Archive for James Finlayson

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Give Chase a Chance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2012 by dcairns

This intertitle, from the Charley Chase-Leo McCarey short HIS WOODEN WEDDING, strikes me as the greatest achievement of western civilisation. Of course, by tomorrow I may have a new favourite… Seems likely the whole film grew from this one pun, since it’s the most “logical”, compact and perfect aspect of the movie. Getting to the line requires considerable ingenuity upon McCarey’s part, and considerable suspension of disbelief for the audience.

Charley is about to be wed when his malicious rival slips him a note —

Two funny things — the insanity of the rival’s scheme, and the fatuous signature “A FRIEND.” Plot contrivances pile up like rugby players, eventually convincing Charley that the note speaks true.

Charley immediately imagines what married life will be like a few years hence, in this Nightmare Vision of the Future —

All Charley’s clan have Long John Silver peg-legs (his wife still looks quite normal, but Charley isn’t taken in by that).

Even Buddy the dog gets in on the act. (Yay, Buddy!)

It’s getting so that a Chase film without an appearance from Buddy leads to disappointment as inevitably as a film with Jeffrey Hunter in it. The only acceptable substitute is Josephine the monkey. I long to see Chase’s Tarzan spoof, NATURE IN THE WRONG, because it has a great title, because the idea of Chase as Tarzan is very fine, because it features Charles Gemora as a gorilla and James Finlayson as the voice of a lion, and because Josephine must surely turn up somewhere in there. (Plot: “Charlie receives a letter from a company in Texas telling him he’s related to Tarzan.”)

I recollect a gag very similar  to the peg-leg family in The Simpsons when Aunt Selma is contemplating marriage to the short-sighted Hans Moleman. Her imagination conjures a room full of myopic kids, stampeding around, crashing into each other and the furniture. I seem to recall one toppling out the window. All in a shot just few seconds long.

(I think the swipe is perfectly allowable, even if deliberate, and I’ve unconsciously pilfered from The Simpsons myself so I’m in no position to throw stones…)

Next week I really will write about Max Linder…


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