Archive for F Hugh Herbert

The Gabbo-Flamarian Combo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature.

Anybody seeing James Cruze’ early talkie operetta-revue melodrama nightmare THE GREAT GABBO, must immediately despair of ever finding a partner-film, a companion piece with which it might be paired. Some films, it seems, are destined to live alone. GABBO, the tale of a horribly arrogant ventriloquist free-falling into insanity, played with barely-suppressed inertia by Erich Von Stroheim, is based on a story by the great Ben Hecht, who ran away before actually writing it, leaving script duties to Hugh Herbert, which is quite a come-down. The IMDb suggests that the H.H. in question is THIS GUY, the infamous “woo-woo” man, whose presence disgraces so many golden age movie romps, but I think the likely culprit is F. Hugh Herbert, prolific author of appalling comedies like Otto Preminger’s THE MOON IS BLUE. The same incessant smug goddamn quipping is in evidence.

So, althought the idea may have originated in the brain that powered the hand that held one-half of the pen that wrote The Front Page, what we get is at best echt Hecht. But it is 100% GENUINE HERBERT, as anyone who has struggled through its unpleasantly lengthy, static dialogue scenes can attest.

At any rate, the casting of Erich Von Stroheim as a cross-talking comedian vent act is something that must have been dreamed up on the dipso ward, and the idea of playing out Gabbo’s tragedy against the backdrop of a musical revue featuring singing insects and dancing poultry suggests a story department recruited from bedlam.

But do not despair! A worthy counterpart to THE GREAT GABBO exists, and with supreme symmetry the movie gods named it THE GREAT FLAMARION and cast Erich Von S once more as the Great One.

FLAMARION is a much better movie, since it has Anthony Mann behind the camera. It’s fascinating to watch him at work, enlivening his dubious material within a tight B-movie schedule, with tension-packed compositions and electrifying camera moves — except even he can’t really get the thing up on its feet, no matter what he does. THE GREAT FLAMARION staggers along, burdened with a script so predictable it’s perversely surprising. Von plays a variety act sharp-shooter. Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea are the married stooges who stand still while he blasts cigarettes from their mouths. Hughes seduces Von, but it’s nakedly obvious she doesn’t love him. Never was a femme so fatale. We wait for her to suggest he bump off her troublesome hubby by cunningly FAILING TO MISS during the act. She does. He does. The deed done and passed off as an accident, he arranges to meet her in a Chicago hotel. We wait for her to not show up.

At this point, we get a surprise! No, she doesn’t show up. But Von does a little dance! We weren’t expecting THAT. It’s like a big hand reaching out of the screen and offering us a cupcake.

Then Von realises he’s been had and seeks revenge. He gets it, and dies.

So far, so predictable, but what puts the tin lid on it is the FRAMING STRUCTURE, which makes the outcome clear before the story has even started — Von lies dying, perforated with his own slugs, having throttled the cheating vixen. Which means the entire movie is a playing out of storylines that have already been tied up. Orson Welles begins OTHELLO with Desdemona and Othello dead and Iago in chains, but he has the benefit of more involved plotting and characterisation, plus he may have assumed the audience would have some familiarity with the story he was telling anyway. The title THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO provides a strong hint. The book-ends of THE GREAT FLAMARION constitute a different and much dumber kind of design. They testify to the faint hope of starting the movie with a bang, since if it simply played out chronologically the opening would be unbearably flat and suspenseless. Promise them murder then hope they’re too listless to leave their seats.

Mann-fans will nevertheless find much to enjoy in the sharp framing and dynamic camera moves. Von’s general absurdity as romantic lead makes him diverting, and like Bela Lugosi he can provide unexpected hilarity with sudden moments of naturalism. And, uniting the film with GABBO once more, there’s the thrill of BICKERING — both films feature prolonged, depressing scenes of married couples sniping horribly at each other, apparently a staple of entertainment in the eyes of the screenwriters.

All That Gab

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature, doubled:

Position 69, Production Code style

As part of Otto Preminger week some while back (remember, when the world went Otto MAD?) I attempted to watch THE MOON IS BLUE, figuring it had to be of some interest. And it kind of is, purely from the point of view of Otto’s elegant mise-en-scene. Some of today’s directors could learn a lot from Otto’s laid-back but economical but simultaneously kinda florid filming style. Some of today’s directors are beyond help, but many of those with a bit of talent could raise their game by studying what Otto does with the camera and the actors together — the DANCE.

But despite the panache shown in the camera blocking department, I couldn’t get through the thing (Cue standard mumblings about how the film’s daring-at-the-time defiance of the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency by permitting the utterance by characters of forbidden words like “pregnant” and “virgin” are no longer shocking. Cue perplexity that Catholics would object to these words when their entire religion hinges on a story about a pregnant virgin). It wasn’t that the sexual attitudes had dated and no longer titillated — there are plenty of romcoms and even sexcoms from this period and before and later where that just isn’t a factor in the massive amounts of entertainment dished up (although the sexcoms tend to date more than the romcoms, they eventually come around to being very enjoyable with a dash of irony). It was that the whole thing was unfunny, ponderous, smug, glib and extremely irritating.


Despite the IMDb’s listing, I suspect that F. Hugh Herbert, author of the play and screenplay, is also the writer of THE GREAT GABBO, a bad movie I can heartily recommend for it’s stupendous negative entertainment value and inspired lack of good judgement — Erich Von Stroheim doing cross-talk comedy, unpleasantly fast musical numbers, dancing insect people — the film with everything you never wanted.

I suddenly flashed on the perfect companion film for TMIB — TWO FOR THE ROAD. My God that’s annoying. The comparisons don’t end there. Both films feature attractive, personable leads, seemingly enjoying themselves, their co-stars and their material. Everything is in place for audience pleasure, except that the material (script by Frederic Raphael, in the case of TWO-FER) — and by material I basically mean dialogue, since that’s what you get — is nauseatingly whimsical and pleased with itself. While Stanley Donen doesn’t shoot with quite Preminger’s flair for blocking, he did, with cinematographer Christopher Challis (see also: the later Powell & Pressburger films; and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) break new ground in filming car scenes without process photography, and the film serves up the usual delightful Audrey Hepburn fashion show.


But despite these virtues, I say this: if you ever find yourself faced with the necessity of performing an atrocity of some kind (a high school massacre, perhaps, or a spot of ethnic cleansing) and you feel a little too kind-hearted, too fond of humanity to really put your full enthusiasm into the task, watching these films back to back would probably turn you into a modern Genghis. But I don’t actually recommend this — incredible as it seems, the world is already violent enough.

The London Nobody Knows

Instead I recommend Patrick Keiller’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE, which will induce a dreamy, floaty, focussed-yet-sleepy form of happiness, relieving stress and gentle massaging the muscles of your soul.