Archive for George Cukor

In the playroom

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by dcairns

So, we saw, and were very entertained by a film in which a young man meets his girlfriend’s wealthy family at their home. They include an authoritative dad and a drunken son. Something isn’t right. He starts to suspect he’s fallen into a terrible trap…

But I’m not talking about GET OUT, which we also enjoyed very much. Today’s topic is HOLIDAY, which I can’t believe I haven’t seen before, and which has now shot up to the top of my George Cukor list. What was there before? I’m not even sure. The problem with me, when you come right down to it, is that I probably didn’t have a George Cukor list at all.

This one is classed as a screwball comedy — while I realise that nothing is more boring or pointless than arguing about genre definitions. Screwball, apart from being quintessentially American and essentially mid-thirties to mid-forties, is really more like a collection of desirable items than a readily-defined genre. If you have enough of the items, as we do here (eccentric heiress, class barriers overcome, playful/childish behaviour asserted as a right) then it ought to qualify. But there’s also the indefinable, personal quality of what it feels like. And in a sense I felt the anxiety of the pressure to conform in HOLIDAY more strongly and consistently than I felt the joy of letting go. In a sense, the joy is intensified by the pressures around it, but the forces that are at work to make Cary Grant into a highly-paid wage slave and trophy husband are always on our minds.

Cary Grant gets to show off his expertise in tumbling with a series of spectacular back-flips. Katherine Hepburn is more vulnerable than usual, and makes it work. Lew Ayres is, my God, TERRIFIC — the heart and soul of the film, in a way. If the movie isn’t as well-known as the Hepburn-Cukor PHILADELPHIA STORY, also from a play by Philip Barry, it may because Ayres complicates it, makes it less than totally joyous. He’s a casualty of the household Hepburn and Grant have to escape, and we don’t really believe he’s ever going to be alright. So the happy ending, which is inevitable, is surprisingly compromised, undermined — elated, but with a scintilla of unease.

This movie makes me curious to see the 1930 original — it was an indecently-soon remake. Edward Everett Horton plays the same role in both versions (he’s marvelously understated, by his eccentric standards). I’m also curious about another Barry adaptation, the pro-Soviet SPRING MADNESS, with Ayres again, directed by my recent discovery S. Sylvan Simon. TCM is airing that one soon if American readers are curious.

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Monsieur in Tights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by dcairns

I’ve had my Eclipse box set of early sound Lubitsch for years without watching the films, though I always knew I would. I’d seen them all save MONTE CARLO, but only on rather fuzzy VHS off-air recordings sent across the Atlantic to me by an accountant in Baltimore (I know the right people). On DVD they’re transformed, so that what can feel like dated technique — the films were made before the microphone boom was standard kit, so they tend to favour static frames for dialogue — now seems merely like a specific stylistic approach, of its time no doubt (because everything is), but as eloquent as any other approach.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU was begun by George Cukor, working from a script prepared by producer Lubitsch will regular collaborator Samson Raphaelson, but then Lubitsch suffered the commercial failure of THE MAN I KILLED/BROKEN MELODY, and so he went running for cover and rather cruelly kicked Cuckor off the film and supervised reshoots himself. The result, a more lightweight reworking of his silent hit THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, is indistinguishable from a full-fledged Lubitsch work.

It also gets a boost from its stars — Lubitsch had made THE LOVE PARADE with Chevalier and MacDonald previously, then made one film with MacDonald but not Chevalier and one with Chevalier and not MacDonald. When all three are reunited here, you get quite a lot of comic energy sparkling away in those locked-off frames. Also Genevieve Tobin and particularly the amazing, miraculous Roland Young, here rather surprisingly satanic as a husband who’s not so much jealous as broiling in hatred. quite KEEN for his wife to betray him so he can divorce her.

And Charles Ruggles (top), subject of my favourite joke in the film.

(Although there’s a bit where MacDonald and Tobin are whispering about Chevalier and he’s looking hilariously perturbed. It’s one of Lubitsch’s smutty false alarms — what ARE they saying? Then they become audible. “Can he really?” “Oh yes.” “He can’t, really?” “He can!” Chevalier looking VERY alarmed as this goes on. Finally, Jeanette appeals to him: “Darling. Look like an owl.” The only frustrating thing is we never get to see Maurice look like an owl. We certainly believe him capable of it. In fact, it seems to be bubbling up in him constantly, this ability to look like an owl. But he never yields to it.)

The Ruggles joke — he’s introduced late in the story, just when a schnook is required. He phones MacDonald as she’s dressing for a party (the obligatory undies scene). He’s already dressed, as Romeo. But then he learns it’s not a costume party. He calls for his valet. Why did the fool tell him it was a costume party?

“Ah monsieur, I did so want to see you in tights.”

We never see this valet again, nor is he mentioned, so we never learn more of his strange obsession. But he seems to exemplify something about the film. Lubitsch, as “the greatest writer in cinema history,” as Billy Wilder called him (though Lubitsch never took a writing credit in Hollywood), wanted to make all his characters distinctive, to impart to even the smallest bit player a measure of personality. Well, in a soufflé like this, why bother making them realistic, when what we principally need is charm and funniness? Why not make them all a bit mad?

In this idea, I propose, is the origins of screwball.

