Archive for David O Selznick

Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h46m46s445

Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h52m11s357

VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h54m33s943

If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h54m51s445

Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h32m22s373

SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h30m37s607

Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h15m17s160

Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h21m50s455

After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

vlcsnap-2016-12-29-12h26m55s437

Selznick roasting on an open fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 25, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h10m28s099

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h09m53s828

Well, there’s your problem right there.

I love, in an ironic way, the idea that the ultimate in David O Selznick’s perennial quest for QUALITY was to dispense with the services of Ben Hecht, Robert E. Sherwood and all the other top writing talent he could so readily afford, roll up his shirtsleeves and get down to work at the typewriter himself. His time being more valuable than anybody’s, the results would have to be impressive. Leave aside the fact that if Selznick wasn’t Selznick, there’s no way Selznick would hire him to write a screenplay.

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h12m44s641

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, his wartime epic about the home front, build on the MRS MINIVER model, is stuffed with goodies. EVERYBODY seems to be in it, and to be fair, Selznick finds something for them all to do. Just listing the favourite actors in the cast would make this piece too long. There are TWO top-notch cinematographers, Stanley Cortez to make it beautiful, and Lee Garmes to also make it beautiful and maybe get it all shot before the war is over. (Director John Cromwell had uncredited assists from THREE colleagues, including DOS himself.) The film deserves praise for making epic scenes out of an inherently small-scale, domestic story. Compare with the lovely THIS HAPPY BREED, directed by the future Mr. Epic himself, David Lean, which keeps everything simple and understated which is also a good way to go. But it must have been kind of thrilling for Americans to see their daily struggles turned into the stuff of Hollywood super-production.

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h13m11s442

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h18m02s632

Some good scenes — some very good scenes — some scenes which work despite being unbearably schmaltzy — and some scenes which are just unbearably schmaltzy. It all ends at Christmas, and this is the best time of year for it because you’re more likely to find the icky sentimental bits bearable. Rather than the starry and excellent cast, I’m concentrating on Jack Cosgrove’s FESTIVE GLASS SHOTS. Because what is Christmas without in-camera optical effects?

A wet Sunday in Edinburgh, that’s what.

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h19m53s677

vlcsnap-2016-12-25-14h20m32s124

That upper one MIGHT be a miniature, not sure — the last shot of the film is a model, with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple projected on a tiny screen in the upper window, transforming them into dollhouse residents for the occasion.

Return to Zenda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-12-18-22h17m52s396

“Why are old films so much better than new films?” asked Fiona in wonderment, as John Cromwell and David Selznick’s film of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) unspooled before us. It may or not be true, but it’s the kind of thought that certainly FEELS true when you’re seeing a classic Hollywood movie in which all the elements have come together. “The genius of the system” is the usual phrase on these occasions, because John Cromwell is not an auteur, because the source novel was adapted by a pretty big roomful of scribes, because “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke handled some unspecified reshoots, because Selznick was very hands-on. “A good film can be made good by anybody – the writers, the actors, the editor,” said Orson Welles. “Great films are made by the director.” So in a case like this, the film is ascribed either to providence, an impersonal system, or else we downgrade the movie to just “good.”

vlcsnap-2016-12-18-22h17m43s378

Well, whether or not ZENDA deserves the weighty name of Greatness, it is definitely excellent. Everybody in it is perfect. Ronald Colman gets to be dashing but also soulful; Madeleine Carroll gets to be beautiful but also alert and alive in a way people in costume dramas often aren’t (acting in the past tense); David Niven gets to be funny; Raymond Massey snarlingly villainous in a monocle; Mary Astor tragic; and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. seems to be having the time of his life. Funny thing about Jnr. — he had big shoes to fill (although: “How did he perform such amazing stunts with such tiny feet?” ~ Hedley Lamarr) and when cast as roguish heroes he sort of doesn’t quite make it, but cast as outright rogues, something is UNLEASHED.

Great fights in this movie. Colman evidently can’t fence like Flynn, even with the aid of undercranking, so he’s doubled in the wide shots, and then we get quick cut-ins to tighter frames in which a few slashes are exchanged. It’s tremendously dynamic and effective, even if it’s born of necessity. The huge wide shots mean the misty backlighting and Gothic sets provide much of the drama. Colman’s character is also a master of bricolage, enlisting tables and chairs to help him fend off bullets and blades and opponents. He does this so consistently that Fairbanks complains he can’t get used to fighting furniture.

vlcsnap-2016-12-18-22h15m02s333

But despite all the action, the film is at heart a love story: the true effect of all the plot is to bring a pair of lovers together in an untenable situation. It works admirably, even though stories that have people sacrificing happiness for the throne do leave me asking “Why?” a little. But the movie has done such a good job of presenting the conceit that being an English gentleman is the best thing you can possibly be, that it even makes me swallow this final silliness. Besides, if you don’t put Ronald Colman through some romantic agony, you aren’t really making the most of his unique gifts (even if he’s playing a dual role).