Archive for Charles Laughton

The Sunday Intertitle: Busk Till Dawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2023 by dcairns

ST MARTIN’S LANE (1938) is a Charles Laughton-Erich Pommer production (like JAMAICA INN and THE BEACHCOMBER) designed to give Laughton all the big acting opportunities, though it allows Vivian Leigh and Rex Harrison to display their charms also. Well, kind of: shorn of light comedy opportunities, Sexy Rexy seems vulpine or even vulturish, though his role in transforming a cockney guttersnipe into a lady anticipates later developments. Leigh dances as much as she acts: Hollywood missed a trick by not putting her in musicals.

Cinematographer Jules Kruger (NAPOLEON, WOODEN CROSSES, PEPE LE MOKO) and designer Thomas N. Morahan (THE PARADINE CASE, WENT THE DAY WELL?) create an umbrous London detailed enough to intercut with the real thing: the narrower streets of Soho, which appear skyless to normal camera angles, are particularly suited to studio recreation.

Two editors: Robert Hamer and Hugh Stewart. I’d forgotten Hamer cut his teeth cutting film before KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS etc. A montage charting Leigh’s rise to celebrity via theatrical programmes, all freezeframes and jumpcuts, is well outside the Overton window of 1930s cutting conventions:

Of course, in the montage department, different rules apply, or else Vorkapich couldn’t Vorkapich, but this is still pretty wacky. I wonder how much Hamer was drinking at this stage of his career.

The whole story feels like a chance for Laughton, the poet laureate of screen humiliation, to abase himself spectacularly, which was both his specialty and the mainspring of his creativity. The film is sometimes called a comedy-drama but the humour seems mostly to function as an extra spice added to his romantic suffering. The character, Charlie Staggers, seems something of a self-portrait.

Cat POV!

With the heavyweight talent on display it seems odd that the director should be Tim Whelan, or anyone called Tim. I suspect Laughton was looking for tractability rather than genius on this occasion — he was coming off I. CLAUDIUS, in which he and another genius, Von Sternberg, had failed to mesh. Whelan may be nominally underpowered but he does fine: everyone else gets to shine.

ST MARTIN’S LANE stars Quasimodo; Scarlett O’Hara; Henry Higgins; Harmonica specialty; Dr. Owen Jones; Mrs. Dorbell; commercial traveler; other commercial traveler; Adrien van Rijn – Rembrandt’s Brother; Inspector Dobie/Hollis/McInerney/Ashley/Charlton/Horridge/Shott/Barnard/Holly/Cardby; and Granny Tremarney – Sir Humphrey’s Tenant.

Dank Satanic Mills #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2022 by dcairns

It’s the iron maiden again! Screen right, bottom. The same infernal device Conrad Veidt is consigned to in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (in his first role, as the hero’s father) and which he later admired from the outside in ABOVE SUSPICION. We saw it again later in Corman’s THE RAVEN, the most recent appearance I’ve spotted by the long-serving instrument of torture. One of the most-used props in films. After a turn in it, you could recover by having a lie-down on Gloria Swanson’s swan-boat-bed.

I would like to discover more appearances.

Anyway, I have to say more about THE STRANGE DOOR because Eureka! granted me a review copyof their ace Karloff MANIACAL MADNESS set. Fun movie — future Star Trek director Joseph Pevney is turned loose in a lot of standing sets (a cucalorus in every room) with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. Laughton seems like he needs a couple-three more takes of every scene to get the lines down, but, aware of the tight schedule, I guess, he ploughs on until “cut” (rather than breaking the scene whenever he feels himself drying, as he did with Sternberg in all those I, CLAUDIUS outtakes). There’s a lot of mad invention and lipsmacking craziness, but punctuated by uncertain pauses where he has to slow himself down and then ramp up the energy again when he remembers what’s next.

Karloff, very solid, reunited with his OLD DARK HOUSE co-star, did not get on with him, as reported by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones in their lively commentary. The suggestion that Laughton’s style was becoming old-fashioned is one I’d take issue with — I’d say “Have you seen ADVISE AND CONSENT?” Or, indeed, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, which always struck me as a very modern bit of camp villainy. If Laughton seems out of date in THE STRANGE DOOR it’s because the whole film is, the dead end of the Universal Gothic cycle (along with THE BLACK CASTLE the following year). And the man isn’t on top form, though he’s certainly ENGAGED.

The climax, with our heroes trapped in a cell whose walls are inexorably closing in (powered by the water-mill I alluded to in our title), is gripping. Walls closing in always makes for a good, suspenseful scenario — I don’t know why they don’t trot the idea out more often, unless it’s that one so seldom encounters it in daily life.

Books on my floor

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2022 by dcairns

I did crazy good this week on book purchases —

The Laughton and Altman books came from the All You Can Eat book shop, which is rarely open but always affordable. £1 each. I know Simon Callow’s Laughton book is probably better than Charles Higham’s, but a cursory glance revealed this one to have some merit, and Elsa Lanchester cooperated in it. The Altman book is great and makes me think I should spend a week just catching up with oddities from his long career which have hitherto escaped me, from Combat to THE COMPANY.

I figured I’d read a few snatches of the Laughton — page 17, maybe, and in fact I did read the bit on Sternberg — and then forget it was there, but Fiona grabbed it and devoured it cover to cover so it’s paid its way. Also, there are some wonderful artists’ impressions of the Great Man:

Two by Elsa, and —

One by James Mason and one, a collage, by Brecht.

The Polanski book came from a nearby charity shop. A pretty handsome volume for £5. Polanski provides quotes on each film. There’s not a lot of meat to it — I read it in an afternoon — but it’s glossy and handsome. Many many of the pictures show Polanski doing other people’s jobs — sewing or arranging fights, swinging a log at an outsize opponent.

The Tod Browning one cost the most, from secondhand record-and-bookstore Elvis Shakespeare, a regular stop on my constitutionals. It happened to tie in with a little project I have on the go, so I couldn’t very well pass it up. £15. It’s pretty good — a series of essays on different aspects of Browning’s work. There are some howling factual errors — Roger Corman directing Christopher Lee in DRACULA — but they’re all sort of off-topic. On Browning’s films, the book is informative and insightful.