Archive for Groucho Marx

The Mythomaniac

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2010 by dcairns

So, a sometime correspondent self-combusts, and we must ask “Why?” Some of the speculation surrounding the death of F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre has viewed him as a delightful eccentric, which is a little odd since his chosen exit seems to have been calculated to assassinate his neighbours, and since in 2001 he was charged with a horrifying, yet deeply bizarre, assault on a neighbour, strapping her to a chair, shaving her head, and spray-painting her black from head to toe.

As if this weren’t weird enough, it chimes oddly with FGM’s sole novel, The Woman Between the Worlds, where the hero, a tattooist, is approached by an invisible woman demanding he tattoo her all over to render her visible. It’s all… very strange.

Here’s the second email I received from the late “Froggy” MacIntyre. Alas, I don’t seem to have preserved any more, and I think there were others. Author’s interjections/annonations in grey.

Ahoy, Dave:

In case any of you didn’t know, calling a David “Dave” without being invited to do so is bad form.

Eily Malyon was distinctly Victorian in appearance. Very small and thin, with very sharp hatchet-faced features. A wide range of English and Scottish accents, less successful with Yank accents. In terms of character type, much like Margaret Hamilton but far more distinctive in appearance. Her best roles were as the scheming aunt in ‘On Borrowed Time’ and the wife of butler John Carradine (and sister of the escaped convict) in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

She was perfectly cast as the Victorian orphanage-mistress in ‘Jane Eyre’. She bullied Shirley Temple in ‘A Little Princess’. She briefly appeared (with no lines) as the nurse in ‘Dracula’s Daughter’. She was the priests’ housekeeper in ‘Going My Way’. She was the prim librarian (chastising Teresa Wright for coming to the library at closing time) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. She was the owner of the laundry, tormenting Maureen O’Sullivan in ‘Devil Doll’. She was the dairymaid who shared a touching moment with Garbo in ‘Camille’, the nun who aided Fredric March in ‘Les Miserables’. She had a very brief appearance (head and voice only, body never seen) in ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’, instantly memorable as a Scotswoman loyal to the Reich. She was an hotelier, sceptical of Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray in ‘Beyond Suspicion’. She played weeping bullied wives in ‘The Wet Parade’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. She was the minister’s dutiful wife in ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’. She appeared in the opening scene of ‘I Married a Witch’, circa 1690, wearing Pilgrim garb as a woman named Tabitha … who looked very hag-like indeed, yet who was NOT the witch in this movie. If memory serves, I believe Eily Malyon was in ‘She-Wolf of London’, sharing scenes with Sara Haden: not a good idea, this, as she and Haden were similar in type and physical appearance.

We were talking about our favourite character actresses and I wasn’t sure, at the time, who Malyon was.

In REAL life, Sara Allgood was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the cult that featured so prominently in my novel ‘The Woman Between the Worlds’. She was a member of the London chapter, alongside Yeats, Machen, Crowley and Florence Farr. Noted for her fine speaking voice, it often fell to Allgood to read out the texts during their rituals. Allgood worked with Hitchcock but she had a very low opinion of him as a director. Begorrah!

Una O’Connor. Oh, dear. I despise that shriek of hers. Still, I would like to have seen the Broadway production of J B Priestley’s play ‘The Linden Tree’, in which O’Connor played the housekeeper of an elderly professor. The professor was played by Boris Karloff. When Priestley learnt that Karloff had been cast, he objected on the grounds that audiences would think it was a play about an axe-murderer. After reading Karloff’s favourable notices, Priestley apologised.

I quoted Richard Lester’s statement that Ralph Richardson said he always started off with the walk, a baffling assertion, since all RR’s characters walk the same way. I still believe Lester was telling the truth, and Ralph was probably indulging a flight of whimsy.

Ralph Richardson ‘always started with the walk’? Erm, I think you’re thinking of Alec Guinness.

Which reminds me: it’s been a while since I’ve seen ‘Heavenly Creatures’ but I guess you’re correct that I’ve got the two girls swapped.

This was in regard to the question of which actress played the woman who grew up to be crime writer Anne Perry. FGM said he’d often used the argument that “write what you know” is a fallacy, since murder mysteries are not written by murderers, and he resented Perry for blowing a hole in this argument.

I like to pretend that any given director’s film oeuvre all takes place in the same universe. This explains why, during the murder scene in Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’, you can see Gollum lurking in the shrubbery.

