Archive for Jack MacGowran

Walloping About

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Perusing the plays of Charles Wood, as part of my Richard Lester inquiries.

Wood was brought in to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, as one Royal Court playwright to another,  into Lester’s film THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, and formed a close connection with the director, collaborating on HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA (uncredited), THE BED SITTING ROOM and CUBA. There’s also a whole host of unfilmed screenplays, stored at the BFI – an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s The King (King Arthur in WWII), and a many-titled picture about communist Russia In which Robin Williams was to have played a bad actor with a passing resemblance to Stalin, who can do a passable Georgian accent when drunk,  who gets hired to play the great dictator in a biopic. The production treats him like shit and he gives a lousy performance, so they realize he needs the star treatment to build his ego up and make him feel like a world leader. He gets part-use of a limo (he has to share it with a performing bear) and various other perks, but now success goes to his head, he refuses the sequel, and is pursued by the authorities. Lester envisaged the film almost as a silent movie – in one gag, Williams would jump in a boat and launch it, but it’s a movie prop boat that’s only been built down one side, to give one good camera angle, like Cameron’s TITANIC. It sinks.

The movie didn’t even get a chance to sink. Williams’ career was stone-cold after POPEYE and they couldn’t get any interest from studios, who didn’t want another communist-themed movie so soon after REDS (as if there would be any resemblance).

The source for the screenplay was Red Monarch, a collection blackly comic tales by Yuri Krotkov, who had access to the real inside dope on Stalin’s Russia. For instance, Stalin’s screening room had a cement floor, like a bunker – no carpets – because film directors anxiously awaiting his verdict on their work would habitually soil themselves with terror. A smooth floor made it easier for the cleaning ladies.

Later, Wood adapted the Stalin stuff in the book into RED MONARCH, starring Colin Blakely as Uncle Joe himself, a quirky piece directed by Jack Gold. Blakely plays Stalin as Northern Irish. A bold choice, some would say.

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Wood’s best-known non-Lester film is probably THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, filmed in Turkey by Tony Richardson with a substantial budget and a mighty cast – David Hemmings and the entire British acting establishment, it feels like. Richard Williams provides animated inserts inspired by Punch cartoons…

Gielgud was terrified of his horse but managed to give a great perf in the saddle and out. “I’m an old man, Airey, and I’ve only got one arm. To fight the war with, it won’t be enough, eh?” Later, having disastrously appointed warring brothers-in-law Lucan and Cardigan to command his cavalry, he muses, “We must try to keep those two apart. Don’t let them sit together at dinner. Things are serious and they’re silly in ways.”

Wood’s syntax can resemble Burroughsian fold-ins at times. In THE KNACK he creates sentences that sound like typos spoken allowed: “Behaving? her lot was doing the behaving! All that leaping about in those… that’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour!” And no, it’s no mistake: Michael Crawford really does say “That’s what I behaviour.”

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, with much softening of the edges of the extreme widescreen frame, and boldly and beautifully cut by Kevin Brownlow, the movie is resolutely unheroic, gloomy, absurd and peculiar, with Wood’s dialogue crafted under the influence of Thackeray and giving a real sense of the strangeness of historic speech (years later, Wood scripted an episode of Napoleonic thick-ear saga Sharpe, and the sudden influx of weird syntax and authentic military slang was startling – and totally unremarked by TV reviewers).

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What interested me about Wood’s theatre work is not just his dazzling language, so conspicuous in the films, but the filmic elements. Veterans is clearly inspired by the characters encountered on CHARGE – on stage, John Gielgud played a perfect caricature of himself (Sir Geoffrey Kendle), while John Mills embodied a character clearly, and wickedly, modelled at least a bit on Trevor Howard (Mr Laurence “Dotty” D’Orsay – probably bits of Olivier thrown in).

You can just hear Gielgud-as-Kendle’s quizzical singsong delivery in this exchange, early on, when the audience may not know if they’re dealing with actors or real Victorian soldiers ~

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. Are you called upon to do much? I’m sorry, I never know what anyone does until years afterwards… do you do much?

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Fighting? No, no, not any more. Quite a lot at the beginning of things… day after miserable day I walloped about on a carthorse sticking a sword into astonished people, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.

Even Wood’s punctuation is astoundingly right. He could have made do with a full stop after “people,” and maybe have gotten two distinct laughs on each sentence, but the comma suggests that Kendle is rushing on to the next thought, with just the right daffy air of Gielgudian distractedness. It’s exactly 45% funnier.

Later, in a classic bit of Gielgud foot-in-mouth, Sir Geoffrey accidentally insults his friend, who has just been called to battle (filming). Attempting to back-pedal out of it, he digs himself deeper ~

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. You must be wanted on the field of battle; I’m not the least surprised, it’s complete chaos, they’re dragging in everybody wears a uniform, oh, oh dear me… ah, Dotty, is that your horse there? What a nice quiet horse it is, not like my nag, a fiend on four legs, has to have a leg tied up every time I am called on to say a few words; still, you don’t have much to say, oh, you know what I mean, ah yes, he seems very gentle and considerate, I do like the look of him…

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. I may not be quite so important as you Geoffrey, Sir Geoffrey, in regard to the length of the sword knot I am given, or the words I am expected to speak… but I am an excellent horseman.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. Oh you are, you are!

