Archive for Ivor Novello

Litvakuation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.

The Sunday Intertitle: Rats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2012 by dcairns

My main purpose here is to alert anyone who still needs alerting to the great event of the film blogging calendar, For The Love of Film, the film preservation blogathon, hosyed by Ferdy on Film, This Island Rod and the Self-Styled Siren.

You’ll find a wealth of reading material via these sites, but don’t forget the purpose of the thing — donate! (By clicking on this thing below.)

We raise money, we get a free streaming version of THE WHITE SHADOW, scripted by Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Graham Cutts, and we get an original score to go with it.

Graham Cutts was one of the annoying lesser minds Hitchcock banged up against during his early years, a company which also included several producers and studio heads. And that’s how he is chiefly remembered. Hitch and Alma attempted to direct THE WHITE SHADOW by remote control, pointing out shots to the director, helping him along but also incurring his resentment.

Still, Cutts did enjoy some success apart from Hitch, most of it via the series of films he directed with Ivor Novello — THE RAT, TRIUMPH OF THE RAT and RETURN OF THE RAT. Novello, apart from his charming songs, is best remembered today for THE LODGER, Hitch’s first real thriller, hit, minor masterpiece. He was a heart-throb and matinee idol, and although Hitch was prevented from casting him as a serial killer, he tended to write bad-boy roles for himself, albeit with a last-reel redemption — in this sense, the ultimate revelation of his innocence in THE LODGER is quite in keeping with the kind of role he was associated with.

In THE RAT, Novello plays a Montmartre cat burglar entrusted with his devoted young ward daughter Odile (Mae Marsh), who falls in love with sophisticated rich lady Zelie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans). The Rat finds himself in over his head, especially as his young ward faces a murder rap. Finding in himself a strange form of gallantry, he confesses to the crime — now only Zelie can save him.

Cutts serves this up with a cinematic flair which puts the lie to Hitch and Alma’s claim that he was visually illiterate — unless he had someone else in Hitch’s place, helping him along, this time.

THE RAT is a corking melodrama, and it not only merited two sequels but a remake in 1937. By then, Novello was out of movies for good, his strong Welsh valleys accent apparently considered unsuitable — in his few talkies, he tends to be cast as Eastern European or otherwise foreign, in hopes that his unfamiliar yet musical delivery could be disguised as exotic (not that I’m saying Wales is NOT exotic, you understand. Heaven forbid). So the role went to (drum roll)… Anton Walbrook, a true exotic.

Doesn’t this image make you very happy and excited? It does me.

Adding to the excitement, Odile is played waif specialist Rene Ray from THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK (who also wrote THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X, intriguingly) and Zelie is embodied by Ruth Chatterton, visiting Britain as part of her downward career spiral. All three actors are ideally cast and excellent, and if director Jack Raymond doesn’t have quite the expressionist chops to paint a really memorable Montmartre demi-monde, he doesn’t do badly.

THE RAT is a fun character, though perhaps not suited to sequels (how many times CAN you be redeemed?) — really, there should have been a Hammer remake in the fifties, and maybe a Woodfall one in the ‘sixties in the wake of TOM JONES. Instead, British cinema dropped the ball and this character has fallen into disuse, slipping out of the public memory until there’s no longer any commercial value in bringing him back. Alas for The Rat!

The silent RAT has one thing the talkie inexplicably omits — a bar called The White Coffin, where all the doorways are coffin-shaped and all the floozies carry a torch for Novello. 

Ceiling Hero

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by dcairns

CITIZEN KANE images via Checking on My Sausages.

In between saying inspiring things like, “Remake ORDINARY PEOPLE. Do it in your apartment. Play all the roles. Make it in a day,” my host in NYC, the esteemed Comrade K, projection into our sphere of a numinous, n-dimensional shepherd-warrior from a land before history, got me started on the following set of thoughts by an offhand remark, which went something like, “People were amazed by the ceilings in CITIZEN KANE. Nobody had ever seen a ceiling before. People couldn’t look up before Orson Welles showed them how.”

