Archive for Frank Morgan

Teary with Beery

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2010 by dcairns

PORT OF SEVEN SEAS (1938), like a lot of MGM “class” product, throws together a mismatched collection of megatalents with strong material and kind of hopes for the best. I slotted the DVD-R in, with Fiona’s approval, on account of the director being James Whale. As the film went on, Fiona mostly drifted off to tweet on Twitter, and I stayed for the Preston Sturges screenplay. But I could see why she didn’t stay with it: something just doesn’t work about this movie.

The source material, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of MARIUS, FANNY and CESAR, filmed in the early 30s by Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret and Pagnol himself, is in some ways an odd match for Sturges, with its salt-of-the-earth characters, but in other ways pretty sympatico — there’s a blend of raucous comedy and dewy-eyed sentiment which does have some common ground with the author of CHRISTMAS IN JULY and (especially) THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. And Sturges’s script, basically concentrating on the middle part of the story, is very funny in places, at least as I imagine it on the page.

The bruised codfish.

James Whale’s sense of humour was very distinctly his own, mining veins of gallows wit and camp long before they were fashionable or even widely recognized. It doesn’t have much to do with Sturges at all, or with Pagnol, and he seems to have treated the film as an assignment and invested little of himself in the movie. Central to his discouragement, it seems, was the casting of Wallace Beery as Cesar. A loud, brash, sentimental proletarian, Beery’s persona is just right for the loudmouthed, quick-tempered but good-natured Marseilles saloon-keeper… but unfortunately he was a silent movie star whose relationship with dialogue was always somewhat rudimentary. He can talk convincingly enough (the blubbery lips move, and intelligible noises emerge), but he doesn’t have a way with a line. And there are so many lines here…

“Now, now, it’s nothing to faint. I remember my cousin Bella on my father’s side — no, it was my mother’s side — she used to faint every day — sometimes twice a day! — in fact, she fainted so often we never knew whether she was conscious or not.”

(Sturges obviously liked this rhythm, because in CHRISTMAS IN JULY he repeats it: “I make mistakes every day, sometimes several times a day. I’ve got whole warehouses full of mistakes!”)

Strange trapezoid head of Morgan safely contained in derby.

One aches for William Demarest to step in from the wings, kick Beery in the pants, and steal his role. But that isn’t going to happen. Instead we have Frank THE WIZARD OF OZ Morgan to show how it should be done. Beery’s main co-star, he has form with Sturges material, having been excellent in THE GOOD FAIRY (“Did you see his eyes? Like angry marbles!”), and though he dithers and faffs comedically with his lines, they get well and truly delivered. Into the right slot.

“I had a friend like that once: his brain began to soften. Everything in there started to melt, and at the end, when he would shake his head to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ you could hear it, splashing around in there. It went, ‘Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.’ Oh! It was very gruesome!”

[Skeptical] “What an unusual malady.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Of course! Certainly I believe you! Because I had a friend, even more unusual. Instead of softening like your friend, my friend’s brain hardened. Yes, it began to evaporate, to dry up.”

“Really — you don’t say so?”

“Absolutely. Little by little it shrank to the size of a pea, a fried pea. So when he walked down the street, this little brain of his would bounce around in his skull and make a noise like a bay’s rattle.”

“Ugh — horrible!”

“Yes, especially when he walked on cobblestones.”

[Suddenly indignant] “I don’t believe a word of it! Monsieur Panisse, it grieves me to say so, but I think you’re a liar.”

“Of course I am, what about you?”

With Whale contenting himself with shooting coverage, we still have some really impressive soundstage docks, and Beery is pretty good at the necessary schmaltz — I usually prefer his bellowing to blubbering, but here the natural order is reversed since he makes such heavy weather of the talk (and Sturges’s actors would say how easy his lines were to handle, because they flowed). Maureen O’Sullivan makes a rather well-spoken young fishmonger, and John Beal as Marius doesn’t stand much of a chance since the early part of the story, which would establish him in a sympathetic light, has been lopped off.

All available sources suggest that the later Joshua Logan version of FANNY is an even bigger snore, so interested parties are referred to the French originals, starring Raimu as CESAR, Orane Demazis as FANNY and Pierre Fresnais as MARIUS, which constitute quite a moving epic, part comedy and part soap.

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The Oz Trial

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by dcairns

Before the law, there stands a guard.

A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law.

But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? “That is possible,” says the guard.

The man tries to peer through the entrance. He’d been taught that the law was to be accessible to every man. “Do not attempt to enter without my permission”, says the guard. “I am very powerful. Yet I am the least of all the guards. From hall to hall, door after door, each guard is more powerful than the last.”

By the guard’s permission, the man sits by the side of the door, and there he waits. For years, he waits. Everything he has, he gives away in the hope of bribing the guard, who never fails to say to him “I take what you give me only so that you will not feel that you left something undone.”

Keeping his watch during the long years, the man has come to know even the fleas on the guard’s fur collar. Growing childish in old age, he begs the fleas to persuade the guard to change his mind and allow him to enter. His sight has dimmed, but in the darkness he perceives a radiance streaming immortally from the door of the law.

And now, before he dies, all he’s experienced condenses into one question, a question he’s never asked. He beckons the guard. Says the guard, “You are insatiable! What is it now?” Says the man, “Every man strives to attain the law. How is it then that in all these years, no one else has ever come here, seeking admittance?”

His hearing has failed, so the guard yells into his ear. “Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance. No one else could enter this door! This door was intended only for you! And now, I’m going to close it.”

This tale is told during the story called “The Trial”. It’s been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream… a nightmare.