Forbidden Divas: All That Glitters

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by dcairns

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David Melville (Wingrove) returns to our pages for the first of, hopefully, many posts this year ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All That Glitters

In 1975, the veteran Hollywood director George Cukor flew to St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called) to start work on the first-ever coproduction between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Blue Bird (1976) was planned as a star-studded musical epic, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic Symbolist fantasy of 1908. The cast included a roster of Hollywood legends (Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner) as well as star performers from the Bolshoi Ballet. The aim was to usher in a bold new era of bilateral cooperation and cinematic détente. As he toured the Lenfilm studio, Cukor said how proud he was to be filming on the same spot where Sergei Eisenstein had shot The Battleship Potemkin in 1925. “Indeed, Mr. Cukor,” his interpreter replied, “and with the same equipment too!”

From that moment, The Blue Bird was set to be one of the most fabled fiascos in the history of world cinema. The schedule overran, the budget overflowed, the Soviet and Western crews fell out and Elizabeth Taylor shut the whole production down for two weeks – as she suffered one of her legendary illnesses and flew to London for treatment in a private clinic. On its premiere, The Blue Bird was slated by critics and shunned by the public. Shunned, at least, in the relatively few places where the public had a chance to see it. In fact, it was barely released in the UK and most other Western countries. Its reception worldwide was less a liberal 70s vision of détente than a Reagan 80s wet dream of Mutual Assured Destruction. In its own glitzy way, The Blue Bird helped to usher in a new and very nasty era in world politics.

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But forty years later – now that the nuclear fall-out has settled – perhaps it is time to sit down and watch the film itself. To the amazement of anyone who knows their film history, The Blue Bird is a delight. Less a conventional musical than a balletic fantasy in the style of late Michael Powell – Tales of Hoffman (1951), Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955) and Honeymoon (1959) all spring to mind – it stands poised precariously but irresistibly en pointe, in that limbo between High Camp and High Art. Its trio of Hollywood leading ladies – disarmingly but quite wisely, it turns out – make not the slightest effort to act. Instead, they parade about like Pantomime Dames in an array of sumptuous monstrosities designed by the legendary Edith Head. It was written on many a toilet cubicle wall that “Edith Head Gives Good Wardrobe.” I am still unsure how that would translate into Russian.

The story, if there is one, concerns two rather obnoxious children (Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit) on a quest of the mystical Blue Bird of Happiness. Given that they live in a remote hut in the depths of the Siberian taiga, one assumes that any place they look will be an improvement. Their guide on their journey is Light, embodied by Elizabeth Taylor in a series of sparkly chiffon gowns that seem to be borrowed from Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Sadly, the role lacks the dramatic complexity of Glinda. It seems to consist of beaming angelically through as many layers of gauze as cameraman Freddie (Doctor Zhivago) Young chose to put over his lens, as well as warbling one or two less-than-memorable songs. Did you know that Liz Taylor could sing? No? Well, that is because she could not.

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Eager to stretch her thespian talents to the full, the enterprising Liz takes on three additional roles. The first is the children’s loving but sharp-tongued Mother, whom she plays a lot like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – only with a strictly sanitised vocabulary. Next and by far the liveliest is a terrifying Witch; in truth, Liz is barely recognisable and seems to be having the time of her life. Apart, perhaps, from the day she spent off-screen touring the Imperial Jewellery Collection at the Hermitage Museum. (“They say that if you admire something, the Russians give it to you,” recalled the star. “Well, I admired and admired the Crown Jewels and nothing happened!”) The last role, Maternal Love, is basically Mother with a better dress and more make-up. Indeed, Liz allegedly spent $8000 of her own money on bringing her costumes for The Blue Bird up to scratch.

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Of the magic realms where the children seek the Blue Bird, the most ominous is the Castle of Night. This is presided over by Jane Fonda as Night herself – draped from head to foot in black satin, sporting a cartwheel hat that is the size of a small galaxy. Luckily, she does not sing but is content to purr menacingly, much in the manner of Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen in Barbarella (1967) – the film that remains, to my mind, Jane’s greatest and most iconic role. (She went on, alas, to win two Oscars. This was proof that her great days of stardom were behind her.) Guiding the children through her castle, she opens multiple doors, behind one of which we glimpse the horrors of War. Cue for a cavalcade of Teutonic Knights, Napoleonic grenadiers, Nazi storm-troopers and all those who have mistakenly attempted to invade Mother Russia. One can only wonder if Cukor and his beleaguered Anglo-American crew took this warning to heart.

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Yet in the trinity of Hollywood divas, the briefest and most satisfying appearance comes from Ava Gardner. Her role is Luxury – an earthy but majestic good-time gal, seated on a white stallion and swathed in vibrant red. She takes an instant shine to the young boy and whisks him off to her palace, where a perpetual orgy is in full swing. Her guests include flamboyantly camp gay men, in suits of lilac and fuchsia silk. (In the dubbed Russian version, do they possibly translate her name as Western Decadence?) Once she gets home, Ava slips into a gown of scarlet and gold swirls, topped off with a spiky jewelled tiara. It bears an eerie resemblance to one of co-star Liz Taylor’s costumes from Boom! (1968). The boy gazes at her in rapt fascination and asks: “Which one of the luxuries are you?” With a splendidly lewd twinkle in her eye, Ava tells him: “That you’ll know once you grow a little bit older.” I take this as proof that he is destined to become a drag queen.

What an actual child might make of The Blue Bird is hard to say. It is by far the most outré piece of ‘family entertainment’ since The Wizard of Oz – but that film has been warping children’s minds for 75 years, until it has assumed the status of a classic. Is it not time we gave The Blue Bird a chance to do the same? It might even be advertised with an appropriate revolutionary slogan: “Camp film buffs of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your taste!”

David Melville