Archive for Ilona Massey

Horse Operetta

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back! With sort-of late Allan Dwan — Dwan’s career was so very long, he arguably has at least a decade of late work… DC
“Can’t you hear what the balalaikas are telling you?”
~ Ilona Massey in NORTHWEST OUTPOST.
“I didn’t think it polite to listen.”
~ voice from the audience
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Operetta is difficult. Notably when, like the Allan Dwan-directed NORTHWEST OUTPOST (1947), it’s of the “Meet me by the stockade” variety.
NORTHWEST OUTPOST isn’t, y’see, the sort of Lubitsch-ian operetta concerned with mythical kingdoms and the lovelife of satirized monarchs (THE LOVE PARADE, THE MERRY WIDOW). Nor is it a Mamoulian-style tale (see. LOVE ME TONIGHT) of country-house assignations. No, it tells of a Russian settlement in 1830s California, a sheriff-like rep of the US government (Nelson Eddy as Capt. Jim Lawrence), and the arrival of a glamorous-yet-suspect Russian general’s daughter (Ilona Massey as Natalya Alanova) for reasons undeclared and suspicious.
In place of a ladies’ tailor we see forced laborers … and one can only raise an eyebrow at the implied *schadenfreude* of a romance precipitated by the sight of a convict being whipped. Or one where the first kiss comes after badinage about whether or not a plum has worms in it. “I deserved that” responds Massey, a tad fatalistically.
Perhaps this gamy, semi-rural atmosphere can be attributed to co-scenarist Richard Sale, author of the novel that became Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO. The prime mover, though, is probably the film’s composer, Rudolph Friml, whose ROSE MARIE had been a monster hit for MacDonald & Eddy some ten years earlier.
“I make a habit of scaring ladies’ horses” says Eddy at one point — though the line might apply to either OUTPOST or ROSE MARIE, what with the baritone-on-horse action.
What does director Dwan do with the singing objects that are Eddy and Massey — though Massey, to her credit, shows signs of dramatic involvement? Well, Dwan surrounds them with first-rate supporting players like, f’rinstance, Elsa Lanchester, who does heroic work as the governor’s wife both conveying plot points and getting her laughs while maintaining a Russian accent. Hugo Haas is no slouch, either, as her none-too-faithful husband. Or Joseph Schildkraut, who glowers as the prisoner Massey was forced to marry in order to save her father (blah blah blah). There’s even an appearance by Jay Silverheels, who is audibly referred to as “Silverheels.” A Brechtian alienation-effect? Not likely.
Dwan-the-director is felt mostly in an extended Orthodox Easter celebration, with tracking-shots, where Eddy is cantor. Also in a dialogue scene, with Lanchester and Eddy, where Lanchester is embroidering and it’s shot, Sternberg-style, through a huge lace screen.
The lyricist is Edward Heyman, who wrote “Blame It On My Youth” and “When I Fall In Love.” (The charitable will overlook THE KISSING BANDIT.) The number that comes off best is an extended duet called “Nearer, Dearer.” There’s also an over-the-top waltz called “Love Is The Time” which is reprised, at the end, by men on horseback who simultaneously guide their horses and balance a female singer on one knee.
One’s eye often rolls. When, that is, one is not cheering Elsa Lanchester.
The good end happily, the bad unhappily, and Yakima Canutt shoots the chase scenes. That is what Republic Pictures operetta means.
*
The players, as David Cairns might say, include: Sergeant Bruce; Elsa Frankenstein; Louise Patterson; Monsieur Walter; Judas Iscariot; Olympe the Courtesan; and Tonto.

The Whammy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

From LOVE HAPPY. “The whammy” itself is wonderfully rendered.

I dig how Harpo’s contents, whether intentionally or not, harken back to previous movies: there’s the block of ice, magically unmelted, from HORSE FEATHERS, and that dog may be related to the one inhabiting his chest-tattoo in DUCK SOUP. The mannequin legs are a welcome hint of the polymorphous perversity otherwise lacking in this iteration of Harpo: no skirt-chasing in this one, just sappy mooning after Vera-Ellen.

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.