Archive for Edmund Gwenn

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.

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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.

Leave it to Cadaver

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-469563“What’s he doing in our bathtub?”

A rare factual error from Pat Hitchcock in the DVD extras of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — the Jack Trevor who appears in Hitchcock’s CHAMPAGNE is not the same fellow as Jack Trevor Story, author of the source novel of this, sometimes cited by Hitchcock as his favourite film. They have different dates and places of birth and death, and of course, different names.

Story is otherwise best known as author of the satirical Live Now, Pay Later. The only thing I’ve read by him was an intro to a Michael Moorcock novel, which was funny and vitriolic and gave free rein to the author’s humorous jealousy of his even more prolific friend. Looking through his CV, he clearly had a genius for titles: Mix Me a Person, Man Pinches Bottom, Dishonourable Member, Hitler Needs You.

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Transferring the very English comedy of manners to New England, Hitch and John Michael Hayes create a very warm, witty piece, a black comedy that’s really rather sweet at heart. “The British are funny about death. Mention death in Britain and immediately somebody laughs,” observed Spike Milligan. And while Hitch has puckish fun with the rather shocking callousness with which his assorted cast of eccentrics responds to the arrival of an unwelcome stiff named Harry Worp, he also invites us to love and root for the five off-centre persons at the heart of his plot.

Shirley MacLaine has to rate as Hitchcock’s greatest acting discovery (although it was his producer who spotted her), and she was lucky enough to be spared all the stress Tippi Hedren later went through, emerging onscreen rather un-made-over, very much her adorable self. John Forsythe is remarkably relaxed and alive here, in what probably is his best ever role. It obviously helps that he has a good script to back him up. In THE GLASS WEB, a decent but uninspired piece of writing, Forsythe seems sullen and devoid of charisma. But the man in HARRY is entirely different, a live wire, intense, attentive, sympathetic yet a little askew. And there’s something nice about the way Hitch casts the stalwart player as a quirky goof, probably drummed out of the beatnik movement for failure to conform. His delivery of the line “Little men with –” (dramatic flourish) — “hats!” is memorable. In fact, everybody gets a line they were born to say in this movie. For my money, Mildred Natwick’s apologetic handling of the sentence “He fell into a threshing machine,” is pantheonic. And I’m always quoting little Jerry Mathers’ rendition of the seemingly ordinary line “I don’t understand that.”

Edmund Gwenn, who Hitch had tinkered with since early talking pictures, without quite finding a decent use for the guy (WALTZES FROM VIENNA and THE SKIN GAME miscast Gwenn as a bully and a lout; FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT attempts to make of him a mild-mannered English assassin). Here, at last, he is successful — Gwenn’s Captain Albert Wiles is cherubically adorable, and his December-September romance with Natwick (where her advanced years seem to be the biggest issue) is charm itself.

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Everybody here is a kind of fantasist, or creates the world in a way pleasing to them, except Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who as a policeman and a hard-headed realist is doubly damned in Hitchcock’s world. Although even he becomes sympathetic when Forsythe humiliates him with a lot of fancy talk and destruction of his evidence. It’s a gentle movie without bad guys — even Harry was “too good,” rather than the kind of cad he’s taken for, with his two-colour socks and shiny shoes.

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Forsythe has decided that he’s a great artist, and in the best Howard Roark manner, he doesn’t require the outside world’s validation. Captain Wiles has constructed a romantic past for himself, as globe-trotting sailor, and Natwick’s Miss Ivy Gravely hardly speaks an honest word in the whole movie, carefully constructing an identity some years younger than her own. MacLaine is more straightforward, but her son Arnie (Jerry Mathers from TV’s Leave It to Beaver, which I’ve never really seen) makes up for that — as Richard Hughes writes in A High Wind in Jamaica — “Their minds are not just more ignorant and simpler than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact).” Arnie, with his curious and individual ideas about Time, almost meets his match in Forsythe. “Today’s tomorrow,” he announces. “It was,” agrees Forsythe, after some hesitation.

Robert Burks’ evocation of the hues of autumn is sheer visual poetry, and all the more impressive given that a storm devastated the New England locations after only a few background plates had been taken. Those who complain of the duff process work in Hitchcock’s films are perhaps unaware of how much really successful fakery is going on (note that in TO CATCH A THIEF, when Cary Grant looks out the back window of the bus, FX maestro John P Fulton has added a reflection of Grant’s face to the second unit shot of receding country road — beautifully done, and showing a fine attention to detail). Most of the interaction of characters and landscape in this movie never actually happened.

Joining Hitch’s team is Bernard Herrmann, soon to be a crucial member. His light, but not too whimsical and never sugary score adds a warm emotional blanket to the action. BH later used the main theme as a standalone concert work, dedicated to Hitch, and the documentary Dial H for Hitchcock makes good use of the piece as a motif — it’s even more suitable than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme, capturing more of Hitch’s antic wit and childishness. It’s an atypical score — Herrmann is often thought of as a heavy composer (his dismissal of Richard Rodney Bennett’s nostalgic theme for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS — “Didn’t the composer realize that this was a TRAIN OF DEATH?” — was used by Elmer Bernstein to illustrate Herrmann’s lack of irony) — but it seems that under the right circumstances, Herrmann could do comedy with a lighter touch than his laughing jackass orchestrations in CITIZEN KANE suggest. Very soon, of course, he would find himself scoring some of the more solemn and shocking moments in Hitch’s oeuvre.

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One of the ironies and inconsistencies which are so much a part of life — Hitch was extremely fond of this film, and yet long stretches of it could be dismissed as exactly the kind of “photographs of people talking” that he affected to dislike. On the other hand, in some shots, of which the image above is only the most glaring example, Hitch actually gets us to laugh at camera placement itself, making for a rare kind of cinematic beauty and humour.