Archive for Harry Cohn

Ceiling Hero

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by dcairns

CITIZEN KANE images via Checking on My Sausages.

In between saying inspiring things like, “Remake ORDINARY PEOPLE. Do it in your apartment. Play all the roles. Make it in a day,” my host in NYC, the esteemed Comrade K, projection into our sphere of a numinous, n-dimensional shepherd-warrior from a land before history, got me started on the following set of thoughts by an offhand remark, which went something like, “People were amazed by the ceilings in CITIZEN KANE. Nobody had ever seen a ceiling before. People couldn’t look up before Orson Welles showed them how.”

He’s right! Welles made the breakthrough by practicing a unique form of yogic meditation taught him by Rudy Vallee. This resulted in the opening of Welles’s “third eye,” which coincided with him lying on his back, causing him to discover the ceiling of his living room. It has been argued that people intuitively knew of the existence of ceilings before this, since logically every floor must have an underside. Some feminist writers have suggested that the ceiling’s true discoverer was a woman, arguing that the prevalence of the missionary position in pre-war life made such an awareness inescapable for the fair sex. But this strikes me as akin to arguing that people “had dreams” before Freud taught them how in his hit book, Close Your Eyes and Move Them Rapidly About.

Some point to the glass ceiling shot in Hitchcock’s THE LODGER as a pre-Wellesian ceiling, but in fact this is nothing more than a glass floor, above which Hitchcock suspended his camera while two burly stagehands held Ivor Novello upside down so he could place his feet on the translucent surface and mimic the actions of a right-side-up walker.  So in fact the shot actually depicts a floor, with Novello on the other side of it. Incidentally, Novello enjoyed the experience so much that he spent a month traveling this way, and had it specified in future contracts that all his films must include upside down walks. Novello later composed “Rose of England” in an entirely inverted position, complete with upside-down grand piano strapped to the backs of a half-dozen burros.

In explaining his concept to art director Van Nest Polglase, Welles was faced with the difficulty of introducing the concept of the ceiling to a man who, like everyone else in 1940s America, had never seen one. Resistant to yogic disciplines, Polglase finally had to be shoved onto his back and held down by Joseph Cotten, while Welles peeled back the eminent designer’s eyelids and forced him to look. Concerted to the cause, “Poley” later became a great proselytizer for the ceiling, even having a house constructed in Beverly Hills composed entirely of ceilings, top, bottom and sides, inside and out. The famous Polglase House was later purchased by James Mason, who had a notorious phobia of doors*. Living in a home whose rooms could be accessed only by skylights appealed greatly to the Huddersfield-born actor.

In addition to the heavily corniced plaster ceilings displayed in KANE, there were several “trick ceilings” — canvas ceilings through which sound could be recorded, and matte painting ceilings to fill in the top portions of large sets, where a real ceiling would be too costly or frightening. Welles also used his mastery of sleigh-of-hand to suggest ceilings that weren’t actually there, enlisting the audience’s imagination by saying things like “Look at that amazing CEILING!” while subtly pointing upwards, or hanging photographs and etchings of great ceilings from history around the walls of a ceiling-less set. In the New York Inquirer set, Welles experimented with rear projection, stretching a screen across the top of the set walls and projecting outtakes from SON OF KONG onto it, but test audiences found the stop motion pterodactyls distracting, and the notion was abandoned.

When KANE was released, the impact was extraordinary. Columbia boss Harry Cohn immediately called in architects to build a ceiling for his office, which until that point had opened on to the room above, forcing the accounts department to rappel from the ceiling to reach their work stations. Suddenly, it became possible to build structures higher than a couple of storeys, and miracle “skyscrapers” mushroomed up in America’s great cities. (Tall buildings seen in pre-1941 movies were always fantastical special effects.)

While Hollywood legend has it that Welles’s film was a flop, it has been suggested that audiences, alerted to these mysterious planes above their heads, became distracted from the cinema screen and spent the movie’s running time staring upwards past the projector beam. Not for the first time, Welles had been too innovative for his own good.

*In civilian life, Mason was only able to enter a room by the window, or while strapped to a hospital gurney, or sometimes both. Ironically, in the movies, he could “act” walking through a door with ease and even suavity, even picking up awards for his smooth entrances. Whereas Pat Boone, Mason’s co-star in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, could enter a room in a graceful, natural manner, but invariably either stumbled, fainted, or soiled himself when called upon to do so for the films.

Does anybody know? #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2008 by dcairns

Wayward Hayworth 

Does anybody know if Columbia Pictures ever made a good musical?

I was all set to enjoy YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH — I like Robert Benchley*, and I love Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. The film has an amusing credit sequence, there’s a little dance between Fred and Rita which is quite charming, and then it becomes a shapeless unfunny lumbering thing without appealing characters or interesting situations or even much good musical action. I haven’t seen all of it but I probably won’t watch more unless somebody tells me there’s a great dance at 1hr 22 mins or something.

I haven’t watched the other Rita and Fred show, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER, but am I wrong in assuming it’s identical in every way?

I got a deja vu feeling and remembered how much I’d disliked DOWN TO EARTH as well — forced and unfunny and kind of DUMB in a way that even really silly Hollywood movies weren’t, usually.

In a flash, I just remembered THE SKY’S THE LIMIT, which has Astaire’s great angry dance to “One for my baby”, but checking it, I find it’s an R.K.O. Radio Picture.

TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT kind of bored me too, and it had some really horrid colour schemes, like M.G.M. seen through a hangover, though there was one nice bit where a young artiste tap-dances to a Hitler broadcast: “No, leave it on, I often dance to this fellow.” You don’t see nearly enough of that sort of thing.

It might actually be that I just don’t like Columbia. Their idea of greatness was Capra, who I’m rather iffy about. My favourite Columbia films were made by visiting independents — ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. I love GILDA, but the director of that one, Charles Vidor, ended up suing studio boss Harry Cohn for psychological injury. This could be one of those studios that I’m just temperamentally unsuited to.

(I love Paramount, especially 20s-30s. Love Warners, esp. 30s-40s. Love R.K.O. — almost everything. Love lots of different things from Universal. Love M.G.M. musicals but almost nothing else from that studio, and even with the musicals I have to leaven them with something drier or I tend to break out, and not in song.)

happy shiny person

*I like Benchley for his dreamlike qualities. There’s an essay that starts something like this: “So, on top of all this other work I’ve got to do, they tell me I have to build the Hoover Dam. I said to them I was already very busy and couldn’t they get somebody else, but no, it had to be me.”

Quote of the day: The scented volume.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on January 24, 2008 by dcairns

Lady with Torch

“It’s not a business, it’s a racket.”

~ Harry Cohn, quoted in Ezra Goodman’s The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood.

looky looky looky here comes booky

My copy of this just arrived. Looks GREAT! And was very cheap, but — smells funny. You know, just kind of… funny.

Can’t complain. The price was low low low. But still… what IS that smell???

(Opening the book at random in search of other nice lines, I find this, Cecil B. DeMille’s summary of his movie-making philosophy. It sounds tried and true but oddly I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before ~ ‘I will trade you forty gorgeously beautiful Hawaiian sunsets for one good sock on the jaw.’)

POW!