Archive for John Saxon

Anglo/Saxon Attitudes

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona was surprised to find a Kay Kendall biography in the library (see yesterday’s post for an evaluation of the Edinburgh library system’s limitations) and devoured it on sight, demanding supplemental viewing materials, stat. I had tried to sell her on THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE before, but this was now the perfect moment. She didn’t require quality, just so long as KK was prominently featured.

I’ve probably mentioned before my theory that Vincente Minnelli made Hollywood’s most nightmarish comedies — the best of them aspire to pure phantasmagoria, and are more oppressive that they are funny, though admittedly DESIGNING WOMAN is extremely funny and amiable. Often they rise to moments of surreal heightened anxiety, sometimes involving altered states of consciousness. One image from a dream sequence in FATHER OF THE BRIDE, of Spencer Tracy’s feet sinking through a carpet suddenly turned to quagmire was repeated without modification in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and served just as aptly in a horror movie as it had in a “family comedy,” Minnelli-style.This movie takes place during what turned out to be the last ever “season,” when society’s latest batch of debutantes (don’t known what it means) “came out” (don’t know what it means, in this context anyway). Sandra Dee plays the daughter of Rex Harrison, which is the first big laugh and the last for a while. Kay Kendall is the stepmother who sets about arranging the girl’s coming out ball, and trying to arrange her love life in a socially suitable way, hampered by S-Dee’s falling in love with a humble drummer played by John Saxon (very cute, and at times seeming to play the role on-purpose gay).This is John Saxon describing native love rituals witnessed in Africa.

“…and then he carries her off to his TENT.”

This is Kay and Dee reacting to him.(Kay dresses like Big Bird through much of the film.)

This kind of lighter-than-air stuff has to be very good to get by, because you’re trying to get laughs out of nothing. The play and its adaptation, both by William Douglas-Home, aren’t really clever enough to manage this, but laughs are still had, partly from the deft work of Kendall and Harrison, two of the best light comedians who ever lived, and partly from numerous moments where the script hoves perilously close to the foulest bad taste, due to dated sexual attitudes, stuff that could be dealt with lightly then but seems shocking today. And since surprise is part of laughter, we found ourselves laughing at Sandra walking in on daddy just as he plays the role of dastardly seducer to a sofa cushion (really, too complicated to explain) ~Harrison does a fantastic variation on the man determined to finish his sentence even though the changed circumstances make it quite unnecessary and his delivery of the words no longer carries any of the intended meaning. It’s a very familiar trope — think Baloo singing when his disguise falls off in THE JUNGLE BOOK — but Harrison has his own version of it that no one’s ever seen or imagined before. And Kendall has a great bit entering, being surprised, and folding up like a deck-chair as her limbs give way on her.

Peter Myers gives a very funny performance as an upper-class bore forever reciting elaborate tales of how he’s negotiated the traffic to get where he is — but he transformed into an inarticulate rape-hound when left alone with Dee. And here’s her adorable reaction when she quizzes daddy on his early love life and learns that his first amour was a French girl who worked in a house in Paris — a maid? — no, not exactly…The weirdest and best sequence is a hallucinatory montage of balls, with Harrison getting drunk at each one, suffering Deutsch-tilt hangovers in interstitial office sequences, and finally losing contact with reality altogether as his secretary, having just handed him a glass of bicarb, starts announcing guest’s names in a dubbed man’s voice — audio bleed from scene to scene as life literally BECOMES nightmare.It’s in his comedies that you sense that Minnelli was not an altogether happy man.

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Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot —

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.