I mentioned Olivia DeHavilland’s claim that she had a special scent made to symbolize each character she played. Wearing the perfume would instantly get her “into character.” I presumed she wore two different scents to play twins in THE DARK MIRROR.

The DeHavilland story about her scents is a new one to me. I admire her for her bravery in bucking the studio system’s repressive contract suspensions. A lot of big-name actors (including Bogart) gave lip service to her cause, but didn’t have the guts to stand with her.

I still don’t know how they did the twin sequences in ‘The Dark Mirror’. The usual lurk for a double exposure is to mask one side of the frame whilst filming the other, then switch. Apparently DeHavilland filmed all of her twin scenes in one take, with another actress on-camera playing the second twin, facing the camera … and then, afterwards, DeHavilland’s head (facing the camera) was superimposed over this woman’s head in the print lab. I don’t understand how this was done. Unless the other woman was a microcephalic, surely her own head would stick out in places where DeHavilland’s head was narrower.

I suggested that this story originated from DeHavilland, who had not fully understood the technical processes involved. From her point of view, she had acted both roles against another actress, and then somehow replaced her, but the exact mechanism escaped her grasp.

I’m surprised, looking back, that all this didn’t lead FGM to repeat his claim of having a twin brother, for which there is no evidence…

‘The Corsican Brothers’, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jnr as twins, features one astonishing fight scene in which the brothers circle each other in the same shot, with no discernible cut nor masking. When I saw this, circa 1974, I resolved that if I ever met Fairbanks I would ask him how it was done. I *did* meet him years later, but quite forgot to ask this question.

I’m now determined to check this out.

In ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, Mary Pickford played the title role (a small boy) AND his mother, both onscreen at the same go. For decades, I kept hearing that the double-exposure sequences in this film were so incredibly sophisticated that to this day nobody knows how they were done … most notably a scene in which the boy jumps into his mother’s arms. When I finally saw this movie, I found the special effects very crude by modern standards. I quite accept that they were advanced for the time. In the arm-jumping scene, the boy is clearly a double with his back to the camera.

Did DeHavilland have any input into the creation of her scents, or did she just trust someone to create a scent appropriate to the character?

My favourite detail in the novel ‘Camille’ never got into the movie: the prostitute wore a white camellia corsage every day … except three days each month, when she wore a red camellia. I can’t imagine what this symbolises. (Not half!)

The musical ‘Annie’ (by John Huston, of all people) and the Rodgers&Hart bio ‘Words and Music’ both contain the same bizarre anachronism: both feature a scene in which the main characters go to a cinema and watch ‘Camille’. In both cases, this scene takes place BEFORE ‘Camille’ was filmed! In the case of ‘Words and Music’, ‘Camille’ is actually re-edited as a SILENT film so that Richard Rodgers can see it in the 1920s. Feel free to run this past your friend Wingrove Melville, or whatever alias he’s using.

I forgot to do so.

I knew about Patrick MacNee’s lezzy mum and her ‘wife’: they dressed him in a kilt and kept his hair long, and told him he’d make an excellent girl, but they didn’t quite go so far as putting him into girls’ clothes. I hadn’t known about Peter Cushing being given that treatment, nor Wyler. Ernest Hemingway and his older sister had a mother who delighted in treating them as same-sex twins: sometimes dressing both as girls, sometimes as boys. (Joan Crawford adopted two unrelated girls, and insisted on raising them as twins.) Another boy raised as a girl was Charles Beaumont, author of ‘Twilight Zone’ scripts. In fact, this wasn’t his real name; I suspect he took this name from Charles Beaumont, Chevalier d’Eon, real-life cross-dresser and namesake of Britain’s Beaumont Society.

The oddest such case known to me is that of the father of Walter D Edmonds, a best-selling Yank novelist of the 1930s, several of whose novels were filmed. Edmonds’s paternal grandmother decided to enrol her son (Edmonds’s father) in the school she had attended. Unfortunately, it was an all-girl school. She was afraid her son would be conspicuous as the only boy in an all-girl school, so her ‘solution’ was to send him to school dressed like all the other students: in the schoolgirl uniform! Apparently he didn’t mind this but he *did* mind the ordeal of walking to and from school, jeered by the local boys (one of whom broke his nose with a stone).

