Archive for Howard Hughes

A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2018 by dcairns

Well, that’s what the opening voice-over tells us MACAO is. Quite why it should want to say that, I’m sure I don’t know. But this is less a Josef Von Sternberg film than it is a Howard Hughes production, with all the mental derangement that implies. The “plot” involves Robert Mitchum being mistaken for a police investigator, who is really William Bendix — but we never really find out who Mitchum is, do we? Nobody in particular, it seems. Then there’s Jane Russell as a lounge singer, and nasty casino owner Brad Dexter, a notably colourless heavy, and crooked local cop Thomas Gomez.

Hughes declared in an internal memo that his films at RKO would be about two things, “fucking and fighting.” But really they all seem to be out convoluted webs of betrayal, usually reaching a point where the hero and heroine should hate each other, but instead end up together as per Hollywood tradition. It all gets extremely convoluted without you caring what happens to anybody in the least. Sternberg’s JET PILOT is an extreme example of this, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh’s “romantic” sparring intensified by the fact that they’re meant to be representatives of the US and USSR military. That movie was greatly compromised by Hughes to the point that by the time it opened, RKO was defunct and all the planes were out of date. MACAO fared even worse: “instead of fingers in that pie,” reported Sternberg, “a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomies in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Nicholas Ray was uncredited second director, apparently responsible for a lot of the Gloria Grahame bits (he married her and at least we got IN A LONELY PLACE out of that). He claimed he tried to achieve a Sternberg look, but most of this film is flat and prosaic, despite the exotic sound stage setting. But every ten minutes or so a shot sings out, mostly in the casino, often dreamy tracking shots that aren’t going anywhere in particular. In fact, it seems a rule in this movie that the more beautiful the shot, the less it has to do with its surroundings, the greater the sense of its having been dropped in as a random cutaway. But there’s almost nothing to cut away FROM.

And here is our fragment of cinematic beauty for today: the phantom tombola of Philip Ahn.

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Caught — Totally

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by dcairns

Max Ophuls’ film CAUGHT is an interesting film in many ways and in many ways a good one — the Ophuls visual style is restrained but still elegant — until its ending. The movie can be seen as Ophuls’ revenge on Howard Hughes, who had fired him from VENDETTA (as he would later fire Preston Sturges and Stuart Heisler). Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, millionaire Smith Ohlrig*, who sends slimy agents out to recruit girls for him. Barbara Bel Geddes marries him, discovers he’s a monster, and flees. Then she falls in love with James Mason, but discovers she’s pregnant with Ryan’s baby, and goes back to him, like a good Code-obeying wife.

All this is very dramatic and interesting and of course beautifully filmed by Ophuls. Mason is a slum doctor which means he can be saintly and preferable to Ryan in every way, but also a bit stern and domineering in an attractive James Mason kind of way. But now that the film has established its most dramatic problem, it gets just as caught as Barbara, and can’t fight its way out of the plot tangle. Genre convention and Hollywood preference dictates a happy ending — sure, Barbara started out as a bit of a gold-digger, but she’s learned the error of her ways. But the movie can’t bring itself to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E, despite Ryan’s obvious cruelty and abnormality. So he’s going to have to die. And he can’t be killed by any of the sympathetic characters. The only possibilities are to bring in a secondary character with a grudge, bump him off in an accident, or have him expire of natural causes. The movie plumps for the last option, but the trouble is these are all deus ex machina solutions, getting the heroes out of trouble without them having to lift a finger.

The going gets really weird when it comes to Ryan’s unborn child. There seems to be no specific Code ruling to prevent Barbara having her late husband’s child, marrying Mason and raising it. But everybody seems to have felt really uncomfortable about this cuckoo in the nest. So the blameless embryo must perish, a victim of Ryan’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife. This winds up being weirder by far than the extirpation of Joan Fontaine’s child in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, who after all was the product of sex out of wedlock. Despite the evidence of the world’s innumerable thriving bastards, illegitimate offspring under the Code have a tendency to die young.

The miscarriage is actually a more successful part of the plot than Ryan’s convenient collapse, since after all, he had been mistreating Barbara. But now the movie wants to cram its cake into its gaping maw while hugging it simultaneously to its bosom, and so makes an ill-judged attempt to fold the miscarriage into the happy ending. It’s all for the best! A James Mason baby will obviously be cuter than a Robert Ryan baby. And at least slightly smaller! The transports of joy into which Mason persuades his newly bereaved bride-to-be in the back of an ambulance make for an extremely strange and awkward conclusion. Sometimes, there’s just no room to squeeze between the Scilla of Joe Breen and the Charybdis of the Hollywood Ending.

*The name Smith Ohlrig is so preposterous I figured it had to be an anagram, and so it is: of Girlish Moth.

All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.