Archive for Dandy Nichols

Film Club: The Knack

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2015 by dcairns

Film Club: the concept. We all see a film and talk about it. Pretty simple. This time we have SPECIAL GUESTS.

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Plot synopsis for the unwary. In a narrow London domicile, schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) laments his lack of knack with the ladies, whereas Tolen (Ray Brooks) apparently has them lining up. The arrival of the Bohemian Tom (Donal Donnelly) and the innocent Nancy (Rita Tushingham) sparks off a whirling comic psychodrama, commented on by a “Greek chorus of disapproval,” the middle-aged Londoners who “don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.”

I’ve got so much interview material that it seems to me I should just let the principles talk, and I’ll weigh in in the comments section if you say anything I like! THE KNACK is an odd thing. Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, told me she reacted with a “what WAS that?” And she’s super-clever. The thing is, I don’t think that reaction is inappropriate or misses the mark — it may be more a question of whether you enjoy that sensation…

Ann Jellicoe’s quotes are taken from the intro to her play Shelley, or The Idealist.

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SUSPICIOUS READING TO MY WAY OF THINKING

I wrote The Knack partly for the same reason as Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell and Ibsen Love’s Comedy: to make sure of getting a play produced after an early one had failed. So The Knack is a comedy with four characters and one set, but I wrote it mainly because I wanted to explore comedy, to write a play that should be full of joy, innocence and zest.

The Knack, like my first play, was written from the inside, character determining situation, situation defining character. The principle that action is not narrated was developed further. In The Sport of My Mad Mother, the characters were incapable of understanding their own motives; in The Knack, Tom sees clearly what motivates him and the others. Colin needs help but Tom sees danger in giving him ready-made answers; instead he tries to put Colin into situations where Colin will be able to recognize the nature of his problems and perhaps find his own answers; this is in contrast to Tolen who is always giving Colin good advice which weakens Colin and makes Tolen feel powerful. The man who understands seldom makes a direct statement; the others reveal themselves through what they say and do. The play is about how you should treat other people, and its form reinforces what it has to say. Speech rhythms are more subtly used than in The Sport of My Mad Mother, but there are interlocking rhythms which, with the youth of the characters and their zest, give the play its bounce. I was, however, beginning to be bored with verbal rhythms used in an obvious, musical way as they were in the first play, and to feel they were a mannerism.

[…] The success of The Knack in New York and as a film has freed me to follow what path I choose, at least for the time being. But I begin to feel alienated (temporarily I hope) from a society which has adopted The Knack and, it seems to me, subtly degraded it: A New York reviewer was able to write of the film that it was all the better for the elimination of the moral values of the play. The Knack is about the people who seemed to me most fresh and interesting at the time I wrote it.

Ann Jellicoe.

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SKIMMING RICOCHET OFF A DESKTOP

Through the kind auspices of Kate Wood, I was able to divert Charles Wood, celebrated playwright and screenwriter of THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, away from the cricket long enough to obtain answers to Ten Questions ~

Dear David, use what you like of my thoughts on “The Knack” below. It was all so long ago. I was lucky to get the chance to do it, for which for which I thank Richard and Oscar and Woodfall. Did a few more for them, enjoyed them all. All the best with it, let me us know how it goes, Charles.

1) When and how did the offer to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play come about? Do you recall how you first met Richard Lester?

It was all arranged by Oscar Lewenstein of Woodfall Films. My agent, Peggy Ramsay who was also Ann Jellicoe’s agent suggested me. I didn’t see the play but I read it and loved it. Oscar talked to Lindsay Anderson about it and I came up with a treatment for him which was a straight up and down realistic adaptation of the play. He didn’t like it.. Oscar obviously then talked to Richard of whom I knew nothing and asked me to go and see “Hard Day’s Night”. I went off to write some pages for him. Anyway, lots more drafts and it was done.

2) Lester has said that the screenplay went through a great many drafts, including one without the character of Tom. Was this a vexing process or do you like exploring multiple approaches?

Richard remembers better than me. It wasn’t at all vexing. Richard and Deirdre made me very welcome in their house. It was my first film and I knew nothing so I enjoyed it. Learned a lot very quickly, I thought. It was very enjoyable.

3) Lester also says that you both wanted to avoid the play’s explicit connection of Tolen with fascism. Did you then have a discussion about what the film would be about, or do you prefer not to be too explicit about that? Does the film have what the screenwriting books call “an underlying theme”?

