Archive for Harry Davenport

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

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Ronald Colman, Smut Peddlar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Ginger Roger and Ronald Colman enjoy a bit of chaste phone sex.

LUCKY PARTNERS, one of Lewis Milestone’s comedies, strikes me as seriously underrated. The IMDb reviews seem sniffy, so even the classic movie crowd seemingly haven’t warmed to this one. And Milestone isn’t particularly thought of as a director with a light touch, probably because his best known films are very heavy indeed — ALL QUIET, RAIN, MARTHA IVERS, MICE & MEN — they’re not exactly laugh-a-minute material.

But in fact there’s a strong thread of comedy running throughout the man’s career, which ended (ignoring a few TV shows) with OCEAN’S 11, which is basically a romp, and includes comic work in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. These movies are less familiar and acclaimed, and maybe they’re more minor — or maybe just more modest. NO MINOR VICES doesn’t come on like it wants to change the world, THE FRONT PAGE is overshadowed by Hawks’ superior remake, and it’s hard to assess his uncredited contribution to Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER, the one renowned classic comedy on his CV, because it seems to have been directed by anybody who chanced by — but I might guess at the spectacular crane shot where Harold climbs a tree to indefinitely prolong his farewell to the girl (his increased elevation makes the horizon recede so she stays in view longer) or the dark, horror-noir chase on the boat could betray his elegant and dynamic touch.

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In LUCKY PARTNERS, Ginger Rogers (perhaps America’s best ever actress) works in a bookshop in Greenwich Village with her ditzy aunt Spring Byington (yay!) and is planning to marry prize schnook Jack Carson when the impossibly romantic Ronald Colman walks into her life. With screwball comedy plotting so archetypal as to be almost unacceptable, he wishes her good luck at random and she immediately gets good luck. So she has the idea that they should buy a sweepstake ticket together, since he’s lucky for her. Colman, an eccentric artist, agrees on condition that if they should win, he ought to take her on a cross-country trip, which he calls a honeymoon, before her marriage to Carson. Ginger is outraged at this lewd suggestion and immediately enlists Carson to beat up the bad man.

What follows is a brilliant scene of nonsense comic suspense. played to the hilt by Milestone, his actors, and his editor ~

Of course, a scene like that can only end in comic anti-climax, and as you can see, it does.

Milestone repeats himself, first as tragedy, then as farce. For you see, this is a reworking of the shooting-the-dog scene in his big classic OF MICE AND MEN, made just a couple years earlier. Nobody who has seen that movie can have forgotten, surely, the way Milestone draws out the drama as the boys in the bunkhouse for the sound of Ralph Morgan’s Roman Bohnen’s old, sick dog being shot. The exact same technique is employed here for an almost opposite emotion.

I got very interested to know who Milestone’s editor was here. I thought I detected a faint RKO house style, uniting the Robert Wise of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, CITIZEN KANE and CAT PEOPLE with the exquisite cutting on George Stevens’ films at the same time and studio. In fact, Henry Berman was the brother of studio boss Pandro S. Berman and he *did* cut several of those Stevens pictures, with their very musical rhythms (and not just the musicals). He also did a lot of TV and — get this! — he cut John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. That knowledge makes me giddy!

Anyhow, Ginger and Ronald do go on their trip, and it becomes clear that we’re in the quasi-fantasy world of John Van Druten, who wrote BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (Milestone, Van Druten and Colman also got together on MY LIFE WITH CAROLINE, which I found a lot less appealing, perhaps because Anna Lee is no Ginger Rogers — but it does have a great comedy butler, played by Hugh O’Connell). There are no witches in this one, but there’s a kind of enchanted bridge, coming from left field and leading to Wonderland.

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And there’s also an eleventh-hour plot twist relating to Colman’s mysterious backstory, and here I’m afraid my title is something of a spoiler. Colman is a disenchanted artist with a criminal record, but we don’t find out the facts until a comic trial at the end (Harry Davenport as one of those flustered justices screwballs abound in). It’s quite an eye-opener. Colman painted a series of illustrations of a mythological or folkloric nature for a book on myth, and they were deemed indecent and he was briefly jailed. This all comes out in a testimony by Ginger, who tells us that the book is now studied in universities and considered perfectly respectable. It’s quite exciting to see her impassioned defense of Ronald’s dirty doodles. For although the words of the dialogue are stressing the essential wholesome, healthy nature of Colman’s smutty daubings, we all know that even in the ‘forties an artist couldn’t be jailed merely for doing nudes. We have to imagine Aubrey Beardsley style fauns running about with massive hard-ons. And so the meaning of the scene is that Ginger Rogers is all in favour of massive hard-ons. Which we’ve always suspected anyway — one only has to look at her — and it’s one of the reasons we love her so (along with her being America’s greatest actress). A girl with a healthy appetite for the good things in life.

Lewis Milestone Week *ought* to end today — but I have more! Gimme a few more days.