Archive for Frances Farmer

I came, I saw, I got it

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2009 by dcairns

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COME AND GET IT, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler, begins with a dinner-bell ringing over the main title. I admired its obviousness. When, as the second line of the film, a kitchen boy cries, “Come and get it!”, my admiration increased. A couple of scenes later, espousing his philosophy of TAKE-TAKE-TAKE, aspiring oligarch Edward Arnold says, “Who’s going to pass up a million bucks just lying on the ground saying ‘Come and get it!’” I knew I was in the company of a film that would spare no effort to ram its points home. This extended to the way the world of the film sometimes seems to contain just the one song, “Alma Lee”, which is sung automatically whenever anybody suggests a bit of music, or whenever Frances Farmer shows up, or whenever Edward Arnold thinks about Frances Farmer.

For the third auteur of COME AND GET IT (maybe the second, since Wyler took the job under protest, and concentrated on following orders in a workmanlike manner) is Sam Goldwyn, and for some reason when a producer takes creative charge of a project, the obviousometer rises until the needle is in the red, swinging back and forth and bludgeoning the viewer with every plot point.

The story goes that Hawks departed from the script prepared, a faithful rendition of Edna Ferber’s tale of rampant capitalism, concealing this from producer Goldwyn, who was ill abed with an infected gall bladder. When the boss was well enough to view rushes, he flipped, firing Hawks, and calling in Wyler. Wyler refused the job and Golwyn flipped further, becoming so hysterical that his wife rushed into the room and set about his legs with a fly-swatter, hoping to calm him. (This gives us a charming insight into life with the Goldwyns, I feel.) Deciding that if he valued his career he’d better show willing for once, Wyler agreed to take the job. Nobody seems to know how much of the finished film is Hawks and how much Wyler.

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THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE II.

Certainly the opening half-hour feels like Wyler, with Arnold as Barney Glasgow, a macho tough guy like Victor McLaglan in A GIRL IN EVERY PORT, only more driven and ambitious, like John Wayne in RED RIVER. To Hawks, this kind of ruthless go-getter is essentially positive, although he may need to have his egocentrism tempered by calmer friends. Arnold’s best pal, Walter Brennan, is the same Walter Brennan you always get in a Hawks film, only here he has a yumping Yimminy Swedish accent (he actually does say “Yumping Yimminy” at one point).

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, the infamous Snowflake actually turns up as a train porter, and is referred to as “Snowflake” by Arnold. Well, if you can’t have any lines, at least getting referred to by name by the star is something, I guess. It’s weird because I was just discussing Snowflake with Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, and he’s kindly passed on some Snowflake research he’d done, which will form the basis of an upcoming post.

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Snowflake (far right) does his thing.

The early scenes of logging feel very Hawksian — manly men and tough women, engaging in dangerous work without complaint, drinking and fighting and singing and loving. In fact, the spectacular logging scenes are the work of the second unit, and constitute the best stuff in the picture. While the score is playing sweeping romance and adventure, we get image after image of death-defying lumberjacks dynamiting colossal frozen stacks of logs into the river — Wisconsin is being massively despoiled before our eyes, but Goldwyn’s composer doesn’t seem aware of it, even though one of the things Goldwyn was mad at Hawks for was his neglect of the novel’s environmental theme.

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Once Arnold is rich, and we jump forward twenty years so that the first Frances Farmer (saloon-singing floozy with a heart of gold) is dead, and her daughter (sweet but scheming) is grown up, the film enters a more civilized phase, and Hawksian echoes become harder to detect. This oddly-inflected shot of Frances Jnr ironing seems more like the work of Wyler, but a Wyler who is struggling to engage with the material. His habit of cutting straight down the line from master shot to medium shot is in evidence, so it does seem like the first 40 minutes are mainly Hawks and the last hour mainly Wyler/Goldwyn.

(Goldwyn’s “perfectionism” has strange, arbitrary limits — when Brennan’s niece, a waitress, serves Arnold in a hotel, we cut to a shot excluding her, and Arnold remarks, “She’s a nice girl.” Since as far as the audience knows, she’s still standing right in front of him, this seems weird behaviour. In fact, she’s left. I can’t imagine a blunder like this in either a Hawks or a Wyler movie.)