I hadn’t the faintest idea what the film was all about. There was no theme except youth and discovery, and being alive, same old things. It was Ann Jellicoe’s play we were adapting and putting onto film, when all the pieces came together we hoped she would approve. Richard thinks film and gags, I think words and dialogue and things to get the actors to do. Tolen is fascist of course in lots of ways, mostly power, in fact altogether power.

4) I’m fascinated by the way you exploded the play and put little fragments together in a new pattern. A lot of the dialogue is exactly faithful to the original but the shape is different and what it’s saying is different. Similarly with How I Won the War — I was surprised when I tracked down the book how much of it you’d used, but how opposite the effect was. I suppose I want to ask how you feel about the authors you adapt — do you feel any responsibility to them?

Yes, I feel totally responsible to them, but I don’t bring it up should I meet them afterwards. None of them complained or even let me know they’d noticed that I had anything to do with it. It’s the director gets the blame. Quite right. Good man.

Wanda Ventham — Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum — plays the gym mistress. A Mumberbatch! Crawford’s vision of himself as a dirty old man spying on schoolgirls is a joke that’s a bit disturbing, but, as Steven Soderbergh says, “The expression on his face: hilarious!” Wood invented the staff room scene, which has some dazzling bits of verbal weirdness — what John Gielgud called “woodery-pokery.” 

5) You’re IN The Knack. How did that come about?

I fancied getting back into uniform for a minute and being a Horse Guard rather than a Lancer this time and Richard didn’t think the line meant anything so he punished me by making me say it – I got my own back by doing it badly. Serves him right. Shouldn’t meddle in military matters.

6) Nancy’s journey through London is wholly invented for the film. How much was scripted, how much did it develop on location? Did Lester work closely with you on visual gags? Everybody makes the mistake of assuming he improvises everything, but I’m sure huge amounts were planned and written (I would love to see the script!).
 
I can’t remember. I know we wrote a lot more when it was being edited to fill in gaps or whatever, voice over. I enjoyed that process, just the two of us and an editor peering at a Moviola – felt I was making a film, never happened again. I can’t let you see anything because I don’t have a script in any of its forms.

7) When you fragmented the play, how easy was it to find a new structure?

It structured itself, with a lot of help from Richard. I rarely had the faintest idea. If I got too lost I followed the play. Always go back to the source.

8) Did you consciously adapt your style to match Jellicoe’s dialogue? It’s striking how well it all blends together. (Bits in HOW I WON THE WAR that I assumed were yours turned out to be from the book. Lots in THE BED SITTING ROOM that sounds like Milligan/Antrobus turns out to be you.)

Yes. That’s what they pay me for.

9) The controversy about the use of the word “rape” — which nobody seemed to be shocked by at the time. And people don’t seem quite so shocked today as they were ten years ago. Since your theatre work often crams together comedy with upsetting material, I’m assuming you were aware this was an edgy thing to do. I wonder if the film had followed the play’s more stridently feminist line, if this whole thing would have been accepted as part of its polemic. I guess I don’t have a specific question… maybe, “How does one justify joking about rape?” But that’s almost too easy: jokes are always about serious things.

I’m astonished that there’s any controversy at all now. And as you rightly say, jokes are serious things. (My latest play was turned down and criticised by one theatre for having long serious speeches turned off with a comic quip. But that’s the way I write (together with lots of others I should have told them. Couldn’t be bothered). Anyway, it’s my last.

10) What did you think of the finished film when you saw it? Have you seen it lately?

No, I haven’t seen it for a long time. I thought it was wonderful, magic in black and white. David Watkin – it was his first feature film as well – shot it beautifully. He became a firm friend, cemented by “The Charge”. You ought to read his memoirs for his take on the film, opened my eyes. CW. 2015.

Knack, The / The Knack...And How To Get It (1965) | Pers: Rita Tushingham | Dir: Richard Lester | Ref: KNA001AB | Photo Credit: [ Woodfall/Lopert / The Kobal Collection ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

THE Y.W.C.A.

I spoke on the phone to Rita Tushingham, while Tasha the Siamese cat yowled in my ear and somebody in the street played bagpipes, of all things — I know I’m in Scotland, but you can take local colour too far. I stress that both cat and bagpipes were at my end of the line. Rita only had to contend with a grandchild attired as the Red Skull from CAPTAIN AMERICA.

