Archive for Jean Arthur

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

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The Deluxe Treatment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2013 by dcairns

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My favourite bit in EASY LIVING is probably the guided tour of the opulent suite at the Hotel Louis. A bewildered Jean Arthur is shown around by Louis Louis himself (Luis Alberni). The sequence seems to exemplify screenwriter Preston Sturges’s concerns — sudden reversals of fortune, the fickle finger of fate, the absurdity of the lives of the rich, funny foreigners, linguistic play — and those of director Mitchell Leisen — most of the above, plus lavish sets. There’s a lot more to Leisen than that, of course — one might mention his love of all different modes of camp, his fondness for Mexicana, Freudian motifs, and romanticism. In a way, this scene shows how for years critics have tended to regard the deep stuff in Leisen’s films as entirely the work of the writer, while regarding his own contribution as window dressing. Yet the visual choices of a filmmaker are not secondary to the thematic ones. And Sturges couldn’t have staged this scene as well as Leisen, because Sturges’s visual style favoured vulgarity and boisterousness over elegance. If Leisen had made THE PALM BEACH STORY, it wouldn’t have been as funny but Claudette Colbert would have had better frocks. The Hotel Louis IS vulgar, but it’s also beautiful.

The scene could have been written for Leisen, since it’s suck a design showcase. At the same time, Louis’s garbled descriptions of the suite’s features provide a ludicrous counterpoint — I particularly like his cockeyed neologism “gymnasalum,” which suggests some kind of workout regime for the nostrils — perhaps Kenneth Williams had such a facility in his flat (we’ll never know because he banned visitors).

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The gymnasalum features a hobby-horse, leading to a surprise bit of slapstick. It’s not surprising that Louis should attempt a demonstration, but it is a surprise that Luis Alberni should prove to have such very short legs. They’re like thumbs. Since most of the film is shot in that forties mid-shot standard, the sudden appearance of the micro-limbs is startling, and we suddenly see that Alberni’s tailoring makes him virtually a circus clown, with the costume exaggerating rather than concealing his physical oddities. And, mounted on the horse, his movements acquire a herky-jerky peculiarity perfectly in tune with his dialogue.

The most fabulous thing is the bathroom, with its “plunge” (see top) — it’s bigger than it looks, as we see later when both Jean Arthur and Ray Milland get in together. And, in operation, it looks like it might be annoying rather than invigorating — little streams of water spouting from all directions. Like Dolby Atmos only wet. But I like to believe the plunge is as wonderful as it looks, and to hell with such practical considerations. When I’m a billionaire, I’ll order four.

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The only bum note here is one I’ve got only myself to blame for. When I wrote for a Channel 4 “education” show called The KNTV Show, I borrowed Louis Louis’s habit of randomly pluralizing singular words, and gave it to the Eastern European characters on the show. And then a set of commercials featuring a CGI meerkat stole this idea from me — otherwise, how to explain that the meerkat has an Eastern European accent? I don’t like most commercials, and I certainly don’t like the idea of some rich advertising jerk-off making money off an idea he stole from me, even if I stole it from Preston Sturges in the first place. Probably the meerkat isn’t as annoying as KNTV was. But I’d prefer, on the whole, not to think of either.

Meanwhile: I score co-authorship on a limerick. And a movie Fiona and I wrote seems to be tumbling erratically towards production. Remain skeptical, but we’ll see…

Support Shadowplay, and your classic Hollywood habit: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

Kismet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2013 by dcairns

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“Say, what’s the big idea?”

“Kismet!”

Another viewing of EASY LIVING confirms its supremacy. Seems we’ve all spent decades admiring Frank Capra comedies when we should’ve been admiring Mitchell Leisen comedies. This is complicated by the fact that the good Leisen comedies are also Wilder & Brackett films or Preston Sturges films, and that means something different to us than saying that of course Capra owed a great debt to Robert Riskin and the Swerlings etc. It shouldn’t, though — Sturges and Wilder’s distinguished future directing careers don’t impact on the quality of the films Leisen made from their scripts.

(You might find yourself, briefly, thinking less of Leisen if you attempt to watch MASQUERADE IN MEXICO, a protracted and miscast remake of MIDNIGHT. Wilder must have hated that, since he felt that MIDNIGHT was the one of his scripts he’d managed to protect from Leisen’s alterations. Leisen got his revenge, you could say, but the movie is pretty lousy and didn’t do its director any favours.)

Sturges’s debt to Wodehouse looks even stronger now — Ray Milland, very effective as the fatheaded idler son, is a pure Wodehouse “young man in spats” type. Lovers saying “Ha!” to each other in moments of high emotion. Jean Arthur working at The Boy’s Constant Companion — these kind of trashy magazines are regular employment for Wodehouse heroes, suggesting that his early days of journalism fixed his world view permanently.

The fur coat that drops from heaven and transforms Jean’s life, however, is pure Sturges. The idea that appearance is all anyone cares about, and success is a matter only of perception, and the heavy hand of the author intruding to transform character’s lives in a blatant manner, all that is the stuff of Sturges writ large.

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One could wish that the last line — “This is where we came in!” — were different. I have no doubt that Sturges was the first to use it, but it has become a dead sitcom cliché. Perhaps for younger audiences, it has already lost those associations, and will seem fresh again. But then, younger audiences never had the experience of walking into a movie partway through, sitting through the whole programme, and then getting to the point you recognise and leaving, with those words. I did: I think we only did this on double bills, but I certainly remember entering the cinema while a strange movie was partway through. Hitchcock didn’t affect a total transformation in cinema-going habits all at once with VERTIGO, and at any rate in the 70s or even 80s your cinema ticket bought you admission and you were entitled to sit in the dark all day if you felt like it.

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Who is that girl? I wondered, when the fur coat incident from the beginning was repeated with a new girl at the end. It didn’t seem right that she should just be an anonymous extra (she’s uncredited). One wants it to be an aspirant Jean Arthur, with something of a career ahead of her. And, according to the IMDb, it was — Marsha Hunt, still with us today, is the girl. I love her in Zinnemann’s CSI 1940s crime flick, KID GLOVE KILLER.

Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)