Archive for George Cukor

Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 2 – Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Murdered 1931

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2020 by dcairns

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDb. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

I would have liked to review EA Dupont’s Menschen im Käfig/ Men(People) In A Cage/ The Love Storm 1930, shot in England at British International Pictures (made in English as Cape Forlorn), but I can’t because this film is listed as missing. (The English language version ISN’T missing) What I can offer you instead, is the opinion of an unknown journalist in Variety who writes, ‘Conrad Veidt still has much of the demon whom the little girls once upon a time used to adore, therefore unreal and posing.’ Short of nipping into a time machine to a screening in Berlin at Gloria Palast, there’s nothing I can do to refute this opinion.

So, here we are in 1931, and it’s a busy, busy time for Connie. The Last Company 1930 was a big hit in Germany and would herald his brief stint as an almost conventional leading man. In this year alone, he had four films released. Unfortunately, Die Nacht Der Entscheidung aka Der General/The Night Of The Decision is missing presumed lost, which is a great pity.

The English language version, The Virtuous Sin 1930, was directed by George Cukor, who Connie would later work with on A Woman’s Face. The 1931 German version gave us Connie doing romantic dramedy (Yes. I know!) whilst looking dashing as a WW1 Russian General. Unfortunately, there’s probably more chance of finding the jaunty Cossack hat he wears in it than the film itself. Could someone please make an effort etc…

Actually there is a way of recreating this lost movie. Just watch the Cukor version and imagine Connie in the Walter Huston role and Olga Tschechowa in the Kay Francis role. You can thank me later. Especially when you imagi-create the bit on the seesaw.

But back to the mainstream of this evening’s symposium. The Man Who Murdered is an adaptation of a play by Pierre Frondaie, itself based on a novel by Claude Farrère. It’s a slow-moving, technically impressive, if not exactly riveting drama, reuniting Veidt with Kurt Bernhardt who helmed The Last Company. Bernhardt was one of the directors who seemed to get the best out of Connie. He gives one of the most restrained performances of his life in this film. It’s notable for its naturalness and detail.

SYNOPSIS – Just before the First World War, the Marquis de Sévigné (Veidt), a French military attaché stationed in Istanbul, falls in love with Lady Mary (Trude von Molo – who was married to the director at the time), the wife of Lord Falkland (Heinrich George), a boorish, English aristocrat. He tries to protect her when the marriage, crumbling under Falkland’s infidelity and tyranny, is given the final death blow when he threatens to separate her from her small son, Georgie. Sévigné is put in an intolerable position. What lengths will he go to to save her?

Open on the vistas of Istanbul, shot on location by the second unit, headed by the great John Alton. Long shot of the dome of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Match dissolve to painting of the same dome being hung on the wall in Connie’s apartments. Nicely done Kurt! Kurt is also keen on long tracking shots, and he really indulges himself in this movie. Very lovely they are too.

It’s a long way to Connie’s table, isn’t it?

On to performance. Something I’ve noticed about Talkie Connie is that he’s no longer gesticulating and gurning and throwing himself around like a madman, but he’s still a very physical actor.

He’s become elegant and balletic in his body movements, while his face is extremely expressive without him having to pop his eyes or leer. Even in the not-very-good, soft-focus print I saw, he conveys so much with his face and body. As I said in my introductory essay, A Face You Can’t Forget But Apparently Have, he’s pared his silent style down to the bare minimum, whilst simultaneously taking on board a whole new set of sound acting rules.

Check this out. Look at the way he turns round, well, it’s more like swings round and at the same time the smile falls off his face. (He’s expecting to see his lady love but it’s someone else.) His body movements are completely in sync with his face. The arms drop as the smile drops. Beautiful.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that in all his performances, his hands are rarely at rest. They’re almost always doing something, usually in an extremely aesthetically pleasing way. It’s as if he’d become completely paralysed if he couldn’t move his hands. He’s one of the great Hand Actors of all time. But it’s not fussy (although hilarious), Donald Pleasance Hanky Acting; it just seems to flow out of him naturally.

Just a very sweet moment of Sévigné interacting with Georgie. In real life Connie adored children and animals. Yes, that incorrigible Nazi and Expressionist nightmare was an adorable giggler.

If I could just go off on a tangent, I spoke before about Connie possibly having had ADHD. As I have it myself I was intrigued by this fan theory so I spent some time researching it. I think it’s very likely, although I’m wary about retroactively diagnosing someone when we’ll never know the truth.

One of the things that persuades me is that he’s physically restless. He’s either shifting about from one foot to the other, bouncing on the spot or swaying slightly. By a supreme effort of will he can make himself move in slow motion or even be as still as a statue. But his default setting on screen is movement.

And never more so than with his hands. He’s always using them to emphasise things. He points a lot and fidgets with objects. He touches his face or head, running his fingers through his hair, or bringing his fingers up to his lips contemplatively. Sometimes he’ll even rub his lips or pull on them. He also touches people, invading their personal space in a slightly alarming way. If he didn’t do it so charmingly you’d probably punch his lights out.

Famously, his hands had a life of their own in Orlacs Hände.

I’ve noticed that I employ very similar hand gestures when I’m talking myself. If I get very excited, my arms start flailing around like a windmill. I observed this inability to speak without moving my hands when I started making video essays with David and had to record voice-overs. I was completely stilted if I didn’t move my hands, but if I allowed them to weave about in the air, as I usually do when I talk, my speech was much more fluid.

