Archive for Christmas Holiday

Frank’s Wilderness Years

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by dcairns

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In a fit of perversity I reached for my old, unwatched VHS tape of HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, which is ironically one of the very few Frank Borzage films you can buy in the U.K. on DVD (blame the Deanna Durbin Box Set for this one’s availability). I thought I might like to try a very minor F.B. film since I was in danger of overdosing on masterpieces. LIVING ON VELVET and THE MORTAL STORM and MAN’S CASTLE and A FAREWELL TO ARMS are quite rich, quite emotional, and to some extent aim for the same kinds of sublimity and ecstasy, and the last thing I wanted was to burn out. This one seemed like a total change of pace.

I also wanted to see something from the years before MOONRISE but after Borzage’s peak period (usually given as late ’20s to very early ’40s), when he was also supposed to be combatting a drinking problem, and when he seems to have been assigned a few atypical projects that may not have been perfectly suited to his talents. This light musical comedy might be one of them.

It also has a weirdly duff title, a phrase that makes my head throb dully as I scan it for any implied drama or humour or promise of entertainment. Why would you call a film HIS BUTLER’S SISTER? If you would, then why not follow it with HER PODIATRIST’S COUSIN or THEIR MILKMAN’S FATHER-IN-LAW? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking something that isn’t interesting, and then placing it at two removes so you can’t quite get it in focus. I mean, Deanna Durbin actually plays a singer: that’s quite interesting, or at least lots of people in the ’40s thought it was. But we pass over that in this wretched title, focussing instead on her status as a sibling. OK, so she has a brother. And he’s a butler, you say? Well, I don’t see what business that is of mine, but I’m willing to accept your word for it. And then the addition of HIS, adding to the whole rigmarole a third character about whom we are to know nothing except that he has a butler who has a sister. WHY???

The only way I can think of to further disimprove this title would be either to add a third layer of character filtration, as in HIS BUTLER’S SISTER’S SCHNAUSER, or to just give up and call it HIS BUTLER’S QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

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But, as the credits role, hope springs! Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein (Google his credits and goggle in awe) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (far fewer amazing titles, but she collaborated with the Hoff on CLUNY BROWN, a favourite here at the Shadowplayhouse). Then we get an amusing novelty number, sung and danced at Franchot Tone in a train corridor. Franchot is a songwriter who’s sick of amateurs pitching their numbers at him. He’s also a broadway producer or something, on his way to Cleveland (?), and Deanna Durbin is a young hopeful bound for New York and HERE SHE COMES —

Borzage follows her back through two entire carriages, preparatory to the big reveal of her face, and WOW she’s at her absolute peak of beauty. I’m not, despite my celebration of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, a special Durbinite (my maternal grandmother loved her films though), finding her usual stuff a bit maybe saccharine, but she has enormous charm and this movie seems to be the one that captures her beauty just as she had left childhood behind. Oh boy, now I’m going to Google her and learn she was 14 and I’ll look like a pervert. No, we’re OK, she’s 22.

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Anyway the film is light and nice, although the writers perhaps need the Lubitsch touch to hit the heights, and the plot depends heavily on coincidence. Then there’s the menfolk. Pat O’Brien? Why not just fill a burlap sack with gravel and point a camera at that? And Franchot Tone? I have a sort of affection for him based on his playing a daffy psycho in PHANTOM LADY, which is a gloriously comic-book noir that captures some of the unreality of Cornell Wollrich’s novel. But Tone is a strange choice to pair with Durbin: don’t we want somebody a little more innocuous? Still, it’s a relief he makes it through the movie without having his head kicked in (this was always happening to Tone in real life: one episode of The Twilight Zone that he stars in shows him perpetually in profile, like Dick Tracy, because the more distant side of his face looked like the Somme). 

But Deanna’s introductory shot, which smacks of THE NARROW MARGIN only nine years earlier, is enough to convince me that Borzage’s rumoured drinking problem didn’t stop him coming up with bold and beautiful visual stratagems. I’m now inclined to believe that absolutely everything he’s made deserves full investigation. STAGE DOOR CANTEEN beckons…

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A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by dcairns

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.

Three Disappointments and a Whoopee

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2008 by dcairns

Disappointment 1: the lack of a really great critical study of Powell & Pressburger. Ian Christie’s Arrows of Desire was a fine starting point, and the coffee-table quality of the book, with glossy and lurid colour stills, makes it a nice visual companion to the Archers’ films. But Andrew Moor’s Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces just seemed too DRY to evoke these lush romances, and Scott Salwolke’s The Films of Michael Powell and the Archers is hampered by the fact that he hasn’t seen all the films. Several times in the book we get the phrase “is hard to see nowadays”, which I might believe if I didn’t have copies of them on my shelves. I guess I’d admit they’re hard to see, but not IMPOSSIBLE. The author doesn’t admit to not having seen HONEYMOON, but since all he does is reproduce some contemporary reviews of it, it’s pretty clear he never managed to track it down. I guess since the book is ten years old, things were tougher then, but I can’t believe THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW would be completely inaccessible: Raymond Durgnat sold me a copy for a fiver.

Disappointment 2: What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman. Norman wrote the script for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, which was then revised by Tom Stoppard (Norman professed himself delighted to have had Stoppard’s assistance), and this is his first non-fiction work. I was hoping to find some kind of thesis lurking in it, but it reads like a stack of anecdotes so far. It reads like *I* wrote it!

The early chapters on silent cinema fall for the old one about Mack Sennett not using written scripts (the half-page or page-long outlines have in fact been found — Frank Capra’s autobiography is not the most reliable source for ANYTHING) and he talks about BIRTH OF A NATION having a scene breakdown prepared from the book, but which was never seen on the set, but he misses my favourite Griffith script story: Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE, had its scenario jotted down by Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer the night before shooting, on a piece of cardboard that came from the laundry with Griffith’s shirt wrapped round it.

Norman also refers to Chaplin’s first director as Henry Pathé Lehrman, missing the all-important inverted commas around “Pathé” (Lehrman got a job with Mack Sennett with a tall tale about having worked for Pathé: when the ruse was discovered, the name stuck) and says that Herman Mankiewicz worked on “some trifle” called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. It may sound like a trifle, and the casting of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly might have lead contemporary audiences to expect one, but CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is a very dark film noir romance, and authors should resist making such statements about films they haven’t seen.

I’d still like this book to turn into an impassioned and informed account of the screenwriter’s role, so I’m going to persevere a little further — this isn’t a proper book review since I haven’t finished the thing. I will report back if I end up more impressed by it.

Disappointment 3: Hanno’s Doll by Evelyn Piper. I picked this up after belatedly realising that both THE NANNY and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, films I like a lot, came from Piper novels. I wanted to read something else by her. Although it does have a nice, twisty plot, the book took me ages to finish, being written in an irksome baby-talk that’s supposed to simulate the thought processes of the protagonist, a fat German actor (Piper must have had an eye of Curt Jurgens for a possible movie adaptation, or Gert Fröbe).

Whoopee 1: Maja Borg, a recent graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art film course where I teach, has a show on next week, Thursday 21st August, 8.30 pm on More4 in their First Cut series. Happy Birthday, You’re Dead takes its inspiration from the fact that a fortune teller once told Maya that she’d die in a car crash before her 25th birthday. The documentary charts the “last” weeks of Maja’s life leading up to her 25th.

I’m rooting for her to survive.