Archive for F Gwynplaine MacIntyre

Magic Man.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by dcairns

I’m delighted to present The Late Show’s first guest blogger this year — my wife, Fiona Watson.

vlcsnap-2016-12-08-00h00m41s43

Did someone say Jonathan Creek? No they didn’t. They said,  Miracles For Sale (1939, MGM), Tod Browning’s last feature, a zippy little number that bears more than a passing resemblance to the BBC TV series. A magician gets involved with crime. Who wants to watch something like that? Now don’t tell me. Even though my eyes are covered by a silk scarf,  the ether is buzzing with telepathic impressions. Give me a moment… EVERYONE is the answer! Thank you ladies and gentlemen. (They do watch, every year, for the past twenty years.) It’s got magic and crime. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the similarity doesn’t end there, Morgan is a magician who designs tricks for other magicians, just like Creek. He also has a sidekick just like Creek, but in Morgan’s case it isn’t a series of ladies ending in a wife, it’s his endearingly, curmudgeonly dad (Frank Craven) who’s just dropped into the big city to visit his thaumaturgically dexterous son. A bit like The Rockford Files, if The Rockford Files had more seances, card tricks and mind reading. Dad Morgan doesn’t like New York at all,  (“New York is the only town I’ve ever been in that you could learn to hate in a day”) but is prepared to put up with it to have family time with the smoooooth Robert Young.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h41m06s97

Where Alan Davies brings an insouciant, quirky charm to Creek — sort of lumpy if we’re getting synesthetic –MGM leading man Robert Young is as glossy as a pane of glass wiped down with vinegar. It’s not that he’s featureless, he just plays it so fast and with such ease that he whizzes past without scratching the retinas. I almost thought that this film, and his character, could easily have been strung out into a Thin Man type series, and perhaps that was the original intent, but I’d have re-cast it with someone you could get a good hold of with your eyeballs.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h33m05s122

Just to make things even more Creek-like, this is a locked room mystery.  And just like Creek, we have oodles of enticing celebrity guests. Here’s Gloria (Daughter Of Dracula) Holden as medium Madame Rapport. Henry (Werewolf Of London) Hull as Dave Duvallo, an escapologist and customer of Morgan. (On seeing his name in the cast list, I mused, “Henry Hull. The sign of quality. Well… not really. It’s just the sign of Henry Hull.”) To make this even more alluring, Hull emerges, Jacqueline Bisset-like from a tank of water in a wet vest, creating an erotic frisson that no-one in the world, anywhere, has ever experienced. Except hardcore Henry Hull fans who like their men prematurely aged and dripping.  (He always seemed late-middle-aged even when he was young and again when he was old. Now that’s magic!)

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h44m31s87

Joining the merry band is the ever-reliable William Demarest as a confused cop (Quinn) –  “Not even a half-grown microbe could’ve got out of this joint without using a crow bar and a grand jury.” Florence Rice is our imperiled (and bizarrely costumed by Dolly Tree) heroine (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately  have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses and freak shows. And finally and wonderfully, an uncredited performance by E. Alyn Warren as Dr Hendricks, a comedy coroner. “Maybe you can examine a corpse in the dark but I’m no bat.” Also uncredited in the stock music department, Franz (Bride Of Frankenstein) Waxman.

The screenplay is by Harry Ruskin, James Edward Grant and Marion Parsonnet, writer of Gilda and Cover Girl and in a strange coincidence, screenwriter in 1937 of a remake of Browning’s first sound film, 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, another heavily seance-related tale. Miracles For Sale is based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat  by Clayton Rawson. There were four Merlini books in total. In a poll conducted by 17 mystery and crime writers, Death From a Top Hat was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h44m08s123

Brilliant prologue. We think we’re watching a very bad B War Movie, but things start to quickly fragment when we see the awful, oriental makeup on the soldiers and a woman gets machine-gunned in half in a box. “Stop the war!” barks someone off-screen at the end of the performance, and the distant shelling is switched off. We’re introduced to the world of Merlini, here renamed Michael Morgan. It’s the cut-throat world of the professional stage trickster.

