Archive for easy Living

The Deluxe Treatment

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

vlcsnap-2013-05-06-23h27m12s113

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).

vlcsnap-2013-05-06-23h27m47s189

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.

vlcsnap-2013-05-12-22h14m32s24

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

vlcsnap-2013-05-06-23h28m31s129

“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.

vlcsnap-2013-05-06-23h28m08s154

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.

vlcsnap-2013-05-06-23h28m17s235

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)

“It rhymes with joy”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2009 by dcairns

Froy! Froy! Froy!

ladyE

Dame May Whitty, reminding me somewhat of my late maternal grandmother.

Charles Barr, the master of English Hitchcock and the author of English Hitchcock, makes much play of the fact that the vanishing lady in THE LADY VANISHES, Miss Froy, sounds like an uncompleted “Freud”. A Freudian slip of a girl. Likewise he structures this analysis around those moments when Margaret Lockwood, as plucky heroine Iris Henderson, loses consciousness: falling asleep in a hotel bed, then knocked silly by a falling window-box; fainting from accumulated stress, and then pretending to pass out after being drugged. Each of these moments is a further step into Dream Country — the last one may be an embracing of the logic of nightmare. 

lady8

I like this idea, but I got interested in another one. Fiona, who hadn’t seen the film in years, was of course totally charmed by it, and while noticing how weird it was, which certainly ties in with the Barr vision of the film as a surreal odyssey into the realm of nightmares, she was also struck by how unsympathetic everybody in it was. Everybody but Miss Froy, who rhymes with joy.

So there’s a potential reading of the film which takes its theme as the human, humane element of our nature being lost, and recovered through a struggle. As the struggle goes on, characters who are capable of nobility start to manifest it, and by the end, with Miss Froy restored to them, they (more or less) all pull together and win through against the forces of oppression. This ties in with the film’s reputation as a key pre-war movie which, while taking place in a fictitious European locale, Bandrieka, and avoiding making strict sense in plot or political terms (“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rational explanation for all this,” remarks one character, a touch optimistically), does capture a feeling of international jitters (“England on the brink” does not just refer to the test match) and projects a strong desire for cooperation across class barriers. Authors Launder & Gilliat were fairly left-leaning at this time in their lives.

Hitch had just visited America on a fact-finding mission, hoping to score a contract. Feelers were being sent out by both David Selznick and MGM-British, following Hitchcock’s escape from the patronage of Michael Balcon, who had thoughtfully “protected” him from American offers. Laying aside a Nova Pilbeam project in which she would have played a Catholic schoolgirl whose father gets mixed up in a murder (will she protect him and be damned?), an intriguing-sounding idea, Hitch took over a project begun by Roy William Neill (a brief spoof of Sherlock Holmes anticipates Neill’s celebrated work with Basil Rathbone as the sleuth) which had run aground amid location problems in Yugoslavia. 

The plot is a helter-skelter affair, with constant, breakneck narrative development after the opening act of character introductions and comedy (the film has the strongest and most integrated humour of any of the British thrillers). So I want to concentrate on the people, using them as guides through the maelstrom of plot. It’s often pointed out how bizarre the MacGuffin is in this one, another of Hitch’s musical motifs, “the key clause in a secret treaty between two European nations” — the Hitler-Stalin pact? — coded as a melody, but nobody talks about how strange the whole story is. Bad guys abduct a British spy, Miss Froy, on a train, and hope to smuggle her off swathed in bandages as an accident victim. Fair enough. When Margaret Lockwood asks after the missing woman, they pretend she never existed, and all the other passengers, for private reasons of their own, fall into step with this deception. In the case of the Italian magician (a Hitchcock invention: sleight-of-hand is very important here), the answer is simply that he’s been bribed. The Bandriekan Baroness (Mary Clare from YOUNG AND INNOCENT) is apparently the ringleader, since she turns up at the very end where she has no other reason to be. But how could the bad guys count on the British characters to back them up in their absurd confabulations? It’s a terrific example of Hitchcock damning the plausibilists and going full steam into dreamland.

ladyC

Margaret Lockwood is a superb heroine, and it’s regrettable she never worked with Hitchcock again, although she certainly made more films of this kind. Apart from her work as a wicked lady in THE WICKED LADY and similar Gainsborough melodramas, she showed plenty of pluck in thrillers for Carol Reed (NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH) and Roy Ward Baker (HIGHLY DANGEROUS — Baker was an assistant on THE LADY VANISHES). Here she’s sexy, snappy, and funny without seeming to try.

