Archive for John Monk Saunders

Actorly Through Air Power

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2012 by dcairns

CONQUEST OF THE AIR is one of Alexander Korda’s experiments, an hour-long dramatized documentary history of manned flight. Typically of Korda, it’s “directed” by whoever happened to be around, especially if they were Hungarian (brother Zoltan is one of the troupe of what I’ll call “nauteurs”), leaving it to editor and narrator Charles Frend to tie the whole shambles together. Frend was later a dependable maker of staunch war dramas, staunch police dramas, staunch Antarctic expeditionary dramas…

What caught my eye was the fact that the film is based on a book by John Monk Saunders, aviator and screenwriter (WINGS, THE LAST FLIGHT), and I’m a bit of a Saunders completist. He’s one of the few Hollywood specialists — his best scripts always hinge on aviation, just as Maurine Dallas Watkins’ always trot out women in prison. As long as the key element is in place, the entertainment is assured.

An experiment such as this could only be put over to a British public skeptical of home-grown product by the deployment of star power, so it’s odd that the jaunt through history throws up so few familiar faces. My favourite grouchy Dundonian of the period, Hay Petrie, pops up as Tiberius Cavallo, and I glimpsed an uncredited and dubbed Francis L Sullivan as Nero, witnessing a spectacular failed levitation. Asides from those, it’s left to Laurence Olivier to impersonate Vincent Lunardi in amusingly showy fashion.

Olivier is a beast of quicksilver, sometimes sluggish, sometimes fleet and sparkling. David Mamet cites his performance as a French Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent in 49TH PARALLEL as the one bad performance in an Archers’ film (he needs to pay closer attention to Bob Arden in AMOLAD). Here, he manages to sound convincingly like an Englishman pretending to be French, which I assume was his intention. Quashing a heckler, he declares his intention to “soar over the heads of groundlings like you,” and flashes a cheeky smile. He’s a star, even if Lunardi’s ballooning lacks some of the dash and derring-do of early flight by virtue of its being conducted safely indoors.

The early part of the film is one long succession of deluded hopefuls crashing earthwards from high places (so few of them seem to have considered launching from a runway, rather than a tower/bridge/wall). Frend seems unaware of how comical this all is — the only unfunny entry is the Scottish one, which fails both as aeronautics and comedy, because the guy lived (although he gets points for landing in a dunghill). This sequence seems like a clear influence on Terry Gilliam’s early toon THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT ~

And a later mention of Baron Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus suggests Korda’s influence on British comedy may be greater than previously assumed.

And then there’s this image of Italian peasants fleeing a stray bag of hydrogen, which seems to anticipate Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Aaargh! It’s the Devil!”

By curious coincidence, Marvelous Mary just dropped in for a cup of herbal infusion and told me about the nineteenth century zookeeper, George Wombwell, whose animals seemed to have spent a lot of their time loose and rampaging. “It’s the devil!” was the cry uttered by a poor housewife, fleeing her home, which had become occupied by a stray kangaroo…

Broken Wings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Once in a while I see a movie I love that I hesitate to write about, for fear of just gushing away and not expressing anything. I feel nervous in approaching THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK for that reason.

The film is credited primarily to Stuart Walker (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) but there seems to be firm agreement that the real man at the helm was Mitchell Leisen: “I stuck Stuart in the sound booth again and he didn’t say a word through the whole picture,” says Leisen in David Chierichetti’s definitve study of his work, Hollywood Director. And Chierichetti is able to enlist Fredric March, the film’s star, to back this up.

This movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. Again the subject is WWI fliers, and here we actually deal with the war, as in WINGS, rather than its aftermath, as in THE LAST FLIGHT. There’s still plenty of drinking going on though. Saunders seems to have a unique handle on self-destructive behaviour among the biplane set — and he lived the life offscreen too.

But while THE LAST FLIGHT has an impressively varied range of antique acting styles which make it seem intriguingly like a film from another planet, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK features early work from notable screen stars working in a recognisably modern style. Fredric March is the titular eagle, a high-born American who enlists in the RAF for sport at the outbreak of war (the American Air Force didn’t manage to get a single plane in the air during WWI, but that didn’t stop lots of young Americans joining up overseas and getting their wings). Cary Grant is the hawk, a tough guy who rejects the fliers’ code of chivalry and fights war to win. His stance is unsympathetic in the movie, but it’s clear that he’s not exactly wrong, either: humanity is a tenuous proposition in wartime, chivalry an absurd, even grotesque one.

