Archive for Esther Williams

Vlad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2018 by dcairns

Here’s part two of my commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. Slip into your loud pink shirts and join me on this adventure! This time, we’ll also get Fiona’s commentary on my commentary. Maybe by the end of the two-hour running time we can include the whole world.

Take it away, Franny!

Tom Waits played Renfield, who was the former real estate guy who had gone off to Transylvania to attempt to do a real estate deal with this mysterious Count Dracula.

When you say it like that, it seems so natural. Waits’ casting might seem, on paper, the barmiest thing in this very eccentric film, but I contest it’s one of the things that incontestably WORKS. But then Renfield, like Goebbels, always seems to work. I defy you to name a bad Renfield. Although Jack Shepherd in the BBC teleplay is so amazing that he can make everyone else look like a flop. But Waits is great, and it must have been nice for Coppola to have a familiar face in the cast, an ally who evidently gets what he’s on about, as so many of the others did not. (But I’m not entirely blaming them.)

This is the only film I know of where Tom Waits plays an estate agent. That should change, man.

Waits’ first bit shows him standing from a crouch, filmed from above with a wide-angle lens, so he seems to sprout impossibly. A great trompe l’oiel moment, worth stealing. If you like stealing things — if you’re Paul Schrader or Lynn Ramsay — you should check this film out.

OK, Francis has started explaining the plot now. You have a choice whether to listen to actors speaking James V. Hart’s dialogue to explain the plot, or Uncle Francis, who might be doing a better job of it. Disappointingly, our favourite funny uncle generally adheres to the Sidney Pollack dictum of “Let the boring crap be boring crap,” so that apart from the pleasingly theatrical establishing shot above, this kind of scene plays out in dull, televisual close-ups. Since there’s always a world of wonder happening in the sets and costumes, this is a shame, and Coppola’s nervous tendency to jump in close — brilliantly apposite for Mafia politicking, fatal for tap-dancing — is in play throughout.

SUBTEXT — Coppola has already told us how Winona Ryder “didn’t feel well” and had to drop out of GODFATHER III. So in my reading, Renfield/Waits = Winona/GODFATHER III, the first attempt at doing whatever this is, who had a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced by one Coppola with another, and Keanu/Harker = Winona/BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, the current movie/mission. Harker’s trip to darkest Transylvania on behalf of his real estate firm is a metaphor for Coppola’s second attempt to work with Winona. Let’s see if this theory holds up, whatever the hell it is. Really, this is not a subtext I’m reading from the film, but from the film’s audio commentary.

This was a great big sound stage that had a pool, and this is the pool where Esther Williams made all of her films in the MGM era.

I’m thrilled to hear this and it seems totally appropriate. The same pool was renovated for HAIL, CAESAR! I believe.

I love the peacock feathers folding across the scene like a curtain, I hate the mix to a tunnel mouth. A lot of the overlaid images in this movie are very nice, and very silent-movie in style, but so many of the transitions are horrible — not in execution but in CONCEPTION. I will mercilessly flag them up as they appear.

Everything is live, it’s not done in post-production as it would be done in modern times.

Coppola then compares this approach to Pabst, curiously enough, before mentioning the more appropriate Murnau. Keanu on the train, deliberately stylised and unreal, still manages to be just as convincing as Arnie on the train in TOTAL RECALL. And Transylvania looks just as alien as Mars.

It’s interesting, I see the letter and he says, “Your friend, D.” For a while I was suggesting that we call the movie D. with a period just to try to designate it as being different from the more familiar Dracula movies, but I guess that wasn’t such a good idea, at any rates it wasn’t an idea that was used.

You’re right, it’s a terrible idea (commercially) but thanks for confessing to it. Coppola has already said that he put Bram Stoker’s name up front in the same way as he did with Mario Puzo’s, a much happier notion.

As Francie is describing how faithful James V Hart’s script is to the book, the film rushes ahead to Castle Drac, skipping out lots of atmospheric build-up. As a result of cramming back in all the usually deleted characters, the movie tends to be in an awful hurry, rather like Keanu’s coachman. Coppola tells us that he had the entire cast sit around for three days and read the novel aloud ~

something that really frustrated Antony Hopkins, who didn’t see for the life of him why I wanted to have them read the entire book, and of course I did because I wanted to be sure they read the whole book, and also I was hoping we’d discover something in the book that had been left out.

Strictly speaking, the latter task could have been accomplished just by FFC reading the book alone, but who’d pass up the opportunity to get the cast of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA to read you Bram Stoker’s Dracula? I like to think this happened at Coppola’s house while he lay in bed drinking his fine Californian wines.

We did work with wolves, they were real wolves, and they’re tricky to work with, you have to be very respectful of their territory.

