Archive for Cluny Brown

Overselling

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by dcairns

We liked Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I think it’s his best film in a while, though I admit I didn’t care for THE SHAPE Of WATER or CRIMSON PEAK much at all, and PACIFIC RIM just wasn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, I still think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is his best.

This review will now discuss the endings, immediately, because they’re a key difference between versions:

We now have two good films of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, neither of which quite nails it, but both of which succeed in places and are good in their own right. I’m inclined to prefer the Edmund Goulding version, but I have to admit that Del Toro and Bradley Cooper nailed the ending, which Goulding and Tyrone Power weren’t allowed to do. Or, rather, they did it, but were forced to GO PAST IT so that their movie ends on a softened note. Still, if Ty Power isn’t going to turn into The Geek, he’s definitely going to turn into Ian Keith’s broken-down ex-mentalist, so it’s not THAT happy.

It makes sense to compare the movies by their casts. They have very different visual styles, of course, but oddly that seems less important to me. Goulding wasn’t a noir stylist, but his slightly more prosaic approach gave the horrors of the story a matter-of-fact quality. Though he includes more gore and slightly more sex, Del Toro’s design and camera aesthetic tend to dilute the sense of realism. Both approaches seem commendable, and probably my preferred angle would be… what if they made this in the seventies? And had actors who were willing to get period-appropriate haircuts? And could talk fast?

So, actors.

Tyrone Power versus Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Both actors are by rights too old: Stanton Carlisle is 21 at the start of the novel. If he ISN’T going to be young, where has he been? Who runs away to join the circus in his late thirties (Power) or mid-forties (Cooper)? Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay give Stan more of a past, but it’s a past living at home with his dad. Jules Furthman’s script for the ’47 version starts with Stan already employed at the carnival, neatly dodging the question, or almost. Fiona, who has read the novel for me (I’ll get around to it!) doubts if any very young stars could manage the part, and in fact right now there seems to me a shortage of really big stars under thirty.

What we’d be looking for in a young star is energy, I think. Cooper plays it dour, which is an example of the Del Toro film’s tendency to oversell its surface effects, ignoring the value of counterpoint. Power seems genuinely thriller by the power being a carny spieler gives him. Cooper’s Stan is running away from trauma, but what is he running TO? Where is the joy in his life?

Joan Blondell versus Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer.

An unenviable task, following La Blondell. Joan just bursts with warmth and love. Maternal but sexy. Collette is a fine actor, as we know, but seems flat here, maybe because the script is too anxious to push Zeena onto Stan’s dick without setting up a sympathetic character interest first.

Ian Keith versus David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein.

I love them both. Keith’s astonishing rendition of the words “Every boy has a dog,” is one of my favourite line readings of all time. But I think Strathairn has the edge. He’s almost too good for the movie: so right and alive, everyone he shares the screen with seems a touch unreal, underdeveloped. He doesn’t get to say Keith’s line, and the lines he gets instead don’t work as well. But if you’re wondering whether to see the movie, he would be the first reason I’d mention.

Mike Mazurki versus Ron Perlman as Bruno.

Both terrific physiognomic spectacles. Perlman is the better actor by a country mile. Mazurki at forty exudes more physical menace than Perlman at seventy-two, and threat is what the character’s for. Del Toro also gives us Willem Dafoe (very welcome, as always) and Mark Povinelli, expanding the family circus, but not creating much sense of a wider community. Spreading the dialogue to a few bit players might have been helpful. (Povinelli’s The Major is a really mean character in the book, here he’s just truculent, which is the new cliché mode for small actors since Peter Dinklage burst forth in LIVING IN OBLIVION.)

Coleen Gray versus Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill)

Rooney Mara is hands-down the better actor. Gray is good enough for the role she’s given. The Del Toro omits the creepy incest backstory — child abuse is the origin story of both Gresham’s main characters. So, Mara has a character less interesting than she’s capable of playing, basically an ingenue role, but she’s able to tamp down her own interestingness without extinguishing it, and she’s really good.