He’s right! Welles made the breakthrough by practicing a unique form of yogic meditation taught him by Rudy Vallee. This resulted in the opening of Welles’s “third eye,” which coincided with him lying on his back, causing him to discover the ceiling of his living room. It has been argued that people intuitively knew of the existence of ceilings before this, since logically every floor must have an underside. Some feminist writers have suggested that the ceiling’s true discoverer was a woman, arguing that the prevalence of the missionary position in pre-war life made such an awareness inescapable for the fair sex. But this strikes me as akin to arguing that people “had dreams” before Freud taught them how in his hit book, Close Your Eyes and Move Them Rapidly About.

Some point to the glass ceiling shot in Hitchcock’s THE LODGER as a pre-Wellesian ceiling, but in fact this is nothing more than a glass floor, above which Hitchcock suspended his camera while two burly stagehands held Ivor Novello upside down so he could place his feet on the translucent surface and mimic the actions of a right-side-up walker.  So in fact the shot actually depicts a floor, with Novello on the other side of it. Incidentally, Novello enjoyed the experience so much that he spent a month traveling this way, and had it specified in future contracts that all his films must include upside down walks. Novello later composed “Rose of England” in an entirely inverted position, complete with upside-down grand piano strapped to the backs of a half-dozen burros.

In explaining his concept to art director Van Nest Polglase, Welles was faced with the difficulty of introducing the concept of the ceiling to a man who, like everyone else in 1940s America, had never seen one. Resistant to yogic disciplines, Polglase finally had to be shoved onto his back and held down by Joseph Cotten, while Welles peeled back the eminent designer’s eyelids and forced him to look. Concerted to the cause, “Poley” later became a great proselytizer for the ceiling, even having a house constructed in Beverly Hills composed entirely of ceilings, top, bottom and sides, inside and out. The famous Polglase House was later purchased by James Mason, who had a notorious phobia of doors*. Living in a home whose rooms could be accessed only by skylights appealed greatly to the Huddersfield-born actor.

In addition to the heavily corniced plaster ceilings displayed in KANE, there were several “trick ceilings” — canvas ceilings through which sound could be recorded, and matte painting ceilings to fill in the top portions of large sets, where a real ceiling would be too costly or frightening. Welles also used his mastery of sleigh-of-hand to suggest ceilings that weren’t actually there, enlisting the audience’s imagination by saying things like “Look at that amazing CEILING!” while subtly pointing upwards, or hanging photographs and etchings of great ceilings from history around the walls of a ceiling-less set. In the New York Inquirer set, Welles experimented with rear projection, stretching a screen across the top of the set walls and projecting outtakes from SON OF KONG onto it, but test audiences found the stop motion pterodactyls distracting, and the notion was abandoned.

When KANE was released, the impact was extraordinary. Columbia boss Harry Cohn immediately called in architects to build a ceiling for his office, which until that point had opened on to the room above, forcing the accounts department to rappel from the ceiling to reach their work stations. Suddenly, it became possible to build structures higher than a couple of storeys, and miracle “skyscrapers” mushroomed up in America’s great cities. (Tall buildings seen in pre-1941 movies were always fantastical special effects.)

While Hollywood legend has it that Welles’s film was a flop, it has been suggested that audiences, alerted to these mysterious planes above their heads, became distracted from the cinema screen and spent the movie’s running time staring upwards past the projector beam. Not for the first time, Welles had been too innovative for his own good.

*In civilian life, Mason was only able to enter a room by the window, or while strapped to a hospital gurney, or sometimes both. Ironically, in the movies, he could “act” walking through a door with ease and even suavity, even picking up awards for his smooth entrances. Whereas Pat Boone, Mason’s co-star in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, could enter a room in a graceful, natural manner, but invariably either stumbled, fainted, or soiled himself when called upon to do so for the films.