Archive for Gene Wilder

Based on an idea by Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2016 by dcairns

witnessfortheprosecution

Billy Wilder dismissed the drama FOURTEEN HOURS, in which a suicidal man perches on a window ledge, as uninteresting, and said that in his version the man would be a philanderer escaping a jealous husband, fleeing onto the window ledge and being mistaken for a suicide. He then has to play along.

It feels like Billy Wilder couldn’t open his mouth without somebody making off with his words, because the late Gene Wilder’s THE WOMAN IN RED and the film which inspired it, Yves Robert’s UN ÉLÉPHANT ÇA TROMPE ÉNORMÉMENT took that idea and spun a whole movie around it. (Love the prophetic seagull cries: when you hear them in the Wilder, you know they came from the French original. Not an American idea.)

Maurice Zolotow’s biography of Wilder features a couple of ideas which Wilder never got around to finishing. In one, a gangster is tormented by inexplicable crying jags and must seek therapy. This of course is the starting point of both ANALYSE THIS! and The Sopranos. Those both came along at around the same time, and could be interpreted as not so much cases of parallel development as parallel swiping from Billy Wilder.

The bio also tells us of a story Wilder pitched to Charles Laughton, after they had enjoyed working together on WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. In this one, set in post-war Britain, the gentry are being hit with property taxes, and finding they have to tighten their belts. But one stately lord (Laughton), seems to still be living high on the hog, and none of his blue-blooded friends can figure out how he’s doing it. The truth eventually is revealed to the audience: he’s been earning a fortune with his secret identity as a masked wrestler.

This pitch had Laughton rolling on the floor in hysterics, begging for mercy, But Wilder could never work out an ending for it.

Nobody, so far as I know, has adapted this idea, perhaps because its social moment has passed, but I may have just discovered where Wilder got the idea from.

In P.G. Wodehouse’s Ring for Jeeves, aristocrat Bill Rowcester (pronounced “Roaster”) is able to employ servants, including the mighty Jeeves, even as fellow aristos are having to get actual jobs for the first time in their lives. In this story, the secret is that Bill has been earning money on the sly as a bookie, wearing a preposterous false beard and eye-patch, in what turns out to be one of Jeeves’ less inspired ideas.

(Bill “Roaster” is very much like Bertie Wooster, but for this plot Wodehouse wanted to work with a hero who was financially embarrassed and romantically involved, neither of which would work for Bertie. An excuse is found for Jeeves to briefly come to work for another master.)

Did Wilder borrow the idea and adapt it? The timing seems right: Wodehouse’s book was published in America in 1954, and Wilder worked with Laughton in 1957. (He planned to cast Laughton in a supporting role in IRMA LA DOUCE in 1963, but Laughton fell ill with the cancer that would kill him. Zolotow tells us that Wilder carried on the pretense that they would make the film together, visiting the ailing actor for regular story updates.)

I like the idea of Wilder being influenced by Wodehouse. Everyone should be.

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Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2008 by dcairns

TLP

Tearing myself away from the Lithuanian baby racing (banged a tenner on a sprog that threw a tantrum on the final stretch) I turn my gaze upon more from Stanley Donen. LATE PERIOD Stanley Donen.

I thought this would be interesting, having recently “enjoyed” his musical parody MOVIE MOVIE, which was a very mixed bag. I remember seeing stills from THE LITTLE PRINCE in old movie mags when I was at school, and discussing it with someone (a Gene Wilder fan, I think) who had seen it and hated it. So I was fascinated (those stills were intriguing!) and also rather wary.

I. Loved. It.

Based on the story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, adapted into musical form by Leopold and Loeb. No wait, not them, the other two — Lerner and Lowe. Much better choice. Still it’s a weird book that I couldn’t get on with as a child, but which I’d probably love now. One of those “children’s books” that’s probably wasted on kids. It’s very peculiar and so is the film.