George Beranger versus Paul Anderson & Jesse Buck (the Geek/s)

This comparison is basically a question of whether it’s better to keep the Geek offscreen, or present him for our edification. Goulding’s offscreen horror is super-effective. Gresham, by showing him, is able to humanize him more (I’m getting all this from Fiona). Gresham has him mouth the words “You son-of-a-bitch,” which humanizes him, and leads the reader away from the pit as he prepares to bite the head of a chicken, playing the scene on the marks’ reaction, which is a very intelligent and restrained way to do it. Del Toro’s explicitness here lets us think ourselves superior to the crowd who lap it up, while granting us the exact same experience, with added moral superiority.

In his glossary of carnival terms accompanying the story The Freak Show Murders, Fredric Brown describes the Geek in these words ~

A freak, usually a Negro, who eats glass, razor blades and almost anything else. Don’t ask me how they can do it, but there’s no gaff about it. A geek can chew up an old light bulb just as you’d eat an apple.

Del Toro’s movie answers Brown’s mystery: the geek is hooked on opium. Interesting that both the full-time geeks we see and the aspirant geek at the movie’s end are white. It’s a very white film. I spotted one Black carny and a Black hotel employee is the only character of colour with dialogue. All Gresham’s characters seem to be white. But the movie changes other things, it could have changed that. Maybe a black geek would be too uncomfortable. But maybe that discomfort would be salutary. Carnivals were places of casual racism. Brown tells us that the term for a dance act performed by Black carnival workers was “Jig show,” and that this was “an accepted term.”

There is a fashion or movement towards racially blind casting, putting actors of different races into roles they might, in real history, not have gotten to occupy. I think this is fine if your film isn’t about real history. If the reason for no non-whites in major roles is that this is a film concerned with actual social history, I would say Phooey, It Is Not. It is, however, a diverse film in having a small person, a hairy person, etc.

Where Ty Power targets essentially one rich old bereaved person with his spook act, the new film offers a few figures: we get Mary Steenburgen, who is the other person in this film besides Strathairn who totally transcends everything they’re asked to do — she should be in everything, and I’m sure she’s busy, but it is DECADES since I saw her in a movie. Welcome back. We get Peter MacNeil and Del Toro favourite Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is playing the character Taylor Holmes has in the ’47 film. He’s good, but his backstory seems underdeveloped or overdeveloped… there’s too much of it for its incompleteness to be a satisfying mystery. Something is just a bit off — maybe in shortening his long first cut (excellent interview at Trailers from Hell), Del Toro couldn’t arrive at quite the right balance. It’s not terrible, but it might be simpler and better if the film decided to make the character less nasty and less complex: his role in Stan’s story is basically that of victim, however unpleasant.

Also here we get his henchman, Holt McCallany from Mindhunter who is just fantastic. I don’t know if he reaches the sublime heights that Strathairn and Steenburgen hit, but he somehow seems to have just stepped into our time from the 1940s. As in his Fincher TV show he’s required to exhibit a lot of righteous anger and he does that so, so well. Another actor who should be in everything, and as he’s youngish and white and male I can’t work out why he isn’t.

Finally —

Helen Walker versus Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter)

Blanchett is very probably lots better than Walker, but not here. In the right roles with the right director, Walker was hard to beat — you really see it in CLUNY BROWN and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. What makes her an inspired choice is her little-girl moonface, which seems to offer innocence. She’s not on the nose, at least in terms of casting. I think Stan, at least this new movie’s Stan, would be suspicious of Blanchett. She’s sinister. Funny that she gets a line about “overselling” her pitch — she’s thrown at us so blatantly, she might as well have a blinking neon sign over her saying FEMME FATALE. It’s not that she’s bad or that this is a bad approach. It’s just more obvious, less elegant, less surprising, than it could be. A shame, in a film that’s frequently elegant and surprising, and with an actor who’s shown she can do almost anything.

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.

She doesn’t go everywhere

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 30, 2019 by dcairns

That’s what they say about Helen Walker’s character, the Honourable Betty Cream, in CLUNY BROWN, one of just a few films containing really outstanding Walker characterisations. I wrote a profile/history of this neglected favourite.

At The Chiseler.