Archive for Fredric March

The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, it’s not exactly an intertitle, but I had to honour the fact that John Ford pasted my address across the screen in MARY OF SCOTLAND.

It’s a legendarily quite bad film, though more of an honorable failure than, say, THE HURRICANE (a commercial hit but a veritable TOWERING INFERNO artistically), part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH. In fact, the movie is quite interesting, or anyway “interesting” — it rarely achieves anything resembling compelling drama, and censorship forces it to take the dullest path whenever there’s a knotty historical issue to be resolved. Dialogue is of a heavily expository nature, with everybody always telling each other things they must already know — you’d never guess that either Dudley Nichols, or Maxwell Anderson whose play he’s adapting, was a good or even competent writer.

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However, it’s possibly Ford’s most gay film, with Lord Darnley in particular striking a bold blow for the lipstick, earring and ruff look. Queen Elizabeth surrounds herself with rather camp confidants too, despite the fact that she’s basically a sullen mound of beads.

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(This was the movie where Ginger Rogers campaigned hard for the role of Elizabeth, and shot a screen test in heavy makeup which the suits loved until they realized who it was. The thought of Ginger as the Virgin Queen was apparently too much of a stretch. So Florence Eldridge lands by far  the best role and does well with it.)

Katherine Hepburn as Mary is surrounded by several of the same stock Scots and pseudo-Scots from RKO’s  THE LITTLE MINISTER (Alec Craig, Mary Gordon, Donald Crisp). Fredric March does do more than hint at a burr, but Fiona felt he captured a quintessentially Scottish attitude. It seems to involve bellowing heartily. He also presents a baby with the present of a broadsword, which does seem quite authentic behaviour.

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Perhaps sensing the inertia of the material, Ford attempts a few stylistic flourishes. In one key scene, Mary/Hepburn must decide whether to sign, at sword’s point, a pardon for the murderers of David Rizzio (John Carradine [!]). In her closeup, she’s separated by the characters over her shoulder by a layer of scrim — and interesting psychological effect, thrown away by too-hasty editing. I suspect the film was so stodgy they took the shears to it, and out went the more promising material. (Tag Gallagher certainly suggests that the studio botched the edit, and it appears that Ford’s system of protecting himself by shooting no coverage was not yet in place.)

Ford also plays with theatrical lighting changes, dimming the key light on Darnley when he acquiesces to an assassination plot. Did Orson Welles check this movie out when he was running STAGECOACH all those times? It’s made by the same studio, so it would have been to hand. CITIZEN KANE advanced on the idea by staging the fades during dissolves, so that one part of the shot would linger longer as the rest faded out, but the initial idea had to come from somewhere

For years (decades?) Alexander Mackendrick dreamed of filming MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, his office papered in storyboards. Since historical movies usually ossify alive onscreen, he was determined to make his version live and breathe — the western was his role model, a genre in which history is depicted IN ACTION. Ironically, the man you would have thought ideally suited to make such a film had already tried, and fallen victim to period movie syndrome.

Broken Wings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Once in a while I see a movie I love that I hesitate to write about, for fear of just gushing away and not expressing anything. I feel nervous in approaching THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK for that reason.

The film is credited primarily to Stuart Walker (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) but there seems to be firm agreement that the real man at the helm was Mitchell Leisen: “I stuck Stuart in the sound booth again and he didn’t say a word through the whole picture,” says Leisen in David Chierichetti’s definitve study of his work, Hollywood Director. And Chierichetti is able to enlist Fredric March, the film’s star, to back this up.

This movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. Again the subject is WWI fliers, and here we actually deal with the war, as in WINGS, rather than its aftermath, as in THE LAST FLIGHT. There’s still plenty of drinking going on though. Saunders seems to have a unique handle on self-destructive behaviour among the biplane set — and he lived the life offscreen too.

But while THE LAST FLIGHT has an impressively varied range of antique acting styles which make it seem intriguingly like a film from another planet, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK features early work from notable screen stars working in a recognisably modern style. Fredric March is the titular eagle, a high-born American who enlists in the RAF for sport at the outbreak of war (the American Air Force didn’t manage to get a single plane in the air during WWI, but that didn’t stop lots of young Americans joining up overseas and getting their wings). Cary Grant is the hawk, a tough guy who rejects the fliers’ code of chivalry and fights war to win. His stance is unsympathetic in the movie, but it’s clear that he’s not exactly wrong, either: humanity is a tenuous proposition in wartime, chivalry an absurd, even grotesque one.

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Fiona wonders why nobody seems to talk about March these days. He’s like the male Miriam Hopkins.

The film interweaves two narratives, the first being March’s slow destruction, which basically lasts the length of the film. He starts off hale and hearty, with that very Fredric March ebullience that some people find hard to take. He give it his all, and he has a lot of all to give. But he’s slowly broken by the deaths of his colleagues, and of the men he shoots down. One of the striking things about the film, which goes way beyond traditional Hollywood anti-war posturing, is how it makes no distinction between the deaths of comrades and enemies. Each one diminishes March.

“You don’t drink enough,” advises comedy relief buddy Jack Oakie to his sodden friend. “I can’t drink enough,” replies March.

