Archive for George Cukor

By George

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2011 by dcairns

“Disappointed romantic; one who dines alone in restaurants where music is played.”

Though I couldn’t quite get into RICH AND FAMOUS, I was able to respond favourably to George Cukor’s LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a 1975 TV production starring Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. So nice that Kate and George were able to collaborate after she was elbowed out of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which she helped script but wasn’t allowed to play in. And nice that Olivier and Hepburn, great friends, finally got to collaborate — it turns out they’re an excellent match.

Hepburn plays a rich widow being sued for breach of promise by her former young lover (Leigh Lawson) — she engages Olivier as barrister, apparently having forgotten their youthful fling 40 years earlier in Ottawa — sorry, Toronto.

What was this shot on? Douglas Slocombe was director of photography, and it’s aiming for a nice soft-focus look, but everything’s TOO soft, it’s positively mushy. But maybe that’s my copy. The trouble is, this film is something that doesn’t otherwise exist, the classically cinematic TV film of the 70s. That’s not a medium, or even a genre, it’s an aberration. If this TV, everybody’s too far away — the image is too diffuse for long shots, where actors’ faces turn to fuzz. If it’s film, the ten minute scenes are rather long and the action too stately. Something kind of rankles.

Cukor tries a few “cinematic flourishes” — apart from the ugly zooms, these consist of a nostalgic orange glow around Kate H that unfortunately suggests the landing of a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS UFO, and a soft white iris in on Larry when he starts to lose track of his surroundings as memories sweep over him. These bits are kind of eggy. But it’s hard to judge the correct style for this kind of thing — if it even is a kind of thing.

And yet, this is a terrific film. Olivier is excellent, and he’s really in tune with Hepburn: their timing together is wondrous. He’s funny, he’s moving, and he gets away with being big without seeming weird, apart from one scene. His summing-up at the end of the trial devolves into a crazy aerobatic display of random “dramatic” flourishes, and it becomes impossible to follow what he’s on about — Sir Larry is off in a world of his own, hearing only the adulation of some imaginary audience, calling out requests for new dramaturgical stunts — “Do the falling leaf!”

But it’s a solitary lapse. Elsewhere, he gets over his desire to be “the only one up there” (O. Welles) and riffs off Kate beautifully. They’re really good for each other. It’s not that they restrain one another — heaven forbid! — or push each other further — how could they? — but they focus each other wonderfully.

The supporting cast is a dream — Richard Pearson, as Olivier’s friend and Hepburn’s solicitor, is an enjoyable light comedian. Sadly, he died this year, a day after his 93 birthday. His only trouble is convincingly acting surprised by Olivier’s emotional revelations, since Larry projects said emotions with such seismic force even when he’s not discussing them. Then there’s Lawson as the infra dig golddigger, a nice study in venal hypocrisy — and Joan Sims as his mum! Her presence in the cast credits initially meant far more to me than the stars’, such is my love of her Carry On roles. She doesn’t need to adapt her comedic talents at all to fit in, though she’s playing a less ladylike figure than most of her Carry On caricatures (like Kenneth Williams, she specialized in a surface gentility which would drop like knickers in moments of high emotion. Given Joan’s rather hard life, I’m touched and pleased that she got to play a big scene with Olivier — surely that must have meant a lot to her. And then there’s Colin Blakely (Billy Wilder’s Dr Watson), affecting what I take to be a very subtle Edinburgh accent — Miss Jean Brodie dialled right down to subliminal level. The performance is huge and oily, but the accent is subtle as heck, a mere insinuation (unless it’s Blakely’s own Northern Irish, but I don’t think so — his character name, Devine, seems to have set off the notion of Scottishness, and a particular kind of prudish Calvinism at that.

Maybe this needs to be an annual tradition — I’ll watch a different late Cukor for each blogathon: I still need to see THE CORN IS GREEN and THE BLUE BIRD and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which are all bona fide late curios, at the very least. In the meantime, I can’t sign off here without giving due credit to screenwriter James Costigan. Funny how he could write this solo and it’s excellent, but he apparently needed two collaborators to adapt Whitley Streiber’s book into THE HUNGER. Truly, the ways of cinema are mysterious…

The Late Show 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by dcairns

It continues — here’s where I’ll post links to blog posts in The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. This post will stay at the top, if I can figure out how to do that, with my own entries appearing — slowly — down beneath it.

Late Losey — M KLEIN, today.

Diarmid Mogg, author of my favourite movie speciality blog, The Unsung Joe, weighs in on one of Hollywood’s forgotten men, John Ince (brother of the more famous Thomas and Ralph), here. It’s an eye-opener!

For Shadowplay, David Melville continues his alphabetical survey of Mexican melodrama with LA GENERALA, the last film of Maria Felix.

Ben Alpers on MOONRISE, my favourite late Borzage — maybe my favourite Borzage.

Gareth comes up trumps with another Melville piece — UN FLIC stars Delon and is cool as ice.

Late Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Are you sure? Wanna make something of it?

