Archive for Ellen Terry

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.

 

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

Bad Directors Made Small #1

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by dcairns

Michael Winner. Astonishing how those simple words transform an innocent baby picture into a glimpse of another and more terrible world, as Bertie Wooster might put it. What we have is purely and simply Michael Winner’s head, exactly as it appears today, transplanted atop a baby’s torso. Jan Svankmajer would run screaming into the night.

And yet, above and beyond the image’s power to inspire revulsion and terror in all right-thinking people, there’s the dark suggestion that this might yet be a nightmare vision of the future: when Winner is even older and more withered than he is now, and his necrotizing fascitis, having used his leg as a mere appetizer, has whittled him down to just a head and spinal column, leaving him with the tragic proportions of a jester’s wand, can we doubt that he’ll have his head transplanted onto a baby and start life all over again? He’s rich enough. The only hope I can see that my scenario might lack credibility is the comforting thought that if Michael Winner had a baby’s torso in his freezer, he’d already have eaten it.

Enough cruelty. For now, anyway. The twins of evil depicted come from Winner’s autobiography, Winner Takes All, which is pretty entertaining. If the standard Winner comedy or thriller always descends into inexplicable unpleasantness (slashed throats in HANNIBAL BROOKS; a bleeding guardsman in THE JOKERS; most of DEATH WISH; all of BULLS-EYE!), infected from within by the man’s irrepressible “personality,” the autobio is actually mostly fun, since the persona is front and centre and never pretends to be anything it’s not. Or if it does pretend, the effort is so slight and the weight of textual evidence so vast, that the transparent tissue of benevolence is rent asunder and dissolved before our eyes.

A pretty remarkable TV discussion — everybody talks passionately and articulately, nobody makes any particularly good points, although of course the TV pundits are correct that DEATH WISH II is an appallingly bad film… One rather respects Winner’s sang-froid, especially when he unexpectedly shoots himself in the foot by asking Anna Raeburn if she has first-hand knowledge of rape, and doesn’t get the answer he was expecting. As any lawyer could tell you, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.

Some of the best stuff in the book involves making I’LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME with Orson Welles. A discussion about billing:

Orson said, ‘I want to tell you a story. There was a time when Ellen Terry was acting with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and she said to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, “You know, I think the billing should read Ellen Terry and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. My name should be first because I’m more popular than you are.” Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree said to Ellen Terry, “Miss Terry, unless you stop this nonsense the billing will read Sir Herbert  Beerbohm Tree but Ellen Terry.” ‘ Orson roared that deep throaty laugh. I said, ‘Orson, that’s brilliant. That’s how we’ll do your billing. It’ll be the first film ever to get good reviews for the billing. We’ll say Oliver Reed, Carol White, Harry Andrews but Orson Welles.’

Unfortunately Orson changed his mind, demanded top billing, and got it. Winner, always respectful of his stars (if no one else), didn’t mind.