The Rose

it’s also made in quite a bold style that possibly seemed dated when the movie came out (1974) — Donen uses stylised sets not just for the fantastical otherworldly bits, but also for the desert at night, even though the daylight stuff is mostly shot on real locations (Tunisia). But this isn’t like Billy Wilder using rear projection for car journeys in BUDDY BUDDY (1981), Donen’s choices make sense for the film he’s making. Looking ahead to modern cinema we could even say he was ahead of his time.

In fact, when the central characters pass a giant fish skeleton in the Tunisian sands, and a soft-edged wipe takes us on to the next scene, it’s easy to see George Lucas MUST have seen this before embarking on STAR WARS. Everybody assumes those are sand worm bones in A NEW HOPE, but that would suggest Lucas had read Dune. I’m not even convinced he’s read Joseph Campbell.

Bones

Plot: An aviator crashes in the Sahara where, as he desperately tries to repair his plane, he encounters an extraterrestrial child who tells him his strange story… it’s like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, only with more dancing.

There is quite a bit more to it than that, but describing it would get us into the pernicious realm of spoilery, and I quite liked not knowing what was going to happen in this case. I must say I would NOT have predicted the ending. Crikey.

Graham

Incidentals: travelling through space, our little cosmo-lad encounters several eccentric characters, played by eccentric actors of various type: Joss Ackland from England, Graham Crowden from Scotland, Victor Spinetti from Wales and Clive Revill from New Zealand. Not major stars, but with impressive track records of cult cinema trailing in their wakes. Each embodies some aspect of adult human folly.

Two of them appear on giant spherical sets, and two appear filmed with a fish-eye lens that folds them into a spherical image. This must be one of the most brazenly stylised devices ever deployed in a mainstream entertainment. It’s pretty alienating and freaky, but so’s everything else. What I actually loved in this film are all the things than probably made it completely unacceptable to my schoolfriend.

Clive of India

Once on Earth, the little guy (a rubber-faced child with albino eyebrows and a fright wig, also a curious flattened delivery) encounters a snake, who offers to return him whence he came by killing him (all in song form) and a fox who wants to be tamed. The snake is Bob Fosse and the fox is Gene Wilder, and they don’t use animal costumes or special effects, just a few jump cuts to equate each with the animal they’re playing. It works marvellously well, but might be a stretch for little kids. Kids would always rather have a talking animal than a great actor or dancer.

(The tacky part of the film is actually the flock of birds that transport our miniature hero through the stars — they’re poorly drawn and animated and clash with the rest of the film. I assume that animation was used only because real doves couldn’t be tied to a child and unleashed. We’re not talking Hitchcock and “Tippi” Hedren here. Maybe, in keeping with the more theatrical approach to the talking animals, the birds should have been invisible, with sound effects only, or something? I actually think they would have sucked even if they’d been better designed and animated.)

The Birds

Fosse is amazing here. Fiona found it disconcerting to see Bob Fosse dance moves actually being danced by Bob Fosse. He’s styled kind of like Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe, and some of his moves and dress sense call to mind Michael Jackson, which is alarming. Both Fosse and Wilder’s scenes involve SEDUCING A CHILD, which obviously complicates our responses to the scenes, but I enjoy a healthy dose of malaise and discomfort in my entertainment so that didn’t spoil things for me.

Fosse!

Gene Wilder is doing his saccharine thing as showcased at the end of WILLY WONKA (he’s wonderfully sinister in the rest of that film) and it’s slightly problematic for me. I prefer Wilder when he’s funny. But he features in one of the film’s most lovely and weird shots:

Gene Wilder, Party Liason

It’s almost like a William Hurt hallucination from ALTERED STATES, as is most of the film. In Ken Russell’s psychedelic sci-fi extravaganza, stoners would famously lurk in the lobby during the talking bits, until a hallucination came on, then they’d rush into the cinema to experience it. In this movie they’d never have to leave their seats.

