Archive for Eve Arden

Elephants, at your age

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.

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Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.

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Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.

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Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.

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Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)

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In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.

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Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?

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What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?

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FC4: arty of the irst art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2009 by dcairns

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In THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO, a rather beautiful movie and the best thing George Pal ever did, Arthur O’Connell has a conversation with an animated snake which is one of the most moving and remarkable conversations with animated snakes I’ve ever seen, and yes I do include Sterling Holloway in THE JUNGLE BOOK. So I’m always glad to see Arthur O’Connell in a movie, although I’m quite glad I don’t have to smell him in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, where I’d have whisky, cigarettes, and in one scene beer and hard boiled eggs to contend with. But fortunately, Otto Preminger, despite his modernist fondness for jazz soundtracks, Saul Bass credits, filming on location, defying censorship restrictions and using every inch of his wide screen, never made a movie in Odorama. Although if anybody had offered him Ottorama it’s unlikely his ego, as vast and shiny as his big bald head, would have allowed him to resist.

Maybe we should stop calling this Film Club and just call it John Qualen Club, since that lovely character actor, Miser Stevens in our first Film Club, is here again as the jailor. Or “yailor,” since he plays it with a Yumping Yiminy kind of accent.

Yes, I’m starting with the “little people” and working my way up. Will I even talk about the plot? Not sure yet.

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Eve Arden, as Jimmy Stewart’s legal secretary, very cool and appealing, one of the great secretaries, I’d say — she gets to do a little unpaid detective work on the side. Maybe because secretaries don’t have much to do in most films where they feature, I often wonder if they should be used more or if I like them because they’re effective in small doses? Like Sam Spade’s secretary, the marvellous Effie (Lee Patrick, in Huston’s film of THE MALTESE FALCON) is so capable — has nobody considered giving her a book of her own? Of course, a sequel to Dashiell Hammett would be blasphemous. But I do like Effie. Wait, Lee Patrick’s in DR LAO too? That’s just weird.

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Joseph N Welch, of “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” fame — an attorney playing a judge, and such a fair and mild and pleasant judge. In many ways ANATOMY OF A MURDER paints a rather unappealing portrait of the justice system — how do we read that last shot of a brimming garbage can? — but Welch does rather make me feel warmly towards the idea of human justice. Is it odd that an attorney would play a judge as such a charming and human fellow? At any rate, I’d want a judge like that if I ever put five bullets in anybody.

Good oily work from Murray Hamilton. Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs Bing Crosby, is stunningly beautiful and very good — and I’m delighted to see she’s got a substantial role in a new Henry Jaglom film. Anybody know anything about this?

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The first name in the list of minor players is George C. Scott, who really has a major featured role but wasn’t a big name yet. Nobody seems to get famous playing prosecutors, maybe because prosecutors in trial movies always seem dislikable — even though they’re just doing their jobs. Maybe that’s why Scott spent the next few years in TV, despite being sensational here.

“My God, George is sexy… even though he’s… practically deformed,”  gasped Fiona when she first saw this, some years back. And it’s true. His nose, sculpted by boxing gloves, forms a sort of pincer with his chin. His hooded eyes have a lizardly coldness. He makes little, tight smiles that admit no pleasure. And yet, sexy and dangerous. Given the character name, Clause Dancer, and his status as fancy city lawyer, you expect some kind of effeminacy, but George doesn’t deliver (might not be within his range, actually) except for the elegance of his movement, his immaculate appearance, and a slight fussiness (Brooks West, in real life the producer of Eve Arden’s TV show, does bring a little Franklin Pangborn to the role of DA).

Moving on up…

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Ben Gazzara carries a lot of the film’s ambiguity — one unstated theme is the uncertainty of anything we don’t personally see or hear, and how the courts try to stamp a mark of certainty upon past events but this has only a social meaning. So we don’t know quite what’s going on with Gazzara, though it’s fair to say we don’t like him. An unsympathetic client is pretty unusual in a courtroom drama. The fact that Gazzara seems guilty doesn’t mean he might not be innocent, but I think it’s pretty clear that the insanity defense is an act cooked up with some hints from Jimmy Stewart, who’s very scrupulous about not telling Gazzara what to say, but certainly points him in the right direction.

