Archive for David Miller

Isherwood or Bust

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2018 by dcairns

Christopher Isherwood’s name on the credits of DIANE, a 1956 period potboiler of unusual size and duration, might lead one to expect a classy affair before viewing, or to judge harshly the novelist’s skills as a screen dramatist after viewing. This may be unfair, as who knows what contributions co-writer John Erskine is guilty of? (This was his first screen credit in twenty years, mysteriously.) And we can certainly detect the contribution of the Breen Office in this bowdlerization of a famous courtesan’s love life. Diane de Poitiers was mistress to King Francis I AND his son Henri, which makes her a fine role for Lana — remember the familial mix-ups rumoured in the Stompanato affair? — but you wouldn’t really know any of this from the story told here. The movie also stars James Bond 007, Pancho Villa, Sakura the Sorcerer and Corporal Emil Klinger. Best main performance is Marisa Pavan as Lana’s rival — costume designer Walter Plunkett has huge fun draping his divas. Roger Moore proves himself, at this point in his career, an even more hopeless actor than Lana. Percy Helton appears briefly as a court jester and insinuates himself into our nightmares forever. Taina Elg has nothing to do including no dancing: a ballerina hired to stand still in long dresses. Henry Daniell squares off against Sir Cedric Hardwicke: eye-bags at down. The only two men in christendom whose eye-baggage flows down half their faces and brims over their cheekbones, like pie-crusts.Isherwood’s hand can best be seen in a sequence dealing with Sir Cedric as Pavan’s court astrologer. He works with the aid of some kind of clairvoyant catamite (Marc Cavell), who does his actual crystal-gazing for him in a sweaty trance as Sir C. anoints his brow (anointy-nointy) with mystic unction. It’s the only scene that builds up any kind of melodramatic frenzy. Even when Sir Roger de Moore gets a lance through his head, the film barely rouses itself from torpor. This is the “heavy flow” variety of period movie.With Lana leading the charge, it ought at least to provide camp hilarity, but David Miller, who extracted some fine teeth-gnashing from La Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR but seems paralysed by respectability in this one. And Cinemascope, which he allows to prevent him getting close to anything that happens. Three years after NIAGARA, he hasn’t heard of the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, which basically goes, “You CAN shoot me in tight close-up, we already established in the previous shot that I have a top to my head.”Walter Plunkett does a marvelous job with the costumes, but it would be just as much fun to watch them on mannequins.

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Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by dcairns

In SUDDEN FEAR, Joan Crawford stars as Mary Jane Hudson, a name with odd resonances (she’d later play Blanche Hudson opposite Bette Davis as Baby Jane). This was made right before TORCH SONG but it’s in b&w and Joan looks much, much better, and mostly acts better.

The film suffers from an unnecessary first act — we really don’t NEED to see the lady playwright meet the dashing-yet-alarming actor (Jack Palance) and marry him. It’s like the redundant opening stuff grafted onto Cukor’s GASLIGHT, but that was rendered reasonably compelling because our heroine has to overcome some obstacles to her romance. This is just women’s weekly stuff, though it’s kind of fascinating to see two such mismatched scary intense people pitching woo. Only when we discover Palance’s dish on the side, Gloria Grahame, do we get real lusty fireworks.

The plotting from here on is intricate and suspenseful — Joan’s dictation machine inadvertently records Jack and Gloria plotting her murder — since they believe she’s about to change her will, they have a narrow window of homicidal opportunity. Much angst from Joan — it’s basically a huge long scene of her wandering around the room in torment as the recording replays mercilessly from the speakers. And then she wanders some more and tosses on the couch etc. as the recording re-replays in her head. At this point, for the only time in the film, Joan goes full self-parodic drag queen, but she soon recovers.

Now Joan, having frustratingly fumbled and smashed the record which was her only evidence, resorts to her playwright’s imagination to slay one enemy and stitch up the other with an elaborately planned scenario. It becomes clear that UNFAITHFULLY YOURS must have been an influence on Edna Sherry’s source novel — the home recording device, the elaborate killing and frame-up. And, of course, the plan goes awry, mainly because Joan isn’t evil enough to pull it off — but this makes her wholly innocent and so fate is permitted, by the Production Code, to take a hand and make sure things turn out okay after all, in an admittedly ironic and rather messy way.

The endearing nonsense is very capably directed by David Miller, otherwise best known for atrocities — the mostly-dire Marx Bros “romp” LOVE HAPPY and MGM’s pointless remake of THE WOMEN, THE OPPOSITE SEX (Now with the new miracle wonder-ingredient, Men! Esther Williams turned that one down flat, correctly declaring that the rewrite robbed the original of its all-female USP). I’ve been meaning to watch Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and this encourages me. The guy had talent, seen here mainly in artfully-framed studies of Joan’s martyred features, and dynamic use of the Palance physicality.

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.