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. If my mount impresses you withg his manners it is perhaps because I have schooled him.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. It is, it is, a very nice old thing.

MR LAURENCE D’ORSAY. …and not because he is too old or lacks spirit to be troublesome.

SIR GEOFFREY KENDLE. No, no, a most perfect animal—full of mettle, I can see it, I can see he is a first-rate ride, gives an impression of gentleness. I know you’re a fine horseman, I’ve seen you riding about awfully well and never look like falling off.

The play is dedicated to Richard Lester, and by way of wriggling out of the charge that he has written some kind of drame a clef (is that even a thing?), Wood says in his intro ~

“All the films I have worked on have contributed to Veterans and more interestingly than gossip I hope the play is concerned with deceit, exploitation and treachery within an empire/industry run by gangsters, funny in their pretensions, vicious in their actions, showing a pathetic regard for skills and talent, and how these gangsters can be used by talented people who have acquired other talents like deceit, treachery, and the ability to be totally selfish yet remain on the best of terms with everyone, but for what?”

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During the shooting of CHARGE, Wood discovered Norman Rossington, reduced to the ranks, sitting up front with the officers, and asked him why he was positioned so inappropriately. “Because I am a highly-paid feature player,” replied Rossington, and the line duly found its way into Veterans.

Has ‘Washington’ Legs? Is a quasi-sequel, an occasional play presented for America’s bicentennial. It has one character in common, the crewmember Bernie the Volt. Bob Hoskins essayed the part in the first play, but here he’s been promoted to the role of a producer (and we can already hear the patented Hoskins “Amurrican” accent) while Albert Finney played legendary director John Bean (a Huston/Ford amalgam). The best stuff belongs to the character of English writer Sir Flute Parsons (Robert Stephens), who gets many dithering speeches such as this hilariously incorrect attempt to ingratiate himself with an American ~

SIR FLUTE: I’m ridiculously grateful to you and your Revolution, taught us a lesson you see . . . of course we went on and did even better for a while without you, but what about that marvelous music you’ve given us, would we have had that? I doubt it, we threw our black people off our conscience such a long time ago and all we got was steel bands and calypso, which was a little sad, because we had treated them quite badly, obviously not badly enough, needed more than that to produce a really solid contribution, and now you all do it don’t you, white and black, possibly white a bit more than black, jitterbugging . . . I used to be able to, I do have a natural grace in the same way that many of you don’t, but it isn’t an English characteristic on the whole, wish it was, so there you are . . . you’ve done awfully well and we wouldn’t have you different, and we’re awfully glad we lost, isn’t it time we started to enjoy some of the fruits of defeat . . . perhaps we did at the time, we got India and look what that’s done for Bradford, transformed it . . . very exciting.

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Dingo was first performed in 1967 and has fascinating connections with Wood & Lester’s HOW I WON THE WAR, released the same year. It shares a WWII military setting (Wood served for five years in the 17/21st Lancers Regiment) and even contains some of the same lines (“The thing about fighting a desert war is that it is a clean war. Clean-limbed, without dishonourable action on either side.”) More, it features a Comic who intersperses inane music-hall patter with the speeches of Churchill and Montgomery. It’s an extremely disturbing piece of work, even more brutal and obscene than the Lester film, and a proper bit of Brechtian epic theatre.

Wood’s script for HOW I WON THE WAR has the same density — I was surprised when I got hold of the source novel, which Lester said he hated, to find that quite big chunks are reproduced exactly, such as Michael Hordern’s disjointed ramblings about “the wily Pathan” — I would have sworn that stuff was vintage Wood. I can now see that what Lester and Wood did was superimpose the attitude of Dingo onto Patrick Ryan’s novel, which is a jolly romp. Contrasting the savagery of war with the breezy chin-up attitude traditionally applied by the Brits produces the obscenity that the film is about.

Wood’s more recent films haven’t appealed to me much, not I think because his powers had waned but because the industry was demanding less interesting stuff. AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE offered up one shellshocked character with echolalia, whose verbal reprises offered a glimpse of the more surreal Wood of yore. On IRIS and THE OTHER MAN he shared credit with director Richard Eyre, which I always kind of resented. Only rarely should directors take a co-writing credit. IRIS began with the idea that we’d see the characters played by Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent at all stages of their lives, which would have made everything excitingly strange — the youthful scenes would have been obviously memories, and perhaps distorted ones, recalled from old age. Miramax nixed that idea, which led to Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville stepping in and in my view made the film not worth making. Movies about writers tend to succeed based on how they manage to evoke the writing, and IRIS doesn’t give the slightest clue to what its central character got up to with a typewriter. The only bit I really liked was the reaction of Iris, now afflicted with dementia, to a Tony Blair speech: “Education, education, education!” “Why does he keep saying that?”

