Archive for Hearts of the West

The Sunday Intertitle: Galloping Tintypes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2014 by dcairns

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Jeff Bridges goes ruggedly retro.

Getting into this thing — the New Hollywood observing the old. First, we stuck on GABLE AND LOMBARD, figuring it might make for an entertaining train wreck. In fact, it put us less in mind of a derailed locomotive and more of a shitcart struck by lightning. Sidney J. Furie doesn’t do anything too wrong in the director’s chair except put himself in it in the first place — a Canadian who was so inspired British realist drama he traveled to the UK and made cheapjack horror flicks and Cliff Richard musicals until he could get a gig directing Dudley Sutton and Rita Tushingam (Hey! I’ve worked with both of them, I just realised!) but then seemed to lose his way comprehensively, although THE IPCRESS FILE and THE ENTITY are damned good films. And THE APPALOOSA was big in Romania.

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But Furie is saddled with a drama-free script — the tragic death of Carole Lombard is brought up front, which I guess makes sense because that’s all they’ve got — and he has truly unsuitable stars. James Brolin (!) tries hard as The King of Hollywood, who never had to try hard at all — he does better than you’d think. Jill Clayburgh is the most ludicrous miscasting since John Candy played Basil Rathbone and Leo G. Carroll played Norma Shearer, in films which, strikingly, NEVER EXISTED, and FOR GOOD REASON. WHY does this film exist?

Since there isn’t a story except that sadly she died — I know, it worked for LOVE STORY — a movie like this could only exist via convincing history (Gable’s overnight stardom seems to occur LITERALLY overnight and between scenes) or vigorous caricature (Allen Garfield as Louis B. Mayer seems to be under orders to underplay, and play it nice, and he seems to have just been handed his script seconds before “Action!” is yelled) and Kenneth Anger-style gossip, none of which this movie has. If you’re telling the story of Lombard in the seventies, she HAS to walk around naked and swear all the time. Clayburgh says “shit” but that doesn’t cut it, and she strips to her camiknickers and that’s quite far enough because she doesn’t radiate sex and loveliness — few do like Lombard. I think, making this in the seventies, you probably needed Jane Fonda. Or a Cybill Shepherd who could act. And Jessica Lange hadn’t quite been invented.

(Watching NICKELODEON, it was obvious that Burt Reynolds could have succeeded as Gable. Now imagine him and Shepherd — how much armour would the director have to wear?)

Really awful, and not in an edifying way.

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So we quit (so this should not be seen as an educated assessment of Furie’s film — you can’t REALLY judge something without seeing it all) and tried HEARTS OF THE WEST, directed by Howard Zieff. This was a lot better, though it’s basically MERTON OF THE MOVIES. It has Jeff Bridges in naif mode, Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin. But also felt undercooked, as if everybody was groping their way through the first take and hoping to get better. There are some good longshot visual gags, slightly but not disastrously over-edited. Zieff can’t keep his hands off the zoom, even when staging 30s movie footage — now, regular Shadowplayers will know that they did HAVE the zoom in the early thirties, but it’s not really a sensible way to fake up vintage material.

The movie is fine, but we bailed on it after twenty minutes, because something about the flakey timing reminded us of GABLE AND LOMBARD. Fiona was ready to call it quits, but I proposed sneaking a look at the first five minutes of Peter Bogdanovich’s NICKELODEON — my theory was that it would immediately be obvious when a real director’s work came on. Bogdanovich has a great sense of the rhythm of action and dialogue — arguably he’s sometimes TOO rigorously rhythmic, but that sense of pace was something I was feeling starved of.

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Two hours later, the film was finished — we hadn’t been able to tear ourselves away, and it was 1am. Now that’s a pretty good test of a picture.

So — this week ought to deliver a proper appreciation of Bogdanovich’s achievement. Could it qualify for The Forgotten? I haven’t decided yet…

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Young Hopeful

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by dcairns

One cute thing about THE ARTIST is the bit with Berenice Bejo trying to break into pictures — we had just watched MAKE ME A STAR the night before, which deals with a similar subject and environment (a cheap production for Paramount, who could shoot most of it on their own lot). This is a version of Merton of the Movies, a George S Kaufman-Marc Connelly play filmed previously in 1924 and remade in 1947 with Red Skelton. It also shares much of its set-up with HEARTS OF THE WEST, the charming 1975 parody of 1930s filmmaking, which starred an impossibly young Jeff Bridges. And Bridges is the one actor in the lot who can make the naive doofus role appealing.