The reason why the above cases lodge in my memory is because I too spent part of my boyhood as a girl. I was one of the ‘child migrants’ who were forcibly expatriated from postwar Britain to Australia; in my case, I was sent to a ‘work farm’ in Queensland, and used as slave labour by Anglican priests and their matrons. When I was 11 years old I escaped, and the local authorities went to considerable trouble to find me. I was fortunate to receive some protection from an expat Scotswoman: a former gynaecological nurse who — shades of the recent ‘Vera Drake — had been struck off the register for doing abortions. (Illegal at the time, circa 1959.) She had performed an abortion on a teenage girl who had died on the table, and had been quietly disposed of, with no death certificate issued. The authorities were looking for me, so the ex-nurse hid me in plain sight by disguising me as a girl and equipping me with the dead girl’s identity for a few weeks until the search went cold … she also had me make a few public appearances as the dead girl, so that this girl’s disappearance could not be traced to her visit to the nurse’s address. After a few weeks, and a relocation of several hundred miles, it was safe for me to reclaim my male identity. A good job it was, too, as I was not very passable as a girl. I know for a fact that at least one person rumbled me. In all, I likely spent far less time in skirts than Hemingway did.

All of which brings me full circle to Eily Malyon. I shan’t divulge the name of the nurse who saved me, but physically and vocally she was a dead ringer for Eily Malyon. (I think they may have been related.) To this day, whenever I see Malyon onscreen, I have to fight off a momentary belief that I’m seeing the woman whom I knew. But I am indeed genuinely impressed with Eily Malyon as an actress, and I believe that I would still hold her talents in high regard without this coincidence.

Up until WW1, it was fairly common to raise boys in skirts, but this was for practical reasons: it made them less likely to climb trees and get up to other dangerous stunts, and it made it easier to change their nappies. The first stage on the path to manhood was the ritual of the ‘breeching’, in which a boy was deemed sufficiently mature to give up his skirts in favour of trousers… usually short ones.

I’ve encountered a couple of remote seacoast villages in the Hebrides and Orkneys in which the boys were raised in skirts, allegedly so that the sea (being animist and sentient) would mistake them for girls (less valued) and not carry them off on a wave.

I mentioned the young William Wyler’s stunt of driving his motorcycle off a diving board at parties.

Wyler rode his OWN motorcycle into swimming pools? I should think this would cost him considerable money. When Wyler directed the Ben-Hur remake, the studio publicity made much of the fact that he had been assistant director on the original. Wyler modestly pointed out that his duties as ‘assistant director’ were largely a matter of crowd control. From what little I know of him, he was a genuinely modest man in an industry run by egomaniacs.

I’m gobsmacked by what you tell me about Wyler’s daughter being abducted by a paedo, and more gobsmacked that she wasn’t harmed. Did the bastard have a pang of conscience and let her go, or was she rescued before he could do anything? This reminds me of how Forrest Ackerman’s wife Wendayne (translator of ‘Perry Rhodan’) was assaulted by two Italian thugs on a Vespa. Those damned things are illegal but the Eyeties don’t care.

A touch of racism here. MacIntyre was a rabid right-winger. In fact, I believe Wyler’s poor daughter was harmed, in the sense of being molested, but not otherwise physically injured. In a fashion which seems almost impossible to credit now, everybody simply got on with their lives and didn’t make a big fuss about it. Glad to have her back alive.

The movie ‘Hammett’ (filmed in London) features a scene in which he stops at a newsagent’s kiosk in San Francisco which carries an advert for the News of the World.

One of Hammett’s novels (I forget which) mentions a case about a man named Flitcraft. I believe that this was an actual case that Hammett worked on for Pinkerton, although the name Flitcraft was probably made up. Flitcraft was a respectable family man, went to his job every day, went home every night. No scandal. One day he left for work and simply never showed up. No corpse found, no ransom note. Detectives encounter such cases; usually the guy had a double life for a long time, involving a mistress, and spent months or years crafting a second identity for himself before scarpering. But the Flitcraft case showed no such pattern. Eventually, Flitcraft was located hundreds of miles away, living a very undistinguished life under a new name. Here’s what happened. One his way to work, he passed a building site. A steel beam fell off the site and struck the pavement quite near where he was standing. A sherd of concrete struck his face, shocking him more than actually injuring him. But for the vagary of a few inches, he would have been killed instantly. The emotional shock of this ‘death’ was so powerful that, purely on the spur of the moment, Flitcraft effectively ‘died’ and started over as somebody else, with no prior preparation. I find this very spooky.

The Flitcraft case is alluded to in The Maltese Falcon.

