Archive for James Mason

The Esther Blodgett Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2021 by dcairns

George Cukor’s mutilated musical masterpiece A STAR IS BORN is so gorgeous it makes it hard to choose anything to watch afterwards — such an excess of beauty is hard to top. In the end we went for a Japanese movie, since the aesthetics seemed a good match, but THE MYSTERY OF EDOGAWA RAMPO proved unsatisfying by comparison.

William Wellman “originated” the story of A STAR IS BORN for the Gaynor-March version, but he kind of stole it from Cukor’s earlier WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD, so it seems only fair for Cukor to steal it back. You can argue that it’s a story of male fragility by the very macho Wellman (whose actress wife gave up her career for him): Norman Maine is relentlessly humiliated by his wife’s success, and when he kills himself she responds with self-abnegation: “Mrs. Norman Maine.” But even in the earlier version, though the co-dependent dynamic is clear, the thing doesn’t play as misogynistic or even particularly chauvinistic. And Cukor’s writer, Moss Hart, resolves the one glitch in the earlier version, where Lionel Stander’s press agent suddenly becomes a louse for one scene in order to drive our anti-hero back to drink. As played by Jack Carson in the musical, his behaviour is consistent throughout: he’s merely kicking a man when he’s down, Standard Operational Procedure in the studio system.

Festive Charles Bickford

Fiona did find the film overly long, with too many numbers, but this wasn’t Cukor’s fault. In Gavin Lambert’s interview book GC reports that, even as the studio was fussing that the movie was too long, they were adding the “Born in a Trunk” number, making it longer. Cukor had insisted he could “sweat out” twenty minutes via small trims, but this wasn’t allowed: whole scenes of character development got the chop.

So the restoration, which puts those scenes back, some of them as sepia-tinted stills, some as out-of-sync combinations of different outtakes, is way longer than Cukor ever intended it. A truer restoration would keep “Born in a Trunk” as an extra feature, and the film might play better, but that wasn’t an option back in 1983 when the restoration was done. And then again, that sequence is maybe the most stunning in the film —

(Sadly, Cukor died the night before he was scheduled to view test shots of the restoration.)

Stunning performances from James Mason and Judy Garland, as you’d expect, but more surprising, Cukor gets people like Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Grady Sutton to drop or modulate their usual schtick and approach sideways the portrayal of recognisable humans. It’s amazing to watch: like the moment in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS when Cary Guffey’s toys come to life.

Lambert praises this shot:

Cukor tells him it was essential, since there WAS NO BEACH HOUSE. Just a studio set and a beach location. Artful use of reflections helps sell the illusion. The sound design is also stunning here: as Judy sings, Mason heads into the surf. We expect her voice to grow more distant but remain audible: boldly, the filmmakers allow it to diminish until its being completely drowned by the waves, just cutting through a little in between each roar. Tremendously effective, and, like so much else in the film, atypical of the period.

I was interested in how tended to Cukor keep the various film director characters out of shot. The chap barking instructions to Mason from a boat is cut off at the neck. Garland’s auteurs are shadowy backviews. And then suddenly one of them is seen full-frontal, so I wondered if I were reading too much into Cukor’s stated tendency to “shoot the money.” But then there’s the movie-within-the-movie number with clusters of literally faceless suits, so I’m inclined to think there WAS a deeper plan.

A STAR IS BORN stars Dorothy Gale; Prof. Humbert Humbert; Wally Fay; Black MacDonald; Gus Esmond Jr.; Walt Spoon; Dr. Bulfinch; Sweetface; Coroner Wilbur Strong; Detective Dickens; The Dear One; Coffer; Big Bertha; Johnny Portugal; Wainscoat; and Og Oggilby.

The Fearful Vampire Hunters

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve been writing limericks for the run-up to Halloween — you can read them here.

Despite, or maybe in part because of, the outrageous lifts from PSYCHO, part two of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot TV adaptation satisfied and startled. Fiona screamed several times. It’s fashionable to disparage jump scares, and with the modern soundtrack’s capacity they might seem too easy, somehow, but I think they still have a place in the horror film. I can respect a movie that’s too clever and disquieting to need them, for sure, but for the kind of thing SL is, they absolutely belong.