Parallel with this decline and fall is Cary Grant’s troubled relationship with March. It’s very much a love story, only Grant also hates March. His final act for his friend is both tender and protective, and a profound betrayal. I don’t want to give away too much here, which is another problem I have when I see an obscure film I love — steering people towards it without spoiling it.

IMDb commentators point out that Grant hasn’t quite found his style yet, but that’s beside the point. He’s found a style that perfectly suits this movie, and he’s lost the stiffness I see in BLONDE VENUS and his Mae West movies. His neck doesn’t seem like a rigid column of bone here, which is a relief. Despite the flying story, this isn’t even the Grant of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, it’s a whole different Grant, marking the precise spot where he became a fluent screen actor, but had not yet adopted the star persona he was to triumph with.

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Also in the cast is Carole Lombard, for about ten minutes. Censors cut the line “Your place or mine?” when the film was re-released during WWII, since the pre-code spice welcomed during the film’s first release had become verboten, and we also lost an entire post-coital moment, with March awakening to find a flower lying in the indentation of her pillow. Leisen welcomed the movie’s revival, although “I was sure I was going to be arrested,” since the film was so anti-war, but he didn’t realise until later that the studio had made further cuts to weaken the film’s message. It’s to be deplored that the original ending is now apparently lost, but I found that the film was still savagely and unambiguously anti-war, and carries its argument all the way to a surprisingly bleak conclusion. I can’t think of another film before the ’60s that goes as far as this one. It’s an even more negative view of warfare than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

Visually, the film is one of the darkest I’ve seen from this era, which suits the story well. Leisen filmed a long conversation between March and his commander (Sir Guy Standing, chummy yet distant) at dusk, allowing the actors to walk through pools of light into complete silhouette. Cary Grant plays some scenes smothered in shadow, only his forehead and nose looming from the night.

Fredric dreams:

Leisen is here really at the very outset of his directing career — officially, he’s not even a director yet — but he brings eloquent style to the story. This is something his critics miss — and there’s a homophobic subtext to Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe dismissing him as a set designer who made pictures –Leisen’s stylistic tropes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, they become the very essence of expressive film narrative. And Leisen always had a sharp interest in capturing reality: he just had the ability to hold it back when it didn’t suit the project. And if the script lacked dramatic values, Leisen would step into the breach and decorate with bravura flourishes, and people would point and say he was a shallow aesthete.

Leisen’s sexuality is certainly relevant to his work. Regular Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein talks about the distinction between Queer Cinema and older films made by queer directors, which are of necessity somewhat closeted, even when their makers were not. Leisen comes closer that most to blurring that line. In this film, not only are the young recruits astonishingly androgynous and beautiful, but death itself is eroticized in male form:

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After Stuart Walker basically stole the directing credit on this movie, Leisen retaliated by stealing Walker’s next two projects, one of which was DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, again with March. This got his directing career off to a strong start, but really it had already begun. Leisen’s career ran from his designing days in silent cinema (THIEF OF BAGDAD) to television work (The Twilight Zone) and yet its duration and its quality is not reflected in its reputation.

Everybody try and see this one, please. I’d place it in my alternative Shadowplay history of the cinema as a great film from the 30s that isn’t sufficiently appreciated. The Leisen rediscovery is moving forward slowly. Time also for a Saunders rediscovery (since writers don’t get enough credit in cinema).

Intertitle of the Week

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2008 by dcairns

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From THE WILD PARTY.

This commemorates the fact that I have only one class left to give (on Billy Wilder, so that’ll be fun) and am basically on my Christmas break for a month, and also celebrates that cute early talkies habit of using occasional intertitles — as Kubrick said, sometimes writing on the screen is just the most direct and effective way to move the story on.

THE WILD PARTY was the first talkie of Paramount Studios, director Dorothy Arzner and star Clara Bow. Bow was terrified of the microphone, which often had to be hidden to allow her to perform, but since Arzner was determined not to be a slave to the sound man, she had invented the microphone boom, so sometimes the mic was hovering in the air above Bow’s head, freaking her out.

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A tale of sexy shenanigans and student-teacher romance at a girls’ college, THE WILD PARTY is notable for undressing its cast of lovelies to their lingerie as often as can reasonably be managed, and for turning abruptly dark in the middle, when our four main girls go out dressed as showgirls (having been rejected from a college party for their slutty costumes) and narrowly escape gang rape by loathsome drunks.

Otherwise things are mostly very light (so this interlude is all the more shocking) with Fredric March as the dishy but bad-tempered new lecturer getting chased by all the girls (real-life sex fiend March no doubt enjoyed that) and the pleasure of many many different varieties of early talkie performance. Clara play-acts beautifully, like the former child actor she once was, telegraphing everything to the audience, but doing it with charm. Some of those other girls can’t act in any conventional sense, but there’s such a cornucopia of ways of failing to act on display here, it’s impossible to get bored. Some of these approaches might be budding METHODS, which nobody bothered to pursue and elaborate into Stanislavskian theories, but asides from the pulchritude, they’re the main reason to enjoy THE WILD PARTY, to which I append the sub-title, FIFTEEN WAYS OF TALKING YOU NEVER HEARD BEFORE. Just think of the box-office if they’d used that as a slogan in 1929!

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Happy holidays!

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