You originated the role of Nancy in The Knack?

Yeah, we took it on tour first and then to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Ann Jellicoe wrote that, depending on the audience, it would seem to be a completely different  play.

Some people walked out because they were so shocked, if you can believe it. We played it in Cambridge and they just loved it, and in Bath they absolutely couldn’t get it at all, they had no idea what we were on.

THIS IS ALL A FANTASY

It seems like that was a sort of microcosm of the way the film has gone, because it went from being incredibly fashionable and acclaimed to being ignored or considered embarrassing, or shameful, and now I think it’s being appreciated more again.
 
I just thought that it was all in her mind anyway, where she goes around saying “Rape!” and I think it was that they found offensive, wasn’t it. And the fact that Tolen was saying “They’re all queuing up to go into the Albert Hall: it was a fantasy. All the characters are on their different sort of trips. And Nancy was the innocent one, but looking for love, really.

In Germany I did a Q&A about THE KNACK and one young woman got quite irate at the word “rape” — “There’s nothing funny about that!” It wasn’t meant to be funny. It was just a word that was used. Nowadays, everyone’s far more aware about that, but in the days we shot it, it was a very different thing. It was the same meaning, because it’s a violent act, but you have to look at what it was in the film. She was offended that we should have used that word, and I did say to her, excuse my language, “What would you rather say, ‘I’ve been fucked?'” How to explain it? You can’t change it, can you? It’s THERE.

It just became, for some reason, harder for people to read. It’s a shocking word, and it’s used a lot in the film…
 

Oh, absolutely, and I would never ever make light of that, and indeed we didn’t. It’s an appalling act. But it wasn’t meant to be saying “this is alright and it’s funny.” That was not the intention at all.

You can write a joke about something without implying that the thing itself isn’t serious.
 

Exactly. And also, you can raise people’s knowledge and bring things to their attention. When you think about what is happening now and all these cases that are coming up about historical sexual abuse… it’s a very different way of looking at things, and a good way of looking at things, now, but in those days it was just never meant to be offensive.

One thing the film does seem to show is that you’ve got a country where people are ignoring things. When you run through the streets shouting “Rape!” and the world goes on as if nothing has happened.
 
But I’m afraid to say, David, that’s what’s happening now. Look what they were doing in the sixties, and seventies, these cases that are now coming to the fore. People did turn a blind eye, didn’t they?

But THE KNACK was not about that scene where my character’s running about shouting “Rape!” That was not what it’s about. It was, in a sense, a sexual awakening, and in fact Tolen, the womanizer, he [inaudible], Tom went on to be happy, and Colin and Nancy found each other and love. It wasn’t meant to be anything other than that. I think if you played that and didn’t have the word “rape” in it, I think people wouldn’t be looking for something in it offensive. There’s nothing sexually explicit in THE KNACK, it’s very innocent.

It throws people, because the film is so visually innocent — you see at most a knee, and then this comes along and they don’t know how to react. But it’s the scene where Nancy finds her voice and becomes powerful.
 

And has them all running around after her, especially the Tolen character. Of course, when you look at any film that was shot years ago, there are things in it that wouldn’t be shot now. But no one — or at least, no one that I know — makes a film to be offensive. Why would you?

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(Lester makes a Hitchcockian cameo as one of the befuddled onlookers.)

I’M FROM HAMPTON WICK, MYSELF

Can you remember meeting Richard Lester for the first time?

Yeah, I met him… [laughs] it’s funny because I remember I met him at Woodfall Films, and I’d just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES. And I remember saying “I’ve just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES and Desmond Davis is my favourite director.” Which IS quite obnoxious. But we laugh about that. It was just done, thinking of something to say and it wasn’t meant to be rude.

But I remember walking along Curzon Street chatting to Richard. Immediately we got on. What was interesting was the way he works, he’s almost editing it as he goes along, he covers things so well. Because of his understanding of comedy and things. He doesn’t labour it, he goes onto the next — and this is what was so innovative about him when he came to the fore, and a lot of people have been inspired and copied his style — the comedy sort of rolls on. You hope the audience are going to be with you, but you don’t layer it on like… a thick layer of lard.
 
