Archive for Henry Hathaway

Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2013 by dcairns

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The Central, interior detail.

Ghost cinemas surround us. Normally, as we go about our business in whichever modern metropolis we inhabit, we have no way of knowing that innocent-seeming supermarkets, pubs or parking lots were once cinema palaces, long demolished or redesigned out of all recognition.

My Dad handed me a copy of Brendon Thomas’ book, The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, which started falling apart as soon as I opened it. Attempting to scan pictures for this post completed the disintegration of the binding, and the book is now essentially a loose folder. BUT it’s also an essential guide to the buried skeletons of Edinburgh’s cinemas. Fiona and I went walking around our own neighbourhood, Leith (actually a small town conurbated by the expanding capital) and explored the phantasmal relics of a city which once boasted more cinema screens than any other city in Europe (and now boasts more ghosts).

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The Raj, our local Indian restaurant, just two minutes down the street, was once The Cinema House. According to Thomas, it opened in 1913, and its foyer of potted plants earned it the nickname “The Cosy House.” The auditorium sat 600, which was considered quite small for the day, and the first séance consisted of A TALE OF TWO CITIES (presumably this version, featuring Maurice Costello [father of Dolores], Florence “the Vitagraph Girl” Turner, John Bunny, Norma Talmadge, Ralph Ince and, surprisingly, Mabel Normand) double-billed with FOR THE KING, about which I can discover nothing.

In 1917 the cinema became the Empire Picture Palace, screening TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE with Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand again (she had now risen to stardom).

As recently as ten or so years ago, the Raj kept a back room cinema which you could hire for party screenings, and billed itself as Edinburgh’s oldest surviving cinema. The screen had never been converted for sound and the cinema obviously stood vacant for many years before the (splendid) restaurant moved in.

Just a short distance from the Raj is Parliament Street, which was home to a tent show run by William Codona of Portobello. This was upgraded to an iron shed in 1912, seating 200, and became known as The Magnet. No trace of it remains.

Our local modern shopping centre, the New Kirkgate, a dismal concrete hole, was once the old Kirkgate, though the people of those times, in their ignorance, did not think of it as old. And it had a cinema, The Gaiety, now long vanished. Once a church, damaged by fire, converted to a 1,000-seat theatre, and then to a cinematograph. How many times, while buying my frozen ready-meals, have I been lightly dusted by photons once attached to Peter Lorre? I’m no physicist, but I think I’m right in asserting that’s what happens when you walk through a space once occupied by a cinema.

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The Foot of the Walk is an enormous pub where Fiona and I have upon occasion dined — the only argument against the establishment is the dimness of the lighting, which rather makes a cavern of it. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the place was once The Palace, opening in 1913 with A RACE FOR INHERITANCE (this one?). The cinema had its own cafe and smoking rooms. In 1955, the local branch of Woolworths bought the site, and the last film screened was Ida Lupino’s THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS.

Glory days –

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Just down Constitution Street a short way was the Laurie Street Cinema, now gone. It opened in 1911, under the management of Willie Salvona. “Mr. Salvona came from a family of acrobats and this form of entertainment featured in the Christmas show at the new cinema.” The cinema closed in 1947 with THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (John Wayne, directed by Henry Hathaway) and POWER DIVE with Richard Arlen and Jean Parker. Where this cinema stood is now the loading bay of a large charity shop. Nobody there knew of the former building.

Moving a short distance up Leith Walk, which leads eventually to the city centre, we come to Casselbank Street, home to the Destiny Church, an exotic-looking building which always intrigued me –

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A church with minarets? Mr Thomas helpfully informs us that the building was originally a Turkish baths, run by J.W. Hodgson, “masseur and medical rubber.” In 1920, it became a cinema, The Central, opening with A MAN’S FIGHT AGAINST TREMENDOUS ODDS (of which the IMDb has never heard) and part one of BARABBAS (ditto). The building became a church in 1936, probably never having made the change-over to sound.