Miracles For Sale is the name of the store run by Son Morgan, much to the chagrin of Dad Morgan. “Well, if you wanted to go into business, why didn’t you open a butcher shop? Now, selling meat’s a business, but, selling miracles – that’s monkey business.”

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h36m33s170

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h40m21s173

But before you can say “Hey Presto!”  or even “Robert Houdin!” we have damsel in distress Judy Barclay charging through the front door, begging him to stop a fake medium taking part in an experiment for a cash prize if she’s authentic. And only a magician whose sideline is debunking fake mediums will do. In this regard he’s very Houdiniesque. In fact Morgan even mentions a case in which a father was being put in touch with the son he lost during World War 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, much? Judy seems disinclined to give up the whys and wherefores, but she’s so cute and her sleeves, like voluminous bellows on a concertina, are so impressive, that he just can’t help being sucked in (probably osmosis created by the shoulder bellows). Later, she’ll show up with sleeves like giant, bacofoil croissants and Morgan becomes even more besotted. Or possibly hungry.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h38m30s88

Before we know where we are, and in amidst a welter of card tricks, mind reading, attempts on Judy’s life because she may have inside knowledge, and spooky chicanery, there’s a dead man, master of legerdemain Tauro (Harold Minjir) then another dead man, occultist Dr. Cesare Sabbatt (Cesare was of course The Somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt who slept in a coffin in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and in his early, pre-director years, Browning performed a live burial act in which he was billed as ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’). Dr Sabbatt is played by a man called Frederick Worlock, if you can believe that on top of everything else! Both corpses are laid out in esoteric circles lined by candles in locked rooms. Not only that but Sabbatt is a post-mortem ventriloquist. Apparently. Who the dickens is the murderer or murderers? How did they get in and out? And what is their motive? There are plenty of suspects to choose from, all of them involved in the murky world of Magic and Magick.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h43m33s29

At this point we welcome the input of the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine McIntyre on the IMDb, for once reviewing a movie that actually exists, and not a wondrous creation of his imagination – ‘This film violates the most basic rule of magic: never do the same trick twice for the same audience, unless you do it two different ways. In one scene, sitting at a breakfast table, Robert Young casually waves his hand and makes a sugar bowl vanish into thin air. We didn’t expect it, so we don’t see how he did it. He orders another sugar bowl from the waiter, played by the annoying bit-part actor Chester Clute. When it arrives, Young waves his hand again and makes the second sugar bowl vanish too, by the same method. This time we’re expecting it, so we see how he does it … and you’ll be as disappointed as I was.’

Yes, this is an effect shot. Or to be precise, a series of effects shots. But we can’t expect Robert Young to do real, close-up magic. He’s an actor, not a prestidigitator. I see where Froggy is coming from, but I wasn’t offended by this, and indeed, its sloppiness (although David found it charming) may be one of the few signs that Browning is thoroughly fed up with the whole venture. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As Dad Morgan says, “I was a little confused before but now I’m just bewildered.” You see Morgan, although he enthusiastically unveils fake mediums who make money from other people’s grief, hasn’t entirely given up belief in the supernatural. (Unlike Houdini, who one school of thought says was murdered by angry Spiritualists.) There’s still a tiny spark of belief in him, which is kind of fascinating and suggests he’s come up against forces he hasn’t been able to explain away with the pure logic he excels in.

Addendum – Morgan’s tiny spark of belief is more to do with the studio system than anything else. I’m reliably informed (by David) that it would have been quite impossible at the time to have an atheist hero.

output_vlff9d

You would never tell from watching it that this would be the great Tod Browning’s last film. It’s made with assurance, energy and invention. What happened? Well, as many directors do, he found himself trapped as a ‘horror’ director, when in fact he wanted to step away and do something with more social significance. His greatest dream was to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, something eventually realized by Sydney Pollack in 1969. But the studios would not relent. In the early forties he’s quoted as saying, “When I quit. I quit. I wouldn’t cross the street now to see a movie.”

