Archive for James Dunn

Annie Laurie, Slight Reprise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by dcairns


One night after being wowed by WILD RIVER, we sat down to A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Elia Kazan’s first feature. Ironically, the blue and golden light of the 1960 movie had caused me to erroneously deduce it to be photographed by Leon Shamroy, whereas ATGIB really IS shot by Shamroy, and by Kazan’s own account, the visual direction of the film is largely Shamroy’s — Kazan wasn’t technically confident at all, and so was encouraged to direct it like a play, with Shamroy figuring out how to cover it. The performances are superb, but I also wanted to compliment Kazan’s visuals, but I guess they’re Shamroy’s. (Lyle R. Wheeler’s production design is also remarkable — always a bit weird seeing huge Hollywood resources targeted at recreating poverty, and Kazan himself felt he failed to capture the real quality of slum life, which he knew well — the sets impart an epic scope which mitigates against the movie becoming depressing.)

Kazan confesses to manipulating tears from his young star, Peggy Ann Garner by discussing her father, who was in the air force, and subtly implying that he might never come back from the war. Later, when the scene required her to mourn her character’s dad, he just needed to reconnect her to that emotion, and it was unleashed. Then his producer ordered him to reshoot it because it was too raw, too mushy — filming her with her back to the camera resulted in a more discrete and affecting emotion. It’s very frequently true that the audience won’t engage with shocking displays of raw emotion — too much of the work is done for us and we can’t find space for our own reaction. I must say, my face was soaking by the end of this movie. It’s a movie with a free wash thrown in.

Kazan’s secret weapon is James Dunn as the drunken father, whose rendition of “Annie Laurie” was the only scene in the movie I knew. Kazan’s assistant Nick Ray, a lifelong alcoholic himself, spoke with immense admiration of the director’s patience in coaxing that performance out of a vulnerable man. Kazan chose Dunn because he WAS the character: once a promising star, his career had been wrecked by booze. The disappointment and sense of personal failure were written in his face. Rather cruelly, Kazan was making Dunn play himself, and making him confront his own inadequacies, but he also got from him his one really effective performance, and immortalized him.


Most people seeing this film have never seen Dunn in anything else, but because I love pre-codes I’d seen him in SAILOR’S LUCK, THE GIRL IN 419 and TAKE A CHANCE. My impression was always one of desperation, eagerness to please that shades into mania, anxiety trying to look like charm, flop sweat personified. All those qualities can now be acknowledged and used, which allows the actor’s real charm to emerge around the edges.

Also nice — Joan Blondell, of course, a pre-code performer who was always utterly relaxed and natural, Dorothy McGuire excellent in a challenging part, the underrated Lloyd Nolan… and it’s always nice when James Gleason drops the why-I-oughta schtick (which he was so good at) and plays a human being (see also NIGHT OF THE HUNTER).


“They should stop making films,” I said to Fiona afterwards, drying my soggy face. “After this, it’s all just noise.” I suppose I’ll get over that feeling — I have to, I’m making a film of my own — but when a film is this powerful, it puts a lot of stuff in the shade. Through a mix of blind ego and ignorance I’m able to make my little films and not worry about comparisons with the greats, most of the time, but once in a while I see something and think, “Well, I can’t even hope to touch that…”

Space Punch-Up: The Movie

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2014 by dcairns


This piece has multiple beginnings and no ending, which makes it the opposite of most blockbuster movies.

“The summer had crashed,” is a very good sentence in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and it came true as a hot July switched to a thundery, rainy, windy, cold August. God, who for a fictional construct can be a total dick, had decided to flip the dial to “November” to keep us on our toes, and Robin Williams killed himself. The guy who played Patch Adams committed suicide. I can’t even think of an analogy for that.

So we went to see GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY because a movie, even an indifferent one, kind of rapts you out of yourself — a friend who worked on it recommended it. I wasn’t sure I would like it but I figured either I would feel worse, and thus drive a car over my own head, or better. Instead I feel about the same, but the actual movie was OK.

What made me wary of it, apart from it being a mainstream release dated after 1980, was the reports that it has no story and everyone in it is an asshole. In fact, it has as much story as any of these things — a bunch of characters who want different things run around while stuff explodes — that’s the whole history of western literature right there, according to Stan Lee — there is an orb everybody wants, but it might as well have been a cube — and the characters’ obnoxious tendencies are actually explained/redeemed a bit as it goes on. And Groot, the walking tree is a kind of positive guy — source of the only moments of visual poetry, if you can call it that — though he has no drives of his own and seems to exist only to help the others. He’s a dendritic Magic Negro — or Magic Tree-Gro.


Oh, the other thing that made me wary of it was that the director, James Gunn, made SUPER, which I hated. God. Just remembering it. How anything with the delightful Ellen Page could be so horrible to watch I can’t think. Kind of makes me want to drive a car over my head, just remembering it. And I can’t even drive.

He’s basically redeemed himself — GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY easily surpasses the low expectations I had. It has Henry Portrait (which is what we have to call actor Michael Rooker) painted blue, with a screw foe a tooth and what looks like a headlight emerging through his scalp. It has a planet called Morag. It has a soundtrack structured around an 80s mixtape of super sounds of the seventies. It has Zoe Saldana (so versatile — first she was blue, now she’s green!) pronouncing the word “doom” as “dume” for no reason. It has a mining colony inside the severed head of a god. It has John C. Reilly. Mainly, it has decided what it thinks of its characters, which is that they’re “not 100% dicks.” And that saves it from being SUPER.

I generally try to see some contemporary relevance in these things — this one seems to be an American fantasy vision of Israel as a sort of Epcot Center world, besieged by vari-hued genocidal barbarians and protecting itself with a sophisticated aerial defense system. Unfortunate timing, then, but nobody seems to mind.

Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.


~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.


This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.


Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).


Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.


Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.


Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin —

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.


When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.


Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit —

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.


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