Archive for Claudette Colbert

The White Russians Are Coming

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hit Hollywood, via RKO, with a remake of his recent L’EQUIPAGE, with Miriam Hopkins, Paul Muni, Louis Hayward (replacing Annabella, Vanel, Aumont) and Colin Clive. We get a big-budget studio Paris 1917, with an air-raid interrupting a big musical — an excuse to show fishnet-stockinged girls running for the shelters. It’s a great big glitzy, vulgar spectacle, as Litvak films are even when he’s peddling “quality,” but I can never associate Litvak with “white elephant art” because his films all have a compulsive, jittery dynamism to them — the zip pan is his signature move, but the camera will be dollying or booming rapidly on either end of the zip, to add force to the nervousness.

The theatre scene isn’t in L’EQUIPAGE but the hero’s departure by train plays out line for line the same. Litvak has even been allowed to import his editor and his composer — and all the expensive wide shots, making this one of the most literal remakes ever.

But the same year, Litvak made his first Hollywood original, and it’s much more worthy of note, but it, too, is laid in Paris.

I don’t know why we hadn’t sought out TOVARICH before. Of course, I’d made no systematic attempt to see all Litvak’s films, and of course he’s not really known as a comedy director. But his early French and German films are mostly light comedies. TOVARICH, however, is much better and funnier.

Charles “Bwa-yay” Boyer is also not massively associated with comedy, except as the inspiration for Pepe le Pew’s voice. But CLUNY BROWN is one of my very favourite films, and he’s amazing in it. He’s an ideal screwball actor because he can do silly things with the utmost seriousness and precision. Hollywood really missed a trick by not letting him do more funny films.

Boyer plays a penniless Russian with forty billion in the bank: money entrusted to him by the Tsar when the Revolution struck. Now he and his wife Claudette Colbert (really good, avoiding her occasional lapses into mannerism) are starving in a Parisian garret, unable for ethical reasons to touch a single sous of the vast fortune. This absurd situation starts things off on a light note which is maintained for so much of the film that you never expect things to get serious at all, and then Basil Rathbone walks in and they do, very. It makes for a real surprise.

Since the couple’s privation is essentially self-willed, we don’t worry about it too much, and then they get a job as servants to Melville Cooper (THE LADY EVE) and Isabel Jeans (GIGI) and start to really enjoy life. Their master and mistress are besotted with them, they’re winning a fortune at cards with the son and daughter of the house… enter Rathbone.

We sensed the film might need some shaking up — you can’t have a film just be fun and games forever, generally, though this manages it for two acts — we weren’t expecting to meet a man who as actually subjected our light comedy leading man and lady to physical torture. For a while it seems that Rathbone may be disposed of in the manner he would later enjoy in WE’RE NO ANGELS — the rat poison is to hand, after all. But the ending is stranger and more surprising.

This is based on a play by Jacques Deval, translated by Robert E Sherwood, adapted by Casey Robinson — all good people. Not too much opening-out has been performed, and the end of act curtains are still visible, in the form of fade-outs. Which is fine — the film is still a film, photographed from inside the action, using movement and music and cutting to create cinematic beauty. As in MAYERLING, Litvak exults in people having an out-of-control good time. In the previous film, Boyer’s debauchery had a tragic undertone, but here it’s just Lubitschian joi de vivre. Russians are mad, the film tells us, and they like it.

Depending on your sympathies, this is either a dry run for ANASTASIA (and in Yul Brynner, we may think, Litvak found his new Boyer, commanding yet crisply amusing), or its the original from which ANASTASIA is merely an off-cut. I actually like this one better, but fortunately we don’t have to choose.

Note: unlike most of the European influx, Litvak seems to have had no trouble starting at the top in Hollywood, perhaps because MAYERLING had been a big hit — it came out in time to capture the interest of a public recently wowed by Edward VIII’s abdication. Given that Litvak seems now to be mostly regarded as a minor figure, it’s worth noting what a big deal they thought him back then. And when he eventually returned to Europe, of all the emigres who went back, he alone kept Hollywood’s interest, backing him in big-budget US productions films in France to the end of his days.

THE WOMAN I LOVE stars Emile Zola; Becky Sharp; Louis XIV; Henry Frankenstein; Moose Lawson; Mrs. Raskolnikov; Frau Berndle; Bunker Bean; Red Ryder; Salty Sam; Scottish Farmer Without Mustache; Winnie the Pooh; Charleston; and Sylvanian Agitator.

TOVARICH stars Gerry Jeffers; Pepe le Moko; Sir Guy of Gisbourne; Marie Antoinette; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Aunt Alicia; Morris Gershwin; ‘Pap’ Finn; Tailspin Tommy Tompkins; Count Alexis Rakonin; Colonel Weed; Maggie Jiggs; Mrs. Wellenmellon’s Hairdresser; Anna Dora, an Actress as Actresses Go; Mud Mask; Mrs. Watchett; Homer; Lord Henry Delves; Madame Napaloni; Norman Bissonette; and Dr. Kluck.

Noirfolk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2020 by dcairns

Here’s an experience fellow cinephages may recognize: it’s happened to me often enough that I have finally recognized it as A Thing, and A Recurring Thing at that.

You catch up with a Douglas Sirk film you’d never seen before; fascinated as usual, you pick up Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk to see what the director has to say about it; and you find he has virtually nothing to say about it, and Halliday doesn’t press him.

This starts to become slightly annoying, and yet Sirk on Sirk is a very fine book. It’s just of very limited use in providing direct critical insights into many of the man’s movies. What’s the best critical study? Tom Ryan’s? Michael Stern’s?