I’d cross the street to see this one, not just because it’s the swan song by a unique Hollywood figure whose name still lives on with genre fans all over the world, but because it’s a slick, fun entertainment. There’s no sign of the real disillusionment Browning must have been feeling, and that’s something miraculous in itself.

vlcsnap-2016-12-07-23h42m16s22

The ending presents us with a mystery. Someone rings the doorbell at Miracles For Sale, setting off a chain of silly, magical events in which Dad Morgan will get trapped in a trick, but we never get to see who the visitor is and they seem to have gone away by the time Morgan, his dad and Judy show up. Could the doorbell have been pressed by The Grim Reaper, (Time Person Of The Year 2016, NOT Donald Trump as has just been announced, although the difference may be academic) sounding the death knell for Browning’s career? We will never know.

The 2016 Jonathan Creek Christmas Special is on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 28th December, but try to give yourselves a glimpse of the original. Unfortunately this little gem doesn’t seem to be available anywhere commercially. Maybe you could do that hoodoo that you do so well, and it will appear mysteriously in a locked room.

To play us out, here is the late, great David Bowie’s homage to Browning and Chaney in Diamond Dogs.

With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump.
Dressed like a priest you was.
Tod Browning’s freak you was.
Advertisements

Have you seen my Buddhas?

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

buddhas2

I got the book Paul Wegener by Heide Schönemann out the Univeristy Library because it has lovely pictures, though the text is in German and this a closed book to me, even when it’s open.

Particularly striking were the stills from LEBENDE BUDDHAS (1925), aka LIVING BUDDHAS, co-written, directed and starring the GOLEM icon himself. Here’s one which reminds me of BLACK NARCISSUS ~

buddhas5

I decided to see what I could find out about this orientalist super-epic — maybe even see the film itself. Unfortunately, the first thing I come across on the IMDb is a review by the late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, usually a sure sign that a film has not survived the ravages of time. Sure enough, for once “Froggy” admits as much early on ~

‘Living Buddhas’ is officially ‘lost’ (who gets to make these decisions, anyway?), but about five and one-half minutes of footage survive in the possession of film collector Henry Nicholella, to whom my thanks for arranging their recent transmission on German television. The surviving fragments (on which this review is based) are non-consecutive, thus making a weird story seem even more confusing. Yet these few minutes contain some fascinating visual compositions which make me want to track down any more of this movie that might possibly exist.

A number of striking points in this open paragraph. Froggy actually gives plausible-sounding details about how he was able to see PART of this missing movie. And in fact, Henry Nicholella is a real person, author of Many Selves: The Horror and Fantasy Films of Paul Wegener. But I still have doubts: it’s possible Nicholella has discovered five and a half minutes of the lost film, and that he allowed German TV to screen them, and that Froggy somehow saw this transmission or a recording of it. But it’s also striking that all the images Froggy describes can be found in Schönemann’s book in the form of production stills, and these almost certainly also appear in Nicholella’s study.

Also of note here is the partial justification Froggy gives for his lifetime project of cramming the IMDb full of fake reviews for movies he can’t possibly have seen: “Who gets to make these decisions anyway?” He’s in rebellion against the experts (like Michael Gove). How dare anyone presume to know more than him? In a way, he’s right: Serge Bromberg’s rejection of the word “lost” is more nuanced — these films haven’t been found YET, but we shouldn’t presume their condition is permanent, since that cuts down on our chances of finding them.

buddhas

Froggy goes on ~

An expedition of European scientists to a Tibetan lamasery is led by Professor Campbel (who spells his name with only one ‘L’, possibly because he’s searching for the one-L lama). The rules for such movie expeditions require that he bring along his nubile young daughter; apparently lacking a daughter, he brings along his nubile young wife instead. He crosses paths with the High Lama (Paul Wegener) who is in the middle of conducting some hideous insidious invidious rituals which require the sacrifice of a nubile young female. Shall we say that complications ensue?

