Archive for comedy

“I understand you have rooms to let.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2008 by dcairns

 smart alec

I blogged earlier about how I stole a bit of Alec Guinness’ entrance in THE LADYKILLERS for my short film CLARIMONDE.

While I put my hands up and admit this without shame, I’d like to trace the influences that led to actor Alec Guinness and director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick achieving what they do in that scene in the first place, to the extent that I can. Partly to show that everybody steals, which makes me feel good about myself, and partly to try and illuminate the evolution of ideas in cinema, through one small example.

Mackendrick quotes below are taken from Philip Kemp’s majestic Lethal Innocence, which should nestle next to Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking on your bookshelves.

Roger the lodger

Exhibit A: THE LODGER. Hitchcock pulls of many grand effects in the expressionist manner in this, his first thriller. It’s worth noting that for both Hitch and Mackendrick were greatly influenced by Fritz Lang and the German style of the twenties and early thirties. Also, both men were graphic designers before they were filmmakers…

Matinee idol and sexual unusualist* Ivor Novello enters with a scarf concealing his lower face (like Malcolm McDowell, 40 years later in IF…). Guinness will appropriate the scarf, and the idea of revealing his lower face first, but he uses the lowering of his hat to achieve this effect:

Mrs Wilberforce...?

Both Katy Johnson and the landlady in Hitch’s film are frail, older women (KJ to a markedly greater degree), afflicted with dowager’s hump, and there is an immediate sense of outrage that they might be menaced by this interloper. Both films play upon this unimaginable threat of violence being brought into a respectable home by some mysterious outsider.

The idea of showcasing Guinness’ trick teeth seems to have been present from the very beginning of the character’s conception. According to Mackendrick, Guinness at first saw the character in even more grotesque terms:

‘He sidled across my office as though he had a dislocated hip, which was quite gruesome but horrendously funny. So Seth and I had to say, “No, sorry, Balcon will never stand for it.” Alec got rather annoyed, and sulked for a little, and went and looked out of the window. And while I was talking about the script he was snipping away with a pair of scissors, and he made some paper teeth which he stuck in, then turned around and grinned at me.’

Guinness claims to have had in mind the Wolf from Red Riding Hood as his main model. But when he saw himself in makeup, he remarked to Mackendrick, “I look remarkably like an aged Ken Tynan; perhaps I’d better smoke cigarettes the way he does.”

Tynan weird

(Guinness work emulating Tynan’s way with a ciggie raises him into the pantheon of Great Dramatic Smokers. Of course, Bacall and Bogart look great exhaling smoke, as does Valentino and, in more recent times, rather surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter in FIGHT CLUB. But for finding weird and impressive ways of actually handlinga cancer stick, I give you my Triumvirate of Nicotine: George C. Scott, Travolta, Savalas. Telly actually adopted the Kojak lollipop in order to wean himself off the snout, and the sweet solution was suggested by none other than Mario Bava, in whose LISA AND THE DEVIL the trademark lolly makes its debut. Now you know.)

Mackendrick went further, insisting that the entire performance was a gothic exaggeration of the Tynan persona, perhaps a revenge on behalf of the acting profession upon a famous critic (more on this theme soon). I don’t know if Tynan had ever been cruel about Guinness, but he called Ralph Richardson “the glass eye in the forehead of the British public,” which, as Sir Ralph noted, is uncertain as to meaning but doesn’t sound altogether complimentary.

But there is still more behind this characterisation. In LONDON BELONGS TO ME, directed by former Hitchcock scriptwriter (THE LADY VANISHES) Sidney Gilliat, Alastair Sim (native of Edinburgh) presents himself as lodger at the home of a middle-aged spinster, in an uncannily similar way:

recognise this?

The eyes are the windows of the soul.

I’ve ALWAYS felt that Guinness’ performance had something to do with Sim’s, in fact, as a child I believe I thought that WAS Sim playing the part in THE LADYKILLERS. Professor Marcus has the same shabby-gentile, vulpine weariness as Sim’s Dickensian fake medium, Mr. Squales.

And even then, there’s more. Moving beyond the character’s first few moments (about which there’s even more to say!), we get what seems to me a direct quote from Max Schreck’s iconic performance in NOSFERATU:

Orlok Guinness

To present this character in all his glory, Mackendrick and his team give him a big build up. Composer and sound designer Tristram Carey (later of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) brilliantly organises music and FX to one end, creating a sort of dark cartoon soundscape where everything builds to a hysterical crescendo as Guinness rings the doorbell. Then there’s the beauty of the delayed appearance itself, as Guinness stalks Johnson to her home, a variety of pieces of trained furniture obtruding to conceal Guinness’ face. A high angle shot following the pair of them from roughly the POV of an invisible urban giraffe, seems drawn from John Brahm’s Hollywood remake of THE LODGER, though maybe it goes further back, to Lang’s M.

And on top of all that, Graham Linehan points out: “By the way, did you ever notice how Guinness is turning into a crow in ‘The Ladykillers’? Watch the way he lifts his coat up when he’s putting his hands on his hips.”