Wait, they filmed on the wolves’ territory? Or certain areas of the studio were designated wolves’ territory for the purposes of filming? Did Tom Waits also have territory?

We’re told that lots of thought went into the moment when the coachmen reaches out with an overextending arm, plucks Keanu from the soil, and sets him within the carriage. I love that they did it live on set. I don’t love how it looks. I think wirework might be a better solution. Also, poor Keanu has the impossible task of reacting to this occurrence with mild surprise.

Ishioka did various designs for the coachman, all beautiful and eerie, but the fellow never really gets an effective “hero shot.” The stuff involving actors doing and saying things tends to be the least effective in this movie. Fortunately, a huge amount of the movie has nothing to do with acting and dialogue and blocking; unfortunately, it’s not a totally abstract/special effects film.

you know that you’re in a realm of supernatural because things don’t happen correctly.

Or maybe you know you’re in a late Coppola movie.

“He’s got bum hair! His hair is shaped like a bum!” says Fiona, of Gary Oldman’s Dracula.

Coppola is pontificating, interestingly, about the similarity between vampires and mafiosi (you have to invite them both in) and Keanu is enjoying his supper when Dracula suddenly crosses a room, swinging a dirty great sword. This is pretty funny in the movie, but hilarious in the Watch BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA with Francis Ford Coppola version because FCC takes no notice of it whatsoever.

I think it would work better if Keanu choked on his goulash in surprise. The film is really devoid of any actual human behaviour, isn’t it? I mean, so is the Universal version, but I think that’s a bit of a problem there too.

Of course this, um, performance of… Gary Oldman

The hesitations are funny and possibly revealing.

attempted to blaze a new trail, making use of the historical Vlad Tepes, the picture of which is on the portrait

I’m pretty sure that’s a picture of Gary Oldman.

as well as, a character, the eccentric count living in an old castle that had been made so famous by Bela Lugosi. And we felt very much that we were going to go in another direction, for better or worse, and try to find a new kind of imagery…

And I think we’re all happy Gary isn’t wearing an opera cape, which Christopher Lee always said was a silly costume for lounging around at home in the Carpathians. I don’t know what WOULD be most suitable. Maybe furs? Maybe NOT a giant red kimono with a ten foot train. But, it’s another bold choice.

“You know what he looks like?” asks Fiona. I mention Glenn Close.

“No, the bum-face guy in SOCIETY [Ed Begley Jr.]” she declares.

“Well, he has a similar sort of neck wattle…”

“And he has a bum on his head! I’m lowering the tone, aren’t I?”

Oh, I expect you’ll want to see Gary Oldman singing West Side Story in his Dracula voice now, won’t you?

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Newshounds

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2017 by dcairns

“Whatever made Eddie Buzzell think he could direct?” mused Groucho Marx, a thought captured by the eager pen of Steve Stoliar in his essential memoir Raised Eyebrows. Like it had been bothering Groucho for thirty-plus years since making AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST and he finally had to give voice to it.

I’ve been more inclined to give Mr. Buzzell a pass — he did some OK films with some nice shots in them. But looking at the original LIBELED LADY, which Buzzell remade as EASY TO WED, does make me feel a bit less charitable. Neither film is great, both have enjoyable moments, but Buzzell’s tends to miss the joke a lot of the time.

(You can expect a lot of late-thirties / forties stuff for a while as James Harvey’s book Romantic Comedy causes me to look up films that have passed me by.)

Sleeves by Dolly Tree.

Of course, Jack Conway doesn’t have a huge directorial reputation either, but he knew his business, I reckon. And he has the unbeatable William Powell and Myrna Loy to work with instead of Esther Williams and Van Johnson, and Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in place of Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn. And best of all, he doesn’t have Ben Blue anywhere his version. Hate is a very tiring emotion, so somebody please name a film in which Ben Blue wasn’t a repulsive, unfunny bore so I can let go of this hate for him which is eating my soul.

“I didn’t think Spencer Tracy could do this kind of fast-talking newspaper thing,” said Fiona early on.

“Well, he can talk fast. I don’t know how funny he’s going to be,” I pondered.

“Oh he’s not FUNNY,” clarified Fiona.

But he’s not too bad. Outclassed by Wm. Powell, of course.

“I*am* too funny!”

Buzzell got the help of Buster Keaton for his main bit of visual comedy in EASY TO WED, as he had done for GO WEST. Conway and Powell work it out alone, and their gags aren’t as smart but Powell’s playing is a joy. The main fun in this, though, apart from Dolly Tree’s outlandish costumes (she mainly runs amuck on Harlow) is Loy, introduced with her back to the camera but instantly recognizable, and instantly FUN. Esther Williams could certainly be fun, but being a swimmer rather than an actress, she wasn’t as resourceful at finding the fun.

