Archive for Eleanor Parker

Scaramouche / Scaramouche

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by dcairns

Can you do the fandango?

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All the fops love me. I am down with the fops.

I watched both versions of SCARAMOUCHE, the Metro silent and the MGM talkie. Fiona bailed on both after ten minutes apiece. You have to be in the right mood for fencing and foppery.

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Rex Ingram helmed the 1923 version, starring his discovery Ramon Novarro and his wife Ellen Terry. It’s apparently more faithful to Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which one senses while watching because the plot makes sense and doesn’t depend on outlandish coincidence. Not so the remake.

Lewis Stone (below, left) is in both versions. I like when that happens. He’s the big baddie in the Ingram but is demoted to a lesser Frenchman in George Sidney’s 1952 swashbuckler. (It was seeing and enjoying Sidney’s KISS ME KATE that got me onto this SCARAMOUCHE kick.)

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In the remake, the title character is actually a drunken, disfigured actor who wears a mask to perform. Stewart Granger steals his identity and we never see him again. The makeup, we are told, is created by William Tuttle. “Created,” you note. Not just slapped on. CREATED. Tuttle does that weird thing he does (his brushwork is very recognizable) where the lines of the face seem like whorls, layers of liquid solidified in the act of pouring on like thick cream.

The role is played by Henry Corden, and he’s uncredited. In the title role! Poor bastard. He actually IS Scaramouche. Granger just takes his name and costume, the cheeky sod.

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The leads: in the silent, the cast are all equally decent and equally a bit miscast. Novarro reminds himself to laugh cynically upon occasion to remind us he was born with a sense the world was mad. In the Technicolor talkie, Stewart Granger is required to play the hero as a total dick for quite a lot of screen time. He does it with aplomb. Mel Ferrer is his opponent, and the plot has been rejigged to make their backstory suitable for contemporaries. Now, Ferrer’s character is also a dick, and one notices that he’s more than usually appealing in the role. In fact, either of these guys could have played the baddie, but neither is right for the hero. They have a kind of charisma but not a likability. I never really noticed Ferrer’s charisma anywhere else because the prevailing feeling was that I didn’t like him. Being a villain liberates him.

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Kudos to those two lugs also for committing to the really terrific duels, which Sidney shoots like musical numbers, sweeping crane shots broken up with a few static compositions that pop in contrast. The business looks physically exhausting and a little risky. The final sword fight is supposed to be the longest ever, but doesn’t feel protracted, just satisfyingly thorough. PRINCESS BRIDE fans may notice a bit of business.

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Much of the deforming of the storyline seems to be intended to favour Eleanor Parker as “Lenore,” a role seemingly created especially for her (note the name). The equivalent role in the silent is a fairly small bit by comparison. But the real female lead is Janet Leigh (above), the only American cast who doesn’t bother trying to change her natural accent, and as a result the most natural player in the film (Nina Foch does wonders, though, as Marie Antoinette). Best scene is probably Granger hitting on Leigh and then discovering she’s his long-lost sister. Well-played, Jimmy! (Granger’s birth name was Jimmy Stewart, which for obvious reasons he had to change, but everyone still called him Jimmy. Why didn’t he choose Jimmy Granger?)

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Both movies showcase dramatic glass shots.

As mentioned in comments earlier, the MGM movie surprisingly omits the French Revolution, which is built up to and then dropped as an apparently still-hot potato. Structurally, this is acceptable because it allows the movie to climax with the splendid duel, but it does seem to imply that the (off-screen) King’s democratic compromises were successful in appeasing the people. The Metro version takes the more mature line that the Revolution was good but the Rein of terror bad, but this means that it kind of lacks a strong ending, fizzling out with the hero and his new-found family simply running away. But it finds a more satisfying fate for its bad guy (whereas Mel Ferrer simply evaporates, an odd result in a film driven entirely by the hero’s thirst for revenge).

A new version could be interesting. Neither movie quite joins the dots between the hero’s politics, his revenge quest and his career as a clown, whereas the first sentence of Sabatini’s book already gives me confidence that he’s working on a Unified Theory of Revolutionary Swashbuckling.

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In the 70s, when Richard Lester was having a lot of success with, broadly speaking, this kind of material, Dustin Hoffman, of all people, approached him with the idea of a remake. Part of his obsession with playing superannuated students, I guess. Lester met him and they got on well, but politely declined the job, feeling that Hoffman’s perfectionism and we might call his own kick-scramble-bollocks approach were ill-matched and bound to end in heartache or nervous breakdowns.

 

Ants in Your Plants of 1954

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by dcairns

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Having enjoyed a re-viewing of George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE and found some things to enjoy in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, we wanted to check out more Pal productions. TOM THUMB wasn’t handy so we tried THE NAKED JUNGLE but couldn’t get through the damn thing.

This is the kind of film that used to be always on. Saturday night, alone and bored, I turn on the TV and there’s Chuckles Heston battling army ants with his fists and chin. The ant invasion is described as “forty square miles of agonizing death” but that’s a description better suited to the film itself.