HUGO receives tender loving care from Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, who suggested the idea of this blogathon over dinner in Brooklyn. And HUGO is not only the latest film from a senior film artist, but a film about the Autumn years of a great filmmaker. Go here, at once.

At the ever-excellent Gareth’s Movie Diary, LE CERCLE ROUGE is the topic of the day — late Melville, late Bourvil, and a terrific piece.

I try to tackle one of the trickiest entries in Richard Lester’s career, his last fiction feature, whose modest virtues are forever overshadowed by an on-set tragedy — THE RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS.

Over at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a thoughtful and deeply moving piece and I’m proud I nudged Gill towards writing it (but also a little guilty). Boy! This kind of piece makes this whole blogathon thing worthwhile.

It suddenly occurred to me, after watching and loving HUGO, to wonder about Georges Melies last film — the story of his career’s end was well known to me, but I hadn’t looked at anything from the very end of his career. So I did.

My own first entry approaches LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a late-ish George Cukor I really enjoyed, with fine late-ish performances by Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean looks at The Great Mastroianni’s last bow, in Manoel de Oliveira’s VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (below).

David Ehrenstein proves that great minds think alike with THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (above and here).

The ball got rolling with two late Ken Russells from the late Ken Russell, over at Brandon’s Movie Memory here and here.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Soul of Sugar

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2011 by dcairns

As I was saying, last week

Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 film of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, THE BLUEBIRD, is a cockeyed allegory featuring characters who are the literal embodiments of household objects and phenomena — there’s Bread, Sugar, Cat and Dog, as well as Light and Fire. The standard problem with allegory very much applies: it’s like poetry read with a codebook, where the work is done for you and deeper meanings need not be sought because it’s all laid out. But, being a silent film by a great filmmaker, THE BLUEBIRD escapes the worst problems associated with this form, partly because the visual action leaves us room to think for ourselves, and partly because the images are so beautiful and evocative.

My favourite of the film’s Platonic Ideals is Fire. You know those fake fires you get, made from translucent material, brightly underlit and blasted with air to make it flicker? That’s Fire’s costume, and he dances about in it, adding to the effect. But it’s useless showing you Fire in a still image, since his whole schtick is motion-based.

Instead, here are the Wan Illnesses which menace one of the young heroes —

Since all the supporting cast are somewhat archetypal figures, it helps that the two children at the centre of the action are wonderfully naturalistic. That’s something Tourneur père has in common with his son, along with expressive shadows: a fondness for low-key perfs amid the low-key lighting. There’s also a surprising focus on the unconscious sensuality of children’s bodies, which strikes me as quite innocent and proper, but alien to modern audiences, grown used to the idea of a naked child as a frightening, uncomfortable object.

In this early scene, the kids change for bed, and little Tula Belle flexes her biceps (you don’t associate child actors with names like Tula Belle with either naturalistic, un-cutesy performances, or the flexing of biceps, but thanks to Tourneur we get both). It’s a sweet and beautiful moment, all the nicer for being strange and surprising.

And in the Palace of Night, Night’s children can be seen sleeping. The Palace is full of draped nudes, actually, evidence that this movie was not thought of as specifically a kids’ film (Jan Svankmajer argues strongly against the principle that children’s movies should even exist, and he has a point, I think, but it’s utopian to imagine such categories being abandoned: too useful to parents and the market, although whether kids themselves benefit is debatable). Or else it argues that in 1918, artistic nudity in movies, like the nudity of classical paintings and sculpture, was considered child-safe.

I remember being creeped out by the 1940 remake, an inoffensive film, you would think. But what got me was the scene in Heaven with all the little children waiting to be born. And they’re all white. Perhaps I was being oversensitive: the innocent explanation would be that this is the dream of a couple of European children from a certain period of history (this is also why we don’t see any Germans in the Heaven of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — David Niven wouldn’t have put them there). This is easier to support in the silent movie, where the kids are all draped in veils anyhow, and there could conceivably be some off-white tots lurking in the throng. But in the Shirley Temple movie, everybody has an American accent, so it feels more uncomfortable. Non-Aryan children either don’t have souls, or don’t actually exist at all in the 20th Century Fox universe.

The sick child, a neighbour who motivates the story’s quest, is modelled directly on Munch’s painting,The Sick Child. And why not?

I’ve only seen a fragment of George Cukor’s 1976 version, a Soviet production with a boggling cast. If you’re casting Platonic Ideals, and your aim is High Camp, how could you do better than Ava Gardner as Luxury, Liz Taylor as both Queen of Light AND Maternal Love… even further down the cast, Cicely Tyson as the Cat and George Cole as the Dog, and Robert Morley as Father Time and Harry Andrews as The Oak… was ever an actor more oaken? I would watch this in a nanosecond save for the fact that Patsy Kensit gives me diabetes.

The Tourneur version is available from Kino, and you should see it.

The Blue Bird

As the blurb says, it predates CALIGARI and yet cheerfully and unselfconsciously uses blatantly artificial sets — even more remarkably, it uses realistic ones for the framing narrative, so there’s no doubt that viewers were expected to notice the unreality and accept it.

Tourneur is truly the daddy.


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