Archive for easy Living

Cast of Characters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2020 by dcairns

I don’t go in for lists much — I think they’re a bit lazy — but I’m feeling a bit lazy, so I thought I’d list Preston Sturges’ major stock company players and pick my fave role for each one.

William Demarest certainly got his share of major roles. I love him as Sgt. Heffelfinger in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and he has a kind of magnificence as the stubborn Mr. Bildocker in CHRISTMAS IN JULY, the Juror 8 of coffee slogan selection committees, and THE LADY EVE gives him the line he was born to say, “Positively the same dame!” But it’s THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK in which he breaks my heart, as well as his own coccyx (you really shouldn’t try to kick your own daughter, Constable Kockenlocker). “Daughters, phooey!” is nearly as good a signature line for him.

Robert Greig, most butling of all butlers, is staunchly reliable but of course it’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS which gifts him with Sturges’ most serious speech, beautifully intoned and then Eric Blore (the Lorre to his Greenstreet) takes the curse off it.

Al Bridge is a man who doesn’t get enough credit. Sturges clearly loved his saggy sourpuss face and world-weary delivery. Though his terrifying “Mister” in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is a revelation, to see him doing what he does best, MORGAN’S CREEK (“I practice the law and as such I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody, anytime, for anything…”) and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set o’ dishes…”) are tops. Do I have to choose one? I’m not going to.

With Luis Alberni I’m going to cheat and take a film Sturges wrote but didn’t direct, Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, because I love Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis and his garbled English (“Gymnasalum!”)

Jimmy Conlin’s biggest role is as Wormy in DIDDLEBOCK, but his most important is as the Trusty in SULLIVAN’S, where he supplies the only tonal connection between the deadly serious scenes he’s in and the broad comedy elsewhere. His warm reminiscences about his friend the Blowtorch Killer are hilarious.

Julius “This is a talking picture” Tannen is funny in MORGAN’S CREEK as a Russian-accented storekeeper inexplicably named Rafferty, but he’s a real human being in THE GREAT MOMENT, Professor Charles T. Jackson, and it’s startling to see the depths of bile in him. Like Conlin, he was a vaudeville actor, in fact a monologist rather than a player of scenes. But Sturges saw the potential.

Torben Meyer, another dialect wiz, as Mr. Klink in THE LADY EVE has a whole character arc in two little scenes. A Dane, he seems able to vary his accent so that odd bits of colloquial American cut through.

Porter Hall: SULLIVAN’S. Little man talking fast thru a cigar.

Robert Warwick, same film, tall man talking fast without cigar. “Why should I suffer alone?” He was a leading man in silents, you know.

I don’t remember much about Franklin Pangborn’s role in DIDDLEBOCK, but his character name is “Formfit Franklin” and that’s good enough for me.

Frank Moran, MORGAN’S CREEK, “Psycholology.”

Rudy Vallee counts, I guess, he’s in three of them, but the first, PALM BEACH, is the best. “A pathetic creature in the final stages of futility,” wrote Manny Farber of John D. Hackensacker III. “It is one of the tragedies of this life that the men most in need of a beating-up are always enormous.”

Raymond Walburn, who has buttons for eyes, is terrific as the slimy mayor in HAIL THe CONQUERING HERO but his Dr. Maxford in CHRISTMAS IN JULY is aces.

Robert Dudley, the Weenie King, is in more Sturges films than I thought — the IMDb has him down as “man” in MORGAN’S, but of course it’s as the sausage tycoon that he’ll be remembered. “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!”

There were a few women who appeared in more than one Sturges film, but Esther Howard (right) was the only one who got showstopping comedy scenes. The randy window Miz Zeffie in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partnered by the sour Almira Sessions, is her finest achievement.

Lots more actors did a couple of Sturges films, and of course Joel McCrea starred in three, which is a different matter. And he obviously liked Victor Potel and Harry Rosenthal and Jimmie Dundee and Georgia Caine and mild-mannered Harry Hayden, who gets another of his great speeches as Mr. Waterbury in CHRISTMAS IN JULY: “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”

Sturges wrote, “My bosses could never understand why I kept using practically the same small-salaried players in picture after picture. They said, ‘Why don’t you get some new faces?’ I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures. I guess Paramount was very glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there understood a word I said.”

The Deluxe Treatment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2013 by dcairns

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My favourite bit in EASY LIVING is probably the guided tour of the opulent suite at the Hotel Louis. A bewildered Jean Arthur is shown around by Louis Louis himself (Luis Alberni). The sequence seems to exemplify screenwriter Preston Sturges’s concerns — sudden reversals of fortune, the fickle finger of fate, the absurdity of the lives of the rich, funny foreigners, linguistic play — and those of director Mitchell Leisen — most of the above, plus lavish sets. There’s a lot more to Leisen than that, of course — one might mention his love of all different modes of camp, his fondness for Mexicana, Freudian motifs, and romanticism. In a way, this scene shows how for years critics have tended to regard the deep stuff in Leisen’s films as entirely the work of the writer, while regarding his own contribution as window dressing. Yet the visual choices of a filmmaker are not secondary to the thematic ones. And Sturges couldn’t have staged this scene as well as Leisen, because Sturges’s visual style favoured vulgarity and boisterousness over elegance. If Leisen had made THE PALM BEACH STORY, it wouldn’t have been as funny but Claudette Colbert would have had better frocks. The Hotel Louis IS vulgar, but it’s also beautiful.

