Archive for Feel My Pulse

In a jam, alright

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2017 by dcairns

All I knew about LADY IN A JAM is that it was a late one from Gregory La Cava — at the Edinburgh Film Fest retrospective, Chris Fujiwara declined to show it but said it had elements which were defensible, unlike its follow-up, LIVING IN A BIG WAY. I feel bad for La Cava, finishing his career, more or less, with Gene Kelly. A great talent, Kelly, but a vulnerable alcoholic shouldn’t have to work with a man like that.

I guess elements of LIAJ are defensible. I expected, based on the vague description, that it would start strongly and go off the boil — a number of La Cava’s great films have slightly shaky endings — but in fact it only simmers throughout, with an occasional gleeful bubble. The movie never seems to know what it’s about, and it’s a very strange case of casting Irene Dunne as a ditzy heiress but making her bitchy too — she’s a horrible person. The idea that she has no sense of money, and therapist Patric Knowles is trying to cure her of this irresponsibility, is a potentially appealing one. But she has no sense of people either, and basically tried to trample all over anyone in her path. She’s like Katherine Hepburn in the early scenes of BRINGING UP BABY but removed the comedy.

Knowles as therapist is a kind of machine-man, so the idea should be that he’s humanized by Dunne and maybe she gains a bit of orderliness from him, but La Cava can’t seem to get anywhere with this, so they’re still the same half-persons at the end that they were at the beginning, and we can never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, repressed aspects of the character.

Ralph Bellamy comes along as a cowboy doofus, a grating exaggeration of his Okie dope from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Mainly you feel embarrassed for the actor. Eugene Pallette is his reliable self, but hasn’t been given any comedy to play. Queenie Vassar is pretty great and there’s an unconventional little blob of a child actor, Jane Garland, who’s a nice presence. But it’s all predicated on nothing.

It reminds me of IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, an early screwball in which millionaire Herbert Marshall, if I’m recalling this correctly, takes a job as kitchen staff. We were about half an hour into it when we asked, “Wait a minute, WHY is he doing this?” Similarly, why does Knowles abandon his research work to masquerade as Dunne’s chauffeur (a plot thread which goes nowhere as she immediately loses her car) and then head out to a desert ghost town and help Dunne strike gold? He complains often enough about having to do it, but we couldn’t see why he has to do it at all. That kind of thing certainly matters.

Still, the bossy heiress recalls FEEL MY PULSE, the earliest La Cava shown at Edinburgh, which had Bebe Daniels in the role. The interest in psychotherapy reminds me of PRIVATE WORLDS — La Cava had spent time in at least one sanatorium and I think his interest is genuine — he just doesn’t understand anything about it. Still, Knowles here communicates in psychobabble and stuff about represssed feelings, which is a bit better than Joel McCrea’s Horatio Alger homilies in PW. The earlier film is still far superior, though.

Maybe what kept La Cava from resolving this one (apart from the hooch) is that it’s not MY MAN GODFREY. A butler reforming the family he works for is an amusing conceit. A therapist reforming anyone isn’t, because that’s his job, after all. FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was able to use the reform plot, because Ginger Rogers was a low-status character who turned out to have more smarts than the millionaires she moved in with. SHE MARRIED HER BOSS did it with Claudette Colbert marrying into the family, which was less amusing on the face of it, but the clue is in the title — she’s still kind of an underling. But she can win too easily, and there’s nothing absurd about it, so the film starts relying on broad drunken knockabout towards the end to distract from a certain flatness which up until then we haven’t felt, thanks to La Cava and his cast’s skill.

So La Cava does all he can with Knowles, which is drive him to distraction. Which makes his half of the picture fairly amusing, but you never saw a less agreeable Irene Dunne. Her talent is working overtime, but it’s been aimed in the wrong direction.

After this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING IN A BIG WAY…

The Sunday Intertitle: Various Kinds of Eggs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by dcairns

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Lots of entertaining intertitles in SPECIAL DELIVERY, but this was my favourite. Madge is played by the unfortunately-named Jobyna Ralston, who keeps showing up at Shadowplay, like some kind of crazy stalker woman. The first egg we see her serving is Paramount contract player William Powell, back when he was playing villains. WP only really became a leading man when sound came in and his mellifluous voice revealed his latent charm — one forgets totally that he has a kind of weaselly face. So of course in silents he was typically cast as a weasel — Sternberg cast him as a Sternberg type film director, which is to say a weasel (THE LAST COMMAND), and Gregory La Cava slid him into the role of a villainous bootlegger (FEEL MY PULSE) — in that one he has a scene cussing out Bebe Daniels and just the way he uses his face makes it abundantly clear that he’s using the vilest terms, though if I were a better lipreader I’d probably discover he was really asking what Bebe fancies for lunch.

