Archive for George Bernard Shaw

Meeting at the Sphinx

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on March 22, 2021 by dcairns

Per the IMDb, the script of CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945) is by George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, and George Bernard Shaw, which seems about right: original play, scenario, script and dialogue. Those don’t normally warrant more than two credits, but maybe they should.

Marjorie Deans is credited as Script Editor, which was her role, and Script Supervisor, a job title which didn’t exist yet. The film had, in addition to four writers embodied in one person, seemingly four cinematographers and two continuity girls (which is the job title that eventually became script supervisor).

Deans also wrote the making-of book, which was a very uncommon thing at the time. This was an epic super-production so it warranted commemoration. In fact, it was kind of a disaster and it ended the British career of its producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, despite his being the only filmmaker with whom Shaw would work. The book doesn’t talk about that, but Deans, a screenwriter herself, devotes a lot of time to praising Shaw as a screenwriter, pointing out that his plays are full of striking imagery —

“They come down the corridor, Caesar peering keenly about at the strange architecture, and at the pillars’ shadows between which, as the passing torch makes them hurry noiselessly backwards, figures of men with wings and hawks’ heads, and vast black marble cats, seem to flit in and out of ambush.”

It’s questionable if any stage director ever managed to fully achieve this effect, but Pascal (at 14:55 in the movie above) barely suggests it either — he stages the scene outdoors, at the entrance to the palace, and though Claude Rains remembers to peer keenly, and Pascal remembers to move the camera, whichever great cinematographer* was on lighting duty that day doesn’t create any moving shadows (apart from Caesar’s, which shouldn’t appear since he’s the light source), just a moving glow which doesn’t illuminate anything that’s not already visible. And Pascal fails to provide a POV shot, which is what the play, for God’s sake, is clearly indicating.

*The cinematographers between them shot most of BLACK NARCISSUS, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE THIRD MAN.

No script is director-proof — you can suggest what we should see, and a sensitive director will pick it up (and many times improve it) but a clod will drag everything down to his level.

It’s a really beautiful book. Sometimes the insights could be more meaningful (and of course it’s all a puff-piece). We’re told that composer Georges Auric is “a big, loosely-built, rather indolent-looking man” with a dangling cigarette, but we’re not told that he used the first electronic instrument ever employed for the screen (the fabulously-named ondes martinot) for this film. My late friend Lawrie Knight was in the crew and reported the excitement this caused, though how the crew ever got to see it I don’t know.

I was hoping the book would confirm one or two of Lawrie’s stories, but most of those were too unflattering to Pascal and the production, or too racy, to serve Deans’ purposes. BUT — Lawrie did own a framed picture of Gabbie Pascal, in Arab dress, leading a camel. And Deans supplies the backstory to this —

“There is a camel-driver, played by Gabriel Pascal himself, because only he understood and was understood by the camel, and could make it do what he wanted. And there is the camel, who bit Gabriel Pascal…”

Lawrie made much more of this story. They had a real camel-driver, who protested that a camel could not be made to stop on a precise mark. Pascal said this was rubbish, took on the costume, led the camel to its position in one perfect take, yelled “Cut!” and then had a bite taken out of him.

The crew clustered round, concerned/delighted. Pascal, in his broken English, insisted it was nothing. “But Gabbie, what about the danger of syphilis?” “What you say, I no have syphilis.” “No, it’s true, all camels are full of syphilis.” (I think this is probably untrue, and likely an offshoot from the joke about why camels are called ships of the desert…)

A doctor was sent for. He dressed the wound and pronounced it trivial.

“But doctor,” says a crewmember/provocateur, “What about the danger of syphilis being passed on?”

“Well, if you think it’s necessary, I can give the camel an injection.”

Now, this may well be a fictitious elaboration. It has the shape of a deliberate joke, not a real incident. But I’m pleased that at least part of Lawrie’s story is confirmed.

I don’t think Pascal and the camel made the cut — the set where they were to have appeared is at 22:48.

Deans has more to say that relates to the tales I was told twenty years ago, and I shall get another blog post (at least) out of those. And I shall scan more of the gorgeous images, though scanning is a pain.

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

Follow That Camel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 15, 2011 by dcairns

Gabriel Pascal, the penniless Hungarian émigré who somehow convinced George Bernard Shaw he was a genius, and got the go-ahead to adapt MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA as movies.

I couldn’t remember, offhand, which of my late friend Lawrie’s stories I’d perpetuated here on Shadowplay concerningproducer/director/charlatan Gabriel Pascal. I found some of the stories here, but there are more. Pascal was Lawrie’s first boss in the film industry, as he exited WWII and entered the less murderous but not dissimilar madness of the motion picture industry.

All Lawrie’s stories are true — the ones I’ve been able to check, anyway. Some of the unconfirmed ones seem decidedly fantastical in a David Niven kind of way, and it’s worth recalling that Lawrie doubled for Niven in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH…

Lawrie entered the film business after exiting the armed forces under circumstances I wasn’t quite clear about. The war was still on, and he was in the Air Force Air Sea Rescue. His war stories are as colourful as his film stories. He mentioned something about pretending to be suicidal so he could  escape duty for a day and go to the cinema, which worked fine until the men with the straitjacket came for him a few days later. He also talked about being adrift at sea alone in a lifeboat, with only a newspaper for company. In the paper was an article about the film producer who discovered Leslie Howard. Lawrie resolved to look the man up and ask for a job, if he ever got out of this…

On his release from the army, he presented himself to the producer. “I’ve come about a job,” he said. The man looked delighted. “Oh, thank God! What kind of job do you have for me?”

Only slightly deterred by this early proof of the shakiness of a career in moving pictures, Lawrie went to Rank Denham. The doorman was going to send him away, but when he gave his name as Knight, the man asked “Captain Knight”? Lawrie lied and said yes, and was shown in. (Captain Knight was a celebrated explorer and sometime actor, who appears, with his pet eagle, in Michael Powell’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING — and Powell would play a major role in Lawrie’s career). Lawrie was show in to see the top man, who was in conference with Claude Rains. His imposture was immediately rumbled, but he somehow landed a job as assistant on the current super-production, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA.

The movie was insanity itself. “We shipped sand to Egypt for the desert scenes!” exclaimed Lawrie. “During wartime!” He also reported that when a group of local extras was outfitted with soft sandals, they immediately ate them. A scenic artist painted elaborate murals all over the sets, and director Pascal chose to shoot all the action in front of the only bare wall in the studio.

But Lawrie’s most unlikely anecdote concerned a camel. It was supposed to be led into a shot, bearing one of the stars on its back, and halt on its mark. But in take after take, it refused to do so. Pascal was apoplectic. The camel wrangler tried to explain to him that a camel simply could not be made to perform as precisely as Pascal demanded. Pascal dismissed this, and promtly put on the camel herder’s costume and did the scene himself.

The camel stopped exactly where it was supposed to. “There!” exclaimed Pascal, gesturing in satisfaction, and the camel bit him. Everybody crowded around the bleeding hyphenate, who insisted he was alright. “We’d better get you a doctor.” “No, I’m fine!” “But what about the VD?” “What are you talking about, VD? I don’t have VD!” “No, but all camels do. We’d better get you a doctor.”

The doctor was called. He bandaged the wound.

“What about the risk of VD infection?” asked a crewmember.

“I doubt you have to worry. But if you really think it necessary, I can give the camel some penicillin.”

As I say, this story may not be absolutely truthful. All I can say is, the stories Lawrie told which I was able to check, were.