, morally and sexually, he’s an appeaser, which means his death at the end, waving a white flag, is a salutary thing, or intended to be. By refusing to believe in the foreign menace, he condemns himself to death, the one moment in the film where it’s nakedly political in a way none of the British thrillers quite are otherwise.

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Leaving aside the various funny foreigners — the film both has and eats its cake by mocking the Brits for mocking them, and then mocking them itself — that leaves us with the nun in high heels. Sinister sisters tip-tap through Hitchcock’s oeuvre like ravens. Catherine Lacey had a long career that more or less started with this film, taking in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING and Michael Reeves’ THE SORCERERS, where she’s paired with Karloff and manages to make him look innocuous, and then near the end she’s the old lady in the wheelchair with the canaries in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. She must have had some stories.

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Which leads us back to Dame May Whitty (few other actors made both British and American films with Hitch, but Dame May would return in SUSPICION) as Miss Froy, seen here being lifted off the loo, one of many indignities she’s subjected to. Writers naming PSYCHO as the first American film with a toilet onscreen may be correct, but Hitchcock was no stranger to lavatorial matters, and the pan can be glimpsed during a pan of another kind here. Miss Froy, who is not only a whimsical governess (she never breaks character); a master spy; the subject of a magician’s trick which sees her reappear at film’s end at least as mysteriously as she originally disappeared, and with no hint of explanation — Miss Froy, whose true name must be spelled M-A-C-G-U-F-F-I-N.

Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2008 by dcairns

From the Korda production ELEPHANT BOY.

Directed by Robert Flaherty, then RE-directed by Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan, after Flaherty’s more purist documentary style was rejected as uncommercial (a similar problem had resulted in Flaherty’s removal from WHITE SHADOWS ON THE SOUTH SEAS, where he was replaced by “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke. How did Hollywood turn the dry documentary into boffo B.O.? “Boys, I’ve an idea — let’s fill the screen with tits!”). Much of E-BOY’s elephant stampede footage was staged in England with circus animals (it looks phoney as heck). Flaherty was certainly not above staging things (it was normal practice in ’30s documentary) but he had his own code of standards that would never have permitted geographic fraudulence of this kind.

Editor Charles Crichton, later director of comedies like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and A FISH CALLED WANDA, used to tell a story about the production that may well be untrue (one hopes it is). When Flaherty went out to India, he telegrammed the studio:

ARRIVED INDIA FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT AND BOY

A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.

FOUND BOY FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT

Two more weeks, then:

FOUND ELEPHANT FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY

Then, the next day:

ELEPHANT SAT ON BOY FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY WE FIND NEW BOY

As I say, hopefully a humorous anecdote rather than a real-life tragedy. Now to Sabu!

What’s he doing in the clip? I don’t know, but it’s clearly VERY GREAT. While his lines emerge very much as if imperfectly memorized, his enthusiasm in delivering them is so overwhelming that the whole thing is just a delight. I challenge you not to grin. In addition, his eyeline is all over the place, as if he’s looking from one crewmember to the other, or as if they wanted to give the impression he’s looking around the cinema at first one patron, then another. Most of the time he’s looking straight ahead at the circle seats, the cheap seats, rather than down at the front rows, which seems appropriate for a working class lad. He’s talking to the elephant boys of England.

It’s quite amazing to me that there was an Indian juvenile star in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. There hasn’t been one since. “Invented” for this one film (he had been working in the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore), Sabu was so obviously captivating that producers didn’t hesitate to come up with new projects he could appear in. You might think he would be considered “hard to cast”, but projects like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and BLACK NARCISSUS, while not constructed around him, were able to make use of his vigour, beauty, and unique acting style.

My late friend Lawrie Knight worked on BLACK NARCISSUS as an A.D. He reported that the young star had a disconcerting habit of welcoming messengers into his dressing room while he was on the toilet. I don’t think this is Indian S.O.P., so maybe it was movie star contempt for underlings, or some kind of exhibitionism. John Ford used to do the same thing with journalists (“Send him in — I can deal with two shits at the same time,”), a scene recreated in CATCH 22 with an enthroned Martin Balsam greeting padre Anthony Perkins with a glimpse of Hades. Funny scene. Ford was also fond of greeting guests naked, having emerged from the shower, so I do suspect a bit of exhibitionism there, especially what with Maureen O’Hara’s revelations about Ford’s same-sex-loving side.

Sabu again! Lawrie also said that Sabu was very interested in co-star Jean Simmons, but that the young starlet’s mother discouraged any co-mingling. This seems less like simple motherly protection than prejudice, since Lawrie was able to wash the brown body makeup off Jean in the bath every evening, and THAT was fine. Sabu contented himself with Jean’s stand-in, according to Lawrie (Billy Wilder always suggested sleeping with stand-ins rather than movie stars — all the benefits, none of the stress), and soon had her pregnant.

Now, I don’t know for a fact this is true, but all of Lawrie’s stories that I’ve been able to check out, have checked out. And at the time of his tragically early death, aged 39, Sabu had been plagued by paternity suits, so either Lawrie was being completely factual, or he incorporated the news stories into his anecdote. But as I say, I’ve never found any of Lawrie’s stories to be inaccurate, unless they were stories told to him by somebody else (like the one about Jayne Mansfield’s head rolling down the street).

Sabu’s Hollywood career took in the outrageous COBRA WOMAN: highly recommended B-movie madness with Maria Montez as twins (one Good! One evil!), Lon Chaney Jnr and an aging chimp. See it! While this material lacks the class and budgetary level of his Korda productions in Britain, Sabu was able to spin out his career as a juvenile lead far beyond his actual puberty, thanks to his diminutive height and natural exuberance.

I’ve heard that Sabu’s youthful looks faded with his career, but in the latest footage I’ve seen of him, an appearance on somebody’s This Is Your Life, he’s still a very handsome guy, although now obviously no longer a boy. Strange that western cinema could find roles for a beautiful Indian boy, but not a beautiful Indian man…

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD even inspired a SABU ACTION FIGURE, of sorts. I found it at www.dollreference.com.

*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.