Fun and frolics from Powell & Pressburger’s OH… ROSALINDA!!
A ballet/operetta movie based on Die Fledermaus but updated to four powers Vienna, with the Bat, played by Anton Walbrook, functioning as a black marketeer and general fixer — a singing Harry Lime, if you will — this movie could actually qualify as the weirdest thing the Archers ever attempted. And it’s generally regarded as a complete failure. I think it’s the only P&P film not yet available on DVD anywhere in the world.
Of course, dismissing something as a failure is too easy, and doesn’t really allow one to get to grips with the peculiar qualities that make a film interesting. For my money, ROS is a lot more engaging and enjoyable than either of the Archers’ late-period war films, BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (a widescreen snooze that Powell pronounced himself pleased with) or ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT (a b&w trudge through one of the war’s least interesting skirmishes that Powell was deeply dissatisfied with, leading to the break-up of the Powell-Pressburger partnership). OH… ROSALINDA!! forms a trilogy with THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMAN, and if it isn’t quite as extreme in its eccentricity as the latter, it isn’t for want of trying.
I’ve had two memorable big-screen encounters with this movie. One was a private screening in the company of Comrade K, where it formed one half of an all-time great Fever Dream Double Feature so misbegotten I can hardly bring myself to mention the second film, which was… LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Now, you just can’t put Ophuls’ masterpiece on a double-bill with anything. The other film is always going to suffer. Here, the agreeably superficial similarity, that both films take place in lovingly rendered studio representations of Vienna, was wholly swamped by the massive tonal disparity, not to mention the stylistic clash between Ophuls elaborately artificial realism and Powell’s scattershot surrealism. “Some of those colo(u)rs just don’t belong together,” was just about the only sentence K. could formulate after exposure to the P&P movie, which had even caused the projectionist to avert his gaze. and he wasn’t wrong — driven by some inner demon, production designing genius Hein Heckroth blasts the audience with what might be politely called myriad hues, like a psychotic paintballer looming from the screen and giving vent to his full chromatic range as a final revenge upon the world.
The previous, more successful showing, was at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where Powell’s widow (and Scorsese’s editor) Thelma Schoonmaker, and the film’s cinematographer Christopher Challis, introduced it. “Now that you’ve all bought your tickets,” smiled the cherubic Challis, “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in telling you that when we made this film back in 1955, none of us liked it very much.”
Big laugh from the audience (the first of many).
(Incidentally, working for Powell as a cinematographer, though one might expect it to be exhausting work, seems to have had a beneficial effect on both Challis and Jack Cardiff, both of whom are enjoying Methusalah-like longevity as I type this.)
“They tell me this film’s been restored. I don’t quite know what that means, but when I look at myself in the mirror every morning, I do find myself wishing there was a restoration programme for aging cameramen,” Challis went on.
Thelma took the stage and told us that when Scorsese and Powell first started spending time together, Scorsese would look through Powell’s collection of memorabilia, and every now and then would find a lobby card or image from OH… ROSALINDA!! Anton Walbrook dressed as a bat… “‘What’s this?’ he’d ask, and Michael would look abashed and hide the image and say, ‘Oh, nothing, nothing…'”
Having set the film up as the great disaster of Powell & Pressburger’s career, Challis and Schoonmaker (they should form a comedy double act) had actually created the perfect mood to enjoy the film. Expectations had been lowered and spirits had been raised, and the movie could then shine as the rare piece of hallucinogenic confectionery it is, the embodiment of Gavin Lambert’s judgement on Powell: “He would do these extraordinary things, which didn’t always come off, but it mattered that he did them.”
Has anyone noticed that Mel Ferrer plays his part as an exact, note-for-note imitation of William Holden? It’s technically quite effective but falls short of actual charm, either because it’s too studied, or because Ferrer simply lacks the physique for it.
In the Youtubed scene we get two jokes at once, and I’ve chosen it for that reason. When Redgrave (at his campest, especially when paired with Walbrook — TOO MUCH!) attempts to throttle Ludmilla Tcherina (from THE RED SHOES and Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN), the towel on her head rearranges itself to form a pair of bunny ears. While Fiona was laughing at this, I was laughing at the fact that Tcherina, not generally considered the most capable actress alive, starts to make her throttling sound BEFORE Redgrave actually has his hands around her throat.
Now, ANTICIPATION is one of the most basic errors an actor can make, revealing to the audience that the performer knows what is going to happen next — has read the script, in fact. All illusion of reality is destroyed. But in the rather special case of a contemporary operetta on stage sets with singing and dancing and gay men playing straight men in a manner even camper than they would consider adopting if they were playing gay, if you follow me, all questions of reality should be pushed firmly into the cupboard of irrelevant things and locked up there for 101 minutes. Once this is done we can see that Tcherina’s choice is the most intelligent and thoughtful one possible, and entirely in the spirit of the exercise.