Archive for Jimmy Durante

The Sunday Intertitle: Marion of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2013 by dcairns

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Round at Marvelous Mary’s for steak pie, and sought to follow-up our previous screening of Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER with something more modern. We tried my disc of THE PALM BEACH STORY, but because Mary’s TV is stone age, the DVD player has to be connected to the TV through a VCR, and that set off the disc’s anti-piracy thingamajig, rendering the image unviewable. So we’ll have to have Mary round here to see it.

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No copy protection on SHOW PEOPLE, however. King Vidor’s comedy about going Hollywood is pretty simplistic compared to the elevated joys of Preston Sturges, but it’s truly charming. Stuffed full of guest stars, of whom we recognized John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin (because they’re named) and Doug Fairbanks, William S. Hart and King himself. Oh, and Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper gets to glimpse Marion Davies As Herself, which takes the celebrity cameo gag to a whole new level. But as you can see, there’s a lot more I should have recognized.

Leading man Billy Haynes is a convincing boy-next-door, and the whole thing spoofs Gloria Swanson pretty heartily — Davies does a killer Swanson imitation whenever she’s acting stuck up. Vidor’s visual style is tamped down, but his compositions are very crisp as always, which helps the comedy.

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The purist in me notes that despite spoofing that part of Swanson’s career when she was a reluctant participant in Keystone comedies, the movie is one of those late silent era films which gets most of its laughs with the aid of intertitles. In a way, the silents were already straining towards talk. Slapstick is celebrated in a way that’s already nostalgic, for its simple sincerity rather than the skill of the participants. A wind of change is already rustling the stage scenery…

Insert Marion Davies boilerplate here — better at comedy, more talented than her CITIZEN KANE counterpart, etc. We recently watched BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932), a backstage melodrama notable mainly for the understated perfs director Edmund Goulding obtains from such masters of schtick as James Gleason and Zasu Pitts. (Perhaps Goulding was making up for the same year’s GRAND HOTEL, upon which nobody could possibly have imposed a unity of dramatic style.)  Davies herself is very fine in it. This had me in suspense as to how the movie would digest its Jimmy Durante cameo, since Durante underplaying was something I have trouble picturing. In the event, he explodes into the movie in full schnozz mode, and only the fact that he’s performing at a party prevents this explosion of vaudevillainy from tearing the film out of its sprockets.

Night of the Long Schnozz

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on May 30, 2012 by dcairns

In BOSKO’S PICTURE SHOW, we get to see an entire 1933 cinema programme, including wurlitzer sing-a-long, newsreel, short subject and feature, condensed into a single cartoon. We also get a particularly startling gag in that fake newsreel. After an intertitle announcing that a famous screen heartthrob is taking a European vacation, we cut to this image –

Jimmy Durante: “Am I mortified! Am I mortified!”

The joke is as funny as cancer, but since this is Warner Brothers we can at least be sure it comes from a warm place.

It all hang from Durante’s nose — let’s see if we can unpick it, if you’ll forgive the expression. The first assumption (and all jokes are based upon shared assumptions, often in the form of stereotypes) is that Jimmy Durante has a big nose, and some Jewish people have big noses, therefor J.D. might be taken for a Jew (he was Italian-American and Catholic). This means that if Jimmy Durante went to Nazi Germany, he would be in danger of being personally murdered by Hitler. Hilarious!

While the idea of laughing at this stuff seems ghastly now, Warners probably deserve points for talking about this stuff so early, even if they’re not doing it in a way that treats the subject with the seriousness it deserves.

Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2008 by dcairns

 ” I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

The Man With No Name

Last Man with no name Standing

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is a book with a weird and pervading influence. The only official film adaptation is ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, a 1930 travesty starring Charles Ruggles and Jimmy Durante — which sounds like as good an example of Hollywood lousing up a great book as the preposterous feelgood MOBY DICK of the same year. But despite the dearth of faithful and official versions, Hammett’s grisly pulp nasty has dug its talons deep into cinema history.

Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (THE BODYGUARD) of 1961, is the next step on our journey. Kurosawa borrows the central conceit of Hammett’s book, in which an “operative” (detective for Hammett, samurai for Kurosawa) destroys the competing gangsters of an utterly corrupt no-horse town by hiring himself out to the highest bidder and provoking all-out warfare among the crooks. I’m not aware of A.K. actually acknowledging the source of his material, but what clinches it for me is that one scene of YOJIMBO is swiped not from Red Harvest but from another Hammett, The Glass Key. In fact, I think Kurosawa’s inspiration here derives specifically from the 1942 Stuart Heisler film of Hammett’s novel, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The Prisoner

Toshiro Mifune / Alan Ladd has been rumbled by one set of mobsters. Beaten to a pulp, he awakens imprisoned in a back room with two gamblers for jailors — one a slimey weasel type guy, the other a hulking pituitary case. Staggering towards the exit, Mifune / Ladd earns himself another skull-rattling haymaker from the watchful colossus.

Thugs with ugly Mugs

Of course, Kurosawa’s framing and blocking (using his usual multiple-camera filming technique, with long lenses and widescreen framing) is not reminiscent of Heisler’s Academy Ratio film noir, chiaroscuro, wide-angle lens approach at all. But the content of the scene is almost identical. The fact that Kurosawa clearly drew on another Hammett source in making YOJIMBO clinches the argument that he was consciously drawing on the American writer’s work. As far as I know this small point is an original observation and I’m branding my initials on it.

It also makes A.K. seem slightly cheeky for suing the makers of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of YOJIMBO, released just three years after the samurai refit. The story goes that Leone’s Italian and German producers were supposed to buy the remake rights but somewhere along the way they just kinda sorta forgot. The movie is certainly a bare-faced retread and some scenes are actual shot-for-shot reconstructions. Leone extradites Hammett’s operative out of Japan and back to the United States (or anyhow the Tex-Mex border as recreated in Spain) but also transports him back in time to the wild west and makes him a gunslinger.

While Kurosawa’s film marks a key moment in the advance of cyncical attitudes into the samurai genre (as Kurosawa began to lose faith in humanity), its jet-black humour resurfaces in slightly milder form in the Leone film and helps give birth to the whole modern action genre. While James Bond had made his big-screen debut two years before Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (known more prosaically in the movie as Joe), the central motif of the action blockbuster – Sudden Violence Followed By A Quip — was cemented into place by Eastwood’s sexual cowboy (whose first quip is a paraphrase of a Mifune line). Not only that, but the whole spaghetti western genre was abruptly inflated from a tiny exploitation ghetto into a genuine INDUSTRY. The hills of Almeria were hotching with imported buckaroos.

One peculiar footnote to the above is that Walter Hill’s updating of the Red Harvest format from Wild West to depression-era dustbowl town, LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis, which enacts Hammett’s story in pretty much Hammett’s original setting, came and went in a blur of sepia-tinged dust and left no lasting impression on anybody.

Another oddity is that the Coen brothers, who derived the title of their first feature, BLOOD SIMPLE, from a line in Hammett’s book, reversed the terms of Kurosawa’s pilferage by unofficially adapting The Glass Key into MILLER’S CROSSING, avoiding a straight plagiarism suit by adding a soupçon of Red Harvest to the stew.

Based on this track record I would argue that Red Harvest is possibly the most influential book never to have been filmed under its original title or with its author’s name attached, except for that first version, ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, on which Hammett is credited, but which bears no resemblance to his book whatsoever…

“Don Willson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

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