Stuart Erwin in MAKE ME A STAR takes a slightly different route from Bridges — a capable comedy relief supporting actor in Andy Devine type roles, here he’s the leading man and is going all out for pathos. This involves a peculiar, halting delivery of lines which makes Merton seem not just slow-witted but positively learning-impaired. Seeing such a defenseless character get put upon for the whole picture kind of robs it of any potential for comedy…

The early stretches, with Merton making a fool of himself around his hick hometown are painfully slow, with only the Paramount zoom lens (as used in LOVE ME TONIGHT) livening things up. “ZOOOOM!!!” we would cry, whenever it zeroed in on a salient detail. Though Merton’s correspondence course in screen acting, with its numbered photos of useful facial expressions, was a funny idea, much more could have been made of it. Instead, we got unfocused supporting performers (the script calls for several character to flip from supportive to hostile and back for no reason) and tiresome schtick.

When Merton gets to Hollywood there’s Ruth Donnelly and Joan Blondell to hold the eye, plus guest spots by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper, taking time out from DEVIL AND THE DEEP. And the pathos takes a turn into Von Trier torture-a-kitten territory which is weirdly diverting. Erwin’s delivery grows ever more faltering. Wangling his way onto the soundstage, he is promptly fired from an extra job for blowing his single line. In the most affecting — and universal — moment, he repeats the line perfectly after everyone is left, then hopelessly looks for approval from the empty sound stage.

Reluctant to leave the studio and find himself unable to get back in, Merton takes to hiding in the shadows, scraping scraps from abandoned box lunches, a studio derelict, a studio ghost. “Taking pity” on him, Blondell sells the resident Mack Sennett figure (Sam Hardy, drily amusing) on using Merton to spoof the great western star Buck Benson, whom Merton patterns himself on. “He’s like a blurred carbon copy of Buck Benson!” So the staff and players of “Loadstone” contrive a western parody with Ben Turpin, in which Merton is made more ridiculous by some technically unexplainable sound recording trick that makes his voice go falsetto while leaving everyone else unaffected. I wonder if this was based on the false rumour that Louis B Mayer sabotaged John Gilbert’s career in this fashion? At any rate, it’s a new addition to the play, which originated in silent movie days, and it doesn’t actually make anything funnier — it actually robs Erwin of the chance to be amusingly inept on his own.

Humiliated at the premier (stuffed with more Paramount guest stars: Oakie! Ruggles! Sylvia Sydney!) when he learns he’s been played for a chump, Erwin, face aflame, repairs to a coffee shop where he hears his idol complaining about being sent up. But Buck’s agent makes an impassioned and powerful speech about COMEDY and SINCERITY and THE PUBLIC’S LOVE. It’s quite a speech — even better than the one in THE ERRAND BOY.

Erwin goes to see Blondell, who’s ashamed at the trick she’s played, and the film collapses into an Event Horizon of conflicted response, as Erwin tries to explain that he’s not angry or upset, that he was in on the gag all the time, and that he knows he’s a great comedy star because he’s got LOVE and COMEDY and THE PUBLIC’S SINCERITY — it’s a garbled version of the speech in the previous scene, just like when Stan Laurel comes up with a good plan, but then can’t remember it when he comes to repeat it a second later. But the scene, ridiculous and strange, is still played for pathos, so it has a dizzying, nightmarish feeling — supplanted by the film’s only funny joke.

As Blondell takes Erwin in her arms, his head resting between what Jack Warner called “those bulbs”, he worries about the cab he has waiting outside.

“Do yuh have to pay taxicabs, just for waiting?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Oh. Well. It’s worth it.”

And he nestles back into paradise.

MAKE ME A STAR is kind of a bad film which turns out to be good almost by accident — it certainly doesn’t land on any of the accepted squares denoting quality or success, but it persistently winds up in strange, unfamiliar zones of discomfort, oddity, sadness or head-scratching peculiarity. I recommend it to the curious.