The Crow

Well, now that you mention it… Maybe this is why all the raven imagery in the depressing Coen Bros remake. I mean, I know it’s there because of Poe and the whole Southern Gothic thing, but maybe…

One moment of Sir Alec’s monstro perf seems entirely sui generis and without precedence in the annals of screen acting. On his way upstairs, forced to respond to remark by Mrs. W, he delivers his reply from under his arm.

It’s not exactly the shock of recognition, is it? But it’s grand stuff.

Good night, Mrs Wilberforce.

Anyhow, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the story of THE LADYKILLERS, like those other grisly tales FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, came to its author (American screenwriter William Rose) in a dream…

The movie has, in turn, influenced other filmmakers — Nick Park’s THE WRONG TROUSERS is probably the most famous that refers directly back to Mackendrick’s film.

*

*Novello’s penchant was to lie naked in a glass coffin, feigning death, while muscular workmen filed in and mourned him, sexually.

Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2008 by dcairns

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”

Sexual Ealing

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2008 by dcairns

It was just after four when I got out the cinema, why was it NIGHT-TIME?

Anyhow, multiplexes are a bit like hell, the version that’s a giant building with a thousand rooms and a thousand tortures in each room, and my local was understaffed so that although I was only slightly late, by the time I’d reached the front of the queue the flick had started, which put me in a bad mood.

Why was I seeing this thing?Because I’d blogged about it, and because Ben Halligan recommended it (maybe he just likes public school movies, though?) and mainly because it got universally lousy reviews and I’ve been working on the theory that whenever that happens there’s something interesting going on. I decided on this after quite enjoying GOYA’S GHOSTS, which got a royal kicking from the broadsheet hacks.

Ealing Studios, if they want to live up to their glorious name, have got to stop remaking Oscar Wilde plays and old British comedies: that’s not what Ealing did. They may have had a conservative side, but at least they were original.

Having said that, the new ST TRINIAN’S is nothing to be ashamed of and certainly doesn’t merit the savagery the press has meted out. There are a few good laughs and lots of loud smiles, and an attempt is made to cram every kind of joke into it, from whoopee cushions to sly demolitions of every film in co-star Colin Firth’s CV. Unlike the earlier films, this one actually takes a bit of time to characterise the obstreperous kids. Like the earlier films, the new girl can’t quite decide if she wants to appeal to her peers or to the Dirty Mac Brigade. There’s some uncomfortable stuff early on as a newcomer is subjected to hazing and humiliation (being broadcast nude on the Internet) and the film looks like turning into sado-erotic faux-child porn. Then an anti-bullying message is produced from somewhere and we’re supposed to forget what we’ve seen.

As the hapless newbie, Talulah Riley shows some comic flair, particularly in a sloping walk alongside her father’s car as she tries to wheedle out of being sentenced to this “Hogwarts for Pikeys“. This almost stands comparison with Joyce Grenfell’s physical comedy work in the original BELLES OF. Gemma Arterton is a rather terrifying sex-bomb as the head girl. Comedian Russell Brand is fairly good as Flash Harry, but doesn’t really get much to do. But really, Rupert Everett is the whole show.

Sex Fritton

Like Alastair Sim in the first film, he plays dual roles, as headmistress Miss Fritton (try saying that three times quickly) and her no-good brother. Both roles are stylishly rendered cartoons, though neither has enough screen time to hold the fraying strands of the story together (the old ST TRINS sequels are likewise all over the shop, narrative-wise). While the rest of the film is scattershot and sometimes funny, Everett nails his every moment with grace and comic invention. The script seems to improve when he’s around, which suggests that either he’s shoring it up with ad-libs or he’s doing the even harder job of turning weak-ish material into gold by sheer force of magnetism and comedy chops. The film is actually worth seeing for him — there, I’ve said it! The moment where he swings through frame on a rope, in slow-motion, grinning at the camera, shows just the kind of CHEEK I’m meaning to blog about sometime.

It’s a shame the makers couldn’t sustain the quality throughout, or decide whether they wanted to be nasty and Ortonesque, mildly anarchic and silly, or preach an alternative educational lifestyle choice. And guys, you CAN’T do all three. But for the benefit of critics who have said things like “It is as funny as the worried frown on the face of an oncologist,” here is a short list of things to admire in this film (Everett is too obviously good to need including).

1) The girls. There are a hell of a lot of them, and they can all act. Some of the short ones are funny just standing there with their unformed faces.

2) The in-jokes. Markedly better than many of the out-jokes, admittedly. The reference to ANOTHER COUNTRY goes so far over the heads of the tweeny audience that they can’t even see the vapour trail behind it.

3) Russell Brand. This isn’t the quite vehicle he needs, but enough of his demented charisma pops out to merit him being given another chance.

All girls together

Footnote: And YES, it IS appalling that The Film Council is backing this muck and not supporting Terence Davies. They should be making quality cinema art AND commercial nonsense — preferably GOOD commercial nonsense — but this one film doesn’t deserve to be the whipping boy for the TFC’s numerous failings.

Footfootnote: actually, Terence Davies could have directed the hell out of this movie.

Searle