Archive for Henry Fonda

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.

Mysteries of the Organism

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on October 27, 2012 by dcairns

William Russell (Henry Fonda) sees his own initials in suntan form (lower left). Gore Vidal’s THE BEST MAN, directed by Franklin Schaffner. All the bikini girls look like Pamela Tiffin.

This is a good film to watch right about now (once you’re done with Halloween viewing, anyhow) since it deals with elections and personalities and smearing and such — I recommend. It has a sunny ending which Vidal probably never quite believed in: the bulk of the action suggests that political office in a democracy is denied to the worthy and proffered to the corrupt or mediocre…

Drag Race

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by dcairns

WINGS OF THE MORNING (1937) — shown to a select few as part of Filmhouse’s beloved “Projecting the Archive” programme — was Britain’s first Technicolor film. The great Jack Cardiff, trained in the ways of three-strip at MGM, was camera operator, but Ray Rennahan (an old hand from the two-strip days of DR X) was cinematographer. Harold D Schuster directed, but we don’t care! What concerns us is the gorgeous, soft, muted hues and the bizarro plot turns and genre shifts.

Technicolor is very much under the supervision of Natalie Kalmus, estranged wife of the bloke who invented it — she was drummed out of Hollywood after her dictatorial demands about how colo(u)r should be deployed ran up against the expertise of photographers and designers who could get great results by ignoring her. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) seems to have been the test case: Kalmus demanded restraint, they cut loose for one scene, found they liked the more vivid look, and booted her off the set. Thereafter Nat K would find herself working exclusively in Britain, getting kicked off sets by Michael Powell. But that hasn’t happened yet in 1937, where it’s forever gentle earth tones, and Natalie Kalmus and her law of restraint holds illimitable dominion over all.

But hey! There’s something to be said for it. The warm pastels compliment the actors’ skin tones, and when a few scenes pop out louder due to unavoidable red London buses and the like, you really feel the vibrancy. This film isn’t good in any recognized sense of the word, but it coasts along on prettiness and peculiarity.

Although this is a 2oth Century Fox production, it’s uniquely British owing to its inadequacies in casting and plotting, but these are so off-the-wall as to instil it with fascination. Only in Britain do we regularly seem to find major top-of-the-line product put together by people who manifestly don’t know the first thing about movies and stories. This one commits an elementary beginner’s mistake by opening twenty years before its main characters are born. For no reason. Never do this: it’s frowned upon in the industry. This protracted prologue presents an unlikely romance between portly landowner Lord Clontaf (pronounced variously by the cast) and a young gypsy “princess” (they like giving themselves extravagant titles, we’re told). He’s Leslie Banks, disastrously — this is one of those films which doesn’t know what to do about his dramatic facial scarring, so as in Powell’s quota quickie THE FIRE STARTERS, they always show him in profile, Like Dick Tracy. But his mouth is distorted by the wound, and so this is much worse than just letting us see him properly: we find ourselves edging round in our seats, leaning across our neighbours, trying to get a better look. What’s wrong with his face? In HOUNDS OF ZAROFF and THE SMALL BACK ROOM and even THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH the face is more or less displayed to full effect, and we don’t mind the scar at all.

The girl is played by Annabella, just before she married Tyrone Power. her accent is thick, charming and unexplained by narrative contrivance. Once the prologue us disposed of her character ages into Dame Irene Vanbrugh, who has a richly English accent, and now we meet a second Annabella, playing the great-granddaughter of the first, having been raised in Spain with the same French accent as before. The Civil War is raging so Annabella escapes the country disguised as a boy — Duchess Maria of Leyva becomes Duke Mario, and then, having wound up back in Ireland where the action started, she carries on in drag for no reason. The insanity of this is questioned by none of her gypsy friends, but it’s basically the source of all the entertainment for the next half hour. For two reasons —

1) Annabella makes a stunning boy. She’s obviously having the time of her life, also. Given that she did marry Tyrone Power, she’s been the subject of rumours, and I’m just going to declare them all true based on this performance alone. And it’s sort of a sweet thought: this wasn’t a lavender marriage where the affection was false. Instead we have two randy bisexuals assuming respectability via holy matrimony, shagging each other senseless and also shagging everything else in sight. If that’s how you roll, it seems a productive arrangement.

I like Annabella well enough as a girl, but she exerts even more attraction in a suit and beret, puffing on a cigar. I’m at a loss to explain it. At this point I would begin to question myself, except I can’t think of anybody else I fancy who wears a suit and smokes cigars, so I don’t really know where to begin.

2) Annabella meets Henry Fonda, playing a Canadian horse trainer. (British films are often coy about shoehorning American stars into the action, so we call them Canadians.) Like Leslie Banks in Part 1, he’s initially far more interested in her horse, but soon he’s sparring aggressively with Duke Mario, spanking him/her, kicking him/her up the arse, and calling him “shrimp.” Hank F probably has less homoerotic fervor about him than any leading man who ever lived, so this sequence doesn’t sparkle with forbidden allure quite as it might with Ty Power in the role (the celluloid would combust!) but that adds to the surreality and giant overhanging question mark about what will happen next. In fact, Fonda learns the truth the hard way by physically tearing Annabella’s shirt off in a bush (long story) — we watch from without as the branches wave and a shrill scream sounds forth. Fonda emerges, visibly shaken, clutching the torn chemise, and stammers “I’m sorry!” Which puts me in mind of this —

Drag artiste Jessie Matthews is revealed in all her girlhood in FIRST A GIRL.

Thereafter, all it takes is for Henry to see Annabella in a beautiful evening gown and he forgets his dislike of the “spoiled brat” and falls madly in love. At which point the movie “introduces” the “world famous tenor” John McCormack (“How can you introduce someone who’s world famous?” asked David Wingrove, on my left) and the movie grinds to a deadly halt as he sings three — THREE!!! — “old favourites.”

Seconds out, round five– having tried its hand at period romance across the class barriers, Spanish Civil War drama (briefly), transvestite romp, and deadly musical, the movie now turns into a racing picture, with Annabella’s great-gran (remember her? She used to be Annabella! DO keep up, will you?) and Hank both entering horses in the Epsom Derby. Cue stunning colour shots of London and humorous Derby Day characters (I’m particularly intrigued by King Honolulu, King of the Derby, a black guy with gold teeth — “I got a HOOORSE!!!”) and a frantically edited finish. If Annabella wins, she’ll be forced to marry snooty Don Diego, but if she loses, her family will be ruined but on the other hand she can marry Hank? How can this be resolved satisfactorily? I know, but I’m not telling.

Fonda also has a very funny dog, called Scruffy, which was my first boyhood dog’s name.

Most images swiped from this excellent article by Murray Pomerance.

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