Archive for James Whitmore

I can’t die! I haven’t seen The Eddie Duchin Story yet!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2018 by dcairns

Apparently the above is a line in a Three Stooges short. Well, I was surprised to find this relatively obscure Columbia Pictures biopic in a charity shop, so I bought it. It’s George Sidney! I figured it had to have some interest.

Well — it stars Tyrone Power, who taught himself to play piano in the distinctive Duchin style. And Kim Novak, who has entirely different makeup from her later roles, and looks VERY different — different mouth, different eyebrows — not those big painted Groucho jobs she sports in VERTIGO. The movie makes a surprising effort to create period style — I guess nostalgia is what it was selling, otherwise why the hell make a film about this guy at the height of rock ‘n’ roll? — but, as Fiona said, “Kim’s hair is just Kim’s hair.”

Good support from the dependable James Whitmore  “It’s him from THEM!” I declared.And it’s written by VERTIGO scribe Samuel Taylor, who has to struggle with Eddie’s apparent failure to live an eventful, dramatically structured life. The key moments — his wife’s death, the war and his own illness and death — are problematically random. Taylor comes up with some partial solutions, tying things together with little foreshadowings and callbacks, but he can’t really make a story out of decades of playing the piano. The best stuff is when Duchin struggles with fatherhood after losing his wife.

And the best best stuff is with Rex Thompson as that son. He plays piano real good for a little guy (he was about thirteen) and all his line readings and responses seem marvelously spontaneous and raw. Tyrone Power, rather too old for the role, works hard and attacks the emotional moments head-on, rather too bluntly sometimes, but Thompson just seems to exist, in character and in the scene. The only problem with this is he rather shows up the artifice in the performances by the eager and earnest adult leads,He’s still alive, Rex. Let’s toast him! Good job, kid.

George Sidney, an old hand at musicals, creates a couple of set-pieces here, but after all, there’s only so much he can do with a man playing the piano. But, fair play to him, he does it: swish pans, dutch tilts, overhead views of the keyboard, and several shots taken from inside the instrument itself, looking out through the lid by some kind of X-ray vision. He refuses to let things get any duller than they absolutely have to.

And Taylor’s writing and Sidney’s filming really get it together for the ending, which stage’s the protagonist’s demise in non-literal, poetic terms, with a subjective camera shot that pulls back out of the character’s position and up into space, like an out-of-body experience only the body has gone. Eddie has, in a sense, BECOME the camera shooting this movie — that invisible, intangible omniscient observer, the ghost or soul that sees all and remembers all.

STOP PRESS: DVD of PAL JOEY found in charity shop. Purchased. More George Sidney, yay!

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Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.

 

From the Id

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2018 by dcairns

It’s our old friend, the Monster from the Id! You can tell it’s him because (1) he’s invisible and (2) he’s behind a door. Just like always.

SHADOW IN THE SKY is directed by Fred M. Wilcox  (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and written by Ben Maddow right before he was blacklisted. It deals with a veteran with PTSD (Ralph Meeker) who comes to stay with his reluctant family, sister Nancy Davis/Reagan and brother-in-law and former comrade-in-arms James Whitmore, and their kids. It’s a sort of attempt to remake THE MEN with mental illness instead of paraplegia, but they mix things up enough, and everybody underplays heroically. This may be Nancy’s best film, in fact (though TALK ABOUT A STRANGER, shot by John Alton, is very good).

Ralph Meeker seems to be styled somewhat as Brando (and Maddow would go on to write THE WILD ONE). Some may find his tiny, tight buttocks enticing. Of course, he has that sneer. Best of all are his moments of automatism, where he’ll do some ordinary thing seemingly with nothing special on his mind, going through the motions of dancing or playing ping-pong, his thoughts simply elsewhere, perhaps directing the actions of a vast alien living intelligence system.

I found myself even able to sympathise with Nancy, who’s worried about her kids. There’s no reason to think Ralph is actually a danger to them. But certainly they might be distressed if he has one of his spells and flips out, hiding under a table and yelling, even though that’s the kind of thing kids themselves do all the time. Kids are funny that way — they either laugh at or are freaked out by adults behaving like them. Small-minded. On the other hand, Nancy’s fears are also irrational — the sense of madness as communicable taint, something to be shut away and not even spoken of, is ever-present.

Also — Jean Hagen as Ralph’s nurse girlfriend, an appealingly direct performance. These are all sort-of B-list players, but one wishes people of this quality could have enlivened FORBIDDEN PLANET (but I still love Anne Francis). I mean, come on, Ralph Meeker is good in anything.

Maddow’s sensitive script stops this being social-conscience pablum — the respectable suburbanites are driven by irrational fears as much as the traumatised vet — humour is allowed at unlikely moments — “Clayton’s afraid of people,” says Meeker of a friend, “Which is bad, because the world’s full of people.” And on his first morning in his new home, Meeker asks for an old hat. “There’s a bird in my room.” It sounds like something a crazy person in a dumb comedy would say, but there IS a bird in his room. He catches it in the hat, puts the hat on to contain the bird, climbs out the window, again seeming like a crazy person only we know otherwise… meets the kids for the first time. Raises his hat to them — and the bird flies out. Instantly the kids are very impressed with their new uncle.

OK, so it’s a very written idea, but effective and charming, I think.