Archive for Gone With the Wind

Shadows

Posted in Dance, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2017 by dcairns

Allan Dwan’s ONE MILE TO HEAVEN (1937) got popped into the Samsung at Fiona’s suggestion — she wanted to see more Fredi Washington, and this was the seminal IMITATION OF LIFE star’s swan song. It’s an odd film — perhaps the finest cast of tulpas ever assembled.

The most prominent doppelganger was child star Joan Carroll (billed as Joan Carol for some reason, possibly to save on type). An alarmingly precise Shirley Temple clone only without the singing or acting, this moppetganger plays Fredi’s daughter, and the plot revolves around the vexed question of whether the blonde sprog could be the black woman’s natural offspring.

The second animate thought-form in the cast is Sally Blane, lookalike sister of Loretta Young, a sort of lorettaganger if you will, who turns out to be the child’s natural mother, now a wealthy socialite who believes the child dead.

The rest of the players aren’t exactly shades or walkers, but they have their uncanny aspects. the actual lead is Claire Trevor as a fast-thinking reporter, looking startlingly fresh in this pre-STAGECOACH role. Her anything-for-a-story approach actually makes her, in a sense, the heavy of the piece, threatening Fredi and little Joan’s happiness, but the film deftly distracts us from this by putting her up against a trio of flyblown heels, fellow reporters who are nasty chauvinists, forcing us to root for Claire, in a slightly conflicted way.

Also present: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who’s partly on hand to help make us believe that this is a Shirley Temple picture, partly to add to the sense of a black community, which Fiona identified as the movie’s strongest asset. Bill plays a tapdancing policeman (Dwan proves to be an inept filmer of dance, alas) — when else have you seen a black cop in a thirties movie? We also see black shopkeepers, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in unconvincing old age drag. The black people in this film aren’t train porters, maids and shoeshine boys: Fredi is a seamstress (for once, this profession is not a Code-friendly synonym for prostitution), and there’s a real sense of urban community, with the district NOT represented as a dystopian ghetto. Sentimentalizing poverty is another problem, of course, and this isn’t that more realistic than the rural black community in TALES OF MANHATTAN, but it does offer at least an alternative representation to the prevailing stereotypes of the thirties and after.

We see Robinson shuffle at the policeman’s ball, where we also meet a fresh-faced copper played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Sadly, we don’t get to see HIS act — I’m imagining either a lycanthropic quick-change routine or a magic show where he crushes rabbits INTO his hat.

I haven’t seen Robinson in anything since I was a little kid. Shirley Temple movies, like Jerry Lewis movies, seemed to be on A LOT. Interesting how Temple still connects strongly with little kid audiences (try it on your offspring, if you have any — they make a brilliant platform for cinematic experiments), and a shame how they aren’t being exposed to her. But my memory of Robinson was “old guy who dances” — he’s not old at all, just bald and, as Fiona remarked, absolutely gorgeous. His eye-rolling minstrel business IS embarrassing (Fredi was asked to do this earlier in her career and simply refused), and Dwan’s insistence on fragmenting the dance numbers into close-ups of feet (but dance happens with the WHOLE BODY) and face (but you NEED TO SEE THE FEET) is endlessly vexatious.

But but but. This lightly likable film deserves all kinds of credit for the many little ways it departs from the toxic norms of representation of its day.

Did you catch the story about the Memphis, Tennessee cinema taking off GONE WITH THE WIND due to complaints about the film’s racial insensitivity? I must admit, I kind of thought GOOD. That apologia for slavery has had a free pass for way too long. I think it should be screened — but screened kind of like the way BIRTH OF A NATION is screened, with discussion and context or at least shared awareness. It’s not AS nasty a film as BOAN, and Hattie McDaniel is a fine actor who deserves appreciation, but it’s problematic enough that simply calling it a “classic” and looking the other way never struck me as adequate.

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Ed Sullivan’s Travels

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by dcairns

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I don’t know if George Sidney needs to be elevated up a few notches among the cognoscenti, but he definitely deserves to be better known in general. his problem may be that his good bits — brazen, stunning musical cinema — are often contained in the same flawed films as his bad bits, but his good bits are transcendent.