His style of working, with multiple cameras, and the pace he works at, there are actors who love that and a few who are thrown by it…

I love that. He doesn’t like doing lots of takes. So you cover it. You know if a take’s gone — I don’t mean to say you’ve been good, but if a take seems to have gone quite well and sometimes if it hasn’t. And sometimes, when you’re doing things and it’s the end of the day and they turn the camera round on you, and you’ve got to reproduce what you’ve been doing all day, sometimes you feel a bit [?] but if you have the multiple cameras, especially in comedy — because so many things happen in comedy that you can’t recreate, it’s of the moment, it happened, in fact, on screen, and the audience experiences that. You can’t always plan, obviously you have to be very structured, but if something just happens and it’s funny and you’ve got it covered, it’s great that you have that.

Also, you’re kind of up and ready for it. I know that some people don’t like it, they find it quite off-putting, I like it, because you just feel that at least they’re gonna have something they can use.

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KIP, MILK AND BISCUITS, IS IT ANY WONDER THEY’RE SCREAMING OUT FOR ROUGHAGE?

Filming on the streets of London, having come from the stage, was that distracting?

No, because mostly everything I’ve done has been on location anyway. I did the theatre after I’d done A TASTE OF HONEY. I didn’t mind that at all. It wasn’t distracting. We were just going along and doing the scene. The crew is kind of hidden. The camera is hand-held. ..And my grand-child’s just walked in. Dressed as some kind of Captain America villain.

Keeping the movie theme going.

It didn’t worry me. It was just that dancing along Kensington High Street and singing. But people don’t want to get involved. Even now they don’t. They just think “Oh, there’s a nutter,” and just carry on. And The Mall, now, you wouldn’t be able to shoot like that. And Buckingham Palace. And Hyde Park. But people just sort of got on… […] It was so easy to work on, and being such a small cast.

How did you all get on?

We all got on fine. And all different. They were all very different personalities, the three of them. And that’s why I think it works so well, because you can see that on screen. […] And also Donal Donnelly was such a lovely performer. He’s sort of lyrical, isn’t he? He has that magical sort of feel. And not afraid to go with it. And Michael Crawford was just a bumbling sort of teacher but he was perfect for the role.

In the Soderbergh book, Lester says they worried that Tom was an underwritten part, but that Donnelly solved it purely by being a lovable, relaxed Irish actor.

He was almost magical, wasn’t he? Almost spiritual in a way. 

He’s just happy and self-contained.

With life, and himself.

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A difference of opinion on interior design with the future Mrs. Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols).

LOOK AT ME, LAUGH

In the scene in the park, you have to act to the camera. Was that difficult to do?

No, no… Well, nothing’s easy, is it? But we just went and did it. In, I think we did one take, we might have done two… You work on it beforehand, in your mind, you study it, and then you just go with it.

I’ve heard some actors say they play to their own reflection in the lens.

No, I could never do that, I can’t bear to see myself. I didn’t even think about that. It was just te camera and me. I would imagine now, if you do something like that, it really IS just you and the camera, because everyone can watch on the monitor, so all you really need is the operator. And that is much more intimate. 

It wasn’t theatrical at all, the character was playing it out to Tolen, so she was playing to someone, she wasn’t just saying it, mumbling or anything.

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[Here, Fiona starts mouthing something to me, but I can’t lipread, so I get her to write it down. Then I can’t read her handwriting. So eventually I give her permission to speak (such power!) It boils down to: The monitor on a set can be distracting…

Oh gosh. I hate them. But then they’re always off-set, you don’t see them. But often I’ve found some young actors able to go and watch the monitor and see things. I hate that, I just can’t do it, because suddenly you’re seeing yourself, performing. And I think you lose that intimate thing within the scene. But it doesn’t bother some people. I don’t even like to hear playback. I just like to do it and trust. This is where the director comes in — you have to trust that he’s got what he wants. And sometimes they’ll say “Can we go again?” but I don’t want to see how I twitched my left eyebrow or throw my hand up in the air. It could take something away. I think you would be more restrained, you would lose some freedom as an actor. 

Well self-consciousness is the enemy…

Oh God, yeah. And you mustn’t have that, because when you’re doing it and they say “Action,” you are performing, you are that character, in that scene, and the situation is such… As you know, it’s never in continuity, and you just have to go for that and be aware of what’s come before and what comes after. Some people say, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I looked there.” You can’t think of that. It starts to chip away at what you’re trying to do, I think.

That might sound very odd, but that’s how it works for me. 

No, that makes perfect sense. I know Lester hated the idea of monitors and wouldn’t have them.