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Fiona wonders why nobody seems to talk about March these days. He’s like the male Miriam Hopkins.

The film interweaves two narratives, the first being March’s slow destruction, which basically lasts the length of the film. He starts off hale and hearty, with that very Fredric March ebullience that some people find hard to take. He give it his all, and he has a lot of all to give. But he’s slowly broken by the deaths of his colleagues, and of the men he shoots down. One of the striking things about the film, which goes way beyond traditional Hollywood anti-war posturing, is how it makes no distinction between the deaths of comrades and enemies. Each one diminishes March.

“You don’t drink enough,” advises comedy relief buddy Jack Oakie to his sodden friend. “I can’t drink enough,” replies March.

Parallel with this decline and fall is Cary Grant’s troubled relationship with March. It’s very much a love story, only Grant also hates March. His final act for his friend is both tender and protective, and a profound betrayal. I don’t want to give away too much here, which is another problem I have when I see an obscure film I love — steering people towards it without spoiling it.

IMDb commentators point out that Grant hasn’t quite found his style yet, but that’s beside the point. He’s found a style that perfectly suits this movie, and he’s lost the stiffness I see in BLONDE VENUS and his Mae West movies. His neck doesn’t seem like a rigid column of bone here, which is a relief. Despite the flying story, this isn’t even the Grant of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, it’s a whole different Grant, marking the precise spot where he became a fluent screen actor, but had not yet adopted the star persona he was to triumph with.

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Also in the cast is Carole Lombard, for about ten minutes. Censors cut the line “Your place or mine?” when the film was re-released during WWII, since the pre-code spice welcomed during the film’s first release had become verboten, and we also lost an entire post-coital moment, with March awakening to find a flower lying in the indentation of her pillow. Leisen welcomed the movie’s revival, although “I was sure I was going to be arrested,” since the film was so anti-war, but he didn’t realise until later that the studio had made further cuts to weaken the film’s message. It’s to be deplored that the original ending is now apparently lost, but I found that the film was still savagely and unambiguously anti-war, and carries its argument all the way to a surprisingly bleak conclusion. I can’t think of another film before the ’60s that goes as far as this one. It’s an even more negative view of warfare than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

Visually, the film is one of the darkest I’ve seen from this era, which suits the story well. Leisen filmed a long conversation between March and his commander (Sir Guy Standing, chummy yet distant) at dusk, allowing the actors to walk through pools of light into complete silhouette. Cary Grant plays some scenes smothered in shadow, only his forehead and nose looming from the night.

Fredric dreams:

Leisen is here really at the very outset of his directing career — officially, he’s not even a director yet — but he brings eloquent style to the story. This is something his critics miss — and there’s a homophobic subtext to Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe dismissing him as a set designer who made pictures –Leisen’s stylistic tropes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, they become the very essence of expressive film narrative. And Leisen always had a sharp interest in capturing reality: he just had the ability to hold it back when it didn’t suit the project. And if the script lacked dramatic values, Leisen would step into the breach and decorate with bravura flourishes, and people would point and say he was a shallow aesthete.

Leisen’s sexuality is certainly relevant to his work. Regular Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein talks about the distinction between Queer Cinema and older films made by queer directors, which are of necessity somewhat closeted, even when their makers were not. Leisen comes closer that most to blurring that line. In this film, not only are the young recruits astonishingly androgynous and beautiful, but death itself is eroticized in male form:

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After Stuart Walker basically stole the directing credit on this movie, Leisen retaliated by stealing Walker’s next two projects, one of which was DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, again with March. This got his directing career off to a strong start, but really it had already begun. Leisen’s career ran from his designing days in silent cinema (THIEF OF BAGDAD) to television work (The Twilight Zone) and yet its duration and its quality is not reflected in its reputation.

Everybody try and see this one, please. I’d place it in my alternative Shadowplay history of the cinema as a great film from the 30s that isn’t sufficiently appreciated. The Leisen rediscovery is moving forward slowly. Time also for a Saunders rediscovery (since writers don’t get enough credit in cinema).

