Archive for Constance Cummings

These bloody women they will not stop bothering you

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Irene prepares to get things Dunne.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all misogynist on you. Just quoting Pete & Dud, while also gearing up to take a look at some of John Cromwell’s monster women.

Bette Davis (see yesterday) is probably the most awful, but she has some stiff competition. Hope Emerson in CAGED is practically a literal she-monster, and Cromwell’s noir outings featured the occasional femme fatale. But the trio of Laura Hope Crews (mother), Constance Cummings (lover) and Kay Francis (wife) have an unexpected amount in common.

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THE SILVER CORD (1933) seems to be the first Hollywood film to aim at that great American holy cow, motherhood, with Laura Hope Crews shrill and fluttering as the controlling, near-incestuous mother of Joel McCrea and Eric Linden. McCrea’s role is almost unplayable, since he has to appear blind to what kind of a family set-up he’s from, while retaining some measure of the audience’s respect — he gives it the old college try, though, and comes out better than he does in BANJO ON MY KNEE. Eric Linden was probably pre-code cinema’s pre-eminent pisspants, and is made to measure as the (even) more spineless son, easily manipulated into giving up the adorable and beauteous Frances Dee because she doesn’t live up to mama’s standards.

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A pensive, festive Linden.

It takes Irene Dunne (in one of several lead roles for Cromwell) to unmask mother, taking her down with surgical precision (Dunne is a biologist — she’s told in Scene One that she’s one of those women who CAN have a career and family, and this news is delivered by Gustav von Seyffertitz, so it is AUTHORITATIVE). McCrea STILL can’t see what’s staring him in the face until Mummy Pittypat flat-out confesses that she’s put all her romantic yearnings into motherhood, and she’s PROUD of it, goddamn it.

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Upon that same rear projection screen, KONG would roar!

The thing is a giant creaking play (by Sidney Howard), but Cromwell, working as was often the case from a script by Jane Murfin, applies long, fluid traveling shots (gliding crabwise  through those weird doorways that seem to have only half a door frame, to admit the camera crew) and takes advantage of RKO’s early facility with rear-projection for a dramatic accident on the ice. It’s not actually a Christmas film, but it’s one of several Cromwell’s suited to this time of year, with its snowy backdrops (see also MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and especially SINCE YOU WENT AWAY).

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THIS MAN IS MINE stars Dunne again (who doesn’t get enough credit as a great pre-code dame along with Stanwyck, Bette & Joan &c), battling the deliciously wicked Constance Cummings (above) who wants to steal away her husband, Ralph Bellamy (but WHY, for pity’s sake? Because he’s there, I suppose). Dunne has her delicate, piano-playing, landscape-painting hands full with all these Constance Cummings and goings.

Amusingly, this also has Sidney Blackmer, making it a kind of ROSEMARY’S BABY pre-party for Dr. Sapirstein and Roman Castavet.

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ALL OF THEM WITCHES! Dunne & Bellamy/Sapirstein, Blackmer/Castavet and Cummings.

The low-key melodrama is leavened with considerable humour, most of it from the beastly Constance’s more sensible sister, Kay Johnson (Mrs. Cromwell at the time). Describing CC as “a sort of cross between a tidal wave and a smallpox epidemic,” she keeps the whole, dignified thing from getting too self-serious. Slightly surprising third-act violence when Bellamy slugs Constance unconscious with a sock in the eye, and Dunne brains him in turn with a picture frame. Well, civilisation must be preserved.

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As in THE SILVER CORD, the villainess condemns herself out of her own mouth, destroying the illusion she’s built up, and the exact same thing happens a third time in the later IN NAME ONLY (1939). Kay Francis, at the tail-end of her career as leading lady, is hanging on to Cary Grant in a loveless marriage, because she wants not only his money but his dad’s (Charles Coburn, by some genetic prodigy of mutation). Grant meets and falls for widow Carole Lombard, lighting a nice fire under the whole scenario.

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This is the most satisfying of the three, though they’re all worth seeing. It’s like Grant and Lombard are trying to be their own dazzling movie star selves, and every bastard around them is trying to drag them down to ordinary unhappiness with the rest of humanity. Oddly, Grant shines brightest when sparring with catty Helen Vinson (another survivor of the pre-code era, with her sharp little teeth) as a subsidiary bitch. Memorable action involves the worst hotel in the history of cinema, and Francis condemning herself out of her own mouth exactly like her predecessors. A door shuts on her with awesome finality.

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Also: Peggy Ann Garner, Grady Sutton. (“Do you drink? How do you stand it?”)

 

Silent Comedian, Talking Picture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2015 by dcairns

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So: Chaplin resisted talking, and even as late as THE GREAT DICTATOR (1939) was carving out sections of his films which could work as pantomime. (But people don’t acknowledge the extent to which Chaplin embraced and experimented with sound — just not dialogue). Keaton lost control of his career when sound came in, due to the tyranny of the screenplay, Louis B. Mayer, and the bottle. Harold Lloyd was the happiest case, remaining fairly productive until 1937, making some good talkies, maintaining the visual gags he was known for an augmenting them with verbals. The only thing lost is the ability to undercrank, which robs the action of that lighter-than-air, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quality it can have in silents.

I really like Leo McCarey’s THE MILKY WAY, especially the scene where Harold has to transport a small horse (as I recall) in a taxi cab without the cabbie realising. Harold alibis the occasional whinnying sounds by grinning maniacally, doing his best to look like the kind of man who WOULD whinny in the back of a taxi.