Possibly my slightly strange combining of story and image here was suggested by AFTER HOURS, in which both THE TRIAL and THE WIZARD OF OZ are explicitly referenced, suggesting that screenwriter Joseph Minion (and whatever became of him?) should perhaps use as his pseudonym the catchy “L. Frank Kafka.”

(I’m not yet back online, but I had this post ready to go. See you soon!)

It Happened Here

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2008 by dcairns

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Robert Young is a Nazi!

Robert Stack is a Nazi!

Dan Dailey (Jr.) is a Nazi!

What the hell is going on?

If the casting seems incongruous, there’s a higher wisdom at work. Frank Borzage is one source of that wisdom, with his restrained direction which manages to be ruthlessly emotive without ever seeming to strain for tears. “He always seemed to back away from the emotion,” said Fiona, wonderingly.

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Our tale takes place in a little German town near the Austrian border (important later). The town is in fact a painting, the church is a miniature, and people go skiing in front of a convenient rear-projection screen, like Roger Moore. This artificial world has the cosiness of the movie of OUR TOWN, or an ANDY HARDY feature (it’s an M.G.M. production). And the town is populated by a disparate group of movie actors — very disparate: the little hamlet contains both the Slavic vocalisations of Maria Ouspenskaya and the mid-western drawl of Jimmy Stewart, who plays her son. None of this is particularly naturalistic, but it’s very familiar and reassuring to a viewer of Hollywood movies from this era. It’s 1940, you see.

We meet Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz, here playing loveable absent-minded Professor Roth, and his lovely family including daughter Freya, played by Margaret Sullavan. Now, at this point (fifteen minutes in) I’m already close to tears, because I know what’s coming, sort of. The maid interrupts Prof Roth’s 60th birthday celebration with “Wonderful news!” Hitler has been made chancellor.

Now we know that this folksy edifice of back-lot sets and matte shots and comfortable actors is going to be destroyed. Things are going to get worse, and worse. It’s not going to be OK.

This is such powerful stuff. The Hollywood studios are often accused of having had nothing to say before the U.S.A. entered the war, but this is a courageous film. It takes a massive commercial risk by tackling a bleak story — Borzage provides uplift, but it’s a poetic, fragile thing compared to the emotional and physical devastation wrought by the story’s (and history’s) antagonists. For a film to go on the offensive about a regime the country wasn’t yet at war with, when the studios were to some extent hoping to keep their films screening in Europe, that takes a certain amount of guts. I’d like to shake the hand of the executive responsible. Although if that proves to be Louis B. Mayer, I reserve the right to wipe it on my trousers afterwards. 

(David Wingrove points out that by 1940 the European market would have been basically gone anyway, so MGM’s stand isn’t quite so bold.)

It’s worth remembering that while MRS. MINIVER, a fine film, extended the hand of friendship — symbolically — to beleagured Britain, director William Wyler had to struggle with his paymasters to present a nasty Nazi on the screen. A few years before at Universal, James Whale’s THE ROAD BACK was gutted of political content for fear of offending the German leader. But Borzage goes on the offensive, attacking the Hitler regime in all its anti-semitism, brutality and idiocy (it’s particularly strong on the idiocy, like the defiance of medical science, which sees no difference between Aryan and Jewish blood).

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“People are always making little choked sobs,” remarks Fiona, pointing out how much more effective this is than hysterical histrionics. She particularly admires Mrs. Roth’s reaction to the news of the tragic fate that befalls the Professor. “It’s like a sound of disgust.” As well it might be.

While THE MORTAL STORM, like other films of the era like THE GREAT DICTATOR, can’t really show anything like the full horror of fascism, it’s tremendously effective because it goes in the other direction. Evoking the goodness and innocence of the victims of fascism, it produces a strong revulsion at anything which might threaten these people. That the threat’s true awfulness is concealed doesn’t matter, and in fact this avoidance of depravity is a strength: if the film isn’t subtle when it layers on the sweetness and light, it’s very restrained in its portrayal of violence.

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Will James Stewart escape to Austria? Will Bonita Granville betray him, when tortured by Ward Bond? Will Robert Taylor refuse an order? Will Margaret Sullavan make it to the end of a Borzage film without dying of consumption? The question marks pile up in a tangle of hooks — once enmeshed, the only way to freedom is across the border into reality, past the end credits. It’s an often agonizing journey.

Certain aspects of the story may be designed to appeal to German-Americans and to those who are uncertain how they feel about Germany in 1940. James Stewart is firmly established as being from an old German family, with at least as much reason to love his country as his fascistic opponents. Frank Morgan is described as being “above politics”, so that we can see that neutrality is not an option. These elements are deployed with tact, but they are central to the film’s argument. What lifts the movie above propaganda is the poetic hand of its maker, seen most brilliantly in Robert Stack’s epiphany at the end.

Robert Stack is not an actor I associate with epiphanies. He hasn’t got the face for it somehow. Although I’ve always admired him (the only funny man in Spielberg’s 1941, he had obviously sized up the chaos around him and decided to play it quiet and measured). But Borzage hands him the ending, then takes it away from him and does it all with camera work: we drift through the now-empty Roth household, looking at an empty chair, and then the shadow of that chair… Frank Morgan’s lines from earlier in the film come back to haunt the soundtrack. We see an open gate, and footsteps in the snow, and more snow erasing those footsteps.

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The script adapts Phyllis Bottome’s novel, and is the work of Englishwoman Claudine West, who also worked on MRS MINIVER, with German Hans Rameau & Austrian George Froeschel. But the final words are a quotation from Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem The Gate of the Year, famously quoted by Britain’s King George VI in a radio address to the nation at the outbreak of WWII:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand
Of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

The end credits appear… in silence.