Archive for Christmas in July

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by dcairns

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.

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Zoning Out

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2017 by dcairns

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Even though Joseph DR NO Wiseman’s lead character in the Twilight Zone episode One More Pallbearer is called Paul Radin, I could determine no reason why his building is called Radin Blog. (Note: I got it eventually.) I tweeted author Dean Radin, whose book The Conscious Universe is a good eye-opener, to say that it’s a shame he wasn’t writing a blog anymore as I had found the perfect banner for him.

I don’t think I ever want to run out of PG Wodehouse books to read, and in the same way I don’t want to run out of Twilight Zone episodes, although all the same i would hate to check out leaving any of them unenjoyed. This will need careful management.

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One More Pallbearer is Rod Serling in atomic mode (see also: Carol for Another Christmas), which is usually good value, and he has the ideal star. As Dr. No, Wiseman played a scientist with metal hands, having lost his original flesh ones in an atomic experiment. That always struck me as improbable and a bit funny. This one suffers a bit from having no sympathy, really, for any characters, but the double twist at the end is a zinger and a half. Not quite two zingers, but still pretty good.

Kick the Can was remade by Spielberg in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and Fiona suggested it might be illuminating to check out the original. It was — where Spielberg’s filmlet was cloying and annoying, the original is beautifully bleak. All the rough edges were smoothed off, and the result bathed in a honey-like amber glow. The old folks’ home where it’s set seems paradisical in the movie, and starkly deadening in the series installment. The ending, in which the inmates rejuvenate and run of into the night, leaving one bereft old skeptic, is stark and strange in the series: we don’t know how these kids will live, where they will go. Serling pops out of the bushes to say they’re in the Twilight Zone, which might as well mean they’re dead. It’s eerie, not reassuring.

In the Spielberg, having enjoyed their moment of second childhood, the oldsters return to their doddering, hip-replaced selves, because the status quo must, apparently be preserved.

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I like Scatman Crothers fine, though as a “magic negro” figure he Uncle Toms it a bit in the Spielberg, encouraged by his director. There’s no such character in the series episode, just an old duffer who HOPES, but does not KNOW, that playing children’s games might cancel out the aging process. I was wracking my brains to identify the actor while I was watching, then realized it was old Ernest Truex, best known as the saccharine would-be poet from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (maybe they hired him to script the Spielberg), and also memorable in Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Turns out he had a huge career, starting in silents, and they even tried him in lead roles during the pre-code era when such things seemed worth attempting. WHISTLING IN THE DARK, which pairs him, improbably, with Una Merkel, is well worth a look.

 

Taking the Curse off It

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2014 by dcairns

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“Taking the curse of it” is a writing/filmmaking term meaning to prevent something getting too sententious or ponderous by undercutting the serious with the comic. When misapplied, you get that ghastly formality at the Oscars where the host will make some lame wisecrack as soon as somebody’s said something a bit political or potentially meaningful. But in general it’s a very good method for keeping the tone varied, which you probably need to do “to stop ’em falling asleep,” as Olivier might put it. Preston Sturges, whose tone was recklessly varied at all times, was the master of it: see the end of CHRISTMAS IN JULY.

Which brings us again to screenwriter and playwright Charles Wood. After blogging about his plays, I was thrilled to be put in touch with his daughter Kate, and through her the Great Man himself, and beyond thrilled to hear that he liked what I’d said.

Since then I’ve ordered a collection of his plays, because having read a copy of ‘H’, or Monologues in Front of Burning Cities, I felt the need to own it and have it handy for reference. Dealing with the Indian  Mutiny of 1857, it’s a sweeping epic full of grotesque humour, tragedy and spectacle (I’m intrigued as to how they staged the elephant at the National Theatre). Although Wood’s later play, Veterans, is somewhat inspired by characters and events from the filming of CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, which Wood scripted, it’s written as an imaginary account of the making of an imaginary film of ‘H’.

A highlight for me is this prayer by an army surgeon:

SURGEON SOOTER: On my knees, I sink to Thee my

Lord, that Thou shalt find a

way to Guide Me that I May

Not Kill,

that Thou shalt keep Thy high

bright sun from in the wounds

of those under my care,

that Thou shalt take from the

Poor Skill in my hands

all that which is Clumsy

and Poison,

that Thou shalt Protect

my bandages from rust and

rot, and Thou shalt Stop

my ears to sighing and cursing

under my knife, that Thou shalt

spare my coat tail from the

plucks of those that know they

are Dead, that Thou shalt bring

me to those made Strong in their

Faith, that I might tell them

they die and thus bring them

to Life, this pleasant deception

give me . . . for I have

never, angry in voice denounced

Thy Disease,

Thy Wounds,

Thy Sickness,

Thy Filth in which I Labour.

Thou hast set me to labour in

the realm of Ignorant Science,

give me some sparing,

as Thou hast spared me in other

times, other conflicts of man

and death; keep me Sane and keep

me Unaffected.

Use plenty of brown soap. (He adds as an afterthought of advice.)

The whole thing is quite brilliant, moving and strange and particular. As with THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, the use of language is an imaginative evocation of Victorian speech, inspired by writings of the time and answering the sensible question “Why should we make them talk like us?” The last line, which segues dazedly from one kind of formal speech (prayer) to another (doctor’s orders) strikes me as quite wonderful, and my inability to express why is part of what I like about it.

I have been unable to learn if brown soap was commonly used for any particular medical problem.