Archive for Harry Morgan

Godliness not Gorillas

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2019 by dcairns

INHERIT THE WIND shows director Stanley Kramer at his best and worst. He’s Mr. Inextricable.

There are some lovely jam-packed compositions, and the elegantly designed title sequence is framed like a proto-Leone western. Welles seems to be in the mix of influences. Exciting to think that Welles may have fed into Leone, indirectly or directly.

There’s one really tasty transition —

Even some of Kramer’s more hamfisted bits of commentary have an impressive shamelessness, like his use of the “justice is blind” motif. But I like the one above best. Since we have a director who can’t stop editorializing, who won’t let story and performances speak for themselves even when they’re very broadly didactic, a moment like the above is helpful precisely because I don’t know exactly what it means. The praying priest’s hands are associated with hellfire because he’s a bigot, I guess. But it’s a little unclear, and a lack of clarity in this hectoring film is like a breath of cool air in a heatwave.

But there’s the problem: neither Kramer nor his scenarists can let the story tell itself, they have to toss in their own marginalia, using, for instance, performance — Fredric March telegraphs blustering foolishness with every hufflepuff — was Erskine Sanford unavailable? Or using Gene Kelly to interject little put-downs in case the creationists managed to sound momentarily coherent or respectable, and then having March huff and puff in response to them.

So, March scowls and beams from under a bald cap and Tracy outacts him at every turn with his elaborate performance of the state of relaxedness. Best perf might be Harry Morgan, purely because he’s not embodying one characteristic. The judge her plays is kind of a heavy in this story, but evidently they didn’t feel comfortable having him be fully corrupt, so he plays it sort of on the fence. Ambiguity in a Kramer film!

It’s a really gripping situation, and we can forgive some of the dramatist’s distortions, though perhaps not his stealing his best lines from the true story and then changing the names to protect… who? Himself?

Sociopolitically, nothing has really changed, has it?

INHERIT THE WIND stars Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Don Lockwood; Darrin Stephens; Col. Potter; General Aldo; Buster McGee; and Elizabeth Tudor.

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Tickling the Rivalries

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by dcairns

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

Necktie Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by dcairns

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Talking to Michel Ciment about the thinking behind CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stanley Kubrick gave a summary of the anti-lynching movie which serves as a fairly devastating critique of William Wellman’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (and Fritz Lang’s FURY and the rest). Most anti-lynching movies show an innocent party being lynched or almost lynched, which would never deter a real lynch mob since they are generally convinced, however erroneously, that they have the right person. In CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick chose the guiltiest character imaginable, to show that even in such an extreme case, certain human rights should be considered inalienable.

(In turn, Richard Lester devastated PATHS OF GLORY as a supposed anti-war film by pointing out that the film basically shows some corrupt and incompetent generals: “If Kirk Douglas had been leading the troops we’d all have been able to go out and kill Germans more efficiently.” Neither of these arguments stops PATHS OF GLORY or THE OX-BOW INCIDENT from being great films, though…)

What’s sensational about OX-BOW is the emotional force it builds up, the psychological acuity of its analysis of lynch-mob mentality (I’ve never been part of one but it feels true), the boldly-sketched characterisations and the generous sense of plenty. It feels like nothing was enough for his scenarists —

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Let’s not just show a lynch mob, but let’s crowd the film with characters and situations. Let’s give Hank Fonda a sweetheart who’s jilted him while he was out on the trail and has married a short-arse Napoleonic stuffed shirt; let’s have a religious black guy as the conscience of the film if we can’t actually have a black victim (lynching as a social phenomenon chiefly impacted black people in the south, always); let’s have Jane Darwell as a cackling sadist on horseback (we can hire a matte artist to paint out the rocking chair grafted to her backside); let’s make Fonda a mean drunk who picks fights and kicks a guy in the face; let’s make him totally ineffectual as hero; let’s make the victims widely disparate and not wholly noble (they are sympathetic because Dana Andrews is nice, Paul Hurst Francis Ford is pathetic, Anthony Quinn is unbelievably cool); let’s have a twisted ex-officer and his coward son he’s trying to make a man of; let’s have the coward show more backbone than Fonda.

It’s very RICH, thanks to Lamar Trotti’s writing, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s source novel (a novel is a good source precisely because it usually gives the scenarist TOO MUCH) and Wellman’s direction. At the film’s climax, a quiet scene contrasting with the violence of what would SEEM to be the climax, Fonda reads a letter. It’s a defense of the rule of law, but what makes the scene far more than an eloquent bit of preaching is Fonda’s steady performance — he’s basically re-doing his big speech from GRAPES OF WRATH, and it’s not just the cast that make the film seem very Fordian — and Wellman’s framing. This may be the best shot of his career, even factoring in Cagney’s two (two!) death scenes in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

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It could easily seem contrived. As Fonda reads, Wellman tracks in slightly — no problem with that, since a long speech almost demands some camera movement to keep it alive. Rather than cut to the various listeners, Wellman just retains Harry Morgan, Fonda’s lovable rodent sidekick, in shot, or part of him anyway.

Where we end up is with Morgan’s hat brim occluding our view of Fonda’s eyes, so that Morgan;s eyes, as they listen, have to supply the visual emotion to compliment Fonda’s reading. It’s a very simple reading — Fonda doesn’t pretend to stumble over the words, but he plays it fairly flat, like someone who’s not much of a reader. The delicacy and restraint are more powerful than reaction shots and bluster could ever make it.

The closest equivalent in terms of this identikit shot — one guy’s mouth and another guy’s eyes — is VERY different in tone and effect.

Lynch mobs exist now mainly online: some news story provokes outrage and disapproval, and the public joins in condemning somebody. Sometimes the subject is serious and worthy of discussion, sometimes it’s just a feeding frenzy. The filmmakers have usefully portrayed the behaviour of a lynch mob so that you can tell if you’re part of one. You are part of a lynch mob if you have joined a crusade and ~

1) You don’t really care.

2) The sense of outrage is secretly pleasurable.

3) It’s reassuring to be surrounded by people all het up about the same thing.

4) Appeals for calm seem threatening.

5) Anybody who suggests you’re all hysterical must be an enemy.

6) Your own guilty secrets fade from memory in the warm pleasure of denunciation.

More suggestions are welcome, I’d like to make this definitive and free of wriggle-room.