Pal’s production, directed by former photographer and effects expert Byron Haskin, is matte paintings from the waist up. Various “natives” in shoe polish display various colonial stereotypes. The big threat, other than Heston’s obnoxious he-man characterisation, is the ant attack, only introduced halfway through but swiftly dominating everything and leaving the Eleanor Parker romance angle to bosom-heaving sighs on the sideline.

The screenwriters’ conceit is that marauding ants lay waste to everything in their path and can even skeletonize a man, in exactly the same way that piranhas can’t. As advance lookout, Chuckles selects a particularly fat native on the grounds that it will take the insects longer to devour him, but alas, being fat, dozy, and covered in shoe polish, he falls asleep on watch and gets eaten. Here I was looking forward to something equivalent to the faux time-lapse decaying Morlock in THE TIME MACHINE, but the movie gets all coy, not to mention cheap, on us, so all we get is the actor screaming “My eyes!” and then a shot of an empty suit on the floor. I was also hoping for puppetoon ants courtesy of Pal’s animator associates, even though that would be an INSANE amount of work.

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Fellow Shadowplayers, I was not disappointed — and yet I was. The puppetoon insects duly appear, stripping the leaves from a tree, but only for two shots. That’s not enough puppetoonery for a feature film. I would even have accepted those annoying elves from BROS. GRIMM, as long as Chuck could have punched their stupid lopsided faces in.

Hope in Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2011 by dcairns

There’s so much to enjoy in CAGED — thanks for recommending it, everyone. Trashing the later, inferior WOMEN’S PRISON with its very first line (“Pile out, tramps: end of the line!”) the movie benefits from the application of Warner Bros grit and gristle, making it an effective female counterpart to I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Wisely, it dials down the brutality a little, but stresses psychological cruelty, corruption, and lack of empathy as being just as destructive as physical violence.

Hope looms over the excellent Betty Garde.

Agnes Moorehead plays the sympathetic governor, Eleanor Parker is the unworldly new girl, and a dorm-full of supporting players add physiognomic and dramaturgical variety (but no colour: while WOMEN’S PRISON kept its black cons in a separate cell, this stripy hole has apparently segregated them elsewhere entirely). But the movie’s secret weapon is twisted screw Hope Emerson. Coming on like a cross between a John Waters grotesque and Emile Myer in drag, she’s brutal, vicious, stupid and crooked in fifty diverting ways. It’s interesting to see a villain who isn’t very bright but is still horribly dangerous, just because of the barbaric situation and near-unlimited power she wields.

Kudos to Warners, and screenwriter Virginia Kellogg, whose other major credits are T-MEN and WHITE HEAT, showing her to be no slacker when it comes to the darker side of the screen. While on those movies she generated the original ideas and research but did little of the final drafting, she developed CAGED from scratch for ace producer Jerry Wald and wrote most of the script, with some assistance from Bernard C, Schoenfeld. According to Lizzie Francke’s book Script Girls, Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, Kellogg visited numerous prisons and even arranged a two week stay in one.

“Out of my prison observations, the most frightening thing of all was the realisation that the conditions that I saw exist even in our most enlightened states, and that few Americans have any idea of what is going on in their own back yards. Club women often visit the women’s penitentiaries in their states (on carefully guided tours). Invariably they come away impressed with the clean, modern buildings and the superintendents, most of whom are the capable officials recommended by penal-reform organisations. But the club women cannot see the rot inside the buildings.”

Despite these words, Kellogg’s script, as realised by John Cromwell, an able stylist able to fully channel the Warners look (noirish, darkly glossy yet “real”), is unsparing when it comes to the institutionalized emotional brutality and the way the effect of a prison sentence is to concentrate criminals together so that they become more corrupted than they were when they went in. There’s no human sympathy on display whatsoever until we meet Moorehead, and perversely, despite being the boss, she’s almost the least powerful figure in the film, sandwiched as she is between the politicians above and the staff below, neither of whom give her any respect or listen to her ideas.

Also, bracingly, the movie lays much of the blame at the door of men — the cons are in stir because of the men in their life, and the prison is a hell-hole because of the men who run it. A concerned doctor is the single male voice of reason, and the film sensible shoves him out the door as quickly as it can (unlike in WOMEN’S PRISON where Howard Duff hangs about preaching in his deep manly voice until you want to shiv him). Hope Emerson provides a note of variety since there’s no hint that any mere man has made her into such a spectacularly rotten a human being.

A round of applause too, to Max Steiner, for achieving some unusually subtle effects (he’s normally Mr Bombast, and we love him for it, but sometimes you have to put the big guns away). Cromwell’s use of sound and silence is exemplary too, with the myriad creakings and clankings of metallic bedframes making the dorm at night sound like a typing pool until the inmates settle. And a major character’s final choice to accept a life of crime rather than to play ball with a crooked system is played out, remarkably, under the distant echoing sound of a hymn being sung. Chills.