Archive for It’s a Wonderful Life

I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by dcairns

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After the special screening of CLUNY BROWN at Filmhouse, there was much discussion among the appreciative audience about why the film wasn’t better known. Various theories were mooted –

1) Vagaries of TV scheduling — none of us could remember catching CLUNY on TV. While IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a flop on first release, became a Christmas classic because it had lapsed into the public domain and therefore could be screened free of charge, and therefore was screened A LOT, and while CASABLANCA was already a firm favourite but was given a boost by the fact that Curtiz’s unusual use of closeups makes the film play very well on a small screen, CLUNY BROWN may have just missed out on finding a place on the small screen. And TV is what has kept film history somewhat in the public mind — the dropping of old movies from the schedules has brought about mass amnesia in the young, the loss of a whole language composed of once-iconic faces. Not only are there now western adults who don’t know Jimmy Cagney, they may be in the majority.

2) Vagaries of contemporary reviewing — coming after a string of successes, the somewhat uncategorizable and utterly relaxed CLUNY BROWN probably didn’t get the love it deserved. If you’d just given five-star reviews to NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and HEAVEN CAN WAIT, you might be inclined to nit-pick just for variety. And you could probably find a few things to criticise –

3) The first act takes place in a London flat and deals with Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) preparing a cocktail party and in need of a plumber. It feels like the whole film is going to be a series of people arriving at the door and either mistaken for plumbers or being plumbers and mistaken for ordinary civilians. But then the film takes off for the countryside and we never see Hilary Ames again. There’s also a coda in New York. So the film is extremely casual about structure, and some people seem to mistake this for sloppiness. Certainly the film has a lightness and a country house setting in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but eschews the tightly-plotted farce form which is one of Wodehouse’s defining merits.

But in fact, all subplots are nicely rounded off and despite the need for comedy characters to resist change, I think we get about four-to-six full character acts, all of which are affecting and delightful. The movie appears to take its time, yet packs in lots of funny supporting players and explores the themes of class and inhibitions and “knowing your place” in a thorough and intelligent manner. It was suggested that the modern Downton Abbey audience might find it very amenable.

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4) Charles Boyer is today mainly known for GASLIGHT and Jennifer Jones I guess for DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. This film shows them in very different modes. They’re both brilliant. He’s just generally excellent, implying Adam Belinski’s romantic yearnings and heartbreak with only the tiniest hints. Jones, with her preposterous attempt at an English accent (inconsistent in itself and about three social classes too high), and her rather full-on approach to every emotion, is less obviously a skilled player, but in fact everything she does is PERFECT. Even the accent works in a weird way, suggesting Cluny’s fish-out-of-water quality. You’ll notice that nobody criticizes Boyer for failing to do a convincing Czech accent, so why should we object to her wandering vowel sounds?

5) The only major cult figure in the supporting class is Una O’Connor, who does sterling work (restrained by her standards). But there ought to be a cult around Richard Haydn, a real cult that worships him as a god. And Peter Lawford’s callow young man roles in this and the criminally unappreciated Christmas film SOMEONE TO REMEMBER (Robert Siodmak) ought to be enough to redeem him from the Rat Pack pigeonhole he got himself jammed into later. Everybody’s good in this — Canadian Margaret Bannerman makes a splendid English lady of the manor, initially a silly goose, but revealing almost mystic levels of grace and understanding. “We must have a talk about the garden, because everything’s planned three years in advance,” becomes, in her reading, a rather eerie and beautiful encapsulation of Britishness.

Helen Walker’s career was tragically derailed but she’s wonderful and lovely (and believably English) as the Honourable Betty Cream (she doesn’t go everywhere, but she does sit a horse well, hang it) — she has this and NIGHTMARE ALLEY as twin claims to immortality.

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Sarah Allgood and Ernest Cossart — the head servants are far more snobbish and unsympathetic than their masters, which points to the fact that this is a film poking fun at class but still from a slightly conservative viewpoint. Lubitsch is not out to overthrow the system, although in the context of the stultified society presented, Boyer’s cri de coeur of “Your place is wherever you are happy” (paraphrased as “Squirrels to the nuts!”) is somewhat revolutionary.

I’ve just discovered via the IMDb that Cossart was the actual brother of Gustav Holst. Now I have an image of him cavorting in a toga to the theme of Jupiter from The Planets Suite. It’s quite a nice image, really.

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But really those are all the reasons I can think of why this isn’t a gigantic renowned classic, and I don’t really believe any of them are good reasons.

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Leading Parts

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by dcairns

Drawing by Roland Topor.

