Archive for Jack Lemmon

A Lawford Unto Himself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2016 by dcairns

b70-4140

IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU is pretty damn good fun. If you watch it right after BORN YESTERDAY you might get slightly annoyed by the repeated trope of a smart male trying to educate Judy Holliday out of her false values, which is effective once but starts to seem a bit retrograde second time round. But watch them a few months apart and I think that won’t be a problem. And anyway it helps that William Holden plays it so well in the earlier film, without a hint of patronizing patriarchy, and Jack Lemmon is too light to come across like some kind of hectoring Glenn Ford figure also.

But my favourite bit in ISHTY (good acronym!) is when love rat Peter Lawford is pressing his luck with Judy. Several of her films make comedy out of the dubious situation of a guy refusing to take the hint — PHFFFT has an unpleasant moment when Jack Carson is coming on very strong and one feels that his agreeably oafish presence could swiftly become intolerable and downright sinister if they take this one hair further — but Judy is the great enabler for sexist comedy because she makes everything funny, and therefore inoffensive. If you’re laughing you are by definition not offended.

This sequence particularly illustrates George Cukor’s skill, which is generally an art which conceals its art — you know he’s good because the films FEEL good, but it’s hard to put your finger on his exact technique. But this one is a very artful use of the frame, creating a surprise out of repeated action — the performances enhance it immeasurably, not just Judy who can ring infinite changes on a recurring gag, but Lawford who is a pretty underrated light comedian, only lacking the authentic charm that would have pushed him into the major league. He’s ideally cast here, in other words.

Judy has bought a billboard to advertise her mere existence so she can be a celebrity (it’s a very modern, relevent story about being famous for no reason) and Peter Lawford needs the sign for his business so he’s going to wine and dine Judy and even romance her to get her to give up her sign.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h01m56s501

CLOSE ANALYSIS TIME!

Lawford drives Holliday back from their date. Cukor delivers a standard-issue establishing shot.

He cuts in closer as Judy exits the car, and Lawford disembarks offscreen (“Shoot the money!” as Cukor would say) and circles the vehicle to, apparently, say goodnight. Judy smiles and says “Well, good night,” and he goodnights her back, but then simply follows her as she turns to her apartment.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h02m09s100

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h02m14s637

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h02m18s675

Same shot: Judy turns to wave goodbye but is surprised to find him right there, not back at the car where she assumed she’d left him. Priceless expression from JH. And the comedy of finding yourself waving at someone who’s about six inches from your face.

Same shot: Judy has to say something, so she says “Thank you very much,” obviously feeling this has an appropriate ring of finality to it. “Not at all,” replies Lawford earnestly, and then, as Judy starts up the stairs to her brownstone, he joins right alongside her. Second hilarious reaction from Judy as she glances over at him with a slight sense of one in a dream.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h07m22s175

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h08m57s210

Same shot: she’s now at the front door. Nervous laugh. “I had a real good time.” The conversation seems to be extending itself like a ramp.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h10m23s167

Same shot: up to the front door (the camera follows weightlessly). Judy opens one door, Peter opens the other. She nods to him slightly: it’s meant to mean GOODNIGHT but, fatally, she doesn’t actually say it. Or GOODBYE might be better.

They go in the first door. Cukor now cuts to inside and Judy comes in the second door and turns to head Peter off before he can follow. “Well… good night.” “Good night,” he replies, amiably. Judy turns, now confident that the correct message has now been delivered and understood.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h11m40s227

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h13m07s551

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h14m30s290

But (same shot) she’s only climbed one step when her spider sense starts tingling, warning her of danger. Back hair rising. Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread / Because he knows that Peter Lawford doth close behind him tread.

Same shot: Judy turns and says “WELL” again, quite emphatically, and then “good night” as a whisper because they’re in the communal stair, and she wants him to realize that. Judy’s indefinable comic genius: she knows that the audience will laugh at the awkwardly repeated line anyway, but she can get two more distinct laughs out of it by saying the first bit surprisingly loud and the second bit surprisingly quiet. Comedy being this strange mix of anticipation and surprise.

Same shot: Peter whispers “Good night” back and Judy mounts the stairs, growing in confidence as she gets further up: halfway to the next landing her neck distinctly straightens up, with a sense of being home free and no longer under observation and feeling in might even be safe to make a sprint for it, possibly. Cukor is ascending right along with her by crane, not to be Ophulsian and elaborate — he’s planning to cut pretty soon anyway — but because this comic movement demands it.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h16m47s621

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h18m55s321

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h19m26s998

Whoops! Same shot. Lawford accelerates into frame right on her ass. Judy immediately detects him (spider sense going like the clappers) and spins around as soon as she gains the landing. This should keep Lawford on the stairs, at a slight psychological disadvantage, but he just keeps on coming — the Sperminator — causing her to back away and get on an even footing with her. He’s playing it very louche — like the City Wolf in Tex Avery’s LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, made some years before. Judy gives him a smile which gives every appearance of sincerity except when she drops it like a mask, and then gives him a brisk wave, practically semaphore for GO AWAY PETER LAWFORD.

