Archive for Clark Gable

Winthrop-Wilfong

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by dcairns

“My God, the film begins with flagrant underwear-flaunting.”

Leslie Howard is Dwight Winthrop! Clark Gable is Ace Wilfong! There’s no excuse for a Dramatis Personae containing both those names.

This is Wilfong. But this is not Wilfong’s hat.

It’s a Norma Shearer movie, though. But it contrasts with THE DIVORCEE with a more low-life milieu and a more pre-code atmos. It begins by teasing us with an offscreen nude Shearer, the implication that Lionel Barrymore is her sugar-daddy, the aforementioned undies-flaunting, and then the revelation that Lionel is her actual daddy. James Gleason appears, cranium like a misshapen light bulb.

The very talented Clarence Brown directs, and though, with rare mobile exceptions, each scene tends to fade up on a static wide shot, the soundtrack full of pensive crackle, the thing is actually pretty cinematic. Brown delivers some truly expressive angles, as when Shearer and Howard face off over a barrier in a prison visiting room.

“They would never allow that much physical contact in a visiting room,” protested Fiona during the subsequence embrace.

“I think they had more leeway in MGM’s visiting rooms,” I suggested.

Fiona felt the film was missing a trick — preventing the bodily touching could be really powerful. Barriers are dramatically valuable. But this IS MGM. How can they pass up a clinch?

Gable won on the rematch in GONE WITH THE WIND, arguably, but the levels of stardom are quite different at this point, giving Leslie Howard advantages over the jug-eared, oddly canine-featured newbie. Maybe it’s that tiny clown hat that makes him look like a cartoon bulldog?

Gleason is the most credible performer — you assume that meeting him, he would be just like that. And he wasn’t — check his perf in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for a whole different characterisation. Next best is probably Gable, radiating confidence and not bothering to apologise for his character’s nastiness. Howard is fine, Shearer fluctuates between genuinely excellent and painfully fakey. She still strikes poses madly, and affects a musical laugh which may either delight or cause subconscious contraction of the hand muscles, producing a strangler-like-effect.

Lionel Barrymore as her dad is in a whole different school, stylised and theatrical like Shearer but doing it at a much higher level of expertise, pulling it off consistently. Really it’s his film — he plays an alcoholic lawyer who will end up defending one of his daughter’s lovers for shooting the other, and convicting himself as a lousy parent in the process. It’s a very well-structured play — ambitious location shooting can’t shake of the aura of the stage (Adela Rogers St. Johns is credited for her source novel, but it comes by way of Willard Mack’s stage version), and Brown’s dramatic angles aren’t frequent enough to turn it completely into a fluid movie, but it does represent a big step on from THE DIVORCEE. The frame, rather than just capturing the Cedric Gibbons sets and the actors’ poses, contributes to the storytelling a lot more, and the pacing is a hundred times sharper.

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Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

Triple (or Quadruple?) Agent

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Just finished reading Agent Zigzag by Ben MacIntyre, the true story of Eddie Chapman, a career criminal who enjoyed an astonishing second career during WWII. He was in prison on the island of Jersey when it was conquered by the Nazis, and offered his services to the Abwehr, the German secret service. Parachuted into Britain as a spy, he immediately surrendered himself to the Brits and offered to spy on his spymasters back in the Third Reich. MI5 were able to make him look like a successful intelligence agent and saboteur, before sending him back to collect data from the Germans while pretending to give them data. The Germans then returned Chapman to the UK for further espionage work, during which he fed them misinformation which may have diverted German rockets from central London and caused U-boats to sail nearer the surface to avoid imaginary depth charges with “proximity fuses.” Staying nearer the surface, the U-boats could of course be more easily destroyed by the British navy.

I have a keen, though non-practicing, interest in espionage, so this was catnip to me. But Chapman’s story also has numerous cinematic connections, as it turns out. In London before the war, Chapman was a member of a notorious “jelly gang,” which sounds like something I’d have wanted to be part of when I was seven. If you’d told me that jelly in this case was high explosives (gelignite) I’d have been even more keen. Splashing about his ill-earned income, Chapman mingled with high-steppers such as Noel Coward and future James Bond director Terence Young. Better still, when British intelligence were considering employing Chapman, they invited Young, now an intelligence officer in the Home Forces, to assess him. “One could give him the most difficult of missions,” estimated Young, “knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out … He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.”

Chapman’s U-boat deception op may have also involved another British intelligence officer, Ian Fleming. Poetically, this certainly ought to be true.

Post-war, Chapman returned to thievery and conspiring to defeat the ends of justice, whereas Young directed DR. NO and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, patterning Sean Connery’s appearance and manner upon his own, down to the square handkerchief in the jacket pocket (a look distinct from the more conventional protruding triangle).

triple

Later still, Young directed TRIPLE CROSS, a hughly fictionalized account of Chapman’s WWII adventures, with Christopher Plummer as the spiv-turned-spy.

Meanwhile, Anthony Faramus who had been jailed in Jersey along with Chapman, and volunteered to spy alongside him, has his own cinematic side. The Germans saw no use for the rather frail Faramus, and shipped him to Buchenwald and then Mauthausen. Against all the odds, he survived, though he lost a lung and seven ribs. After the war he became a film extra and appears as a POW in THE COLDITZ STORY. Then he traveled to Hollywood… and became Clark Gable’s butler.

There’s more, much more, in MacIntyre’s cracking book — I particularly like the stuff about Jasper Maskelyne, stage magician and secret agent, an expert at disguising things from the air to deceive German planes…

Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II