Archive for Charles Lederer

Mad Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by dcairns

Of my two recent film-critical acquisitions, James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy wins out over Ed Sikov’s Screwball in style and depth, but in terms of whose taste is closest to mine, Sikov wins out when the topic is Powell & Loy. Harvey’s analysis of what is so great about the couple is spot-on, illuminating, and evokes in the reader the same kind of charmed glaze that their performances as Nick & Nora produce. But he raves about Jack Conway’s LIBELED LADY and describes the same director’s LOVE CRAZY as almost unwatchable. (Jack RED-HEADED WOMAN Conway is the man in charge.)

Sikov has some skepticism towards LIBELED LADY, as did Fiona and I, and he calls LOVE CRAZY wildly underrated — possibly because of Harvey’s dismissal. We took a look. We found it VERY funny.

To begin with, we weren’t quite on its wavelength, perhaps. As Harvey says, we don’t want Nick & Nora to fall out, or to have their relationship tested, except in the sense that we enjoy seeing it rise above all tests, supreme. And so a Powell & Loy film in which they break up and he spends most of the film trying to get his wife back is always going to deprive the audience of one of the joys of this particular screen couple, their teamwork.

But the film works really hard to overcome this. It gives Myrna strong reasons to suspect William of infidelity, so we never lose sympathy with him. And it shows Powell as being so passionately committed to his marriage that, even if we’re not quite sure for much of the film whether he’s perhaps strayed a little, we can root for him to succeed but also get a laugh out of the many indignities he suffers along the way. These include being committed to an insane asylum and having to drag up to get into his own apartment.

The loony bin stuff was a potential worry — would the film be offensive? Yes, is the answer — it’s deeply insulting and obnoxious to the psychiatric profession. Got a problem with that? The scenario (by David Herz & William Ludwig with Charles Lederer adding a polish) has Powell feign madness in order to forestall the divorce, and then being unable to convince the doctors (Vladimir Sokoloff & Sig Rumann as Klugle & Wuthering) that he’s NOT, after all, crazy. This isn’t that implausible — doctors are fairly good at spotting mad people pretending to be sane, but they’re not set up to detect sane people pretending to be mad. And they’re not really any better at spotting liars than the rest of us.

The only inmate we meet in the sanatorium is a kleptomaniac, and the movie organises things fairly sensitively so that the joke is always on the sane people trying to deal with her.

Powell puffs in THE THIN MAN.

So — screwball comedies strike different people differently — they tread on the edge of pure silliness and also cruelty, flirt with progressiveness and sometimes (not too often) duck back into the conservative or retrograde. This one might be worth your while trying, whatever Harvey says. There’s the cunning use of Jack Carson’s status as archery champion (“bow-and-arrower,” as Myrna calls him), which is BRILLIANT.

OK, quick spoiler: the movie seems to think Carson in his undershirt is hilarious, which isn’t quite true, but Carson as a champion athelete living in a swank apartment full of archery paraphernalia IS pretty amusing. Anyway, when Powell is incarcerated by the lunacy board, love rival Jack drops by the sanatarium to mock. Then he wanders off to practice his archery moves. Powell alerts the staff to the strange dude playing with an invisible bow and arrow just outside the fence, and Carson is seized as an escapee.

And there’s Powell’s drag act, which is 100% convincing — and which is used in strange and perverse ways by the movie… the final fade-out may cause levitation of the eyebrows…

“It’ll probably turn out to be some very simple thing.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2011 by dcairns

In Barbara Leaming’s bee-ography of Orson Welles, there are a lot of tall tales from The Great Man, often accepted at face value by Leaming. Many of them have since been questioned, and it’s hard to know which may be true. In particular, recent commentators have tended to throw cold water on Marion Davies’ vagina.

If you recall, Welles claimed that “Rosebud” was William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his mistress’s privates, and that she had mentioned this in a drunken conversation with Herman Mankiewicz, a friend and occasional visitor to Hearst’s Xanadu, San Simeon. Mankiewicz had used this secret information in the screenplay he wrote with Welles. I think this yarn hasn’t really taken root partly because we all know Orson was a big fat liar (and we love him for it), and perhaps because we’re reluctant to accept that CITIZEN KANE revolves around a smutty joke. Of course, Welles felt the “dollarbook Freud” of Rosebud, seemingly to explain Kane’s emptiness with an easy childhood symbol, was too pat anyway, and said “we did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.” So we shouldn’t see the sled as the centre of the labyrinth, the key to understanding. And so maybe it doesn’t matter so much if it IS a dirty joke.

Sidenote — did Leaming originate the story, or does it come, as Jon Tuska claims, from Gore Vidal? Vidal’s film scholarship and veracity have sometimes been questioned (cf his accounts of BEN HUR), but I don’t know that he’s ever been proved to have fibbed. Tuska says Vidal got the story from Charlie Lederer, nephew of Marion Davies (that’s not a conversation I can picture having with my aunt) and also second husband of Virginia Welles.

Thoughts arising from the CITIZEN KANE Blu-Ray: “That sure doesn’t look like a rose!”

And indeed, while it’s not an absolute likeness of a vagina, it has a certain Georgia O’Keefe quality. And it doesn’t look anything like a rose. Randy suggests a viewing of KANE with the theory in mind: if this was done as a prank directed at Hearst, how fiendishly cruel! The billionaire press baron is told by underlings that a Hollywood film has dared to tell a thinly-veiled version of his life story. He arranges a screening. The very first sequence, and a giant pair of lips mouths the word “Rosebud!” What the hell?