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Wood has a cameo in THE KNACK — he and Lester also voiced a lot of the “Greek chorus of disapproval” muttering away on the soundtrack, a disapproving middle-aged commentary running in counterpoint to the action and consisting of peculiar non sequiturs — “I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.” “I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.” “Well I come from Hampton Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

The screenplay of HELP! was published recently as a bonus with the deluxe DVD of the film. It’s a great read — even Wood’s stage directions are magnificent. He’s incapable of ordinary sentences.

Go a go-go

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2011 by dcairns

Felicitations to Guy Budziak for supplying me with a copy of THE YIN AND THE YANG OF MR GO which refused to play, breaking up into mosaic pixillations of Francis Bacon flesh-smear, sound stuttering in digital orgasm — a vastly improved experience from the actual film, which I subsequently watched.

I’m now ready to draw two conclusions from comparing this with Burgess Meredith’s previous outing as director, THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER — firstly, that a top-notch cinematographer like Stanley Cortez can work wonders for a no-talent director; secondly, that the classical Hollywood style covers a multitude of sins. Freed of its conventions, BM lets it all hang out with this would-be-sixties super-spy farrago, and the results are audio-visual atrocity. Shonky hand-held lurching, unmotivated angle-changes, jagged transitions and incoherent storytelling, and that’s before we get to the dialogue scenes rendered inaudible by “background” music.

If the film were at least professionally made, there would be more pleasure derived from its random casting and insulting stereotypes. The first scene features Meredith himself as oriental herbalist “Dolphin” practicing acupuncture on James Mason, cast against type as a Mexican-Chinese gangster. The dialogue has a certain fey wit, which barely registers through Mason’s grotesque false teeth and the sloppy shooting, but some degree of freakshow promise is conjured up. The fact that the screenplay, seemingly written in vanishing ink, such is the perplexity of its cast, is narrated by Buddha, who has the plummy English tones of Valentine Dyall, also endeared it to me.

Soon, however, it becomes clear that this movie has the power to nullify everything in its orbit: an athletically built young newcomer named Jeffrey Bridges is cast as a James Joyce wannabe living off his girlfriend in Hong Kong (where better to write the next Dubliners?). Bridges’ natural charm is utterly negated by the character’s total prickishness, as he betrays his country, patronizes his girlfriend and hits Jack MacGowran in the face with a kettle. He can just fuck off.

MacGowran’s physical body tries hard to inhabit the role of an FBI agent pretending to be a publisher, but his mind is clearly elsewhere, as evidenced by his dead-eyed stare, boring into our souls in a manner not entirely conducive to the traditional goals of wacky comedy. As his boss, Broderick Crawford is dropped into the film like a collapsing pudding, his scenes entirely shot in one fussily-wallpapered boardroom, as the rhinocerosian thesp numbly reprises his J. Edgar Hoover turn.

Even more uncomfortable is Peter Lind Hayes, cast against type as a closeted gay military scientist (Mr Zabladowski, what are you doing?), queer-bashed by Bridges and blackmailed by Mason before vanishing from the movie in a cloud of shame and bewilderment. The film’s unsympathetic approach to same-sex love is heightened by a performance by Mason’s real-life wife, as a butch villainess named Zelda, who tries to rape Bridges’ girlfriend, Irene Tsu.

But why stop there? The film has so much more to offend us with, beginning with the casting of pasty white thespians in yellowface — somehow much worse because it’s 1970, not 1940, and because it’s so badly done! Mason’s hair is brown. The actual orientals do well to play their scenes without resorting to mutinous violence: Tsu is joined by famed martial arts filmmaker King Hu, playing Japanese about as convincingly as Mason plays Chinese, as a banker named Suzuki (and the film is sufficiently dumb we can assume he’s named after the motorbike, not the filmmaker).

My suspicion is Meredith probably drew “inspiration” from THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, another seeming free-for-all of wackiness, but actually a tightly-controlled, slyly acted and beautifully shot and scored movie, to which MR GO cannot hold a scented candle. Theodore J Flicker’s pop-art meisterwerk is actually tightly controlled, drawing nearly all its zany tropes from the combination of psychoanalysis and spycraft — had Burgess M used Chinese mysticism and industrial espionage as his lynchpins and tethered the plot tightly to both, having fun with the collisions, he might have had something — but lazily, the moviemakers assume that just throwing a bunch of random shit at the screen will in some way hold our interest. It sort of does, because the choices are so erratic and obnoxious, but all respect is forfeited.

Fans of skin-crawling embarrassment should check this out.

What the movie does have is an arresting title — in fact, two, since it alternately goes by the name of THE THIRD EYE. That’s SUCH a good title — it draws in psychic and mystical elements, as well as suggesting private eyes and THE THIRD MAN, working as a multi-layered evocation of genre-mixing ingenuity… none of which is to be found in this dog’s breakfast.

Screenplay is co-credited to Meredith and a few other guys, including soft-porn/exploitation producer Dick Randall, described in his IMDb entry as “jolly and colorful” — I haven’t a doubt it’s true, but he sure kept it off the screen. His credits include the intriguingly titled EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, which I like to imagine consisting of ninety minutes of solo masturbation by a man in a progressively lengthening fake beard. Don’t disillusion me.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through – an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

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