Archive for Frank Capra

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.

A Weekend Without Warren William

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2020 by dcairns

I guess we’ve finished with Warren William in our Friday Watch Party, though we have one LONE WOLF film saved up for a rainy day. We went out in style with LADY FOR A DAY, which was interesting to compare with its remake, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES — it is, of course, superior in about every way, though the later work looks handsome enough. All the padding Capra added just increases the plot’s main problem, the lack of anything for Apple Annie (May Robson/Bette Davis) to do once she becomes the recipient of largesse.

The climax does solve this nicely, but the moment when AA decides to come clean startles us into realizing how passive/absent she’s been for so long.

Warren William, of course, is a zillion times better than Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude, but it’s perhaps more surprising that Robson defeats Davis in every respect. Hard to put one’s finger on why, but if there was a casting call and they both auditioned, the choice would be obvious.

Peter Falk, the best thing in POCKETFUL, is likewise beaten by Ned Sparks at his Ned Sparksiest, honking every line like a sardonic sealion, but with the outward appearance of a human halberd.

Also: Glenda Farrell’s chestydance!

Capra Con

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2020 by dcairns

After years of intending to see LADY FOR A DAY, I finally watched POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, the generally-judged-inferior remake by the same director, Frank Capra. I will get around to the original, I promise!Angelo Rossitto, top left. You don’t often see him there.

Maybe I ought to have a Capra week so I can mop up late stuff like A HOLE IN THE HEAD and early stuff like the silents and then DIRIGIBLE and FLIGHT and then BROADWAY BILL which I turned off in disgust when Warner Baxter hit Clarence Muse? I find I have to be careful with Capra — up to a certain point, I find his work admirable, incredibly skilled, then I can sour on him because of his undoubted excesses or bum notes, and then I can reach the point where I’m no longer able to appreciate the brilliance because the less pleasant qualities are shining too luminously. This may be what happened to his biographer, Joseph McBride, who wrote an excellent book which does not make you think more highly of its subject.Pros and cons. Pros:

  1. Lots of terrific character actors and comics, from Peter Falk, who brings the pre-code energy Ford tends to lack, to Edward Everett Horton, still magnificent, all the way down to little Angelo Rossitto. Arthur O’Connell plays a Spanish count, which seems bizarre on the face of it but he’s excellent in the role. Fernando Rey wouldn’t have been any better. And nice to see Thomas Mitchell again.
  2. Bette Davis is good, though the story, which has been inflated from the original, allows her to drop out of sight for what feels like hours at a time.
  3. Hope Lange is terrific.
  4. “Introducing Ann-Margret.” Charmed, I’m sure. It’s a nothing role, but she had to get introduced somewheres, hadn’t she?
  5. It looks really nice. The backlot throngs and feels alive. Randy Cook advised me to see this, pointing out how different it is from contemporaneous George Roy Hill period yarns that always look stark, clean and underpopulated. Museumlike.

Cons:

  1. Bette is unable to wring tears from this material, maybe because she’s too strong? But Hope Lange steps in and manages it. Remember Capra’s uncharacteristically modest late-in-life observation, “I made a mistake about tragedy. I thought tragedy is when the actors cry. It isn’t. Tragedy is when the audience cries.” Oddly enough, he’s right in general but wrong about himself: Capra’s most teary scenes always have the audience joining the actors — but often it’s the tears of joy, as at the unendurably effective climax of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
  2. They’ve added what feels like half an hour onto the start of the story. It’s all good stuff, but it stretches a sentimental farce out to 136 minutes. That’s obviously too long. There’s a point where the plot kicks in and I thought, “I bet that’s the opening scene of LADY FOR A DAY.”
  3. Glenn Ford, who was apparently such a dick as co-producer that Capra henceforth retired from features, is an effective lead, though with Ford I can see the talent but I usually wish I were watching someone else. Except in GILDA, where I think it kind of helps if you don’t much like Ford. You watch it rooting for Rita without knowing why. Anyway, Sinatra would have been better here.

Bette’s street person makeup is both good and bad. They’ve gone wild with the stippling, but it makes for an extreme effect that wins points for boldness. She’s once again wearing the big caterpillar eyebrows she sported in NOW VOYAGER. Fiona pointed out that older women LOSE their eyebrows. But I guess Bette is going for unkempt rather than aged.

For all the flaws, it’s not embarrassing, and it’s nice to see Capra going out with something large-scale, worthy of his skill in organizing group babble and spectacle. A shame he didn’t enjoy the experience more, but at least he wasn’t cut down to tiny, cheap stuff.

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES stars Jubal Troop; Baby Jane Hudson; Mrs. Carolyn Muir; Parnell Emmett McCarthy; Columbo; Uncle Billy; Mr. Witherspoon; Hunk Houghton; Rip MacCool; Nick the barman; Ali Baba; Lady Booby; Lt. of Detectives Dundy; Carson Drew; Miles Archer; Xandros the Greek Slave; Grandma Walton; Lord Byron; Abe Vogel; Charlie Max; Sgt. Monk Menkowicz; Hannibal Hoops; Peter Pan; Mona Plash; Mrs. Laurel; BJ Pratt – Bill Collector; Arigeleno; and Cueball.