He knew what he wanted, and he knew that he would get it. And that’s why he used — in THE BED SITTING ROOM, he had quite a few cameras. I think that’s such a good film.

[For reasons of space, I’ve broken off our discussion of THE BED SITTING ROOM for a separate post later in the week. Don’t miss it!]

I’d like to say hello to your wife, HELLO. 

Fiona: Hello Rita, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you in our living room, as a disembodied voice.

Nice to talk to you too. I don’t want you to feel I’m ignoring you. […] And funnily enough, in about half an hour, Richard and Deirdre are coming here to have tea. […] We’ve been friends for so long.

I was struck by Tolen’s line “You’ve got Chinese eyebrows,” and wondered if Ann Jellicoe had you in mind when she wrote that.

[Laughs] I don’t know. I did work with Ann, but I don’t know, I shouldn’t think she’d have had me in mind. I think the only person who can answer that is Ann Jellicoe.

Richard-Lester

GOT THE WHOLE IDEA FROM TELEVISION

Richard Lester was kind enough to let me interview him for a whole day for Criterion’s disc of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT — and provided lunch, too. This is more or less the complete transcript of our discussion of THE KNACK.

THE KNACK must have happened fairly quickly after A HARD DAY’S NIGHT?

Very quickly. The offer came, I’d finished, we had the opening, and we went to France, as a family, and I think a courier came and brought a request to look at the play, and a request for a meeting. And they knew that there would be a second Beatles film which would start in February or March, so it had to happen quickly. The story of my life is, “You’ve only got two weeks.” I mean, JUGGERNAUT was rewritten in two and a half weeks, completely.

With THE KNACK, we had the time, because Charles Wood and I started, and I think we did close to four or five screenplays before we started. We tried getting rid of one of the characters [poor Tom!] we threw everything out and started from scratch, taking the essence of the piece and trying to make it into cinema, and not be what it was. And out of it, a lot of the quality of the characters changed. Tolen, who was quite a Nazi figure, a fascist figure, became the most pitiful of them.

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Did you think it would be too obvious, to have him be fascist, or did you just not believe it?

I just believed that ultimately that would lead to foolishness. Tom says, about Tolen, “He must be a sexual failure.” “He’s having it five times a day.” “Well exactly.” [laughs].

And eventually he joins the Greek chorus.

Yes, the roles reverse.

I suppose because you changed it so much, you don’t have the benefit of being able to say “This is a serious feminist comedy” and the use of the word “rape” has become problematic.

Yes it has. I found, suddenly, it became an issue. Mostly in Eastern European countries, which was odd: that’s where it first started. What I don’t remember is whether than sequence, or anything like it, happened in the play.

[It did: and the play’s use of the word is just as whimsical as the film’s, part of an ongoing strategy whereby words lose their meanings, or acquire new ones — “What about the cases?” being a good example. I showed the film to students once and it was, indeed, a Polish girl who found the R word shocking and perplexing. And one would never accuse the Poles of being slow at seeing the uses of metaphor, or being compelled to take things literally. Look at the movies they make.]

With that word, Nancy suddenly becomes the most powerful character in the film.

Yeah.

Were you surprised it got an “X” certificate at the time?

[Laughs] Everything got an “X” certificate the time! Almost everything I did.

Lester was interested in packing a scene with so much detail — action, music, voice-over and subtitles — that any given group of people in the audience might be taking in entirely different elements.

And THE KNACK was your first film collaboration with David Watkin.

Yes. We were working together in commercials. I brought David on. [He had] worked in British Transport Films, doing railway films. I got David his first commercials, which he did with me, and then his first feature, and then his first colour feature [HELP!]. And then we just stayed working together, it was a wonderful experience. He was a man, like myself, of foolhardy courage. he would try anything. He would experiment with leaving the silver nitrate in the negative to see what the colours came out like… without much cover!

It’s a shame he didn’t make more black and white films…

I think the most beautiful black and white film I ever saw was David’s film of MADEMOISELLE, Tony Richardson’s film, which was booed out of the cinema when it showed at Cannes. They just ridiculed it. But it was absolutely stunning.

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The white room was a huge innovation…

We did it first in a white kitchen of an Irish actress who was doing a commercial. And when the rushes came back, that had happened, and she looked slightly negroid, which didn’t attract the clients enormously. But where it came into its own, I think, was MARAT/SADE, where he was putting so much backlight into people that they began to distort, in the way that those Henri Lartigue photographs did. And THE DEVILS, again. 

