Archive for Hugh Herbert

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

From Hindquarters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by dcairns

A fingerprint besmirches the hindquarters of a deco figurine!

FROM HEADQUARTERS is one of William Dieterle’s best pre-codes, and I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. I think I watched it shortly before I started blogging so it got lost in the shuffle.

We screened it as one half of a double-feature in our latest Warren William Weekend, even though the film does not feature WW. By chance, the last time I watched FH, I also ran Dieterle’s THE SECRET BRIDE, which does feature WW and links up in an odd way: in both films, characters look into microscopes and see… the SAME BULLET. How did it get from one film to another and kill Kenneth Thomson in one film and Douglas Dumbrille in the other? It must be one of those magic bullets we’ve all heard so much about.

Warner Bros were into saving money in all kinds of odd ways. “Jack Warner has oilskin pockets so he can steal soup.”

Anyway, THE SECRET BRIDE ought to be exciting and emotional, with what James M. Cain called a “love rack” at its centre, the romance creating the suspense, but the concealed marriage of WW and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role never really feels in jeopardy. When Warners went middle-class, they often lost a lot of their oomph. Also, there can be a big difference between 1933 and 1934 Warners pictures — the Code has come in.

But FROM HQ is terrific stuff — part of Warners’ Great Project to document every facet of American society — here, it’s the life of the police station, so we’re in for a kind of CSI: Pre-Code — plus director Dieterle has suddenly gotten really into elaborate and dynamic blocking, with characters crossing frame at speed alla time, the camera relaying from one busy body to another, and Eugene Pallette jumping into shot like an over-inflated jack-in-the box, bellowing his swollen head off. His character is called Sgt. Boggs and that’s just right.

George Brent is the lead and his sleepy delivery turns out to be just what the film needs, since everyone else is so overwrought. Margaret Lindsay does a lot of elaborate hand-ringing. Hugh “Woo-woo” Herbert is an ambulance-chasing bail bondsman, offering rates “that’d almost surprise you.”

Dieterle also stages multiple flashbacks to the events around a killing, in long-take subjective camera shots, including one that goes from objective to subjective in a oner, his camera discretely tucking itself into a manservant’s head to look out through his eyes, giving us an actual “what the butler saw” or “first-person butler” sequence.

FOG OVER FRISCO has been described as one of the fastest movies ever made but this one could give it a run for its money. Asides from being a murder mystery, it fits snugly into Warners’ Grand Project to document every aspect of American life: this one stars the police station itself, and spends the first few minutes observing the processing of arrestees, before lingering over forensics, ballistics, interrogation, and even the filing system. Punch cards! High-tech stuff.

Dieterle reportedly hated the pace of Warners films and, left to his own devices, would happily crank out slowies like 6 HOURS TO LIVE, which is only 72 mins but feels like it’s in real time. The strange part is that when Jack Warner cracked the whip, Dieterle went just about faster than anyone else. The actors get splashed with his sweat. FROM HQ goes like a rocket, with the same amount of smoke, noise, sparks and sputtering.

Thing I Read off the Screen in “Diplomaniacs”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2013 by dcairns

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Informal trilogies are the best kinds. Here we have an informal trilogy of war-and-peace diplomatic “satires” from the pre-code era, comprising DUCK SOUP (the good one), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (the less familiar, less good one) and DIPLOMANIACS (the not exactly good but certainly odd one).

M$L was co-written by Joseph L Mankiewicz and Henry Myers, among others. They were also responsible for this one. They ought to be ashamed.

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Fake newspapers in movies fascinate me. Sometimes the small print is made up of Latin, cut and pasted in at random. Sometimes it’s fictional stories of a vague, unconvincing sort. Sometimes it’s smaller stories related to the film’s main plot — some of these above qualify — but there are also authentically grim and real-seeming stories here, like 2 MEN SEIZED: BODY WAS PUT IN BURLAP BAG.

Low comedians Wheeler and Woolsey are sent to Geneva by the Indian Nation to sue for peace. Evil schemer Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino from DUCK SOUP) plots to thwart them with vamps and with fiendish Chinaman Hugh Herbert. Mr. Wu Wu, I guess you could call him — but the credits name him simply as “Chinaman”. Oddly, yellowface seems to agree with the overeager vaudevillian, forcing him to calm his schtick the fuck down, a good thing.

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The vamps are another matter. Dolores, played by half-pint Manitoban firecracker Marjorie White, is delivered down a chute wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer. She tries to make Wheeler sing by throttling him. Englishwoman in Paris Fifi (Phyllis Barry) has a kiss which reduces men, literally, to smouldering heaps. Yet when she tries this on weedy Woolsey he blows HER fuses — it’s like Barbarella Vs. the Excessive Machine all over again. You wouldn’t think he had it in him.

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Lots of printed gags in this one, because it’s a VERY cartoony aesthetic. Also dismayingly random, which doesn’t make it good but at least makes it unpredictable. One can forgive it a lot for a scene where Wheeler sings “Annie Laurie” with his mouth fill of bread, which keeps jetting out in doughy wads — he catches it, stuffs it back in again, and carries one singing as movie tears run down his face in a gelatine torrent. Gross yet hilarious, and very strange.

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Unusually for a Hollywood movie, the boys’ mission fails and the world is plunged into war, a bitter harbinger of destiny. Fiona had been watching with eyelids slowly descending to Robert Mitchum levels of drowsiness, occasionally starting wide open at some fresh insult to the senses. At the end she declared that she was entirely uncertain how much of the film was real and how much a dream. There is no way to know — I mean, I was watching it too, but I couldn’t prove it didn’t unfold in her unconscious.

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The Peace Conference: “NO SPITTING ALLOWED UNLESS YOU’RE A DELEGATE.” Chairman: Edgar Kennedy.