Peter smiles indulgently: “Foolish child!” Judy bolts, and George cranes straight up, letting Judy leave shot screen left, her movement somehow driving the camera’s ascent even though she’s no longer even in view, then he reaches the next landing ahead of her and she, having rounded the corner, arrives from screen left and looks over the banister to make sure he’s not following her —

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h24m19s103

Puzzled expression, telling us that, like Michael Myers after going out the window at the end of HALLOWEEN, Lawford is not there where he should be.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h26m37s042

“Whoops!” Peter glides into view right behind her. Judy bolts off, screen right.

Cut. Judy is now advancing at speed, sort of pretending he’s not there anymore in the hopes that he’ll get the message and start playing the role of a man that’s not there anymore. Maybe even method-acting the part. The other day upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there…

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h29m15s389

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h33m05s242

The apartment door is reached. A new strategy: “Well [slight laugh] this is it.” Regal, fluttering gesture at door. Awkward pause at realization that sentence with subtext “We have reached the end, beyond which nothing further can be expected,” might in fact be misread as “Here it is, big boy.”

Fanatical density being Peter’s main weapon, he replies “What?” “Where I live,” explains Judy, advancing to ever-higher levels of discomfiture (most actors probably only have about three, but Judy has one for every step of the way here). “Oh…good…” replies the wolf, sidling closer. “So… I guess I’d better go in.” “Very well,” he breathes. “Eh… because it’s pretty late?” says Judy, here enhancing a line by delivering it as a hopeful question rather than a statement.

“Yes it is,” murmurs Lawford, now pressing close as if in a rush hour subway. In a sexy scene, the camera would be equally intimate. By staying wide, Cukor maintains Judy’s interpretation of the scene: the absurd, unwanted closeness of this man in a spacious hallway.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h36m27s066

Judy breaks free, which means leaving her doorway, and tries another strategy: “Besides, I don’t think your car’s safe down there.” “Oh?” breathes Lawford, attempting to be seductive about his parking. “You don’t know this neighbourhood!” exclaims Judy, in a thrill of panic, trying to imbue the neighbourhood with an outrageous amount of automotive peril, and holding her hat at pelvis level like a kind of tabard against the unwelcome waves of Lawford’s penile radiation.

Peter dangles his little car key smugly. “Locked.” The subtext reads: “I think of everything. Always prepared. Ever ready. you know what I mean, baby?” Judy laughs this off: it wouldn’t stop the really determined car thieves in HER neighbourhood. “I’m scared you’ll lose your car.” “I have another one,” he says, matter-of-factly, which makes the boast even worse, but he’s also paying a compliment by letting her know that the loss of an expensive sports car would be a small price to pay for a night of passion with Judy.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h42m51s001

Judy has left her key in her front door so the masterful Peter now opens the door, inviting her into her own apartment — Cukor cutting to the view from inside. “Shall we?” Meanwhile, in the far background, neighbour and unofficial boyfriend Jack Lemmon bursts floundering from his own apartment to see what is up. Seeing what is up, and having no actual claim here, he beats a noisy retreat, but Judy uses the distraction to get inside and yelps “See that? Better go!” and Lawford finally gets the message but, departing, plants a big oily kiss on Judy. He is evidently a powerful kisser, for Judy goes into a swoony daze as if Christopher Lee’s Dracula were putting his mesmeric ‘fluence on her with both contact lenses.

But Judy, in this movie anyway, is no dope. She whispers, “But I don’t think I want to give up my sign.” Proving that, nice as the evening has been and nice as the loverboy power kiss felt, she is under no illusions about what it’s all about.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-14h46m09s094

Defeated — for now — Lawford slopes off, already planning the next stage of his battle plan, while Judy closes the door backhanded with a huge erotic sigh. And CUT.

 

Richard Brody’s Diegetic Rumba

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 5, 2016 by dcairns

Via bearded savant Richard Brody on Twitter — the dance from PHFFFT which he calls one of his favourite diegetic dance sequences in cinema. It’s awfully good!

Mark Robson, not known for his comedy, is the director.