Thomas claims the interior still retains a plaster screen and some semblance of its original form, so we rang the doorbell. The people inside were very nice indeed, and allowed us to look around. They even switched on the stage lighting for us –

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The interior perches in a happy medium space between a cinema and a church!

One street up is Jane Street, home of Falconer’s Picture House, a tent erected in 1899. We saw no traces of it, but it began to rain quite heavily, so we stopped for coffee/hot chocolate at the Punjab’n de Rasoi, where you can also buy haggis pakoras. It’s true!

Across the road, more or less, is Manderston Street, site of Mecca Bingo. Bingo, a sport I have never cared for (too violent), must be credited with preserving many of our historic cinemas and dance halls. In this case, The Capitol, seen here receiving an elaborate front-of-house display — a set of missiles to advertise ROCKETS GALORE!, the belated and inferior sequel to the classic WHISKY GALORE!

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The Capitol was rather unusual, being situated directly under a railway line, which led from Leith Central Railway Station. (Correction: it was a freight line unconnected with the station, according to Shadowplayer Stuart Brown.) I explored this derelict site as a kid, finding it romantic and menacing, not realizing it was known to local junkies as “the shooting gallery” — it features prominently in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, and gives the book its title. Patrons at The Capitol could hear the trains rumbling overhead above the sound of the twelve-man orchestra and organ. It opened in 1928 and closed in 1961, coming full circle with a screening of DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER, a compendium film of silent comedies and adventures.

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The Capitol today. No organ, no screen, no trains rumbling overhead. But the staff inside were friendly and knew all about the building’s history.

An intriguing item in Thomas’s book is The Imperial Picture House, Storries Alley, off Leith Walk. Not only has the Imperial disappeared, but so has Storries Alley itself. All that remains is the name, attached to a cake shop, Storries Home Baking, a sort of phantasmal reminder.

I’m going to look at the various cinemas further up Leith Walk another time — I need the exercise anyway — but for now I’ll stop at the Alhambra. This is also remembered in name only, since a pub opposite the old site still bears the name –

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But the mighty cinema, formerly a theatre of varieties, is long vanished, a wine shop now standing on the site. A Mr. Alf Beckett managed the place for forty years, reluctantly closing in 1958, blaming the Entertainment Tax for causing a decline in attendance. FRONTIER SCOUT and DANCE WITH ME HENRY closed the cinema. “Permission to demolish,” writes Thomas, “was granted in 1960, but the demolition did not take place until 1974 — lasting a dramatic five weeks from January 9th to February 13th.” He doesn’t say why they were dramatic. Did the shades of Tom Mix and William S. Hart torment the demolition team with phantom ricochets? Thomas remains silent on the matter, so I assume they did.

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We didn’t mean to walk all the way up Easter Road — a dreary street, I must say — but we did, and it was kind of worth it. A sign dates the theatre to 1869, but it became the Picturedrome in 1912. 600 seats, electric fans, the works. In 1943 it was renamed The Eastway (above), opening with I MARRIED AN ANGEL starring the ever-popular Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It closed in 1961 with an early evening of KONGA (newly released on DVD!) and THE HELLFIRE CLUB with Peter Cushing. That’s the last picture show I’d most like to travel back in time and see.

Here it is today –

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Apparently the former theatre has provided frozen foods specialist Iceland with its very own underground passageways, structurally unsound perhaps but conceivably useful in the event of zombie holocaust.