And THE KNACK introduces the Greek chorus…

I don’t know how we started to do it, but very early on I put a small Arriflex with a baby 4-1 zoom, which was quite easy to use, and we would put a GPO hide — they used to have a little tent, if they were working down a manhole, they would put it on — we would just stick that on the pavement where we were shooting a sequence, as most of the film was shot outdoors, and photograph the people who had stopped to look. And then, when we cut the most interesting bits in, Charles and I wrote a few gags, and then we got a group of voice artists, like [John] Bluthal, like Adrian Edmondson whom I used to use a lot [later, I assume], like Miriam Margolyes, who could be relied upon to ad-lib. Say, You be the woman there, you be the man, and you play around until you get some bits, and then lay them over. Which I liked, as a technique, very much. So you got the sense that this group of young people were playing against a Greek chorus of disapproval.

It worked very well, for me, in setting that tone for THE MUSKETEERS. The “us and them” part of it, the fact that you have people, the servant class, who are always there. We put in that line ~

“This [pass] is for one person.”

“I am one person. That is a servant.”

I also asked, though I can’t find the bit on the tape so this next bit is a paraphrase, whether Lester ever fell in love with the temp track during his edits, so that it became a wrench to replace it with the newly commissioned score.

ALWAYS! I score the end of THE KNACK with THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Though John Barry did… quite a good job, on that occasion, so it was alright.

To end with, I want to link to my first ever post on Shadowplay, which is about THE KNACK, so for one day the blog can become an unending moebius strip. There.

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The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

rutherford

1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

The Knack…and how to get it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2007 by dcairns

Woodfall Films, 1965.

Okay it came out in 1965 but watching it now, November-December, there’s a definite Autumnal Pleasure that comes from the exact time of it’s filming, late ’64. There’s a Christmas tree visible in the fancy shop, and Guy Fawkes fireworks in a closing crane shot on the foggy London Embankment. Dead leaves carpet the park. Director Richard Lester had just come off A Hard Day’s Night and must have been feeling a sense of possibility in the fall air.

The “real London” of that November season bleeds into the film’s Dreaming London. Lester’s London is almost akin to Rivette’s Paris, a place of magical transformations and surprises, the mundane brushing up against the crazy, as in a dream. “This is all a fantasy,” chimes a chorus of disembodied schoolboys on the soundtrack, but it’s a fantasy where milk is delivered to the doorstep in glass bottles.

It begins: John Barry jazz stylings as we move in on a  little comic book panel which contains the house and the film. We spiral down a staircase lined with mannequin-like beauties, identically dressed, all queuing to see sex-god Tolen, dressed in black in his black bedroom. “The guestbook: please restrict your comments to one word.”

Halfway up the stairs lives Colin, lusting insipidly for the parade of dollybirds in their glowing white jumpers and pencil skirts.

SPACE 1999 sci-fi lettering zips in and out, listing the creators as we plunge in ever an faster helix down the stairs past the blur of lovelies arrayed like a TV commercial for impersonal sex, then wrench ourselves free, with screeching brakes, from Colin’s mind’s eye and into “reality”.

Girls girls girls.

Colin (Michael Crawford), “I am a schoolteacher and I have to concentrate,” lives with Tolen (Ray Brooks), “I have no first name, I never use my first name,” in this tall, narrow, odd-but-real house. Driven to frustrated discombobulation by the onslaught of glamour calling on Tolen, Colin conceives the idea to let the spare room to a “steadying influence,” possibly a monk. “There must be monks!”

And there are, a busload, bound for Lovely London, but as the coach’s headlights go full beam, Colin’s bedroom is illuminated by a brilliant idea awakening him from his narrow bachelor bed: “Or some young lady…”

And next to the monks is Nancy (Rita Tushingham), flicking through the pages of Honey.

But Tolen has other ideas. He suggests letting the room to his friend, Rory McBride, offscreen Lothario and Tolen’s near-equal in the bedroom stakes. “Share our women.”

Rendering discussion moot, Tom, a stray Irish plot function, (“small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements” — a line of dialogue taken straight from the character description in Ann Jellicoe’s original play) moves in and procedes to paint the entire front room white, including windows.

Now Tolen (black), Colin (grey grey grey) and Tom (white) will compete over Nancy, until she rebels and asserts her autonomy with a cry of “Rape!”