Mind you, she partakes of the film’s deliberate lack of sympathy early on: she and her two friends (a young unknown, plus Googie Withers, a great survivor of this era) are pretty shameless in their exploitation of the hotel manager, and despite being new money, they’ve picked up some class prejudices: seeing that the hotel is crowded, one remarks, “Don’t tell me Cook’s have started running cheap tours here?” Although that’s pretty mild compared to Charters and Caldicott. When Miss Froy asks for help finding a bag at the station, they basically blank her. But Mags redeems herself by picking up the old dear’s fallen spectacles, a good deed that promptly gets her beaned by a would-be assassin.

There’s also the moment where she bribes the hotel manager to have noisy guest Michael Redgrave evicted. We’re clearly meant to see this as not cricket, and it’s used to justify Redgrave’s subsequent caddish behaviour. (Selznick would later object to Hitchcock’s tendency to have heroes behave like boors.) Now, I like my sleep, and we live in a neighbourhood where it’s often disturbed by late-night revellers, so I’m on la Lockwood’s side here. In pursuit of a good night’s kip, anything up to small-arms fire is acceptable. We even cheered when the serenading folk-singer gets throttled a minute later.

ladyD

Anyway, what keeps us on Margaret’s side despite the more abrasive moments is probably her mock-melodramatic speech where she explains that she’s getting married out of ennui. It’s so neatly written and perfectly delivered that we just can’t wait to see what mad adventure is going to knock this world-weary lass out of her tired expectations.

lady7

Michael Redgrave. The man to whom Hitchcock is supposed to have said “Actors are cattle.” Redgrave said he realised later that Hitchcock was trying to shock him out of a superior attitude. He had been shocked by the speed with which Hitchcock demanded a take. “in the theatre we’d rehearse this for three weeks.” “In this medium we have three minutes,” said Hitch. It was Paul Lukas, whom Redgrave respected, who talked him into taking the work seriously. But there’s no trace of this diffidence onscreen: Redgrave is an amusing and eccentric hero, maybe even better than Donat (the previous benchmark). 

The character, an eccentric researching a book on European folk dances, is about as whimsical as one might safely try to get away with in a thriller, and maybe it’s the quality of the execution that makes it work so well, rather than any brilliance in the concept of the character. But L&G have shrewdly calculated that, in a film crowded with stereotypes and repressed Brits, both types that must conform to certain expectations, a free-wheeling Bohemian makes a refreshing blast of anarchy for the audience. And since Redgrave’s hero doesn’t play by the rules (there’s some very funny dirty fighting in the battle with the magician), he’s free to surprise us and break from genre expectations.

lady13

Paul Lukas as the suave doctor, suggesting plausible psychological reasons why Miss Froy must be a hallucination, ought to be obvious as the villain, but he’s not. Hitch cleverly sees the point where the audience is likely to catch on, and tips us the wink with a shifty reaction shot from P.L. Then he can build suspense as the medico tries to press doped drinks on our unsuspecting protags, a weighty low-angle shot making the glasses loom like henchmen. Lukas is still standing at the film’s conclusion: “As they say in England, jolly good luck to them,” he smiles. Does he represent the still-lurking threat of fascism in Europe?

A character composed largely from cliches, the bad guy is brought to life by Lukas with a fine display of simpering when he unveils his true nature. And there’s really little change in how we feel about him when he goes from sympathetic brain specialist (no pesky distinction is made between psychiatry and neurosurgery here) to villainous spymaster: the guy offering the rational explanation is always the enemy in a film like this.

lady6

Basil Radford (seen in YOUNG AND INNOCENT) and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott got whole new careers out of this film, having played assorted roles beforehand. They can be seen as a double-act in the Charles Crichton comedy episode of DEAD OF NIGHT (generally derided as the film’s weakest part, but I still like it), and Thorold Dickinson’s THE NEXT OF KIN, and actually reprised their roles as C&C in a whole series of films. The aforementioned NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a gloves-off version of LADY, with proper Nazi bad guys, and Rex Harrison squiring Margaret Lockwood through the alpine thrills. When Harrison drags up as an SS officer, it’s almost too much stimulation to bear. Charters and Caldicott are again along for the ride. 