The scene could have been written for Leisen, since it’s suck a design showcase. At the same time, Louis’s garbled descriptions of the suite’s features provide a ludicrous counterpoint — I particularly like his cockeyed neologism “gymnasalum,” which suggests some kind of workout regime for the nostrils — perhaps Kenneth Williams had such a facility in his flat (we’ll never know because he banned visitors).

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The gymnasalum features a hobby-horse, leading to a surprise bit of slapstick. It’s not surprising that Louis should attempt a demonstration, but it is a surprise that Luis Alberni should prove to have such very short legs. They’re like thumbs. Since most of the film is shot in that forties mid-shot standard, the sudden appearance of the micro-limbs is startling, and we suddenly see that Alberni’s tailoring makes him virtually a circus clown, with the costume exaggerating rather than concealing his physical oddities. And, mounted on the horse, his movements acquire a herky-jerky peculiarity perfectly in tune with his dialogue.

The most fabulous thing is the bathroom, with its “plunge” (see top) — it’s bigger than it looks, as we see later when both Jean Arthur and Ray Milland get in together. And, in operation, it looks like it might be annoying rather than invigorating — little streams of water spouting from all directions. Like Dolby Atmos only wet. But I like to believe the plunge is as wonderful as it looks, and to hell with such practical considerations. When I’m a billionaire, I’ll order four.

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The only bum note here is one I’ve got only myself to blame for. When I wrote for a Channel 4 “education” show called The KNTV Show, I borrowed Louis Louis’s habit of randomly pluralizing singular words, and gave it to the Eastern European characters on the show. And then a set of commercials featuring a CGI meerkat stole this idea from me — otherwise, how to explain that the meerkat has an Eastern European accent? I don’t like most commercials, and I certainly don’t like the idea of some rich advertising jerk-off making money off an idea he stole from me, even if I stole it from Preston Sturges in the first place. Probably the meerkat isn’t as annoying as KNTV was. But I’d prefer, on the whole, not to think of either.

Meanwhile: I score co-authorship on a limerick. And a movie Fiona and I wrote seems to be tumbling erratically towards production. Remain skeptical, but we’ll see…

Support Shadowplay, and your classic Hollywood habit: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

Kismet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2013 by dcairns

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“Say, what’s the big idea?”

“Kismet!”

Another viewing of EASY LIVING confirms its supremacy. Seems we’ve all spent decades admiring Frank Capra comedies when we should’ve been admiring Mitchell Leisen comedies. This is complicated by the fact that the good Leisen comedies are also Wilder & Brackett films or Preston Sturges films, and that means something different to us than saying that of course Capra owed a great debt to Robert Riskin and the Swerlings etc. It shouldn’t, though — Sturges and Wilder’s distinguished future directing careers don’t impact on the quality of the films Leisen made from their scripts.

(You might find yourself, briefly, thinking less of Leisen if you attempt to watch MASQUERADE IN MEXICO, a protracted and miscast remake of MIDNIGHT. Wilder must have hated that, since he felt that MIDNIGHT was the one of his scripts he’d managed to protect from Leisen’s alterations. Leisen got his revenge, you could say, but the movie is pretty lousy and didn’t do its director any favours.)

Sturges’s debt to Wodehouse looks even stronger now — Ray Milland, very effective as the fatheaded idler son, is a pure Wodehouse “young man in spats” type. Lovers saying “Ha!” to each other in moments of high emotion. Jean Arthur working at The Boy’s Constant Companion — these kind of trashy magazines are regular employment for Wodehouse heroes, suggesting that his early days of journalism fixed his world view permanently.

The fur coat that drops from heaven and transforms Jean’s life, however, is pure Sturges. The idea that appearance is all anyone cares about, and success is a matter only of perception, and the heavy hand of the author intruding to transform character’s lives in a blatant manner, all that is the stuff of Sturges writ large.

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One could wish that the last line — “This is where we came in!” — were different. I have no doubt that Sturges was the first to use it, but it has become a dead sitcom cliché. Perhaps for younger audiences, it has already lost those associations, and will seem fresh again. But then, younger audiences never had the experience of walking into a movie partway through, sitting through the whole programme, and then getting to the point you recognise and leaving, with those words. I did: I think we only did this on double bills, but I certainly remember entering the cinema while a strange movie was partway through. Hitchcock didn’t affect a total transformation in cinema-going habits all at once with VERTIGO, and at any rate in the 70s or even 80s your cinema ticket bought you admission and you were entitled to sit in the dark all day if you felt like it.

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Who is that girl? I wondered, when the fur coat incident from the beginning was repeated with a new girl at the end. It didn’t seem right that she should just be an anonymous extra (she’s uncredited). One wants it to be an aspirant Jean Arthur, with something of a career ahead of her. And, according to the IMDb, it was — Marsha Hunt, still with us today, is the girl. I love her in Zinnemann’s CSI 1940s crime flick, KID GLOVE KILLER.

Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)