Archive for Esther Williams

Play Acting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2022 by dcairns

I think NIGHT MUST FALL (1937) may be some kind of aberrational masterpiece. It’s kind of perfect, but peculiar. It shouldn’t really work. My guess as to what’s happened to make it the way it is, is this: MGM bought Emlyn Williams play, a very un-MGM tale about a psychopath, his unhealthy influence on a young woman, and what he’s got in his hatbox. They then tried to replicate a theatrical production — presumably the New York run. They imported Dame May Whitty from the stage show, and cast Robert Montgomery as Danny the psycho. Montgomery evidently studied Williams’ performance, because although his Danny claims to be Irish, he sounds Welsh (well, kinda). A bad Irish accent is easier to do (more familiar to the American ear) than a bad Welsh accent, so there’s really no other likely explanation.

Director Robert Thorpe — NOT a brilliant cineaste — Esther Williams remembered him mainly as grouchy — delivers a brilliant film. Montgomery’s accent isn’t a problem (we can imagine that Danny is lying about his origins, as he is about everything else), and the play’s suspense sequences transfer to the screen with tension and terror. Which either should or shouldn’t be the case, because Thorpe is shooting it as if he had the play in front of him. Hitchcock defined one of his better theatrical adaptations as “a play — photographed from the inside.” Meaning you don’t have an imaginary fourth wall, you have a real one, and the editing and camera movement allow us to see it. Cinema in the round.

Well, Thorpe doesn’t do that. His one concession to cinema is to glide from room to room (still viewing them as if from the stalls, but as if one had a wheelchair) and to cut in closer shots. He does edge around a bit when shooting singles, so everything isn’t absolutely flat on. But we only ever see one side of the set.

There are a few Hollywood England exteriors, including a gorgeous sweeping movement across miniature countryside. But the play is the play. A showcase for Montgomery-as-Williams, Rosalind Russell as the strange girl, and Whitty. The drama comes almost entirely from Williams’ stagecraft (he directed as well as writing and starring in the play), minimally from any cinematic devices except basic decoupage. And it’s really terrifically effective.

THIS lovely angle gains power by being just about the only one of its kind. Note the hatbox.

The Karel Reisz remake is worth seeing, but I think they made the mistake of tossing out the play for that one — what they come up with is persistently interesting, but falls apart at the end. I reckon they dismissed the original as a warhorse and thought they could come up with something better. But Williams’ plot is perfectly serviceable, a solid framework, and there’s nothing dated about his observation of psychopathy, which is quite uncannily accurate.

And speaking of uncanny… Montgomery was never so good. His image did not permit him to play many bad guys. He’s electrifying. An actor who always favours stillness, sparseness, simplicity, here he pares away all unnecessary movement. He moves with the elegance of a robot. His face, often with a cigarette drooping from it or with the mouth hanging slack, suggests idiocy, then animal cunning. His eyes, limpid but not especially large or gleaming, come to SEEM enormous.

I think the approach — big elaborate sets and a do-the-play philosophy — is symptomatic of the MGM aesthetic — the more expensive something is, and the more it resembles theatre, the classier it must be. But the play they’ve chosen to lavish all this attention on deals with the seductive power of evil, and makes us feel it. So the classy and respectable veneer fails to conceal something dark and subversive. It’s also self-consciously a play about performance — Danny is, he admits, always acting. Until the very end, when he addresses us not-quite-directly, using a mirror —

What’s a good remedy for a chilled spine?

Magpies and Bagpipes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 7, 2021 by dcairns

“One for sorrow, two for joy”– this folks saying about magpies bothers me, because I like seeing magpies (once saw one repeatedly pecking a fox’s ass) and have no wish for a single one to be an ill omen.

Anyway, one evening I was diverted from my usual chip shop/pizzeria because it was closed for renovations, and found myself walking up Ferry Road, where I discovered a new bookshop — The Pay What You Like Bookshop. I immediately dubbed it The All You Can Eat Bookshop and resolved to visit it first thing in the morning when it was open.

En route next day, I passed two magpies (joy!), and was musing on the euphony of the word “magpie” and the word “bagpipe” and then immediately passed an establishment I’d never consciously noticed, devoted to the manufacture of bagpipes. The explanation, short of sheer coincidence, would presumably be that I’d taken in the sign on a previous occasion and, without consciously remembering it, my brain had shuffled the word bagpipe nearer the front of my brain when I saw the pair of magpies.

An insight into the shambolic maunderings of my mind.

Anyway, a good haul. Dipping in, the Sellers book has Blake Edwards plausibly calling the star and collaborator a paranoid schizophrenic, the Loren autohagiography feels ghostwritten and whitewashed, Under Milk Wood makes every sentence I’ve ever written seem pitifully inadequate, the Esther Williams book is awesome, I’ve read it before but it’s worth owning, and The Songs of Hollywood seems scholarly and fun, getting into the craft of songwriting in a useful way.

Dangerous Dan

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on May 4, 2021 by dcairns

Adventures in the land of Dan — like TEN COMMANMENTS, SAMSON AND DELILAH begins with some blisteringly bright, lurid images, and of course immediately gives up that promising aesthetic to show people standing around in Bronson Canyon or wherever.

Interesting that, as noted by Esther Williams, Victor Mature suffered from, or enjoyed, pica, the urge to eat things you’re not supposed to eat. The cardboard his shirt came back from the laundry wrapped around, anything. I wish he’d brought that into his portrayal of the biblical muscleman. The true source of his strength!

Somebody else wrestles the lion from HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK, while the Big Victor wrestles a taxidermy display, and C.B. DeMille optimistically and haphazardly splices the two sets of shots together. Obviously, one would think, the idea should be to shoot your stunt double sequence first, then cut it down to the best bits and film your star in a series of angles designed to fit with those highlights. Extremely obviously, that’s not what Cecil has done. Midway through he runs out of stuffed lion cut-ins and just jumpcuts the real lion fight all over the place. DeMille invented the nouvelle vague.

Checking Wikipedia I was shocked — shocked! — at how unfaithful all this is to the Book of Judges. Fiona loves this film because S & D’s relationship is “so fucked up.” Which is true. And because Delilah is an unusually smart and active female antagonist/protagonist. She can make things happen alright. If she could only decide what it is she wants to happen. Maybe Hedy Lamarr’s best role/perf, making her possibly the only actor ever to give their best perf in a DeMille picturization.

Groucho Marx, of course, gave this the perfect one-line review.

SAMSON AND DELILAH stars Tondelayo; the Big Victor; Addison DeWitt; Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin; Pentaur; Miriam; Mrs. Hardy; Tom Thumb; Marcus Superbus; Magic Mirror (voice, uncredited); Joe Dakota (uncredited); Mug (uncredited); Jake the Rake (uncredited); Pontius Pilate – Governor; Franz Liszt; Moose Malloy; Superman; Captain Marvel; General Yen; Gordon Cole; Pendola Molloy; Obongo – Pygmy (uncredited); Knife-Throwing Dwarf (uncredited); and Fearless Fagan.