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SPECIAL DELIVERY (1927) stars Eddie Cantor, better known for talkies where he could sing, and is directed by William B. Goodrich — Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle hiding out under an assumed name, officially banned from appearing onscreen himself. Maybe Arbuckle behind the camera explains why Cantor at times resembles Buster Keaton when he played an ape in THE PLAYHOUSE. He sure isn’t particularly winning — in talkies he stands a better chance just because he’s so bizarre, and because he can put over a song with that unlikely voice of his.

There are plenty of good gags, though, as when a lovesick Cantor absently tucks his pancake into his collar and carves up his napkin. He does need doubling whenever the roughhouse stuff gets going, which is a mark against him.

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Eddie plays an operative for the post office secret service (no, me neither). Also appearing, briefly, is a minute person rejoicing in the name of Tiny Doll, who turns out to be a member of the celebrated showbiz Doll family, which is to say she’s the sister of Harry Earles from FREAKS. She plays an outsize baby. There is definitely a family resemblance, and it goes deeper than being around three foot high. They both could play slightly gigantic babies. Eddie Cantor couldn’t do that. In ROMAN SCANDALS, when he gets shrunk in a steambath, he has to be doubled by Billy Barty.

The Sunday Intertitle: Pulse-Pounding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2012 by dcairns

While my closing night party hangover abates, I’ll fulfill my weekly intertitular obligations by reproducing what I wrote for the Film Festival’s Gregory La Cava retrospective screening of FEEL MY PULSE. It would be nice to think my blurb helped fill Cinema 3 for the screening of a rare private collector’s print with live piano accompaniment by Forrester Pike — but then I’d have to take responsibility for my blurb putting people off GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE —

Gregory La Cava’s background as a cartoonist was never more evident than in this riotous romantic comedy – not even in his broad WC Fields vehicles. The first image under the titles is an animation of a doctor applying the stethoscope to a disembodied, but vigorously beating heart, but some of the later live-action is even more cartoony.

Bebe Daniels, top comedienne of the twenties and thirties (and later a beloved radio and TV star in the UK) plays a dotty heiress raised by doctors in a sterile environment, becoming a complete hypochondriac. But when she accidentally takes a rest cure in a “sanatorium” that’s really a bootleggers’ den, the stage is set for slapstick, romance, danger, and a miracle cure.

Handsome Richard Arlen fulfils heart-throb duties, and William Powell, a few years before his fame as a suave comic lead in The Thin Man, is the leader of the bootleggers, in a sly and seedy comic performance of laid back stubbly malevolence that capitalizes on his underused rodental qualities.

In an age of daredevil stunts and vigorous knockabout, Daniels milks considerable comic value from a character for whom a short walk represents life-threatening exertion. That she actually enjoys robust good health is obvious to everyone except herself and her doctors.

A lot of the humour is carried by the witty intertitles, along with knowing performances by the stars and a rogue’s gallery of plug-uglies, but La Cava’s meticulous framing subtly enhances the humour of every moment. His deadpan compositions simply invite funny things to happen within them – except during a brief interlude of film noir, when the gloves come off, the lights go out, and the bad guys start acting genuinely bad…

The middle section, where the bootleggers pretend to be nervous wreck sanatorium inmates, is fine farce, but the chaotic finish, a full-scale gang war, is among the most frenetic action sequences in Hollywood comedy history. Daniels’ flailing, long-legged movement when she finally abandons her invalid lifestyle is all the more exhilarating and hilarious for having been suppressed so long, and inventive gags follow so fast upon each others’ heels as to leave the viewer gasping with laughter, astonishment and sheer breathlessness.

Quite a different kind of screen comedy than Chaplin or Keaton’s, Feel My Pulse exemplifies a tradition of slapstick that uses romantic leads rather than clowns, and which is all-too rarely revived or discussed today. The opportunity to enjoy it on the big screen with an audience should not be missed.