After weeks of time-consuming research into the bins round the back of the leading movie studios, Shadowplay can present this exclusive look into the untold stories behind the body parts of the stars. This mission was inspired by a discussion with Mike McCarthy, filmmaker (CIGARETTE GIRL) and comic book artist, whose strip cartoon heroine Cadavra is assembled from pieces of dead movie stars. “Does she have Jayne Mansfield’s head?” I asked, immediately. “No, she has the Black Dahlia’s head,” answered Mike, looking at me as if I were crazy. I had a melancholy intuition into why Mike isn’t a millionaire. Clearly, Mansfield’s head, subject of an entirely legendary decapitation, makes a better head for Cadavra than the Black Dahlia’s. The BD, AKA Elizabeth Short, wasn’t a famous movie star, having done only one screen test, and she was sawn in half, not decapitated. Mike seemed to me to be messing about with his own premise. Still, it’s his premise.

CIGARETTE GIRL.

Considering body parts of the stars in isolation from the stars themselves is something of an obsession of mine: I’ve previously documented the post-cinematic career of Nicole Kidman’s nose, waxed lyrical on the possibilities of Stefania Sandrelli’s chin, and worried as to the possible whereabouts of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s clitoris.

With all respect to Mike, here is an alternate history of the Hollywood body part, the pitfalls and pleasures, tinsel and truncations of the life of limbs in Silver Screen City.

Laughton and his hump pictured together.

1) Charles Laughton’s hump.

Laughton and his hump formed their profitable double act in 1939 for THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and were a big hit with audiences. The Hump wanted to carry on their partnership into a series of movies — RICHARD III, JEAN DE FLORETTE, but Laughton became jealous of the attention the Hump was receiving and chose to go it alone. The Hump signed a five-year deal with MGM, but his first solo feature, I WANT YOU, BACK, was not a success, and most of his supporting role in ZIEGFELD GIRL ended up on the cutting room floor. The Hump drifted into work as a background artist, appearing as a series of hillocks and tuffets in outdoors movies of the forties, and also picked up a salary doubling for Mickey Rooney, but his days of stardom were behind him.

2) Rod Steiger’s stunt ass.

Rod Steiger’s nude scene in AL CAPONE was eventually deleted from most prints on humanitarian grounds, but the story of its inception is a remarkable one. From the beginning, Steiger and director Richard Wilson were agreed that a stand-in posterior would be needed to give Capone’s character the authority he needed. Supporting player Harley Thomsett was hired, after extensive auditioning, but his casting presented a problem. Blacklisted for his outspoken leftist views, Thomsett could not officially be hired by the studio, so he had to arrange for a friend, Buck Gough, to front for his rear. This meant that although Thomsett was the official body double, Gough was the world’s first and only body triple.

3) Orson Welles’s nose collection.

Welles has always been celebrated for his versatility, a large part of that came from his tendency to appear in a new nose with each appearance. “My own nose is nothing,” Welles would say. Each new snout would be hand-crafted by studio artists to the actor’s exacting specifications, and at the end of filming would go into Welles’ private collection. Each nose therein had its own display case and its own name, although the names did not correspond to the names of the characters the noses were designed for. Sheriff Hank Quinlan’s bloated drunkard’s schnozz, for instance, was named Sandra, for instance. The aquiline hooter worn in his television King Lear, made by cutting the corner from a shoebox,  went by the nickname Sloane Jnr. On social evenings, Welles would perform magic tricks with the noses, making them vanish, or performing a variation on the old shell game, using three noses and a garden pea.

O’Brien exercises his oral skills.

4) Pat O’Brien’s tongue

While cross-eyed Ben Turpin had his trademark strabismus insured against any unforeseen normalizing, and Betty Grable’s legs were insured for a million dollars lest shrinkage or snapping jeopardize her standing as the forces’ sweetheart, less has been written of Pat O’Brien’s tongue. This is no doubt because people don’t like to read about Pat O’Brien’s tongue. Pat O’Brien’s tongue was heavily insured against a variety of complaints including allergic reaction, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, tuberculous infiltration and tertiary syphilis. All these conditions can cause thickening of the tongue, which O’Brien feared would limit his ability to talk very rapidly, a skill to which he attributed, perhaps with some accuracy, his entire success in pictures. Less kind friends suggested that, if O’Brien was worried about his livelihood, he should forget about his stupid tongue and take out life insurance on James Cagney.

A rare image of Beyoncé with her parasitic twin, Bernard (note the face on her torso, also the third arm.

