Archive for James Dunn

Births, Deaths and Marriages

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2018 by dcairns

A tender-hearted boxing match for fathers — an uncanny pre-echo of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN — Coney Island in her pomp — cracker barrel philosophy — cracker barrel sociology — phony stars that aren’t phony — all in Frank Borzage’s BAD GIRL, a movie with everything except a bad girl.

Showing soon at MoMA in New York, written up today at The Forgotten.

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Annie Laurie, Slight Reprise

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

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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.

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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).

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“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

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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.

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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.