I’d go as far as saying that ADHD informed Connie’s performances. There’s an energy and restive quality to him that’s sometimes ruthlessly controlled and sometimes not. I know that in his private life he suffered from extreme emotional dysregulation which is another dead giveaway.

There’s also his boyishness. Individuals with ADHD are very enthusiastic and childlike, sometimes to the point of seeming manic or high. All of these things were present in Connie and would sometimes pop out in his performances. The next time you watch him, especially in Contraband (especially especially in the “Which Button Would You Press?” scene with Hay Petrie), where he basically plays himself. I’m not wrong.

From 1:18:28 to 1:19:05 – In all probability, this is a representation of the real Connie getting flustered in a lift. Bless ‘im. Thanks to Dubjax 30.

Another thing I observed, much to my horror, is that The Entire World is Connie’s ashtray. He’ll casually tap cigarette ash wherever he is, indoors or outdoors, with or without an ash receptacle. And he does this in most of his sound films. Were other actors doing this at the time? I haven’t thought to look. I pray to god he wasn’t like this at home, but I fear he was.

His wife Lilli described him as “messy, things lying about all over the place”, when he wasn’t working, but the moment he had a job, he’d spring into action, tidying up and organising like a six-foot-three whirlwind.

Back in the film, the six-foot-three whirlwind confesses his love to Lady Mary, but inexplicably, she’s shagging a braying idiot called Prince Cernuwicz (Gregori Chmara) because she thought he could help her keep her son. Everyone’s getting their leg over except Connie. Even the repulsive Lord Falkland is having an affair with his cousin, Lady Edith (Friedl Haerlin).

The repellent Prince Cernuwicz and the repulsive Lord Falkland.
*thinks* I don’t even know what you’re doing to your wife at this juncture in the film and I want to murder you right now!

I feel I should caution you that there are tits in this film, which surprised me. The mammaries had no particularly surprising attributes of their own. It was their being in such an early talkie that startled me. Falkland, Cernuwicz and Sévigné all go out on the town. (Sévigné actually wants to gather evidence against “that bulldog.”) They end up in a bizarre cabaret that combines striptease with the circus trapeze: Stripeze if you will. Confronted by nipples and asked what he thinks of them, Connie, cunningly blending in with his mucky pretend mates declares them to be “Excellent.”

Watching ‘Stripeze’, the wildly popular combo of stripping and the flying trapeze. It’s not as exciting as that sounds.

There’s an interesting moment where Mary and Sévigné have a secret tryst where she tells him all about the terrible situation she’s in. They deliberately walk away from where the mic is hidden and walk back again, so the conversation fades away to nothing then fades up again. It’s not a successful effect but it does show us that Bernhardt wasn’t afraid to experiment.

Connie doesn’t even get a kiss for all the trouble he goes through for this wretched woman, that trouble being murder as the title suggests. And here we come to Connie Trope No 1 – He doesn’t get the girl. No matter how noble and devoted to duty he’s been, he can never end up in a final clinch with the woman of his dreams. This trope would be repeated many times over in his filmography.

The woman of his dreams avec son.

The dark deed done, he reports to his superior, hinting at the deadly truth of the matter. He’s told to skedaddle off to another city, which he duly does, leaving a note for Milady. It’s been a somewhat turgid melodrama with beautiful cinematography, some nice tracking shots and a delicate, yearning, elegant performance from Veidt, and now this. That’s it! That’s the end of the film! Talk about an anti-climax. Still, at least he gets to live! Just not in Istanbul Not Constantinople. The Connie Death Scene is a trope for another day.

Mylady, I have the honour to bid you farewell. I am leaving Stanbul. I take this opportunity to thank you. Your most devoted servant, de Sevigne. PS – I’m The Man Who Murdered your husband. PPS – I’m too noble for my own good. Next time you need someone murdered, do it yourself. xxx

As I researched this rather dreary thing, I uncovered a wealth of information about the talents involved in making it. Henry Koster as Hermann Kosterlitz, is listed as one of the screenwriters. He’s probably most famous as the director of Harvey and The Bishop’s Wife, but check out his hugely dramatic and entertaining IMDB Bio, Trivia and Quotes sections. “I thought Richard Burton was a wonderful man. He still is a wonderful man, no matter how many times he marries Elizabeth Taylor.” Amazing.

And then we have one of the other screenwriters, Carl Mayer, listed as working on dialogue. Yes. THAT Carl Mayer. The man who co-wrote The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and worked on the scripts for Journey Into The Night, The Haunted Castle, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise, all for FW Murnau.

Bringing up the rear are cinematographer Curt Courant who shot the first The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Passing Of The Third Floor Back (one of the best of the bunch of Connie’s British Period), Editor Laslo Benedek who directed The Wild One, and Hermann Warm, who was Art Director/Production Designer on The Student Of Prague 1926 (Connie version), Caligari, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Vampyr.

Phew! And relax…

Join me as we explore the next film in the little discussed Veidt sound filmography, Die andere Seite/ The Other Side, in which German actors all play British soldiers in an adaptation of R. C Sherriff’s Journey’s End.

Danke.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

Goodies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 28, 2018 by dcairns

NOT my Christmas haul — these goodies came through the door on Christmas Eve, presents from the good fairies at Arrow Academy. I have contributed video essays to both BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE and BORN YESTERDAY, which was nothing but pleasure apart from the lawyers. But at this festive time of goodwill, even lawyers may find forgiveness, so it is told.

You can procure almost identical items below ~

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [Blu-ray]
Born Yesterday [Blu-ray]