I’ve saved the best for last. The State was a super-cinema, built in the finest art deco style and opened in 1938. If I were going to own a cinema, this is the one I’d want. I shouldn’t imagine it’d cost more than a million quid, if that –

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It opened, Thomas tells us, with BLOCKADE (the only American film on which its director is credited as Wilhelm Dieterle). It closed with WHERE EAGLES DARE in 1972, as if war were the perpetual state of civilisation, or something. It’s been a bingo hall and seen service as a church. I’ve never been inside it, but it must have been wonderful once –

“…the cinema even had a Scottish-produced sound system (Shearer-Horn), though the Holophane lighting system was an import. Part of a complex including four shops, two billiard saloons and a skittle alley, the State had a local architect, Sir James Miller, who put a variety of shapes into this cinema. The pillars are flattened ovals in cross-section, the splendid entrance hall (walnut panelled and once gold) looks as if it should have twelve sides, but five are taken up with the curve of the doorway. Stairs plunge and bend towards the auditorium, which the visitor should imagine in its original green, silver and ivory. The roof contains a kind of pagoda structure and the cinema’s dramatic position over the Water of Leith makes the kind of building the imagination hastens to find a use for. Solidly built, its stanchions go down twenty feet to get below the level of the river’s bed.”

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Thanks to Brendon Thomas for his lovely book, and to my Dad for giving it to me.

Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin –

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit –

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

Blind Tuesday #2: Waterloo Sunset

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by dcairns

David Melville’s away on holiday so his A-Z of the Cine Dorado takes a break, and we return you to our semi-regular Blind Tuesday feature, examining sightless person thrillers of yore.

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET has a nifty title going for it, even though when it actually turns up in the film’s dialogue it proves to be a complete red herring. Henry Hathaway directs with his usual efficient, slightly bloodless efficiency, although his use of widescreen in confined spaces is reasonably imaginative, exploiting the opportunity to show activity in two rooms at a time… The screenplay is by novelist Nigel Balchin, and fans of the Powell-Pressburger classic THE SMALL BACK ROOM can find fascinating connections with that movie, which is based on a Balchin book. In both stories the disabled hero is good at his job but lacks confidence and is tortured by his injury, which he takes out on a long-suffering girlfriend. The l-s gf is nicely depicted as someone who refuses to be a doormat, she’s supportive but somewhat aggressively so — she won’t take any of the hero’s defeatest self-hating bullshit.

But this is a blind person in jeopardy film, so Van Johnson’s disability has much more to do with the plot than David Farrar’s tin foot. He’s an American playwright in London for the West End opening of his latest mystery, and he uses a tape recorder (no dictaphone, but a big chunky reel-to-reel job, think THE CONVERSATION) in his work. His ex, Vera Miles (yay!) is vaguely trying to get back into his life, and like all movie dysfunctional couples, what they need is an adventure.

Adventure comes in a kidnapping plot overheard in the local pub — we see the shadowy silhouettes of two people, Van hears what they’re saying and smells a whiff of perfume. Hastening home he reconstructs the conversation, doing both voices, on his tape deck, and tries to interest the authorities. Better yet, he enlists the aid of Vera and comedy relief Cecil Parker to gather evidence.

The blind leading the bald: Van Johnson, Cecil Parker and Maurice Denham.

Cecil Parker is the whole show! Damnably funny and adding much-needed humanity and humour, compensating for the inevitably Van Johnson drag factor. Van’s not bad, by any means, but one can’t help imagining a lot of other, preferable actors in the part. Or a sturdy wardrobe, come to that.

Patricia Laffan has an interesting part too, but she’s underused.

Seems to me, if we’re going to have remakes, this is the kind of film that should be remade — it’s very well constructed, which means it’d survive updating, and while Cecil Parker can’t be improved upon, the film can. Masterpieces ought to be respected, with no nonsense about “introducing them to a new generation” by trying to supplant them with new versions. A stronger lead would be enough reason to do this one over. Still, I’m just as happy if they leave it alone.

Most interesting character is the shadowy Mr. Evans, kidnap plotter — years later, this seems to have inspired a character in Grant Morrison’s amazing Doom Patrol comic, The Shadowy Mr Evans — 0nly here he was basically Noel Coward with a periscope coming out the top of his head. I don’t think that would have fit in 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, but it fit perfectly in Doom Patrol. Just shows you what a good comic that was.

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