Archive for John Monk Saunders

Ace Up My Sleeve

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by dcairns

Only disappointed I didn’t quote in full the lyrics from the airman’s song about being in a wreck and having various machine parts embedded in his body — like if THE FLY, CRASH or TETSUO were a musical… The film is ACE OF ACES and it gives me another chance to bang on about John Monk Saunders, over at The Notebook.

Bromance of the Skies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2016 by dcairns

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“Noooooooooo, no, no, silent film, stop!” cried Fiona, at the umpteenth pyrotechnic stunt sequence unspooled in William Wellman’s WINGS — not so much death-defying as death-inviting. Wellman himself spoke about blowing up real people instead of dummies by mistake, and everything we see in his impressive but alarming battle scenes supports the idea that dangerous stuff was going down on location. As James Mason said of the director, “He was a tough bastard but I liked him. He shot real bullets and stuff.”

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Just a little to your left, El Brendel. A little more. A little more.

DIALECT COMEDIAN SLAIN BY PROPELLER BLADE

All this mayhem and they failed to extirpate El Brendel! He has far too much screen time in this one, which is to say you can see him in a non-subliminal fashion. But at least you can’t hear him. And he’s not as cutesy as usual — I guess either Wellman whipped it out of him or he hadn’t acquired all of his bad habits yet (he had scores of them — in El Brendel’s native tongue there are fifty-seven words for “simpering” and forty for “smirking at your own unfunny material”. Incomprehensibly, Wellman had introduced this smug man-imp to the screen in YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN, which he does his best to ruin, and yet chose to give him employment again. I can only assume he was hoping a stray bullet would do cinema a service.

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Elsewhere, homoeroticism abounds between Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, with twin beards Clara Bow and the unfortunately-named Jobyna Ralston sidelined so effectively that one disappears completely apart from two shots and a photograph, and the other spends most of the film not catching up with her beau, who is drunk and completely indifferent to her when she does appear. The male kiss and embrace at the end is still pretty surprising, and Wellman seems to have spent the rest of his life disavowing it — his autobiography, A Time for Madness, might as well have been subtitled I Ain’t No Fuckin’ Queer, so constant is the refrain.

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Later, Clara puts on a spangly dress to look sexy — but — she really doesn’t need to.

“It’s a strange mix of glamour and excitement and tragedy,” Fiona observed afterwards, impressed by such harsh details as a boot stomping out a cigarette fallen from a dead man’s lips. “How would you describe it?”

Well, it’s written by one WWI aviator (John Monk Saunders, credited with story) and directed by another. It’s a dazzling Hollywood fantasy made by people who knew the reality. And the reality keeps bleeding through.

Hawks and Sparrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Douglas Fairbaks Jnr. looks with affection at his last hand grenade.

The movie is the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL. Richard Barthelmess’s hard-drinking WWI flier in this looks set to transmute into his character from THE LAST FLIGHT, made the following year. This is an early Howard Hawks talkie. If SCARFACE is atypical of the filmmaker, with its psychopathic characters and expressionistic flourishes, other titles of the same period often show Hawks searching for the fluidity of his mature style, and wrestling with subject matter that isn’t always sympatico.

Aviator/writer John Monk Saunders’ source story, The Flight Commander, deals with people on the verge of destruction, with equal odds whether said destruction will be self-inflicted or brought about by war. Hawks never liked crybabies much, and would have made a lousy grief counsellor, so for the first half of the film he struggles to generate sympathy for Neil Hamilton’s booze-and-guilt-ridden Major. But Hawks liked the story enough to recycle elements later — the active pilot hates the desk jockey, and then he gets the desk jockey’s job, sending other men out to die.

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Richard Barthelmess (great, underrated actor), in engine oil and goggles hobo clown makeup, comforts a traumatized Gardner James. While the callous viewer prays that GJ can get shot down to lighten up the film.

The movie seems to get more fluid as it goes on. Early scenes are stilted, with a distinct LACK of Hawksian overlapping dialogue — it’s underlapping, if anything — one scene has two characters commenting on an offscreen argument, which they can apparently hear. But we don’t get to hear anything, imparting a surreal, mediumistic tinge to their conversation.

Ernest Haller’s oily smudge photography is wonderful, all soft focus and blurred shadows. The sets look cheap up close (painted brickwork fails to trompe l’oeil) but terrific in wide shot. And in places, the dipso camaraderie, heartless yet earnest professionalism, and underplaying (especially Barthelmess, decades ahead of his co-stars) suggest the Hawks of a few years later.

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The cast also sports Frank McHugh and, in an almost unique dramatic role, James Finlayson. The frequent Laurel & Hardy antagonist is fascinating to watch, dialling down his comedy schtick and turning it to (sort-of) dramatic purposes. This includes a very mild exclamation of “D’oh!” early on, and towards the end an actual double-take, as he witnesses the wrong man getting into a plane for a suicide mission. Probably you shouldn’t cast the Finn in a tragedy, but that’s just the kind of thing Hawks WOULD do.

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Below should really have been the film’s last shot, every story point having been settled by this scenic moment, but the filmmakers can’t resist a spectacular bomber raid sequence, one of several dazzling and no doubt dangerous action climaxes. This one combines high-quality miniatures, dodgy rear-projection, and gobsmacking real aerial and demolition footage, including two shots pointing straight down at the target as a bomb dwindles into invisibility and then sends half the landscape erupting upwards straight into the lens. Real stuff!

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“Going west.”