On paper, everyone in this story is kind of awful. Spencer Tracy stands Harlow up at the altar then makes her marry Powell for business purposes. Powell is trying to frame Loy on an adultery rap to kill off her libel suit against his newspaper. Loy ought to be sympathetic, but she and dad Walter Connolly (Cecil Kellaway in the remake) are terribly rude to Powell, BEFORE they know what a rat he is.

As you’ve never seen them before

What we have is the offspring of the hardboiled newspaper comedy and the screwball — unlike in THE FRONT PAGE and its offspring, nothing is really at stake here (the wellbeing of a muckraking newspaper doesn’t count) but the abrasiveness owes more to Hecht & McCarthy’s acerbic spirit than to the usual romantic comedy. In fact, Maurine Dallas Watkins, one of the writers, wrote CHICAGO — she has a bigger claim to inventing the newspaper comedy than anyone else. As the movie gets away from the newsroom and into the haunts of the wealthy, it does introduce a little more sweetness, but as the rich folks have been introduced as pretty tough, deceitful and boorish, we carry a lot of that sour feeling with us.

In both versions, the jilted bride is harshly treated and seems the most blameless figure. There are the usual dumb blonde jokes — when Powell marries Loy while still married to Harlow, her keen legal mind pounces: “That’s arson!” But her being dumb or common doesn’t justify any of the loutish treatment she gets from Tracy and Powell. It’s a colossal relief when Myrna is nice to her (as Harvey points out, Loy is always sympathetic to other women, always projects a sense of companionship rather than judgement). Sympathy may be the enemy of drama, as Alexander Mackendrick warned, but if you build a drama without any bonds of sympathy between the characters… you’re David Mamet.

Loy – instantly recognizable ESPECIALLY when incognito.

What I’m saying is that this is a rare case where I disagree with James Harvey, who likes this film more than we did. But the good news is, the original CHICAGO is playing at Bo’ness. THAT one I like!

Hammock Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by dcairns

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We had high hopes for PAGAN LOVE SONG, one of the last Esther Williams movies remaining to be watched. But while it certainly conforms to the easy-going vibe we enjoy in her films, this one’s a little TOO relaxed. An hour goes by without anything resembling dramatic tension at all, so that when some actual suspense is attempted over whether Howard Keel’s coconut crop is going to be ruined by rainfall, it was almost unbearable. His poor coconuts!

The film also features a tiny Rita Moreno, and as in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the poor thing doesn’t gets to sing or dance. The casting of Tahitians is hit-or-miss: Esther makes an unlikely half-Tahitian, but there are some genuine native actors whose untutored way with dialogue is a joy.

Plenty of swimming, at least, even if the movie resorts to a crazy dream sequence — Esther swimming in a tropical sky is a psychedelic delight, especially when little bubbles escape her smile, drifting off into the clouds.

SKIRTS AHOY! is actually a much better musical (despite Arthur Freed contributing lyrics, PLS has no memorable songs), with Esther doing her own singing for once, and some cameos by stars like Debbie Reynolds & Bobby Van. While we were unenthused going in due to the military theme, the subject of women in the navy (Waves, they call ’em) proved to be quite an interesting one, even if, being an MGM musical, the film was never going to get particularly in-depth, if you’ll excuse the nautical pun.

Skirts Ahoy! (1952) from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fiona’s very keen on this number, which makes good-natured fun of the whole “wet, she was a star” thing and allows Esther to use her own singing voice, which MGM rarely permitted.

Backstory: when Esther saw what the US navy’s swimsuits looked like, she insisted on redesigning them. Esther played a swimsuit designer in NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, and it seems to be a matter of principle with classic Hollywood pictures that whenever the story involves fashion, the costumes must always be hideous. Some kind of cultural inferiority complex stifling the wardrobe department? The gowns are normally lovely, of course, but the F word is the kiss of death. All the swimwear in ND is ridiculously impractical and dripping with unnecessary and very un-streamlined tassels and fringes. Our favourite was the Highland-themed one, “Scotch Mist.” But anyway, Esther’s actual designs for the Navy in this film are practical and attractive without a trace of fanciness.

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Scotch Mist. That’s not tartan, folks! Last time I looked there was no Clan Irene. Contrast this with the no-nonsense pool costumes below.

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Fanciness is allowed when Esther does her one big pool sequence, cavorting below surface with talented kids Kathy and Russell “Bubba” Tongay as mute subsidiary naiads. While lacking the pomp and potentially lethal spectacle of licensed maniac Busby Berkeley’s aquastravaganzas, this charming little number may be one of Esther’s best.

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Most of the Kansan sea-goddess’ films were written by women, and most of them are at least reasonably progressive, as well as uniformly good-humoured. In these troublous times, they constitute the perfect escape from reality.