As depicted here (in the surviving footage and some intertitles), Wegener’s High Lama and his acolytes are endowed with genuine supernatural powers. (In the early twentieth century, there seemed to be a western vogue for attributing all sorts of supernatural abilities to Tibetan priests; thus we have James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’ and several American comic-book superheroes who got their powers in Tibet. There’s also Tintin’s levitating lama. And did someone mention ‘The Champions’?) In the footage seen here, I was impressed by a sequence in which one of the lamas (not Wegener) sends his soul out of his own body. While he meditates in a semi-lotus position, a double exposure of the same actor ascends through his head (in Buddhism, the most sacred portion of the body) and passes upwards into a levitating halo. The effect is reversed when the lama’s spirit returns.

Froggy was a pretty witty writer at times. My favourite of his bot mots was the title for a review of another lost Paul Wegener movie, THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL: “Her muddy buddy is no fuddy-duddy.” Sadly, the IMDb got wise to that one and deleted it. I kind of don’t want Froggy’s life’s work to get dustbinned.

buddhas4
Elsewhere, we see a tight close-up of Wegener’s face as he bends forward, extending his broad forehead towards the camera. A separate image is superimposed on his forehead, showing the Campbel expedition while the High Lama spies on them via the psychic faculty of ‘remote vision’.

I don’t have a still of this but I suspect Nicholella does. The next one is represented ~

buddhas8
I was extremely impressed by another shot of a steamship at sea, in an empty ocean with no visible land. Suddenly, from behind the horizon, a gigantic image of Wegener’s Lama rears up and surveys the ship. Genuinely eerie, this … and made all the more effective because of Wegener’s sardonic expression and facial structure. Wegener had very prominent cheekbones, which made him well-suited to playing ‘alien’ characters from exotic foreign climes. I’ve seen colour film footage of Wegener from the mid-1930s; he had very bright green eyes, which photographed very well in the nitrate film stock of the 1920s: the blue in Wegener’s pupils drops out, making his eyes seem yellow and cat-like even in monochrome stock. Wegener was a very stolid actor, of limited expression (making him just right to play the Golem) but with that face he didn’t need a wide range of emotions.

Also seen all too briefly in these fragments is the ethereal Asta Nielsen, one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear in films. There are also some impressive exterior shots of crowd scenes in Chinoiserie sets. The German actors in Chinese make-up look more authentic than one might expect, not remotely like the usual ‘Mister Wu, how do you do?’ Sellotape stereotype.

buddhas6
Froggy rounds things off with a confirmation of his high level of integrity as a reviewer ~

I very seldom give ratings to films which I’ve seen only in incomplete versions … but, based on the very tantalising glimpses which I’ve seen here, ‘Living Buddhas’ is a brilliant film which deserves to be resurrected in its entirety. I’ll cautiously rate it 8 out of 10.

Good thing he’s cautious. We might not trust him otherwise.

The Sunday Intertitle: Powder Puff Girl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 12, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-06-12-11h53m23s122

Well, let’s see, we watched SHAUN THE SHEEP – THE MOVIE, which was wordless (apart from song lyrics) but had no intertitles. It was very good, though.

I did a little silent viewing for my work on POW!!! — Origin Story, the talk I’m presenting at Edinburgh International Film Festival on Thursday afternoon. It’s the first event after the opening gala, so no pressure or anything. But I’m kind of saving up any observations on those movies for the talk — I can reuse them here afterwards, perhaps.

Otherwise, WINGS was probably the last silent we watched, having been a tad distracted. So here’s the first intertitle I found, diving into THE SOPHOMORE, a 1929 Leo McCarey college comedy.

vlcsnap-2016-06-12-11h46m41s222

“He’s the prettiest girl on the football team,” was the slogan for this one, owing to the fact that star Eddie Quillan plays ball but also drags up for the college show. The movie was released as a talkie, but only the silent version is known to survive. This didn’t stop the late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre reviewing the sound version on the IMDb. I guess we’ll never know if ANY of his reviews of lost films were genuine. This one certainly seems like it could be the product of research and guesswork rather than eyewitness analysis.