Archive for Fred MacMurray

Seventeen Hours of Something or Other

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2013 by dcairns

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On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.

The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.

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Also: gayness!

Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.

Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.

Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.

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But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.

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That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.

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Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.

David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~

“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”

Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.

Team Building Exercise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2012 by dcairns

I couldn’t not like AVENGERS ASSEMBLE in the end, because where else can you see Jenny Agutter attempt to nuke Manhattan? She hasn’t wielded power like that since WALKABOUT.

And there are other enjoyable guest spots besides her 30 seconds of screen time: Harry Dean Stanton, Jerzy Skolimowski, Powers Boothe. Oh yeah. You heard right. Powers Boothe.

Of the main cast, Robert Downey Jnr has the most star wattage, and continues to have fun with the Howard Hughes goes rock ‘n’ roll aspect of Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson is most like a comic book character, in a good way, and is intriguingly understated in everything she does, whether it’s swearing in Russian, walloping elderly Polish film directors, or jiggling. And Mark Ruffalo is THE BEST. “Always have a secret from the audience” — this guy has a hulk-full. Tom Hiddleston: very enjoyable. Chris Evans provides the heart, which turns out to be crucial in what could merely be a glib, loud entertainment.

Oh, and there’s that Thor guy.

Was sort of glad we chickened out and saw this one flat, because the sheer duration/volume gave me a pounding headache, but I still enjoyed myself. The writers of X-MEN and X-MEN II join forces in the ultimate team-up! And it works, because not only are the quips of a higher than average standard, they’re wonderfully character-specific. The nicest one-liner might be Captain America, refugee from the ’40s, being pleased to actually get a cultural reference (to THE WIZARD OF OZ). But there are lots of good moments. A sequence where the Hulk violently interrupts Loki’s monologuing reminded me of a favourite moment from Alan Moore’s early Captain Britain strip, back in the day.

(Cap has a villain down on the ground, and menaces him with a huge boulder. The villain starts taunting Cap, saying he hasn’t got the guts to make good on his threat. The reader turns the page and WHUMP – Cap makes good on his threat. Refreshing, since it cuts through a time-honoured comic book cliché, where the villain always manages to turn the hero’s merciful nature to his advantage, and the hero always falls for it. We’re willing to forgive the whole murder thing in sheer relief at sidestepping tedium.)

The film is weaker on plot than it is on dialogue, action of (admittedly comic-book) character. The heroes obey comic book law by getting into petulant fist-fights with each other, which is fine, and there’s a lot of gamma-irradiated dick-measuring going on, but at the moment they manage to figure out the Hulk’s role in the villains’ masterplan, they really should have acted more rapidly to get him out of harm’s way. There are a few things like that.

But as blockbusters go, this does actually bust blocks — I know the dream of post-9:11 sensitivity to images of burning cities is long dead, but I was still slightly surprised that this movie’s willingness to, you know, GO THERE: although this is an urban apocalypse with no visible civilian casualties. That’s problematic, in a way: the airbrushing out of human death.

I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s comics, which are the only superhero stuff I tend to read nowadays. He would have had more interesting aliens though. And I recommend his book, Supergods, to those interested in this phenomenon. His thesis, that superheroes are breaking out of the comics and into every other medium, preparatory to actually becoming real, does seem borne out by a lot of developments. Clearly, the movies are in thrall to the costumed crime-fighter right now. Only a couple of Hulks and a Green Lantern have tanked, the rest have basically hit the button, box office-wise. Judging by the new BATMAN trailer, Christopher Nolan is continuing to take his series closer to hyped-up realism. When his trilogy ends, a further reboot is supposedly already in the works. SPIDERMAN is coming back after just ten years. And KICK-ASS was the first modern, “realist” superhero movie.

I read an interview with Morrison last year where the interlocutor, attempting both levity and sanity, pointed out that the superhero look, shorts and tights, was still not popular. But he was wrong: admittedly, it’s only girls wearing them for now, but I see girls in tights or leggings with denim shorts on top ALL THE TIME.

Cue Twilight Zone theme.

And cue Fred MacMurray as a superhero –

(Freudian dream from Mitchell Leisen’s NO TIME FOR LOVE)

And cue the superhero, Captain Marvel, who was actually based on Fred –

Buy:

Incident at Loch Ness

Zak Penn’s film never got the audience it deserved. Herzog vs Nessie!

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

They’re coming! And when they do, you want to be Jimmy Olsen (Superman’s Pal!) not Lex Luthor.

Film Stocking Fillers

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2011 by dcairns

A wild west Christmas tree from LES PETROLEUSES.

I hate lists, generally — too much film writing is based on the list structure, and at this time of year, “best of” lists proliferate horribly. But if I’m honest, the reason I never participate in them is I can never remember whether I saw something in the last year or the year previous. Or the year before that.

However, the idea of a list of neglected Christmas movies did seem potentially worthwhile — if you have access to nay of the below, or they turn up on TV, they might plug an otherwise unproductive gap in your schedule as you lie replete with turkey and pudding, or might even unite homicidal family members in yuletide bliss for ninety minutes. Anyhow, they’re all films I like, and many of them can be explored further on this site or elsewhere — links will be provided.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT — the first Christmas edition of The Forgotten focussed on this lovely genre-twisting 1939 charmer from screenwriter Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen. What begins as a contrived screwball comedy, with assistant DA Fred MacMurray saddled with jewel thief Barbara Stanwyck over the holidays, dips a toe into rustic tragedy, settles into bucolic sentiment, then takes a side-swerve into near-tragedy. While Sturges typically pulled tonal shifts out of a seemingly bottomless hat and shuffled them like playing cards, here the film sticks to each emotion long enough to settle, which makes the mood swings all the more surprising, but also effective. And it captures some of the authentic family experience — good and bad.

L’ASSASSINAT DU PERE NOEL — not as iconoclastic as it sounds. Christian-Jacque directs this snow-bound murder mystery, with Harry Baur as a definitive Santa. The opening titles, where he lumbers, Frankenstein-like, out of darkness, sets a disquieting tone otherwise eschewed in favour of the peculiar cosiness a good whodunnit so often generates. An air of magic fringes on Cocteau territory, the feelgood fuzziness of the ending is accompanied by the funniest wrap-up to a mystery I ever saw.

LYDIA — Julien Duvivier’s not-exactly-remake of his own CARNET DU BAL doesn’t come on strong as a Xmas flick, but there’s enough studio-bound sleigh-ride romance to make it qualify. You may NEED to shed those tears, this time of year — otherwise you’ll be lugging them around in your ducts like ballast for another twelve months. No movie with Merle Oberon and three suitors sitting around with great wads of latex all over their heads should have any claim on our emotions, but this one does.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG — I like it when the Christmas spirit ambushes you, leaping from behind an Esso station and slugging you across the skull with a sack of presents when you’re least expecting it. And said spirit includes a fair share of melancholy, right? Of course, not every film with snow at the end is a Xmas film — I wouldn’t make that claim for FAHRENHEIT 451, although come to think of it, that red fire engine is kind of festive.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE — the concentration is on New Year’s, an even more tragic and melancholy time than Xmas, but this still counts. The Sjostrom version is a true classic, but the Duvivier remake deserves more love too — it has Louis Jouvet, and amazing constructed snowscapes, and the same morbid, redemptive storyline: it’s a little like Scrooge, only he has to die.

Stuff I saw on TV as a kid which I haven’t revisited recently enough — Chuck Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square and its sequels, the Harry Alan Towers production of CALL OF THE WILD (with an epic, emotive Mario Nascimbene score), and the Richard Williams animation of A Christmas Carol.

Your own suggestions, please!

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