Spent Bullets

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2008 by dcairns

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Shadowplayer and filmmaker Paul Duane sent me a copy of a movie he likes, as an exchange for my sending him LA FIN DU JOUR (touching how many people have felt moved to offer a swap). This meant I was inclined to be guilt-tripped into WATCHING the damn thing, but I was glad I was.

I have a pretty pleasant history with director William Dieterle, who Edgar Ulmer nicknamed “the Iron Stove” since he was a large man who often played knights in armour when he was an actor back in the old country. “He was a big guy, not talented,” recalled Ulmer.

I beg to differ.

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME made a huge impression on me as a kid. Now, Charles Laughton is insuperably the greatest Quasimodo the screen has ever held, and Dieterlealso had the help of massive sets, crowd scenes, Maureen O’Hara and the R.K.O. effects wizards. But the way Dieterle puts together striking, expressive angles, with the aid of cinematographer William H. August (a Dieterle favourite) and editors William Hamilton and Robert Wise, still amazes me. The film is monumental, but moves.

What most wowed me as a kid was the ending: had I been exposed to an unhappy ending before? Perhaps not. Had I ever been exposed to an unhappy ending that made me feel strangely elated? The closest thing would probably have been KING KONG, but the monster dying at the end of a monster movie is not what is typically considered a tragedy, although Willis H. O’Brien’sanimation and Max Steiner’s score certainly play it that way.

I’ve just checked, for the first time, and the script of Dieterle’s HUNCHBACK is by Sonya Levien, a prolific high-profile Hollywood writer, and Bruno Frank, who had mostly German credits — the ending is their’s, not Victor Hugo’s. That ending definitely opened my eyes to the pleasures of the downbeat. Today’s kids, raised on the Disney version, which has many visual and musical splendours, have been cruelly robbed of the chance to experience pleasurable melancholy.

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The second Dieterle to blow me out of my socks was THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, which came highly recommended by Leslie Halliwell, author of a Film Guide and a Filmgoer’s Companion, which were the standard pre-IMDb reference works available to me as a movie-loving kid. Now, Halliwell is wrong about practically everything made after 1950; he has pretty, if middlebrow, good taste up to then, although his critical analysis of even the things he likes is pretty lousy; but I have to tip my hat to his grave and say that he did point me in the direction of a lot of good films. This 1941 Americanisation of the Faust story (Dieterle acts in Murnau’s film of FAUST) beneifts from most of the crew on CITIZEN KANE being around and primed to do their best, and boasts really remarkable, extreme performances by Walter Huston as the Mephisto figure, Mr. Scratch, and Simone Simon as Belle, a stupendously erotic minion of the devil. Bernard Herrmann contributes one of his finest scores, and if the ending lays on the Americanism a bit thick, it’s pleasurably ironic given all the talk about collectivism in the film: even the opening credits are simply a list of the “persons who collaborated in making this picture”, actors and crew co-mingled without distinction or job title — that’s tantamount to communism!

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Wee Kenneth Anger.

I wish I’d seen PORTRAIT OF JENNIE as a kid too, since that would have wowed me even more than it does now. The other major one I did see was A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Comrade K, film writer and costumed crimefighter (they call him “the Comma”) says that Dieterle hits a shade of purple few can match, and I guess that’s true in his star-studded Warner Bros Shakespeare, co-directed with his old theatre mentor (everybody’s old theatre mentor) Max Reinhardt. As a kid I didn’t see it as campy or overdone, though, I just thought it was beautiful.

Most of the Dieterle films I’ve tracked down since have swung towards the fruity, with KISMET and ELEPHANT WALK standing out. There are some nifty Warner Bros jobs from the ’30s, like FOG OVER FRISCO (Comrade K admits that Dieterle could be nimble if he had Harry Warner cracking the whip at his heels) and then there are the dreadful Warners biopics that I don’t feel any urge to revisit soon. As Hal B. Wallis said, “Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks down a microscope, this company loses two million dollars.”