The film that inspired these thoughts on this occasion was THUNDER ON THE HILL, available on Blu-ray in a Film Noir box set even though it’s not film noir, but it’s terrifically handsome. Beautiful flat sets representing flat Norfolk. Sirk grumbles that he’d rather have done it on location. And that he didn’t want the film, set in a convent, to have anything to do with religion.

Though I don’t think you can make much of a case for it being noir, it IS a kind of detective story with nun Claudette Colbert as the investigator. Flooding strands various parties at the Gothic hilltop nunnery, including a condemned murderess on her way to the gallows. But is she guilty?

Lots to enjoy here: Sirk’s staging, the moody lighting and the design and the fantasy of Hollywood Norfolk. There’s probably too many unconnected thematic elements — Sirk was right that religion could have been left out — and the mystery is fairly guessable at an early stage — but that’s OK, because the appointment with the hangman creates tension, so that the question isn’t really Whodunnit? but Will they be caught in time?

Ann Blyth as the convict is absolutely dreadful in her first scene, straining to hit a series of discordant emotional marks, but improves somewhat thereafter, and what she has going for her is striking beauty. Still, possibly the worst clunker of a performance Sirk ever had to work around.

The mother superior is, effectively, an antagonist — there’s a theme about the dangers of being sure you’re right, but oddly Colbert embodies that trait too — her certainty has destroyed her sister’s life — but this time, her certainty is a GOOD thing. That’s the funny thing about certainty — you never know where you stand with it.

THUNDER ON THE HILL stars Gerry Jeffers; Veda Pierce; Ellsworth M. Toohey; Morgan Le Fay; Dick Turpin; Mrs Higgins; Sir Locksley; Will Scarlet; Hominy; Phillip Musgrave; Lady Beekman; Algy Longworth; and Auntie Glutz.

Fact-Checking Hollywood Babylon II

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up a second-hand copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II for 50p. Now I have the set.

Kevin Brownlow quoted to me Anger’s answer to the question, “How do you do your research?” “Mainly by mental telepathy.” And so it has become sadly fashionable to debunk Anger’s investigations speculations lies, as in the commendable You Must Remember This podcast. Well, I never saw a bandwagon I didn’t want to jump on, even at the risk of upsetting the applecart, so I thought I’d have a go at fact-checking Anger using his own methods. Tuning my mental aerial to UHF, I leafed through the sordid pages of the discounted scandal sheet, and attempted to pick up Corrections from Beyond. This is what I come up with:

Page 96: “Meanwhile, back on d’Este Drive, left with a lonely libido in his spacious hacienda, along with his python-mistress, Elsie, a half dozen bed-trained dobermans, a talking macaw named Copulate, zoo-keeper Lionel [Atwill] maintained a rigidly disciplined schedule as a cog in the factory-studio wheel during the week.”

THE TRUTH: Yeah, none of that happened.

Page 127: “During production of Rebel without a Cause, James Dean was host to a thriving colony of crabs.”

THE TRUTH: There is no such film as REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The sentence should probably read, “During production of A THRIVING COLONY OF CRABS, Dean Jones was host to a raven without a caw.” Or maybe “During production of THE HOST, crabby Jim Dale was cause of a rebel colony, or craved a threnody.” Or maybe it shouldn’t be there at all.

Page 185: “After a three-year absence, [Bobby Driscoll] returned to the screen in 1958, in a B-programmer–Bernard Girard’s The Party Crashers. By a curious coincidence, his co-star was the lobotomized Frances Farmer, making her benumbed comeback after sixteen years away from the movies.

THE TRUTH: it’s hardly a “curious coincidence” that two actors happen to appear in the same film. Is it a curious coincidence that WHITE HOUSE DOWN co-stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx? In fact, my telepathy tells me that’s probably the film Anger was thinking of. Anyway, Frances Farmer never had a lobotomy, and by a curious coincidence, THE PARTY CRASHERS also stars Doris Dowling, Denver Pile and Onslow Stevens. Uncanny, isn’t it?

Page 235: “Shapely blond Carole Landis rose to stardom in Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in which she played a primitive cavewoman. her 1948 Fourth-of-July suicide, provoked by unrequited love for Rex Harrison, caused a hullaballoo and a half for Mr. and Mrs. Moviegoer.”

THE TRUTH: Carole was a blonde, not a blond, and the cavewoman she portrayed for Roach, far from being primitive, was really a quite sophisticated troglodyte by the standards of the time (1940). Rex Harrison did not appear in the picture. Nor do George Moviegoer and his wife Ethel (nee Theatregoer). Landis’ tragic suicide cannot properly be called a “Fourth-of-July” affair since I doubt any festive tie-in was intended and anyway it occurred the following day.

Anger tastefully has a whole chapter on suicides. On the page opposite Landis, we get the following:

“A large quantity of sleeping pills had cured [Dorothy Dandridge] of her amnesia.”

THE TRUTH: Dorothy Dandridge did not suffer from amnesia, which cannot be treated with sleeping pills anyhow. I think the word Anger is groping for is “insomnia.” I think possibly it’s Anger who’s suffering from amnesia, or maybe aphasia.

Page 312: “[…] Claudette Colbert who was said to be among the first to advise the President to invade Grenada–she was far from delighted at the prospect of an island full of Reds so near to her palatial Barbados estate.

THE TRUTH: No such person as Claudette Cobert ever existed. Anger is evidently thinking of British actor Claude Hulbert (pictured). Though Hulbert never actually invaded Grenada, he was famous for his fussiness about being filmed from the correct side. Whole sets had to be rebuilt to avoid catching him from an unflattering angle. The most famous instance of this was on HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), where an entire western town had to be razed to the ground because it was facing the wrong way. This was all the more remarkable because Hulbert was not cast in the film, but perfectionist director Michael Cimino was taking no chance of offending the powerful star, who died in 1964.