5) Beyoncé Knowles’ parasitic twin.

I have previously discussed the open secret of Beyoncé’s conjoined twin Bernard, a sentient parcel of flesh and tooth positioned to the right of the singing star’s spleen. At last it can be revealed — Bernard is actually the singer. That’s the boy whose voice you heard and loved tonight. He’s the real star of the picture. Bernard Knowles! Beyoncé just lipsynchs and moves her hips in a distracting manner.

6) Angelina Jolie’s high-heeled feet.

Movie fans got to see these medical curiosities just once, in Robert Zemeckis’ experimental exercise in conflicted response and random shouting, BEOWULF. In other movies, Angelina simply blackens the bony extrusions projecting stiletto-like from her feet, and pretends they are shoes. Or she uses a skilled foot double, Harold Chan, famed for his ladylike feet. Or she deploys modern CGI effects to paint out her unusual appendages. Ironically, Zemeckis pioneered digital effects to remove Gary Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP — using the same technology subsequently used to remove Sinise from the cinema screen altogether — but opted to go the other way with Jolie’s freakish feet. The lizardlike tail she sports in his three-dimensional flickbook is fake, however — Jolie’s own tail was considered too fluffy and unthreatening for the character.

Note camouflaged background, with Chandler’s tusks painted to blend in.

7) Jeff Chandler’s jaw.

Hunky he-man Chandler carried with him a dark secret — a rare anomaly known as a herniated jawbone, which cause coral-like encrustations of bone to project from either side of his face, like ivory handlebars. The manly star refused to have these tusks sawn off by the studio doctor, saying he found them beneficial to his love life (documents pertaining to this have been sealed for fifty years, so will have to wait for details). The skull-extensions could easily be airbrushed from publicity snaps, but for actual motion pictures, the problem was harder. Chandler suggested that he might stop making films altogether, and maintain his star presence entirely in still photographic form. In 1953, Photoplay magazine gave away Jeff Chandler masks on sticks, which audiences could hold aloft before the movie screen, transforming any character in any film into a Jeff doppelgänger, but the fad was shortlived. Eventually, traveling mattes were used to optically remove the appearance of antlers from Jeff’s jowls, and in shots where the actor appeared against blue sky, his jaw-bones were painted a matching hue to blend in. This explains the preponderance of low angle shots in his movies.

Dentally disturbed.

8) Peter Lorre’s teeth.

The Lorre teeth underwent a startling transformation a few years after the star’s arrival in Hollywood. As long as the German actor confined his appearances to Japanese or otherwise deformed characters, his mouth, an exploding cemetery of enamel fingers, was judged satisfactory. But when leading man roles beckoned, the gnashers needed fixing. After a grueling month-long series of operations, one entire extraneous tooth was removed, whittled down, and transformed into the actor William Lundigan, while the rest were realigned and hewn into humanoid appearance. A strange psychological aftereffect of this reconstruction is worth remarking upon — for years afterwards, Lorre was convinced that he had been fitted with the teeth of Nelson Eddy, and would battle a powerful urge to feast upon human flesh.

That leg.

9) Peter Weller’s leg.

To prepare for his role in ROBOCOP, the notoriously dedicated actor installed parts from a VHS toploader deck into his thigh. With the power cable trailing out amid a slew of gristle and loose skin, Weller would place a water pistol in the tape compartment and practice his quick draw. Sadly, the wound became infected and Weller risked becoming a real-life cyborg with an artificial limb, but he was spared that indignity because none of this happened.

Henry Travers with Jimmy Stewart — note the tell-tale bulge.

10) Henry Travers’ wings.

A heartwarming story to end on. When Frank Capra was casting the role of Clarence, the trainee angel in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, he was naturally intrigued by reports of a winged actor in Tinseltown. Henry Travers was eventually traced via his agent, Irving “Septic” Bazaar, and proved to be ideal for the part. Not only was a he a skilled actor with an air of sweetness and innocent wisdom, he also sprouted two voluminous, white-feathered wings from his shoulder blades. Capra realized he could strap the wings down with bandages, as had been done on WIZARD OF OZ with Judy Garland’s 33″ breasts. And at the end of the film, when Clarence gets his wings, they could be aloud to burst forth and fill the screen with their radiance, an effect not possible for Judy in 1939. Alas, the whiteness of the wings was simply too glaring to be photographed in studio conditions, and Capra reluctantly abandoned the idea. But he always maintained that it was all worth it, since the quest for an actor with feathers had led him to the perfect choice for the role. “Jesus Christ, that fucker could act,” the director reminisced fondly.

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