The newsreel ends, and suddenly everybody’s talking about it: the last word on his lips. And the whole damned movie is going to be about the quest to find out the meaning of this? The tycoon must be in a state of shock. And he has to wait two hours to find out the answer, and even when the sled shot lets him off the hook, the image he sees as the wood starts to char…

No wonder Hearst mobilized his minions to suppress the film. No wonder he tried to get RKO to treat the film like the sled and incinerate it. I discuss this with arch-Wellesian Randall William Cook:

“But we don’t know for sure, do we, that Hearst ever saw it,” I say.

“Well THAT would just be the greatest practical joke in history that never came off. The bucket of water that just sat on top of the door, forever.”

And he adds:

“Remember, just because David Thomson believes it, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

Bligh Hard

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2011 by dcairns

Am I punning on “blow-hard” or DIE HARD? I’m doing both! And nobody can stop me,  nyahahahaha!

Ahem. Regular Shadowplayer and font of generosity Randall William Cook sent us a copy of the 1962 MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, urging us to give it a shot. He’s right — it’s a pretty terrific film, undeserving of its lousy rep. But any consideration of the film’s good qualities must take into account the negative stuff accumulated around it, lest it founder on the shoals of skepticism, so here goes —

Reasons MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY has a bad rep —

1) It was an expensive flop.

2) It was a famously “troubled shoot”, losing its first director, Carol Reed, and acquiring another, even older one, Lewis Milestone. The set was plagued by bad-boy antics from star Brando, and word leaked out.

3) It’s not as much full-blooded fun as the original Laughton version, and the ending in particular is a downer (the epilogue, had it been included in the release, would have helped this). It’s still strange to see a flamboyant performance in the Fletcher Christian role and a restrained, realistic one (from Trevor Howard) in the Captain Bligh role.

4) It’s a three-hour epic, with a certain lumbering quality that often accompanies films of this size. Apart from an amazing tracking shot under the rigging as the Bounty sets off, there’s not much filmic energy to fill its sails.

Against all that, the film has a terrific, witty script by Charles Lederer, great support work from Richard Haydn and Richard Harris and a remarkable muted Hugh (“I play the role of a bearded Welshman”) Griffiths, and the stars are really remarkable. I think it probably helps if, like Fiona and I, you have somehow managed not to see the earlier version. Judged on its own merits and according to the goals it sets itself, the ’62 BOUNTY is an artistic success.

As Lederer writes him, Bligh could still be played as a lip-smacking sadist, but that’s not how Howard sees him. Bligh is obviously a deeply insecure man and a terrible captain, and his one resource is cruelty, so he uses it unsparingly. “Cruelty with a purpose isn’t cruelty,” he claims, and Howard chooses to interpret this as a perfectly sincere belief. The result is terrifying — the Laughton villain (whom I have seen clips of) is wonderfully colourful, and you don’t get that from Howard, who isn’t quite into his Rawlinson End phase yet — what you get instead is horrific conviction.

Brando is perhaps more problematic: his choice to play Mr. Christian as a somewhat ineffectual fop is clearly cued by the script, and seems perfectly legitimate. His English accent is very extreme, but quite accurate. The difficulty is that it’s not the kind of voice one expects to hear emerging from a man like Brando. Maybe his body language doesn’t quite match, I don’t know. So there’s a certain discomfort, which audiences are often inclined to react against and blame the performance, but I’m not sure that the discomfort isn’t appropriate. Christian has within him the possibility of heroism, but he holds back on it too long. Seeing he-man Brando imprisoned within this accent, these ludicrous clothes, sets up a slow simmer of unease that ultimately will explode.

There’s a very interesting take on class in the film, with Bligh resentful of his high-born second-in-command. He hates the guy so much, on first sight, that he simply can’t bring himself to listen attentively to anything his subordinate says, with fatal results. The scene where Bligh is finally rebuked by the high command (melting waxwork Henry Daniell), the argument given is that they made a mistake not recruiting a gentleman, which seems entirely beside the point. It’s hard to know if this is Lederer being snobbish, or ironic, or what, but it’s curiously fitting that the movie sours what should be a triumphant moment for justice — this is a film which does seem to wantonly deny us many of the expected pleasures of the first movie.

“Listen to me, you remarkable pig: you can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you’ve not quite turned me into a murderer.”

It’s all leading up to a desperately unhappy ending, with death and disaster for the mutineers. This is like Sidney Lumet’s THE HILL at sea, or Why Revolutions Fail. There’s a spectacular climax, with the ship burning and all, but what with Christian being horribly killed, there’s no joy in it. Brando always excelled at death scenes, though, so you still get showmanship, above and beyond the impressive special effects. The actor lay on a bed of ice to get good and uncomfortable for his big scene (simulating the numbness of the laudanum he’s been given), and the dialogue builds up an image of gruesome third-degree burns which we never see… but when we finally see Brando’s face (the rest of him concealed by a blanket), a bit of grit on his face and his hair slathered down, plus his expression, create a vivid and strange impression of disfigurement.

In many ways this would make a fine, if rather long, double-bill with THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. Both movies have Brando, shipwrecks and islands, and are remakes of Laughton films. Both films lost a director early on (one scene in BOUNTY has Brando noticeably wearing a different nose, so must have been part of the original Carol Reed shoot) and continued with an aging veteran acting largely as traffic cop. And both films take a gloomy view of what happens when you depose a dictator — you get score-settling, fractiousness and social disintegration. If history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, MOREAU is the farce version.

Buy BOUNTY, UK:  Mutiny On The Bounty (1962 Special Edition). [DVD]

Buy BOUNTY BluRay USA:  Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) [Blu-ray]