Archive for James Finlayson

Hawks and Sparrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by dcairns


Douglas Fairbaks Jnr. looks with affection at his last hand grenade.

The movie is the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL. Richard Barthelmess’s hard-drinking WWI flier in this looks set to transmute into his character from THE LAST FLIGHT, made the following year. This is an early Howard Hawks talkie. If SCARFACE is atypical of the filmmaker, with its psychopathic characters and expressionistic flourishes, other titles of the same period often show Hawks searching for the fluidity of his mature style, and wrestling with subject matter that isn’t always sympatico.

Aviator/writer John Monk Saunders’ source story, The Flight Commander, deals with people on the verge of destruction, with equal odds whether said destruction will be self-inflicted or brought about by war. Hawks never liked crybabies much, and would have made a lousy grief counsellor, so for the first half of the film he struggles to generate sympathy for Neil Hamilton’s booze-and-guilt-ridden Major. But Hawks liked the story enough to recycle elements later — the active pilot hates the desk jockey, and then he gets the desk jockey’s job, sending other men out to die.


Richard Barthelmess (great, underrated actor), in engine oil and goggles hobo clown makeup, comforts a traumatized Gardner James. While the callous viewer prays that GJ can get shot down to lighten up the film.

The movie seems to get more fluid as it goes on. Early scenes are stilted, with a distinct LACK of Hawksian overlapping dialogue — it’s underlapping, if anything — one scene has two characters commenting on an offscreen argument, which they can apparently hear. But we don’t get to hear anything, imparting a surreal, mediumistic tinge to their conversation.

Ernest Haller’s oily smudge photography is wonderful, all soft focus and blurred shadows. The sets look cheap up close (painted brickwork fails to trompe l’oeil) but terrific in wide shot. And in places, the dipso camaraderie, heartless yet earnest professionalism, and underplaying (especially Barthelmess, decades ahead of his co-stars) suggest the Hawks of a few years later.


The cast also sports Frank McHugh and, in an almost unique dramatic role, James Finlayson. The frequent Laurel & Hardy antagonist is fascinating to watch, dialling down his comedy schtick and turning it to (sort-of) dramatic purposes. This includes a very mild exclamation of “D’oh!” early on, and towards the end an actual double-take, as he witnesses the wrong man getting into a plane for a suicide mission. Probably you shouldn’t cast the Finn in a tragedy, but that’s just the kind of thing Hawks WOULD do.


Below should really have been the film’s last shot, every story point having been settled by this scenic moment, but the filmmakers can’t resist a spectacular bomber raid sequence, one of several dazzling and no doubt dangerous action climaxes. This one combines high-quality miniatures, dodgy rear-projection, and gobsmacking real aerial and demolition footage, including two shots pointing straight down at the target as a bomb dwindles into invisibility and then sends half the landscape erupting upwards straight into the lens. Real stuff!


“Going west.”

The Sunday Intertitle: “First it was Hess, now him.”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on January 6, 2013 by dcairns


Not really an intertitle. But a joke, since it appears right after someone says, “Now let’s go to England.” And a sophisticated, Lubitschian joke, since it requires the viewer to recognise the fact that Scotland is not England. Even some of the English don’t realise that.

The film, of course, is TO BE OR NOT TO BE, and we watched it with Marvellous Mary, who had recently enjoyed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and realised she hadn’t seen much Lubitsch. I always forget this one more-or-less finishes in my homeland. All so that a man dressed as Hitler can parachute into a haystack and startle the local farmers into uttering the line quote at top.

Hess, of course, had flown to Scotland, bailed by parachute (breaking a leg) and promptly got himself arrested. He claimed he was trying to broker a peace deal, but mystery surrounds his trip — he doesn’t seem to have been acting in any official capacity. He couldn’t have made peace all by himself, really, could he? Or if he could, can I? Why don’t I?

Attention to detail: the two farmers are played by authentic Hollywood Scotsmen, prolific Fifer Alec Craig (from Dunfermline) and arch-foe to Laurel & Hardy, that axiom of cinema, James Finlayson (from nearby Larbert). Even though only one of them has a line, Lubitsch evidently wanted convincingly dour faces.

It’s a little sad to see Finlayson looking so old — like Laurel & Hardy, he should be invulnerable to time, we feel — but good to see him doing his bit for the Old Country. He also turns up, all-too-briefly, in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (as a Dutch peasant!), another anti-Nazi movie made before America’s entry into the war. I’ve always intended to visit Larbert to see if there’s a big bronze statue of him tearing his hair out in the town square.


To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Max, Mon Amour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2012 by dcairns

OK, so 7 YEARS BAD LUCK is an American film, but its writer-director-producer-star is Max Linder, who’s as French as you can get. He’s as French as the two men pushing a piano across a zebra crossing we saw yesterday. And they were very French.

Actually, having enjoyed the film hugely, I find I’d rather sample images than say too much about it…

Of course it introduces a version of the Mirror Scene, later borrowed by Leo McCarey for Charley Chase and then the Marx Brothers. The estimable David Kalat points out, in a DVD extra in the box set Becoming Charley Chase, that Chaplin did the first known screen version of two identical characters meeting and one thinking the other might be his reflection… then Charley Chase directed a Billy West short in which that shameless Chaplin imitator repeated the gag. But Linder’s is the first to use an actual empty mirror frame to provide real justification for the confusion.

Max sees his end approaching.

Frizotto the dog pays the price for jeopardising Max’s romantic plans.

The film starts out slow and purposeful, taking its time to milk the mirror gag for suspense (even though nothing’s really at stake in this version, you still bate your breath waiting for a slip-up by Max’s doppelganger) — then it goes hell for leather into a variety of loosely connected sequences, mainly revolving around Max trying to ride a train without a ticket. It’s not a masterpiece of structure by any means, and a chase into a zoo is thrown in to provide some kind of spurious climax… I’m glad of it, though, because it leads to some delirious images and gags —

Max, inexplicably, has no fear of lions, and lions love Max, so he gets into their cage to escape his pursuers (les cops). One intrepid flic dons medieval armour to go after Max, but by the time he’s inside the cage, our hero has slipped away. More chasing, and a brief cutaway to the cop’s armour lying empty on the floor of the lion cage. He’s been eaten!!?

“I’m just crazy about the back of your neck.”

There’s also a hair-raising moment of Max striking a match on his lioness friend’s ear. Now, the ears of all cats are very sensitive, and lions have a way of letting you know they’re annoyed — Harold Lloyd nearly lost another set of fingers that way shooting THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK.

Every Which Way…

Max is delightful — it’s really hard to process the fact that he and his wife committed suicide just five years later.

It’s standard to say that Max’s high comedy elegance influenced Chaplin, whose masterstroke was to give that dapper quality to a homeless street scoundrel. And Max’s influence also lives on in the wonderful Pierre Etaix, right down to the gap-toothed smile. But when you come down to it, Max is just Max, a one-off, and an original.

Below: Max and manservant; Charley and James Finlayson; Groucho and Harpo and Chico.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 629 other followers