Archive for Clark Gable

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).

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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

Cheese and Coconuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by dcairns

Without planning to, we watched MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY with friends Stuart and Marvelous Mary. At first the film came on kind of dumb, and it’s not above being ridiculous at regular intervals, but it also has a degree of sophistication and cunning in the way it navigates the historical facts — departing from them fairly freely at times, to be sure. It’s nowhere near as nuanced as the remake, which Fiona and I enjoyed, but then neither film is as ambiguous and cloudy as the historical facts.

The scenario, in which that old hand at tales of sadism and the psychological bizarre, Jules Furthman (check his many credits for Sternberg) took part, in some ways wants us to see Bligh (a wonderfully constipated Charles Laughton) as a thief and lout, promoted beyond his station and outclassed in every sense by the gentlemen around him. That is indeed one of the easiest narratives to carve from the complicated true story. But early, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, grinning a lot), says that Bligh’s status as a self-made man is the one thing he admires about him. So the filmmakers actually want to stifle that unamerican idea.

As Mary pointed out, the casting of Gable, an American, against Laughton, an Englishman, actually makes the story a parable about the founding of America. Everything about Gable’s unwavering screen persona erases the character he’s playing (whereas Brando embraced the character and the public didn’t embrace him), so that this becomes a parable of throwing off snooty British domination. All the arguments about food, culminating in Laughton’s hilarious “It’s your watch, so I must count the coconuts,” echo the Boston tea party and the disputes on taxation.

But if we follow this line of reasoning, Pitcairn Island, eventual home of the mutineers, must equal America, and that would mean that America was founded on abduction, rape, murder and brutality. Which I’m sure MGM did not intend us to infer.

The scenario cunningly supplies Franchot Tone to provide Gable with bromance and suggest a Third Way between outright rebellion and lip-smacking tyranny. Tone does not rebel, denounces Bligh back in England, and is ultimately spared the gallows and restored to active duty — but the movie doesn’t bother to say what happened to his fellow condemned men. Presumably they wound up decorating that particularly high yardarm Bligh so wanted to see them dangle from. (Surely a yardarm of merely average height would have done the job just as well, and been more convenient?)

Movita. Sounds like a high-fibre bran breakfast, but is actually far more pleasant. As noted previously, Brando married the leading lady of the 30s MUTINY and the leading lady of the 60s MUTINY. Probably a method thing.

The other obvious reading here is the gay one, and not just because of Laughton’s casting. The bromance stuff is strikingly suggestive — topless Gable and Tone are sunning themselves, and Gable places a banana on Tone’s chest, before pealing and eating one himself. Then they’re hastily joined by girlfriends in case we get the right wrong idea. Bligh alone shows no interest in native totty, never even sharing the screen with a woman. So perhaps Bligh is driven by thwarted passion. It’s a reading that certainly couldn’t work in the remake, but seems fairly apropos here.

Buy British: Mutiny On The Bounty [1935] [DVD]

Buy American: Mutiny on the Bounty (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray Book] (Gable-Laughton)

Mutiny on the Bounty (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Brando-Howard)

Mutiny on the Bounty [Blu-ray] (Brando-Howard)

Spangles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2012 by dcairns

Watched TRADE WINDS and CHINA SEAS this week, two movies using rear projection footage director Tay Garnett gathered on a round-the-world cruise in his boat. One way to make the trip pay for itself.

CHINA SEAS, watched after a meal of buffalo and marmalade sausages, in the company of Fiona and our guest Marvelous Mary. I saw this as a kid on TV, when I guess I was twelve or something. Watched it with my granny, and I *think* I had Halliwell’s Film Guide so I could look it up. It’s probably the earliest example I can recall of what became a weekend afternoon film viewing ritual, back when BBC2 could be relied upon to run an old movie on a Sunday afternoon. Robert Benchley’s drunken writer character seemed a lot funnier then, but I still like his last line ~

“These streets are in deplorable condition.”

Hilarious to see Clark Gable playing an Englishman, an ex-navy officer — this is the kind of casting that really should necessitate a swift (and not too tricky) rewrite. Ros Russell, as his old flame, lays on the accent real thick, so it’s bizarre to see them together, him with his Ohio tough guy persona, her with her phony cut glass. I guess her character was so dull she had to do something. Fortunately, Jean Harlow is authentic enough for everybody — we get more of her braying than we’d expect in an MGM show. We also get her falling out of her dress (and she has competition from the lustrous Lillian Bond).

Co-written by Jules Furthman (with seven other guys), this is pretty close to a rehash of his SHANGHAI EXPRESS in story, though of course Garnett’s robust style is a mile from Sternberg’s elegant filigree. Thinking about it, maybe Clive Brook would have played the lead if they’d made it a few years earlier. It might’ve been more credible, but it wouldn’t have been better. Wallace Beery has a grand role and a grand time — interesting how the film can make him loathsome and kind of admirable in alternating instants — it’s really kind of an amoral, man’s-man view of the world, where horrible people can be admired if they’re good at what they do.

Sadistic, too — an ankle-breaking is maybe more suggested than shown, but it’s wince-inducing nonetheless. Clark is tortured in a hideous hand-cranked metal boot (much talk about how he’ll never walk again, but he’s hopping about a scene later, quite chipper), and worst of all, a typhoon breaks loose a steamroller being conveyed to Singapore, which slides about the rain-slicked deck, graphically squashing “coolies.” Garnett recalls in his fine autobio that he refused to have anything to do with such a dangerous scene, but was assured that Cedric Gibbons was building a fake steamroller to replace the five ton original. He did, and his replacement weighed a mere two tons.

“I’m so glad this thing is three tons lighter than it could have been.”

Garnett continues with the long, fluid camera moves he enjoyed so much in HER MAN and PRESTIGE, only somebody at the studio sabotages them at every turn by cutting in inserts.

It’s one of those films where the pre-code spirit survives a little, and the MGM spirit (glamour, “class,” sentiment, sanctimony) is made palatable by an infusion of added weirdness — violence, exoticism, wit, a shipment of contraband ladyboys, Akim Tamiroff at the piano, Hattie McDaniel, Soo Yong as a Chinese snob (a welcome anti-stereotype), berserk plotting and nonsensical character reversals, and a happy ending that makes no sense but is accepted in the desperate spirit in which it’s trumped up out of nowhere.

China Seas

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