A similar case (which I’ve mentioned on IMDb) is that of 1930s comedian Paul McCullough, who was in a horrible auto accident: he emerged unscathed, but became firmly convinced he had died. A few days later, he was in a car that stopped outside a barbershop in which the barber was stropping one of those Sweeney Todd razors. McCullough rushed in, grabbed the razor and slit his own throat. Shockingly, he took a considerable time to die of this.

Cornell Woolrich. For some reason, I keep thinking he wrote ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. It was Dahl, of course. I think Woolrich wrote the one about the kidnapped boy who is hidden in plain sight at a fairgrounds. The kidnapper drugs him, sews him into a chimpanzee skin, and leaves him asleep in a monkey cage.

I’ve only ever seen the Victorian cylinder case in one article (not story) by ES Gardner. He may have made it up, but it doesn’t sound like his yarns.

This is Erle Stanley Gardner, but I have quite forgotten what the Victorian cylinder case WAS.

I’ve heard of William Roughead but never read him.

I referenced Groucho’s line, a reported outtake from his game show You Bet Your Life, in response to a man with many kids who claimed to love his wife: “I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally.”

That Groucho line is an urban legend. It never happened. Groucho DID sometimes unloose a wisecrack with such alacrity and acerbity that even he was shocked, but this one didn’t happen. Of similar provenance are two others that (never) occurred on the Stateside chat-show compered by Johnny Carson. Allegedly, an actress strode onto his set, carrying a moggie. She then sat down with the moggie in her lap and asked Carson: ‘Would you like to pet my pussy?’ to which he ostensibly replied: ‘Move the cat and I will’. No way an actress would voluntarily appear on a live show with an animal that might upstage her, and no way Carson would have approved it if she had. The other dodgy one: allegedly Carson interviewed the wife of a pro golfer, and asked if her husband had any good-luck rituals. She replied that, before a big match, she kissed her husband’s balls … prompting Carson to rejoin: ‘I bet that makes his putter stand up.’ Why would Carson interview the wife of a celebrity, rather than the celebrity himself?

I can think of several explanations: maybe the woman was famous in her own right? Maybe the incident took place in private life, not on TV? Either way, neither story is very funny.

The ‘League of [Extraordinary] Gentlemen’ comic books featured a young woman as the leader of the 19th-century League: very 21st-century PC, you know. (I well and truly dislike period pieces in which the characters have a modern-day ethos.) The film version of ‘League of Gentlemen’ made Connery the boss. This was intended as a ‘lad’ flick, and the lads don’t want to see a movie where a lassie gives the orders.

Straight on till mourning,

Froggy MacIntyre

The part of my discussion with MacIntyre which isn’t preserved, but which I remember, is his expressed resentment at the actress Margaret Sullivan’s suicide. She became depressed after losing her hearing, and MacIntrye claimed that his former wife had coped so bravely with her own deafness, that he was made angry thinking of Sullivan yielding to despair. All tragically ironic since “Froggy” apparently took his own life.

Startlingly, FGM has a letter published in this month’s Fortean Times: as was his wont, he uses the opportunity of a FT article to drop in some piece of obscure lore, and then link this to a plug for one of bis publications. A boost from beyond.

Strangely Beautiful

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by dcairns

From A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. Harpo waits for his big scene to begin. While, in the background, shadows from a gizmo known as a kookaloris (or cucaloris, cookaloris, cookalorus) suggest a vaguely North African mileu. And the outsize urns add something important too.

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA is good fun, obviously not great like A NIGHT AT THE OPERA or God knows DUCK SOUP, but very agreeable. It’s also the movie that had Warner Bros threatening to sue over the use of the word “Casablanca,” leading Groucho to threaten a countersuit over Warners’ use of the word “brothers.” There are some good verbal gags, some by gagman Frank Tashlin, so there’s a particularly cartoony feel to Harpo’s schtick, and some good verbal gags:

Groucho: “I’m crazy about her: I’ve completely lost my head!”

Chico: “Well, put your hat on your neck and get out!”

Also Sig Rumann, progressively deprived of hair, beard and moustache. The beard ends up on Groucho, transforming him into  a dead ringer for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, although the cigar also recalls Castro.

Messing About in Boats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2008 by dcairns

“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.

Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.

Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).

The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.

Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.

Plotting a course…for MURDER!

Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.

Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)

One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.

Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”

“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.

Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.

Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.

And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.

My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.

Ming for the defense.

Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.

I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.

Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…

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