Archive for Edmund Gwenn

Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.

 

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Lassie Go Home

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2018 by dcairns

So, to delve a little deeper into the career of FORBIDDEN PLANET helmer Fred MacLeod Wilcox I looked at HILLS OF HOME, one of his Lassie sequels — weirdly, it doesn’t have the dog’s name in the title, but takes the word “HOME” from LASSIE COME HOME as if that was a clear enough association.

It’s one of those animal movies where they really struggle to keep the animal at the centre of the story. This is a jumble of incidents from the life of a Scottish country doctor, in fact adapted from a source that has nothing to do with Lassie and may not even have a dog in it for all I know. The idea that a doctor needs a sheepdog assistant is a bit of a stretch, anyway.

Lassie also turns up in Scotland in CHALLENGE TO LASSIE (above), with some of the same co-stars, in which he takes over the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Sheer cultural appropriation, and I’m not talking about Americans (grumpy Richard Thorpe, director) stealing a Scottish tale, but a border collie filching a role from a terrier.

Lassie seems to teleport from story to story, country to country, turning up where he’s needed — his previous owners disappear from film to film, and he magically acquires a whole new backstory. Thinking about it, maybe he’s less like Doctor Who — or K9 in a Terminator style skin-suit — than Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap.

HILLS OF HOME stars Wilcox fave Edmund Gwenn, doing a wretched but consistent Scots accent, Hollywood’s favourite faux-Highlander Donald Crisp doing a better one, and Janet Leigh doing an appalling one that veers west at every opportunity. Still, it’s sort of nice she tried.

Sometimes I’ll watch a dull film to the end for the nostalgic feeling of being a kid in the 70s when nothing good is on TV. Though I would probably have quite liked HILLS OF HOME, and gone “Aww” whenever Lassie is abused, which seems to be the main form of entertainment being sold.

There is absolutely no Scottish location work (unlike in the much grander CHALLENGE), but another chance to enjoy the Scottish/Irish village set showcased in BONNIE SCOTLAND, THE SWORDSMAN, and even MAN IN THE ATTIC where it stands in for London.

Wilcox’s direction remains absolutely competent, absolutely uninspired, but there are no special effects save the odd matte painting, no electronic tonalities, and no invisible monsters, or none that I could see.

A Gentlemaniac

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by dcairns

MAD HOLIDAY (1936) is a quite pleasant THIN MAN knock-off (one of MANY) with wisecracking Edmund Lowe (a stoutish cover with a Grouchoesque delivery) and elegant, playful Elissa Landi sharing rather good chemistry. Also, the premise is very nice — Lowe plays a Hollywood star who’s sick of playing a sleuth in a popular movie series and runs off on an ocean cruise so he can “walk into a room without barking my shins on a corpse.” Landi is a glamorous lady who turns out to be the pseudonymous author of the books he’s been starring in adaptations of. If you’ll allow me a sentence ending in a preposition (I’ve checked, there isn’t actually a rule against it, but it does sometimes look funny.)

Also appearing is Edgar Kennedy as the baffled and irritated policeman, because it can’t ALWAYS be Sam Levene or Jame Gleason, you know. Plus Zasu Pitts, Edmund Gwenn, Gustaf Von Seyffertitz…

And also also starring is Ted Healy, the man who originally convened the Three Stooges, before perishing after a series of barroom brawls staged over a single night with such participants as Cubby Broccoli and Wallace Beery. Healy is accompanied by an unfamiliar stooge in this one — Healy plays a publicity man and Richard Hakins plays his photographer, and they engage in a lot of Stooges-type knockabout roughhouse stuff, Healy continually slapping Hakins’ forehead etc.

Who is this Hakins? He has the role of a Stooge but isn’t Moe, Larry, Curly, or one of their relatives. It turns out he’s a member of the Gentlemaniacs, a group Healy formed after the original trio left his act because he was a souse. He developed his new team, then summarily dismissed them after the Stooges expressed a willingness to return to the fold. The Gentlemaniacs trundled along without him for a while, developing trick musical instruments that could be used as weapons, to distinguish themselves from their rivals, and briefly engaging in a lawsuit with the Howard/Fine combo over who originated the name “Three Stooges.” The guys we remember as the Three Stooges won that one by producing a legal document establishing their use of the name. What a wondrous document that must be.

The Stooges really look as if there’s something wrong with them. Other comedians were funny-looking in ways they could drop when off-stage or off-screen. It must have been a joy for Groucho to wipe his moustache off and go unrecognized. But Moe must have had that bowl-cut all the time, unless it was a wig. And Hakins has an equally unfortunate barnett, a sweeping nest of hair coiled around a head that suggests arcane African skull-binding practices. He’s a bit like Robert Woolsey, who always looked like he’d suffered some debilitating childhood illness (he hasn’t).

Still, I developed some appreciation for Healy and Dakins. Healy is a loud, surly type, but he has a unique walk, a strangely fey stagger, combining a feeling of ungainly drunkenness with an odd, pansified daintiness, surprising in such a big, paunchy and loud man. He’s only occasionally funny, and almost always tiresome, but students of performance may get something from looking at him.