My biggest problem with the film was leading man Richard Kiley, a baritone voice with legs. At first I misread the credits and thought it said Richard KIEL, the hulking Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which would have been a miraculously brave choice. The kid would have barely come up to his calf. Kiley sings with that rather strenuous, fakey passionate commitment that I associate with the more generic kind of Broadway entertainment, and he kind of acts that way too. But in a strange way he balanced out with the non-acting, non-singing kid. By the end I liked them both. I mean, I liked the kid from the start because he’s a shaggy foetus in a frock coat, and you don’t see enough of those, but by the end I also RESPECTED him. He can pop round for a biscuit anytime.

Kiley and Warner

The songs and music sometimes tend to the sugary as well, but I Never Met a Rose was lovely and Fosse’s number was spectacular (and looooong — Fosse fans will not feel cheated) and any film where you get Joss Ackland singing will score highly on the old Weirdometer. He can kind of carry a tune, but more importantly, he can bulge his eyes like an ill frog.

Having cringed slightly at the stylistic vagueness of MOVIE MOVIE, I was thrilled at most of Donen’s visuals here. He seems confident, imaginative, on close to peak form. There are some very odd camera moves — when the Prince first appears it’s in a little crane shot, descending to earth so the kid sort of grows, which can only be explained in fairly abstruse psychological terms, but works, in some way. A lot of the moves are beautifully counter-intuitive. I get the impression Donen is enjoying himself, which didn’t so much seem the case in MOVIE MOVIE.

Cinematography, favouring the wide-angle lens, is by Christopher Challis, who did beautiful work on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and shot most of the later Powell & Pressburger flicks — films that aren’t as good as the ones Jack Cardiff filmed, mostly, but which are every bit as beautiful. And it’s worth getting his book.

The Planet

I was lucky enough to see Challis introduce P&P’s OH… ROSALINDA! here in Edinburgh. After he’d trashed the film, which everyone involved in considered a total failure, he observed that this was a restored print. “I’m not quite sure what that means, but when I look in the shaving mirror in the morning I do sometimes wish there was a restoration scheme for aging photographers.”

Euphoria #37: My Name is Jim

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2008 by dcairns

 Mel B

Kieran Thomson suggests one particular moment from Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES — and why not? Mel Brooks has given the world an enormous amount of euphoric hysteria during his stay on this planet, and about a third of it can be found in this one film.

At age eleven, Kieran is our youngest euphoric Shadowplayer yet, but he is wise beyond his years, having been the subject of intense scientific experimentation during his development, rather like DOC SAVAGE, MAN OF BRONZE, or Carl Boehm in PEEPING TOM. Kieran’s dad, a mad pharmacist, has wisely kept the child-proof caps on, but has dosed his offspring with many kinds of Psychotropic Cinema (Cocteau and Lon Chaney Snr at age 5), which may produce dizziness, seizures, severe itching, difficulty in breathing, swollen lips, abnormal body movements, profuse sweating or excessive excitement.

And it’s WORKED.

The exact Euphoric Moment cited by Kieran, and included in this clip, is this exchange:

“Are we awake?”

“We’re not sure. Are we… black?”

Weird how the studio refused to let Richard Pryor play Bart here, so Cleavon Little gets a shot at immortality. Either he was considered better box office because of VANISHING POINT, or Pryor just scared the crap out of the suits at Warner Bros.

Gig Young was originally cast as Jim, the Waco Kid, because Brooks naively thought a genuine alcoholic would be more effective. Once he realised that there was nothing funny about Young’s condition (Young subsequently committed suicide after murdering his wife) he offered the part to Gene Wilder, who’s almost as atypical a cowboy star as Cleavon Little.

Wilder deserves special honour for his work in THE PRODUCERS, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The latter is not a great film, but Wilder is monumentally impressive in it. Rather than play the part with a smile and wink to the audience (“I’m a good guy really”), Wilder is satanic and psychopathic throughout. I get a sugar rush of evil just looking at him. No wonder Marilyn Manson homaged this movie in a music vid.

Wilder’s oft-forgotten cameo in BONNIE AND CLYDE features maybe the best, and almost certainly the longest… comic pause… in history, a skill Wilder refined in EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, where his entire performance is basically one long pause punctuated by short bursts of speech and motion.