There’s one particular gesture where it looks like Lt. Frederick Manion is giving a performance for Stewart’s benefit… His description of his “irresistable impulse” is a lot like Ginger Rogers talking to Adolph Menjou in ROXY HART ~

“…and then everything went purple!”

“Purple?”

“Black?”

“Mmm, purple’s good… it’s new.”

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Lee Remick (replacing Lana Turner after an argument about costuming) — “That’s a very odd way to portray a rape victim,” said Fiona, and I once more agree. Again, part of the film’s deliberate neutrality on the question of guilt/innocence. Was Laura Manion raped? She doesn’t act like it. The only time she acts particularly upset is when Dancer challenges her story. Her flighty, flirtiness seems out of keeping, and I suspect Preminger has Remick her overstress it just to sew doubt in our minds. It certainly appears, from all outward evidence, that the rape took place.

Given her airhead detachment, Laura shouldn’t be that appealing but somehow Remick makes her winning. Star charisma I guess. And the way she’s surprising, inappropriate, off — something that we tend to welcome more in films than in life because it makes things interesting. Although I did worry about her leaving her terrier, Muffy, balanced on a narrow wall. That’s no place for a dog!

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James Stewart as Paul Biegler. Fond of fishing and jazz (and that preference serves as the perfect alibi to allow a superb score  credited to Duke Ellington but in reality a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, the first major movie score by African-American artists). A bachelor. Drifting along, skirting bankruptcy, dispirited, Biegler gets a new lease of life from the case and manages to turn around his friend Parnell (O’Connell) too. Like William Wyler’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW, this movie is a hymn to the restorative power of work.  This positive side compensates for the film’s rather skeptical view of the legal system, and the sordid nature of the case itself.

And of course, Stewart’s presence lightens things, making the most of Wendell Mayes’ witty lines, and also creating quite a bit of humour just from facial reactions. It’s a very funny film, in fact — the sparring is consistently witty and Stewart makes it seem even wittier. He’s so good that I wish he didn’t blow up quite so often, because it makes his character look unprofessional. Lawyers seem to agree this is one of the most realistic courtroom dramas, but they couldn’t resist spicing up the emotions a bit — at least the judge rightly tells Stewart to get a grip on himself whenever he’s out of line.

With that long, slow opening, Preminger prepares you for a movie about process, not a thriller at all (although the trial is exciting — like a good chess game). And that’s perfectly suited to the style he’s been developing. This is far less showy than FALLEN ANGEL, a movie I love, a firecracker of dynamic long takes and unpredictably choreographed shots. Here, the fluidity of the Preminger frame conceals its own artifice, so it doesn’t announce itself as either snappy and bold or economical and sleek, although all of those qualities appear. It’s a very nice approximation of a documentary feel, without using any documentary techniques except real locations and naturalistic lighting.

“Music can’t help a realistic story, it just makes it less realistic,” my friend Lawrie used to say, and while that’s no hard-and-fast rile, it’s a useful principle. The music works here beautifully, perhaps because it’s frequently woven into the story. I think Duke Ellington’s guest appearance maybe works against the overall tone, but it’s not a crazy gesture like the moment in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING where the film stops for a whole Zombies song to play out on a pub TV. The music allows Preminger to protract scenes to an extraordinary degree (especially that opening), so it calmly makes itself necessary, and I can’t question it after that. Also, the Mr. Magoo crime-scene credits by Saul Bass, combined with that score, and leading into the shot of Stewart really driving a real car (nicely mirrored at the end) must have been like ice-water in the audience’s face, but prepares for the shocking modernity of all that talk about panties and intercourse without completion.

Hit it!

It’s Official —

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by dcairns

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— Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.

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There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.

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And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:

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Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…