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THE LAST FLIGHT was the film Paul sent me. A film so smart and sensitive it could almost make the term “pre-code” synonymous with good taste and maturity. Adapted by John Monk Saunders from his own novel (that NEVER happened in Hollywood, did it?) it takes a meandering approach to narrative while exploring the lives of some beautiful freaks, four forgotten men and one half-remembered woman. Here they are:

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Richard Barthelmess, top left, who chased Lillian Gish over the ice floe and would later take to the air in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, is Cary Lockwood, a WWI pilot with burned hands and a devil-may-care attitude to life. He’s on a perpetual bender with his friends, waiting until he feels alive again. “Spent bullets,” a doctor calls these guys: “out to face life, when all their training has prepared them for is death.” Barthelmess, with his unlikely, fluting voice and earnest manner — he’s so earnest he hunches forward as he speaks — is a wonderfully strange presence: he made perfect sense in silent cinema, since he’s kind of beautiful, but then in talkies he’s always weird. Absolutely marvellously so in the later Hawks film, where you just can’t take your eyes off him, wondering what he’s going to DO; and absolutely marvellously so here too, but in a different way. This is a film where everything is slightly off, like the characters, and Barthelmess embodies that. “His nerves are tricky.”

David Manners, bottom left, who got a fright when Boris Karloff went for a little walk in THE MUMMY, is Shep Lambert. Shep has a twitch in his eye after falling 4,000 metres when shot down. Drinking seems to ease the tic, so he drinks all the time. Manners is an even stranger actor than Barthelmess, completely sincere and real and yet completely unnatural and wrong at the same time. I’ve never seen him this effective. In DRACULA he’s a bit of a stick.

Johnny Mack Brown, top right, who had a long career without impinging on my consciousness up to now, is Bill Talbot, an Alabaman cowboy who wrestles a horse in the street to prove how American he is. The most enthusiastic of the dissolute gang, he has a good nature and a tendency to act on impulse which means you may have to keep an eye on him at bullfights. If, as seems to be the case, all four men are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then his illness manifests itself in the form of recklessness.

Elliott Nugent, bottom right, is Francis, who’s even more serious than Cary and Shep — he even has fun with a serious look.  A crack shot who downed a dozen enemy planes, until his best pal got killed: then he “lost interest”. He only comes to life with a gun in his hands.

Helen Chandler, centre, who had a busy 1931 what with Bela Lugosi, is Nikki, a shortsighted heiress with a yen for tragic servicemen, adopted as a kind of mascot by the gang. “I reckon she’s the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records,” says Bill, and he’s right. Nikki also has turtles decorated with diamante, named Abelard and Eloise. Chandler seizes on Nikki’s pixillated eccentricity, playing her like a bobblehead doll with intense yet glassy eyes. More extreme in her alien weirdness than any of the actresses who make a living today playing “quirky”, Chandler manages to be affecting even while affected — which is kind of true of everyone in this movie.

Walter Byron, bottom right, who looks more like a leading man than the rest of them but never was, is Frink, lecherous journalist and hanger-on, who has no reason to be with these guys except to further the plot with his sleaziness. But 1930s movies seem able to accommodate unmotivated or implausible stuff and get away with it.

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I think what makes THE LAST FLIGHT such an odd and memorable experience is that it’s very overt and yet totally elliptical at the same time. The talk veers between the bluntly expository and the surreally goofy: “I can walk faster in red shoes.” … “He’s gone to shave a horse.” … “I’ll take vanilla.” Although various dialogues set up the psychological disaffection of this lost generation, most of the time the action is played light and carefree, as exemplified by Cary’s line whenever trying to get anyone to take a drink: “It’ll make you laugh ‘n’ play.”

John Monk Saunders scripted, from his own novel — an unheard-of thing In Hollywood, then and now. I may have to try his books. They’re all about flying, and cracking up, and he also scripted WINGS and THE DAWN PATROL, and wrote and directed THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR before killing himself in 1940.

I briefly toyed with playing a drinking game to the movie, matching the protags martini for martini, but you can’t keep up with those ’30s montages, damnit. This is the age when drunks were not alcoholics (it has a grim sound) but souses or maybe dipsomaniacs (happy and gay words!). The journey towards tragedy, with a side-trip to Lisbon, is a surprisingly cheerful one: getting there is all the fun.

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Shep takes a bullet.

Frink takes several.

Bill takes a bull by the horns.

Francis fades into the night.

Cary and Nikki take the train…