This turns out to be the abracadabra that disassembles all male authority, causing the boys to recede into the distance in a series of jumpcuts, or cavort off in reverse motion, while a middle-aged ZOO AUDIENCE admires their antics politely. (Best line reading in history, from one random matron: “They do look so funny.”)

This chorus of the middle-aged/classed is a constant feature of the film, as if the chattering classes have flocked into the dubbing studio and voiced their incoherent disapproval all over the soundtrack: “A bed’s place is definitely in the home, definitely,” and “I’m bound,” and “Mods and Rockers!” and “She’ll regret she didn’t wear a safety device,” a grumbling barrage of non sequiteurs and double entendres, “the heartbeat of a great nation.” This vox populi accompaniment is screenwriter Charles Wood’s finest contribution of the many he made in “exploding” the original play and gaffer-taping it together again.

These actors!

Michael Crawford, half agonized repressive, half comedy turn. His character is just a couple of year’s enforced celibacy away from becoming a gurning Carry On lecher, but he’s so shy he prefers to enter his home by the window rather than say “Excuse me,” to the flash bird in the doorway, even though he’s armed with an axe at the time.

Ray Brooks is amazing here. Posed and composed and quietly nailing every line, he could have come across as mannered if he weren’t so true underneath. There’s a real sensitivity in everything he does. He’s not obvious casting as a loverboy, but he embodies confidence and success and total self-belief, until the sexual edifice crumbles and he’s yesterday’s man, joining the grumblers as he looks on enviously at those with actual relationships. Brooks should have been bigger than Brando, but hey, it’s not too late.

Donal Donnelly brings charm and a sort of relaxed crispness to Tom, a character who was always basically the playwright talking to her audience, but none the worse for it.

Rita Tushingham is the amazing extraterrestrial presence at the heart of the film, incapable of a false note, and utterly fascinating to watch. Her face pulls a fast one on you from every angle, alternately beautiful and just weird. Her eyes dazzle, her teeth have been frozen in the act of fleeing in all directions. She is just utterly, marvellously alive at all times, and brings a uniquely feminine brand of behavioural comedy to what could be a slightly laddish film. Lester and ace cinematographer David Watkin design some astonishing shots around her freakish beauty. Reflected light supposedly isn’t flattering, but Watkin caught the most beautiful ever images of Tushingham, here, and Faye Dunaway in Lester’s MUSKETEER films.

Lester was still tracking in those days — he ditched the travelling shot later, using it less than anyone bar Bresson, but this is like his RASHOMON, and we glide with him through reality-shifts, into ambiguous POVs, and down grey and grainy London streets, where a fashion photographer plies his trade, getting in shape for BLOW-UP. (Antonioni borrowed production designer Asshetton Gorton, and quite a lot of Lester’s Pop-Art London, for his later epic of Swinging Existentialism).

Impossible to describe how dreamlike this film is…

…as Crawford walks down a school corridor, we see through a window an array of camp beds on a lawn — the sleeping children. “Kip, milk and biscuits, is it any wonder they’re screaming out for roughage?” complains the ghost of Dandy Nichols on the soundtrack.

…Colin and Tom chase Tolen and Nancy into a street composed only of doors. Most open onto an abstracted backyard space, but one leads to a narrow working class home, concealed entirely behind the single entrance.

…attempting to turbocharge his sex life with an enlarged bed, Colin buys a cast-iron sleep-armature from a scrapyard and wheels it through Unconscious London with Tom and Nancy, teleporting from street to street to Albert Hall (a recurring reference, this film’s answer to the Chinatown of Polanski), eventually sailing it down the Thames like Bohemian Huck Finns.

Lindsay Anderson was once mooted to direct this film, and comparing it to THE WHITE BUS, say, it’s easy to see how he could have brought his own, more sombre, brand of absurdism to bear on it. He thought the Lester version embodied the shift from sixties idealism to seventies cynicism, which seems a bit early and a bit harsh. The movie is affectionate, cruel, smart, silly, insistently specific about its time and place, and universal and otherworldly all at once. There’s a tight theatrical structure bound round a loose assortment of gags and blackout sketches, and if we enter this Film London (through that little comic book panel/window at the start) and walk about in it for a bit, we can emerge with some Strange Thoughts about the unexplored possibilities of film storytelling.

Buy here:

The Knack And How To Get It [DVD] [1965]