Stephen King has said that horror comes in three basic shapes — (1) is the subtlest and noblest, the suspense/dread kind, (2) is shock, the jump-scare or startle effect introduced by Tourneur (usually associated with dread and suspense but he liked to mix things up) and (3) is the gross-out. King states that he aims for (1) for preference, but resorts to (2) when necessary, and then to (3) when he has to. The trouble always seemed to me that (2) and (3) can push out (1). But I note that Hitchcock pushed graphic violence in PSYCHO and it HELPED with the dread and suspense, and that the Lewton-Tourneur school purveyed not only subtle psychological tension, but shocks AND had more blood than other ’40s horrors.

The acting in Salem’s Lot helps hugely. Reggie Nalder, as noted by David Ehrenstein, is a formidable living special effect who didn’t even need all the makeup he’s given to be alarming. When you’ve hired Reggie, youdon’t have to paint him blue. As Simon Kane notes, they’ve taken away all his dialogue and that makes him scarier, less human. James Mason’s Mr. Straker is basically playing Renfield, but a Renfield hugely empowered and elevated, suave and cunning and not loony at all, whereas Nalder’s Mr. Barlow is a Dracula degenerated, pure animal will, a semi-sentient walking plague.

Small-parts supporting vampires add to the general mood of abjection: Mason’s real-life wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason (whom he met while casting for a Miranda to his Prospero in Michael Powell’s never-made THE TEMPEST) gets probably her best onscreen moment; Geoffrey Lewis is fantastically creepy, the screen’s best blue-collar neck-biter; the two kids, Ronnie Scribner and his recruit, Brad Savage are legit terrifying.

Credit also to David Soul, who plays a hero who can actually be terrified. The way you or I would be. I don’t know why this obvious bit of realism isn’t used more often in horror films, other than that you need good actors and you need to spend time showing their reactions. Leading man vanity may also be a factor. But David Soul, rarely discussed as an acting talent, wets himself with real conviction.

Who keeps a drawer full of rats and eyeballs?

The show is peppered with instances where Hooper clearly just didn’t have time for a second take or reshoot, but it succeeds where it counts. It’s impressive that he was able to make the haunted house a memorable, beautifully-designed set that lives up to the two-hour build-up: production designer Mort Rabinowitz does a grand job. The place seems alive with mould. And Barlow’s lair is, magnificently, reached by descending an absent staircase and passing through a tiny, scary door. These bits of architectural surrealism enhance the terror in hard-to-analyse ways. They do make us feel like we’re leaving the domain of the human.

Fiona was much taken with the way Barlow’s recruits are just lying around in the dirt around his coffin. Only he gets a box. Stephen King probably deserves some credit for the way the film makes vampirism seem really grubby and nasty and degraded, a new development in the genre. True, both the Murnau and Herzog NOSFERATUs (from which Nalder’s makeup is derived) associate their head vamp with vermin, and he doesn’t look as sexy as Chris Lee. But at least he has a nice coat. Barlow’s black robe makes him a shapeless mass with a little blue head and hands grafted on, a shred of midnight torn loose and apt to pop into frame from odd angles, and he’s maybe the first screen vampire you gotta assume must smell really bad.

Donald Crisp’s Invisible Dog

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2021 by dcairns

(Now with FIXED SOUND)

Fiona immediately felt, on seeing the above scene from THE DAWN PATROL (1938), that I should excerpt it for Shadowplay. And, obviously, I agreed.

When did Donald Crisp go from the scary guy in BROKEN BLOSSOMS (and the scary portrait in THE NAVIGATOR) to the lovely cuddly guy in THE DAWN PATROL and GREYFRIARS BOBBY? Maybe it was when he started pretending to be Scottish. This obscuring Celtic veil got Crisp a few jobs — the above-mentioned pooch film, it’s alternate-universe version CHALLENGE TO LASSIE (what if Greyfriars Bobby was a collie?) and arguably HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY (since in Hollywood terms, Scottish and Irish = Welsh) and MARY OF SCOTLAND and THE LITTLE MINISTER. But it’s not certain he couldn’t have grabbed those roles anyway just by his facility for doing a not-terrible Scottish accent (he’s one of the few actors trying to sound Welsh in HGIMV).

Anyway, this scene is adorable, as good as James Mason chasing his last pea round the plate in MURDER BY DECREE.

I ought to have more to say about this film soon, because we absolutely loved it. It’s much more Hawksian than the Hawks version.