Archive for Ethel Griffies

Hull-Hound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by dcairns

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We never get a clear look at Warner Oland’s chubby werewolf, and that has to be a good thing.

It’s taken me this long to watch WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and God knows I’ve tried. As a kid I was no doubt eager to see it, but it never seemed to turn up on UK TV. As an adult, I was excited to finally get my hands on the thing, and then found it impossible to sit through.

This time around — third time’s the charm — it didn’t seem THAT bad — despite several strikes against it, it has a number of appealing images and ideas.

First the bad — Henry Hull is written as a completely unsympathetic boor, and that’s just how he plays it, with an added suggestion of indifference and superiority to the material. In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting the way the character perversely contradicts his own motivations — he’s jealous of his wife but either ignores her or drives her a way, he quickly becomes convinced he is indeed infected with “werewolfery” (or worse, “lycanthrophobia”) but rejects offers of help from the man who infected him. In practice, these traits are frustrating and dramatically self-defeating. “It defeats its own purpose,” as Jake LaMotta would say.

Hull lacks the physical presence and skill to make a convincing transformation, and his werewolf performance consists largely of making a face like he’s going to sneeze.

The comedy relief, zesty and startling in a James Whale film, is lumbering and ugly here. Last time I watched, I got as far as the two drunken landladies (one of them, Ethel Griffies, is the ornithologist from THE BIRDS — not that old, she would live another forty years). The film is full of menopausal women, Fiona pointed out, and they’re all played as clowns. Spring Byington (“So romantic, with the Thames lapping at one’s very threshold”) is the main culprit. Worse is the way the so-called hero’s lunar depredations are followed by jocular scenes at Scotland Yard, with the police chortling away together despite the wave of manglings sweeping the metropolis.

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Good stuff — going all the way to Tibet to get bitten by a werewolf is gloriously excessive.

Gratuitous killer plants! An entirely satisfying horror movie about rival botanists could probably be concocted with no need for werewolfery at all. Although, there’s THE WOMANEATER to prove me wrong.

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Warner Oland in a role maybe planned for Lugosi — now he’s a professor from the University of the Carpathians, with a Japanese name. And he’s a LOVELY werewolf, much nicer than H.H.

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Ah-ah-ah…. CHOO!

But I dig the way Hull remains somewhat compos mentis when wolfing about — he actually turns into a werewolf and then PUTS ON A HAT to go out. And he gets a deathbed speech in werewolf form. Though the principles of Lon Chaney wolfman mythos are being laid down here in an early form, the story is still in large part Jekyll & Hyde.

Also — GREAT first transformation, using foreground columns which occlude the frame, in a relay of shots connected by hidden wipes, so that Hull’s makeup (by Universal monster supremo Jack Pierce) can develop in yak-fur increments.

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns

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Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.

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In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…

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You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)

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Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.

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As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

Sisters

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by dcairns

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Pretty experimental for 1940, no?

The conventional wisdom (read: baloney) on George Stevens is that WWII changed him from a fleet-footed comedy director to a leaden dramatist — one shakes one’s head sadly, understandingly — he did, after all, witness the liberation of the camps, after which  the prospect of romantic comedy surely seemed unappealing — and perhaps one thinks of the hero of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the dangers of the message movie.

In fact, VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, released in 1940, shows how Stevens was already itching to get to grips with more sombre subjects: after all, the movie, a medical drama, kills a cute kid in the very first sequence. He perhaps didn’t have the chops for it yet, but that would come. Like Leo McCarey, Stevens went from frivolous nothings to incredibly elegant and accomplished comedies, but unlike McCarey his move into more serious films opened up fresh stylistic possibilities. Whatever you think of the lap dissolves of A PLACE IN THE SUN or the tableau style of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, these devices stretch the conventional language of Hollywood storytelling.

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There’s some of that on display in VIGIL, where the desire to simulate the dark environment of Northern England (the story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, author of The Crucible The Citadel) involves Stevens in some weird stylisation with his lavish but grimy sets. This is obvious from the start, when he pans from a SFX lighthouse across a miniature landscape, onto a full-scale set of the hospital Isolation Ward, where nurse Carole Lombard is ministering to a sick child. Stevens then cuts inside, and a short while later has Lombard look out the window. Instead of seeing the sea, which is what we’ve just been shown lies beyond the glass, she sees a busy street. Maybe she’s gone to a different window, but check this: panning along the far building, in a continuation of Lombard’s POV shot, we then discover that it’s the Isolation Ward — the very building Lombard is in! Time and space seem to have formed a Moebius strip to allow Lombard to look at herself.

The plotting carries out similarly weird contortions. At one point, Lombard is riding a bus with other hospital staff, and one nosy parker is on the point of revealing the dark secret from her past — suddenly, CRASH! The bus, magically reduced to miniature size, hurtles off the road and smashes itself to pieces in a cataclysm of quick cuts. Lombard receives a few cuts to the face, which we are presumably meant to see as the source of her sexy little scars, but that other nurse sure shut her mouth. It seems like Lombard has the fabled Medusa Touch. When, later, she tells Dr Brian Aherne that he’s going to get the modern hospital he’s been fighting for, because she saw it in a dream, we believe her. If, in fact, Carole Lombard can make things happen with the power of her mind, and is controlling the whole plot of the film, things make a certain sense. Of course, her shallow sister (Anne Shirley), for whom she took the rap for that child’s death, and who repaid her by stealing her fiance (Peter Cushing, sporting one of the few Northern accents), has to die. The only surprise is that Carole doesn’t have her explode like John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY.

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Another example of the film’s odd relationship with realism. The matron (Ethel Griffies, brilliant as the bird lady in THE BIRDS) bans cosmetics on her nurses, but of course all the women look immaculate all the time. But in her sick-bed, Shirley has a convincingly natural look, with the kind of skin tones only previously seen on children. Death, the great leveler and the great skin cleanser.

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Was Cushing destined for Hollywood stardom? He apparently couldn’t wait to get home, though anemia prevented him joining up for WWII. His movie roles in America were all small, though VIGIL sees him, briefly, playing Lombard’s romantic interest, and he does very well in a scene of drunken despair, filmed by Stevens mainly in bleak wide shots. It’s a very good performance all round, but perhaps evidence more of what Cushing lacked as a lead — though quite the lover-boy offscreen, he doesn’t really create any kind of spark with his leading lady, and if Lombard doesn’t make you hot under the collar there may be no hope. Back in Britain, this quality of a sexuality which doesn’t show up on film proved no barrier at Hammer, where the sex was all sublimated into vampirism anyway, and Cushing would embody the man who showed up to punish it with a wooden stake to the cleavage. It’s doubtful if such opportunities would have come along in the US.

sherlock