In CROOK’S TOUR the duo got a film to themselves. All I remember of it is one of them opening a door marked bathroom and nearly plunging down a sheer crevasse into the raging Bosphorus below. “That’s not the bathroom, that’s the Bosphorus,” he remarks. “The sign’s wrong, then,” says his chum, “It shouldn’t say bathroom, it should say Bosphorus.”

Thereafter, Lauder & Gilliat brought them along for luck when they because producer-directors, showing them in wartime in MILLIONS LIKE US, but when they tried to deploy them in I SEE A DARK STRANGER (Trevor Howard and Deborah Kerr, maybe L&G’s best film) the actors proved awkward, so they replaced them with two identical stooges named Spanswick and Goodhusband. S&G are almost as good as C&C, but not quite.

“They’re horrible!” Fiona protested, and it’s true that, in embodying the Englishman abroad, C&C are twin concatenations of snobbery, bigotry, prudery, arrogance, thoughtlessness and selfishness. However, they do redeem themselves by being good in a scrape. A pretty sharp portrait of Britain at the time. Radford’s underplaying when he’s shot is priceless: he looks slightly let down. When he manages to cut off some innocent fellow’s important phone call, he becomes a portrait of sheepishness, as if he might confess to the whole thing, but Wayne shushes him with a slight casting-down of the eyes. “Leave it,” say the eyes.

lady4

Even more unpleasant is Cecil Parker, as an aspiring legal somebody, off on a fling with a married woman, Linden Travers (Yay! Miss Blandish!). He’s the one who lies for the basest of reasons, to avoid a scandal. He also gets one of the film’s best jokes, when Travers complains about his fussiness in booking separate rooms. “You weren’t so particular in Paris.” “That was entirely different,” he blusters, “The exhibition was at it’s height.” “I realise that now,” deadpans Travers, “No need to rub it in.”

(Launder & Gilliat topload the script with dirty jokes, most of them genuinely witty, aided by uncredited contributions from Val Guest and whoever else happened by the writing room. Redgrave gets some good ones about illegitimacy and toilets, and the hotel manager squeezes some good malapropist double entendres in: “You can have the maid’s room. But first she must come to your room and -” here, he gestures at his own attire – “remove her wardrobe.” Emile Boreo, by the way, is great as the hotelier, a distant cousin of Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, perhaps.)

Parker is not only a weasel, morally and sexually, he’s an appeaser, which means his death at the end, waving a white flag, is a salutary thing, or intended to be. By refusing to believe in the foreign menace, he condemns himself to death, the one moment in the film where it’s nakedly political in a way none of the British thrillers quite are otherwise.

ladyN

Leaving aside the various funny foreigners — the film both has and eats its cake by mocking the Brits for mocking them, and then mocking them itself — that leaves us with the nun in high heels. Sinister sisters tip-tap through Hitchcock’s oeuvre like ravens. Catherine Lacey had a long career that more or less started with this film, taking in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING and Michael Reeves’ THE SORCERERS, where she’s paired with Karloff and manages to make him look innocuous, and then near the end she’s the old lady in the wheelchair with the canaries in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. She must have had some stories.

ladyM

Which leads us back to Dame May Whitty (few other actors made both British and American films with Hitch, but Dame May would return in SUSPICION) as Miss Froy, seen here being lifted off the loo, one of many indignities she’s subjected to. Writers naming PSYCHO as the first American film with a toilet onscreen may be correct, but Hitchcock was no stranger to lavatorial matters, and the pan can be glimpsed during a pan of another kind here. Miss Froy, who is not only a whimsical governess (she never breaks character); a master spy; the subject of a magician’s trick which sees her reappear at film’s end at least as mysteriously as she originally disappeared, and with no hint of explanation — Miss Froy, whose true name must be spelled M-A-C-G-U-F-F-I-N.