Early Jack Lemmon: Columbia paired him twice with the great Judy Holliday in the same year. Also features early Kim Novak, coming off like a messianic chipmunk who likes sex enough to like it with Jack Carson, a thought both appealing (she must like sex an awful lot) and unappealing (she’s done it with Jack Carson).

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-10h40m57s841

We’ve watched nearly all the Judy Holliday movies there are, now. They do follow a bit of a cookie-cutter pattern, alas, but there is just enough variation to stop the formula getting stale. After all, if the writer is Garson Kanin, or Kanin and Ruth Gordon, or George Axelrod (as is the case here), the effect will be slightly different.

vlcsnap-2016-08-05-10h42m12s194

The title is a Walter Winchell word — the sound of an extinguished match representing the demise of a romance. The film also has its opposite sound: the sound made by Judy’s retractable bed, which doesn’t fold down out of the wall in the Murphy manner, but instead slides straight out (from where? next door? do the neighbours sleep in shifts?) with a lusty WUFFF! sound. The marital romcom goes from divorce to remarriage, from PHFFFT! to WUFFF!

His Name Was Ernie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 30, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-09-30-00h11m29s166

Sometimes I watch a Richard Quine film and I’m disappointed and it takes me a while to watch another, sometimes what I see is very inspiring — OPERATION MAD BALL, though not a masterpiece, inflates a slender premise to a reasonable size, and gets some good comedy going.

France, right after WWII. There’s an army base full of nurses and enlisted men, but they’re not allowed to date because the nurses technically count as officers. The wily Jack Lemmon lots and schemes under the nose of stickler-in-chief Ernie Kovacs to organise a super-celebration at which the guys and girls can dance and hold hands and like that.

Kathryn Grant is extremely cute, sporting the same little curl above her big spherical forehead that she wears in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD — a hairstyle apparently popular in both 8th century Persia and the 1940s US military. There’s an energetic cameo by Mickey Rooney. Kind of horrible, but undeniably energetic. And there’s Lemmon and Kovacs.

Jack Lemmon must have seemed a colossal breath of fresh air in 50s American film — it seems like, after the war, there was a rush to re-cement gender roles and men had to be Glenn Ford or nothing. The comedies gradually got less daring, as if you couldn’t even joke about the relationship between the sexes. Of course, there was still a lot of good stuff happening, but the appearance of a Jack Lemmon facilitated a lot of interesting developments. Lemmon is light, and not super-masculine. He doesn’t have a camp bone in his body, which made him safe to cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT, but he doesn’t radiate machismo. His insertion into the cultural mainstream opened a duct allowing about a hectolitre of excess testosterone to be drained off. This was later frozen and chiselled into the form of Charles Bronson, so nothing was wasted.

vlcsnap-2015-09-30-00h07m37s166

Here, he’s playing a bit of a schemer, and the plot requires him to break down the resistance of a very proper young lady. At a key point, he has to threaten her with incipient spinsterhood if she doesn’ yield to what I suppose we must call his blandishments — a slightly nasty, and definitely sexist speech. Lemmon makes it a lot less hateful than it would have sounded coming from your typical tough guy, and he throws in a guilty look at the end which I’m positive wasn’t specified in the script.

Kovacs, asides from his creative genius as a television comedian, is just an amazing actor — his choices are really bold, but credible. To make Capt. Lock loathsome, he does a lot of work with his mouth, making it seem very wet and eager — canine qualities which can be endearing in a mutt, but are also a bit repulsive if you imagine getting too close. While his TV character Percy Dovetonsils would draw the edges of his mouth as far back as possible as if his head were attempting second-stage separation, lips parting tightly to admit little gasps that seem to ellicit our approval. By contrast, Capt. Lock’s lips seem slack and slobbery, his grin loose, stupid, ingratiating, somehow suggesting an abyss of self-doubt behind his bullying facade.

Lock is finally defeated when Lemmon frames him, getting him picked up by the military police. By chance, his own C.O. happens to pass, and Kovacs appeals for help — surely this man will vouch for him. But it’s one of those rather mean humiliation comeuppances — his C.O. doesn’t like him, and declares he’s never seen this guy before. (We’re to believe that this will all be straightened out in the morning, but Kovacs will spend the night in the cooler.)

Lock’s reaction to this apparent lack of recognition is stunningly played by Kovacs. Lock, of course, can’t comprehend why his superior officer is denying knowledge of him — he’s crossed over into the Twilight Zone. What he does, deprived by shock of the power of speech, is to point at his own moustache. With both index fingers. “This is my moustache,” the gesture seems to say. “So surely this is me?”

vlcsnap-2015-09-30-00h08m36s229

An existential crisis we can all relate to, I think.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 727 other followers