Archive for James Harvey

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

Whistle, Blore

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by dcairns

James Harvey, in The Romantic Comedy, tries to make sense of the various studios’ outputs during the screwball comedy years (1934-maybe 1941?).

Warners, who had been kings of the hardboiled comedy, were not particularly distinguished in the field of screwball comedy, perhaps because their tight factory approach to production didn’t translate readily into daffiness.

MGM were even more regimented, but Harvey argues that their commitment to gloss and sheen and class gave them a valuable angle on screwball’s tendency to locate dizziness in high places, plus they had Powell & Loy, and he gives credit to Woody Van Dyke also.

Columbia shouldn’t have had a hope, but they had Capra, who helped inaugurate the whole movement before backing away from it as rapidly as he could.

Paramount felt the allure of high-gloss spectacle, and was a flakey kind of studio with Lubitsch and Leisen to hand.

RKO had Fred & Ginger, their only real entree into the world of light comedy.

Fox was hampered by the kind of stars they had under contract — we just watched CAFE METROPOLE, which has a pretty clever script, but lovely as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are to look at, they don’t deliver the kind of attack and sharpness the comedy needs, and even as able a farceur as Adolph Menjou is left high & dry by the flabby pace. Harvey suggests that director Gregory Ratoff never really got off the ground because he was stuck at Fox.

Well, we liked IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER much more than we expected — it’s Warners and it’s screwball, with what you would think would be unsuitable stars — Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Olivia DeHavilland and some pasteboard point-of-sale device as the fourth corner of the romantic rhombus — Patrick Knowles. Perfectly adequate, you know, and more handsome than most UK imports, but unmemorable even when he’s in front of you. The miracle is that the unsuitable stars prove to be just right, and director Archie Mayo keeps some of the pace that distinguished Warners’ pre-codes.

Bette and Leslie play feuding actors/lovers, finishing a run of Romeo and Juliet and constantly either breaking up or making up. He’s an incurable Romeo/Lothario and is worried that his moral bank balance is overdrawn. He feels the need for a good deed. Olivia is a starstruck teen smitten with him, and Knowles is her jealous beau, who approaches Howard and asks him to end Olivia’s mooning by turning up at her country seat and behaving like a boor.

The complications ensue when everything Howard does to make himself unappealing only deepens the girl’s affection. Knowles is beside himself, and then Bette turns up…

Of course, Bette as a fiery, tempestuous ham is perfect casting, and she did have comic flair as ALL ABOUT EVE shows. Howard proves to be a very nimble light comedian in the Rex Harrison mold. Olivia’s role is theoretically a lot less interesting, but she plays it like a maniac, making her character’s romanticism seem on the verge of lunacy. When Leslie tries being crude and rough, impersonating the villain from a play he’d triumphed in, she responds eagerly. “You don’t suppose I’ve aroused her ‘slap-me-again-I-love-it’ complex?” he worries.

Pleasingly, this screwball, though ritzy and upper-class in setting, nicely Wodehousian in some respects, does retain some of the best pre-code Warner style, notably a “whatever-works” approach to morality. It’s not specifically scandalous in any particular way, but it does require you to root for scoundrels and have genial contempt for “normal” people.

Oh, but best of all, as the film’s definitive portal into the heights of screwball, Eric Blore plays Howard’s dresser/valet, an ex-vaudevillian bird imitator, who still trills, hoots and squawks in moments of high emotion. Our guests for the evening were much taken with this thespian, and demanded second helpings, so we ran TOP HAT, which is Blore in full flow, and pretty definitive screwball even if it’s early and is also a musical.

Mad Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by dcairns

Of my two recent film-critical acquisitions, James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy wins out over Ed Sikov’s Screwball in style and depth, but in terms of whose taste is closest to mine, Sikov wins out when the topic is Powell & Loy. Harvey’s analysis of what is so great about the couple is spot-on, illuminating, and evokes in the reader the same kind of charmed glaze that their performances as Nick & Nora produce. But he raves about Jack Conway’s LIBELED LADY and describes the same director’s LOVE CRAZY as almost unwatchable. (Jack RED-HEADED WOMAN Conway is the man in charge.)

Sikov has some skepticism towards LIBELED LADY, as did Fiona and I, and he calls LOVE CRAZY wildly underrated — possibly because of Harvey’s dismissal. We took a look. We found it VERY funny.

To begin with, we weren’t quite on its wavelength, perhaps. As Harvey says, we don’t want Nick & Nora to fall out, or to have their relationship tested, except in the sense that we enjoy seeing it rise above all tests, supreme. And so a Powell & Loy film in which they break up and he spends most of the film trying to get his wife back is always going to deprive the audience of one of the joys of this particular screen couple, their teamwork.

But the film works really hard to overcome this. It gives Myrna strong reasons to suspect William of infidelity, so we never lose sympathy with him. And it shows Powell as being so passionately committed to his marriage that, even if we’re not quite sure for much of the film whether he’s perhaps strayed a little, we can root for him to succeed but also get a laugh out of the many indignities he suffers along the way. These include being committed to an insane asylum and having to drag up to get into his own apartment.

The loony bin stuff was a potential worry — would the film be offensive? Yes, is the answer — it’s deeply insulting and obnoxious to the psychiatric profession. Got a problem with that? The scenario (by David Herz & William Ludwig with Charles Lederer adding a polish) has Powell feign madness in order to forestall the divorce, and then being unable to convince the doctors (Vladimir Sokoloff & Sig Rumann as Klugle & Wuthering) that he’s NOT, after all, crazy. This isn’t that implausible — doctors are fairly good at spotting mad people pretending to be sane, but they’re not set up to detect sane people pretending to be mad. And they’re not really any better at spotting liars than the rest of us.

The only inmate we meet in the sanatorium is a kleptomaniac, and the movie organises things fairly sensitively so that the joke is always on the sane people trying to deal with her.

Powell puffs in THE THIN MAN.

So — screwball comedies strike different people differently — they tread on the edge of pure silliness and also cruelty, flirt with progressiveness and sometimes (not too often) duck back into the conservative or retrograde. This one might be worth your while trying, whatever Harvey says. There’s the cunning use of Jack Carson’s status as archery champion (“bow-and-arrower,” as Myrna calls him), which is BRILLIANT.

OK, quick spoiler: the movie seems to think Carson in his undershirt is hilarious, which isn’t quite true, but Carson as a champion athelete living in a swank apartment full of archery paraphernalia IS pretty amusing. Anyway, when Powell is incarcerated by the lunacy board, love rival Jack drops by the sanatarium to mock. Then he wanders off to practice his archery moves. Powell alerts the staff to the strange dude playing with an invisible bow and arrow just outside the fence, and Carson is seized as an escapee.

And there’s Powell’s drag act, which is 100% convincing — and which is used in strange and perverse ways by the movie… the final fade-out may cause levitation of the eyebrows…