“Come and get it!” cries Arnold, inviting his friends to lunch in the dining car. He’s taking his old logging chum Brennan back to Chicago, mainly so he can keep the young Farmer around. Smitten with the first Farmer, whom he passed up in favour of a rich society wife, he’s equally smitten with the younger, and she’s prepared to exploit the married older man’s affection in order to get ahead. It’s not certain if Hawks could have found sympathy for Farmer’s character here, and he was notoriously loathe to deal with characters he didn’t like, so this may have been the part where he started messing with the plot.

In fact, the key to her character is that while she realises at once that Arnold finds her attractive, she does NOT realise that it’s because of his suppressed love for her late mother. Not knowing of the earlier affair, she has no way of suspecting this, so she doesn’t realise how emotionally vulnerable the old fellow is.

“You have a paper cup and my daughter wants to marry you.”

In Chicago, where Arnold has an opulent office that throbs with the ERASERHEAD-like thrum of industry, sounding like Arnold’s heart trying to explode, there is Arnold’s family, including his son, Joel McCrea. In another irony (this film is choked with them), the more environmentally-minded son’s big idea for the family business is, wait for it, paper cups. McCrea has a thankless role, though not as embarrassing as his part in BARBARY COAST, the other Wyler-Hawks-Goldwyn mash-up. (BARBARY COAST is a near-classic, though, thanks to Miriam Hopkins, Edward G Robinson and Walter Brennan — as a portrait of a wild and lawless land, it’s like the film GANGS OF NEW YORK could have been if it had a plot worth caring about. SATYRICON is the film GANGS could have been if Scorsese had been allowed to dispense with plot altogether.)

“You know, the more I think about that paper cup of yours, the better I like it!”

McCrea is soon smitten with Farmer, leading to the undignified sight of father and son sparring for the girl’s affections. It’s pretty obvious that Hollywood morality will prevail, with the soap opera resolved happily for the youngsters, perhaps less so for Arnold, and any pro-environment or anti-capitalist message swept discretely under the rug. THERE WILL BE BLOOD this ain’t.

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Arnold’s daughter (the lovely Andrea Leeds from STAGE DOOR), with whom he also has an oddly flirtatious relationship, come to think of it, gets a subplot of her own, adding to the film’s sense of fragmentation, although at least her story reflects on Arnold’s — like him, she has to choose between a socially advantageous marriage and true love. And impressively, she tells Arnold that if she’s forced to marry the rich schnook, she’ll cheat on him. (it’s 1936 and the Production Code rules supreme, so this is a surprising statement.)

What seems likely is that Hawks realised that the first part of the story made excellent material for him, but the later developments had no appeal, either for him or the audience — since Hawks had what moguls like Goldwyn always liked to imagine they had, a genuine visceral sense of what the public wanted. And since Hawks, like a few of those moguls, notably Zanuck, had a writer’s appreciation of story and character, that sense was actually grounded in craft.

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Wyler, who had just made a great film (DODSWORTH) about the emotional travails of a successful capitalist, was now forced to participate in a mostly mediocre one. I don’t blame him for any of the film’s weakness. All he can do, without having been involved in casting or choosing of costumes or setting up the script, and evidently feeling no affinity for the material, is work on the visual values, so the film becomes more pictorial, and Frances Farmer gets some beautiful closeups with her lace hat shading her face. Although moments later, there’s a nicely dramatic composition as Arnold catches his son with his prospective mistress.

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This is followed by another, and then another, as if Wyler was putting all he could into at least making the ending play like something you might want to see. It’s vintage W.W., big, emphatic and architectural shots that express oceans of dramatic tension and barely-suppressed violence. Then Arnold’s wife (the same one from EASY LIVING) talks sense into him, and we get A SHOT TOO FAR, this rather amusing fake deep-focus effect, where a gigantic triangle vibrates in the foreground as Arnold pretends to strike it from four feet away.

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“Come and get it!”

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