Andrew Sarris lobs more backhanded compliments at Sidney in The American Cinema than you can shake Ann-Margret at, from the heading “lightly likable” to the specific putdowns (“has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” and “There is a point at which brassiness, vulgarity, and downright badness become virtues”) which are very funny, but don’t do justice to the creativity and dynamism Sidney brings to his work.

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BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), adapted from a Broadway show and reaching the screen rather too late to be topical about Elvis entering the army (five years previously), isn’t particularly clued up about the rock ‘n’ roll it attempts to satirize, but its gigantic parodies of pop culture still left us gaping at the screen like the first night audience of Springtime for Hitler.

The film stars Dick Van Dyke (his first movie), Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, with Paul Lynde as secret weapon. Jesse Pearson plays Conrad Birdie, the Elvisalike, with roughly the same appeal Alberto Sordi brought to THE WHITE SHEIK — hard to spoof sex appeal when you’re mainly repulsive, but credit is deserved for courage and shamelessness.

First jaw-dropper: Pearson causes all the girls in a small Ohio town to faint, and Sidney cranes up a mile high, blasphemously parodying the giant pull-back of Confederate wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Second jaw-dropper: Lynde, who overplays like a starving actor seeing scenery for the first time in a year, is transfixed by the thought of appearing on television with Ed Sullivan (“My favourite human!”) and has a Grouchoesque Strange Interlude, wandering into the foreground and provoking a ripple-dissolve by sheer overintensity, leading to a musical dream sequence in which he and his family, attired as a heavenly choir, sing “Ed Sullivan” ad nauseam and Lynde’s face becomes progressively more purple, like Luca Brasi getting strangled in THE GODFATHER.

Third jaw-dropper: when Lynde refuses to let his daughter kiss the rock star, Mrs. Lynde worries about the kid losing face. “If he stays here, that won’t be all she -” begins Lynde, before choking off in an excess of emotion. The censorship of the word “loses” actually makes this mildly smutty joke seem about six times more obscene.

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Fourth jaw-dropper: Janet Leigh, frustrated by her mother-obsessed fiancé’s failure to propose, crashes a meeting of some random fraternal society (dressed like The Sons of the Desert) and basically rapes most of them under a table. Or so it would seem: hard to know how else we’re meant to interpret it, as one shriner after another is yanked out of frame below the furniture as if beset by Bruce the Shark.

I think Van Dyke basically inventing super-powered Benzedrine and giving it to a tortoise who then jet-propels from the room probably counts too.

Elsewhere, there are less startling pleasures: “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do” are the most recognizable numbers. Maureen Stapleton plays Dick’s domineering mom, improbably enough — she was exactly his age, joining a select club with Jesse Royce Landis, whose character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST must have given birth to Cary Grant just as she was leaving the womb herself, like a kind of Russian doll, or a variant on that cartoon of three fish swallowing one another.

Sidney loses out on the chance to be a less sexist Frank Tashlin by staging a long, not-too-funny sequence where the conductor of the Russian ballet is slipped a capsule of Van Dyke’s speed, and proceeds to lead the production at 400% velocity. The anti-Americanism is funny, but this stuff is neither a sufficiently robust response to Kruschev, nor a questioning of the Cold War. It just dilutes the acerbic gusto (that word again) of the rest — but the prolonged, Hitchcockian build-up to the slapstick IS pretty funny, so outrageously does Sidney extend the wait.

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Oh, and there’s Ed Sullivan himself, who always looked to me like a version of Richard Nixon with third-degree burns, and it turns out the low-resolution TV picture was flattering him.

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Janet Leigh reprises her bra routine from PSYCHO, and Ann-Margret is alternately cute and terrifying (when her lips retract, yikes!), ending the picture by rattling her tits right at the camera. I think female viewers, or gay male viewers (at a musical?? surely not!) are slightly short-changed in the pulchritude department, since DVD is one of those hetero actors who projects no particular sexuality — he’s straight without ever seeming to want to do anything about it. I guess that’s a useful quality, since he has to be able to share screen time with “teenage” Ann-Margret without looking like he’s going to rip his shirt off and run amongst her.

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

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“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

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4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.