Archive for Chris Schneider

Country Matters

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back!
Nineteen fifty-four was the year of, among other things, A STAR IS BORN versus THE COUNTRY GIRL. Both had leading ladies — Judy Garland, Grace Kelly — in competition for the “Best Actress” Oscar. And both were dramas-with-songs where the songs were written by the same team, Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (words).
“Harold Arlen?” you ask. Utterly first-rate composer, of a stature with Porter and Gershwin and Kern, yet sporadic luck as far as movies are concerned. High-points would be THE WIZARD OF OZ and the ‘50s STAR IS BORN. And then there’s THE COUNTRY GIRL.
Perhaps THE COUNTRY GIRL Is a shade less rewarding than STAR IS BORN — I’d attribute it to the difference between directors George Cukor (STAR) and George Seaton (GIRL) — yet the distance ain’t *that* huge. Both deal with people in the performing arts. In COUNTRY GIRL, that means a former star (Bing Crosby) attempting a stage comeback with the help and/or hindrance of his wife (Grace Kelly) and young director (William Holden). Both feature an older male (here Crosby) threatening to self-destruct via alcohol. Both even contain a faux-calypso ad jingle to be recorded — though these days one only finds the STAR IS BORN jingle among the “extras.”
The Oscar went to Kelly, of course, though I — while no Judy Partisan — would call Garland the more deserving. Kelly’s eye-popping for dramatic effect is a bit strenuous, and her telling Holden “Why are you holding me? I said, *why* are you *holding* me?” shortly before their kiss is the stuff of Imogene Coca comedy. Yet one can understand how Kelly’s dowdiness-for-virtue, in the early reels, yielding to an Edith Head party dress at the end would appeal to Oscar-think. There’s an affecting two-shot, too, of Kelly hiding her face from eager Crosby to disguise the pain at Holden’s accusations.
“To me you’re as phony as an opera soprano!” jeers Holden.
WHAP! goes Kelly’s hand on Holden’s face.
“Did I forget to tell you I’m proud?” she responds.
(Note to Oscar-conscious screenwriters: be sure to include one moment where the character asserts his/her worth.)
It’s all a well-heeled adaptation, with sharp-ish moments, of a 1950 Clifford Odets’play, one which won a “Best Actress” Tony for Uta Hagen. Only it’s smoothed-out, in an up-market ‘50s Paramount sort of way. There’s still startling animal imagery in the dialogue (“What’d I bring you, a basket full of snakes?” Holden asks Kelly), but the sudden epithets are gone. We have to wait till Odets-written SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS to hear Barbara Nichols call Tony Curtis “Eyelashes.” Holden no longer refers to Kelly as “Lady Brilliance.”
There’s a different sort of music, though, in the Arlen & Gershwin numbers. They recapitulate the STAR IS BORN trick of using apparent pop-songs to talk about the characters singing them. Just as “Gotta Have Me Go With You” was about James Mason’s need for Judy Garland, the spieler number here (“It’s Mine, It’s Yours”) is about the need to believe, no matter what, in Crosby’s ability to make good. A duet with a barroom chanteuse (“What you have learned is, is: / You haven’t learned a thing” sings Crosby) is about falling off the wagon and the dubious possibility of change.
Foggy memory brought me to COUNTRY GIRL with inaccurate notions of the plot’s resolution. Not to offer “spoilers,” but … let’s just say there’s a special category of ‘50’s drama wherein ill-advised romance is resolved by one character pursuing another in long-shot. PICNIC, f’rinstance, or the PAL JOEY movie. Or what we find here.
Kelly is proficient, if a bit flat-out and obvious; Holden gives the sort of sharp-edged, cagey performance that’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen SUNSET BOULEVARD; and Crosby’s hollow-eyed, anxious performance is the biggest surprise of all. A friend likes to quote John Ford on RED RIVER to describe Crosby here, and I’ll second that: “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act!”
One misses, among other things, the Gene Allen designs and the Skip Martin arrangements of STAR IS BORN. Also whatcha call directorial style. But there are definite virtues to this COUNTRY GIRL— including its glimpses of populist musical theater and those who made it in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
THE COUNTRY GIRL falls short of A STAR IS BORN, in other words, but not *that* far short.
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The cast for THE COUNTRY GIRL includes, as David Cairns would say, Lisa Fremont, Father Chuck O’Malley; Joe Gillis; and Deputy Charlie Norris … along with cameos by Ursus and Anita’s Bernardo.