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We ran MOVIE CRAZY (1932) after a hot tip that if we enjoyed Constance Cummings in SEVEN SINNERS, which we did, we should see this one. And how!

Half of the plot is a straight reprise of MERTON OF THE MOVIES, filmed by the same studio the same year under the title MAKE ME A STAR. Deja vu must’ve been a common sensation in those days. Both version suffer from the same problem, the hero being a delusional hopeful who wants to be a movie star. Rooting for his aspirations when he clearly has no talent is tough, and in both cases the filmmakers try to enlist our sympathy by pouring troubles on the hero’s head — Harold’s character even acquires the nickname “Trouble.” Harold wasn’t inherently a lachrymose type, and most of his stories are American success stories about conquering adversity — not too much time for pathos. His best protagonists gain sympathy while keeping busy. So that aspect of the film isn’t too great.

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The other half of the film, loosely connected to it, is the romantic triangle between Harold, Constance Cummings, and Constance Cummings. Harold meets CC twice, once in black wig and costume as a vampish senorita, once in civvies. He doesn’t realise it’s the same dame. Confused by a cunningly contrived chain of circumstance, he comes to believe the dusky damsel fancies him, whereas he does actually stand a chance with the blonde version — but keeps ruining his chances by flirting with her alter ego, thinking she’ll never know.

Cummings is just awfully good here. First she has to make us believe she’s taken a shine to Harold’s no-hoper. Suspending our disbelief requires Herculean efforts: in the end, we can say that she plays it magnificently, but the task is not really a possible one. It’s a bit like a CGI special effect, immaculately rendered with photorealist care, but inherently unbelievable, like all those bits in modern action movies where heroes survive colossal death plunges. Nobody could possibly do it better than Cummings, and the commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t quite result in a success. Harold is penniless, accident prone, talentless, and his self-belief comes across not as admirable but as unjustified arrogance tinged with insanity. But everything else Cummings is given to do, she does with equal commitment, and that stuff works great.

Apart from some very nice gags, scattered a little too far apart, the movie also maintains interest with an elaborate, spectacular shooting style. There are graceful, sweeping crane shots, particularly one which explores a movie set representing a ship at sea, where the camera swings from one position to another, guiding us through the geography of the scene about to unfold and building a fine anticipation. Occasionally, the visual ambition gets a bit carried away with itself, as in one of those “Santa POV” shots, filmed from inside the fireplace, but most of the elaborate moves and angles are more tasteful and effective, as well as being striking.

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“Oh no, Dad’s on fire!”

That ship scene leads to an impressive knock-down fight between Harold and his nasty romantic rival. It’s quite funny, visually grand, and mainly it’s a tremendous release of energy as Harold stops being pathetic and takes care of business. I don’t really like the idea that our hero has to beat the living crap out of someone else to prove he’s a man, but if ever a plot needed a violent drubbing to shake it from the doldrums, this one did.

Come for Harold, stay for Constance, and then fall in love with Harold again, eventually.

Cummings and Goings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2015 by dcairns

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SEVEN SINNERS is a title which kept getting trotted out — the one Lewis Milestone made in 1925, long thought lost, has just been rediscovered, which is cause for rejoicing. The unlikely pairing of John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich resulted in a delightful romp for Tay Garnett in 1940. But the version I looked at was from Britain in 1936, and it’s a fairly naked attempt at doing a THIN MAN knock off with American stars — Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings, who made England her home, it seems, and went on to triumph in BLITHE SPIRIT.

I don’t imagine any of those movies have a good reason to be called SEVEN SINNERS. This one doesn’t. It just sounds good.

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Lowe, who has a lovely mellifluous voice, is a drunken detective a la Nick Charles, and Cummings plays an insurance investigator supposed to accompany him to Scotland to investigate missing jewels. Sadly, they never make it north of the border, but their adventure instead hinges upon murder and train-wrecking, and shunts them from Nice (at carnival time) to Paris and on to London and then the English countryside. All fun stuff.

The train angle stems from the involvement of author Arnold Ridley, who wrote THE GHOST TRAIN and THE WRECKER — the spectacular full-scale smash-up from that accomplished silent thriller is recycled here as stock footage. The whole film may well have been written around it. Elsewhere, director Albert de Courville (best known for: nothing at all) mocks up colossal derailings by spinning the camera and mixing together multiple images to suggest Lowe’s intoxicated experience of being thrown to the ceiling in a spinning corridor.

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Messrs Launder & Gilliat are credited with the script, and do a fine job simulating the kind of patter stars like, say, Myrna Loy and William Powell would throw off in Hollywood productions. It should seem a poor cousin to those movies, but it actually manages to carve out its own little corner and curls up in it like a shaggy dog, looking vaguely pleased with itself but not smelling too bad. Each scene is based around an amusing bit of investigation, the logic connecting them is playful but solid enough, and the business transacted within them is frequently amusing too. Hitchcock would have asked for more real sense of jeopardy — British comedy-thrillers tended to fall heavily on the first quality and scrimp on the second — but it’s all perfect undemanding afternoon entertainment.

“A minute to strip. A minute to dress. I’ll be back in a minute,” says Lowe.

“Better make it two,” says Cummings.

As always with these things, you’re left wishing there was a whole series with these characters. Maybe they’d finally reach Scotland.