Leftward, ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by dcairns
The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.

B.F. Forever?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2019 by dcairns

Shadowplay welcomes long-time Shadowplayer Chris Schneider with our first guest post of The Late Show, a movie I’ve been dimly curious to see since I was seventeen. Not curious enough to do anything about it, you understand. But that spark burns more brightly now…

Perhaps the best way to deal with THE NAKED FACE, the 1984 thriller that Bryan Forbes made of a 1970 Sidney Sheldon novel, is to offer an adapted version of a line from an earlier — and, frankly, better — film. That is to say, “Mortality, or some mysterious force, can place its gun-sights on you or me for no good reason at all.”

THE NAKED FACE was the last film directed by Forbes. It stars Roger Moore as, unexpectedly enough, a psychiatrist. It begins and ends in a cemetery — a watermark, one might say, of late films made by older directors (see Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, Wilder’s FEDORA). One unsympathetic critic has written of hilarity of a film ending with anything-but-tragic Moore crying out “BASTARDS!” Yet it makes a kind of morose sense to see the whole film as a howled-out “BASTARDS!” in the middle of a cemetery.

Roger Moore wanted a change, they tell us, from the cheeky killing machine that was James Bond. NAKED FACE came between his last two films playing Bond. As a result, we see a Moore who wears glasses with sturdy frames. He *cares*. He’s even shown listening to Mozart. But murders keep happening around him. This is all the worse in that his wife and daughter died before the story begins, and one character describes Moore as belonging to “the walking wounded.”

Side-thought: NAKED FACE was made for Cannon, the studio of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. Was it a requirement in DEATH WISH-land that wife and children are what one loses in the first reel, if not earlier?

For a while it appears that Moore — sympathetic, if not exactly an actor to convey inwardness — is poised between a metaphorical Bad Father and Good Father. These would be Rod Steiger, a cop with a mean mouth and a tendency to glare, and Art Carney, who appears halfway through as a crusty P.I. discovered via the Yellow Pages. Carney even has a good Cinema de Alter Kocker moment when Moore questions him and he responds “I have my tricks” — prompting all the clocks in his dingy office to start chiming. Time! Mortality! Hoppla!

Carney is removed from the story, though, and Steiger slips through the cracks. This leads to an out-of- nowhere villain and explanation for it all, neither of which offers much satisfaction in a film that’s, basically, an uninspired cop show repurposed for movie theaters.

“David Hedison, as Moore’s brother-in-law, looks good-natured. Anne Archer, as a patient, looks troubled while wearing heavy lipstick in her FATAL ATTRACTION-like manner. Elliott Gould looks to be waiting for his paycheck.” That’s what my notes say. Coulda swore that the primary villain would be Steiger, who’s always seething, or Archer, who appears beautiful-but-unhinged in a femme fatale kind of way. But, nah.

Let’s add that, while it’s difficult sometimes to tell a good shout-y Rod Steiger performance from a bad shout-y performance, it’s still Steiger who offers what little dynamism there is to NAKED FACE.

Room service revolver.

Oh, yes, and this is the only film to come to mind with dialogue employing the word “excreta” — *not*, one should add, in connection with a death scene to provoke restive types into quoting Steve Martin’s MAN WITH TWO BRAINS line “Into the mud, scum queen!”

*

*Speaking* of scum …

The first half of the film is filled with homophobic backchat. This is unconnected with the plot, so it’s something of a red-herring — or should we say “red phallus”? Someone’s referred to as “a fag with a family,” somebody says “his alibi’s tight, he’s straight.” Shortly before the first victim, one of Moore’s patients, is killed, he asks how he can possibly reveal to his wife and children that he’s a monster — i.e. has sex with other men. Then he leaves and gets killed in a way not unlike Rene Auberjonois in EYES OF LAURA MARS. (Insert “wardrobe malfunction” joke here.)

One hears that the pro-Thatcher Forbes, who wrote the script, had some unlovely attitudes. I thought that might be the source. Further research shows, though, that it comes from the Sidney Sheldon novel.

Is this stuff thrown out to demonstrate that it’s a rough’n’tough policier tale? Or does it speak for the author himself?

One can only shrug in incomprehension and mutter “Bastards …”

David here again. Couldn’t resist adding:

THE NAKED FACE is directed by Turk Thrust and stars Turk Thrust II; Mr. Joyboy; Trapper John MacIntyre; Ed Norton; Cathy Ryan; Felix Leiter; and Irene Mankiller.