Archive for John Tenniel

The Dream of Wonderland of Long Ago

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2015 by dcairns

Delighted to have a contribution from Tim Hayes, the first entry to this blogathon to celebrate a composer, if I’m not mistaken. The composer in question being Basil Poledouris — if you know him, you love him, if you don’t know him, read the piece, you may find you have known him all along.

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Coral Browne, stunning in DREAMCHILD (1985). It was to be her last role, and it is suitably valedictory. “The grim reaper wears a smile for me.” Written by Dennis Potter, whose work always had a quality of aching nostalgia, even when he was young, and whose masterpiece may be not a TV play, series or film, but his beautiful final interview.

DREAMCHILD is about facing death, which means facing your life and reflecting on it. As a vehicle for this, Potter chose Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Alice in Wonderland, who made a trip to America aged 80 to be honoured by Columbia University. Potter equips her with a young companion Nicola Cowper, and a pushy American newspaperman (a ludicrously young Peter Gallagher). And, brilliantly, he mixes scenes from Lewis Carroll with memories of Charles Dodgson, the stuttering don who loved Alice and immortalized her, movingly played by Ian Holm (about twenty years too old for the part, but who cares when the performance is this good?).

I was lucky enough to see this on its (minimal, transitory) first release, with a Q&A with director Gavin Millar, a scholarly fellow who had made many BBC documentaries. One particularly good one on Fellini explains the presence of a rippling fabric sea in Wonderland, for the grotesque, menacing Gryphon and soggy Mock Turtle to exchange unpleasantries in front of.

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The wonderland creatures, even the Hatter, are all played by animatronic creations from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop. With its comparatively miniscule budget, DREAMCHILD could never have afforded these lavish practical effects, but Henson & Co decided to treat the film as r&d for the forthcoming LABYRINTH, so Millar got himself a bargain. The idea is to make the familiar fairytale figures threatening and disturbing, as the aged Alice has a bad conscience and is menaced by memories she doesn’t want to face. The Gryphon is voiced with Scots aggression by Fulton Mackay, who had plenty of experiences sitting on beaches in LOCAL HERO, the Turtle by Alan Bennett, and the March Hare by my idol Ken Campbell (who also appears as a radio sound effects man).

These sequences, and the transitions between them, are enhanced greatly by Stanley Myers’ sonorous score, which throbs and scrapes and elevates everything it touches with a high seriousness.

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There are a few problems. The budget seems strained in places. Millar admitted that it was very hard to find stock footage of 30s New York in colour. I say that if stock footage is your answer, you may be asking the wrong question. Since the stock shots cannot be integrated with the actors, it can only serve as establishing shots, and “establishing shots are a waste of time,” as Brian DePalma once sagely grumbled. I can see why the movie might have looked too small and too internal without wide shots in the pretend New York (British locations and sets, reasonably effective). Getting a cameraman to the real New York and filming UP might have helped. Stylisation might have solved everything, but I can see why Millar wanted a contrast between the “real” and “fantasy” elements of the story.

Millar also confessed that the love story in the film struck him as its weakest element, and I agree. Part of this has to do with Gallagher, who seems quite capable of playing a fast-talking newspaperman of the period (Millar cited HIS GIRL FRIDAY as the model for this stuff), but who hasn’t been driven on or given his head, and who is surrounded by actors who need time to think, so the pace never reaches a third of what it should be.

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Quibbles over — when the movie is in the past, it seems rich and lavish, and likewise the Wonderland scenes. Whenever it focuses on Coral Browne, it is a majestic success. And it has a secret weapon in Amelia Shankley as Little Alice, an incredible Personality Kid who can seemingly do anything, and is a match for Ian Holm in their scenes together. Millar remarked that the kids were amazingly good at looping dialogue, but really they’re amazing at everything. Shankley is immediately my favourite screen Alice, helped by the fact that she’s doing a different job than the others, playing the real girl rather than the fictional version (Potter’s character has more dimensions than Carroll’s) and by the fact that she’s close to the right age, unlike everyone else, ever. And since she has shorter, darker hair than the Tenniel illustration, she looks like the real girl and she’s free from comparisons with any other movie Alice anyway.

Millar’s excellent work with his cast is augmented by the disconcerting way he shuffles material — no doubt suggested at least by Potter, who delighted in flashbacks, dreams, daydreams — he brought the Fellini 8 1/2 approach to British television. It’s one big Kuleshov effect — elderly Alice looks, and the Charles Dodgson of seventy years ago looks back. Time shatters and the mirror fragments reflect a cluster of disconnected moments.

Browne was right to bow out here. There are distressingly few good roles for older actresses, and the chances of another part this rich coming along would be slim. With her big, wide, wide-apart eyes, she resembles at times an animatronic effect herself, but the life she projects is real, the lines on her face sculpted by time, not a modeller’s tools. I would wish for her a death as gracious as the one seemingly awaiting Alice, but it was not to be. Her death from cancer was protracted and undignified.

As a small recompense, she was granted immortality.

How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #6400001 of 9,000,000,000

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2009 by dcairns

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Call her “Monkeyface” and refer to her ucipital mapilary. Doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. On the other hand, a warm glass of milk at bedtime sounds like a winner, but it’s best avoided, old bean, best avoided.

This post is AKA ~

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “SUSPICION” ~

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SUSPICION is a particularly intriguing Hitchcock because the movie is haunted by a mythical ur-text propagated by Hitchcock himself, a story centering on that Fatal Glass of Milk. To quote the Great Man ~

“The scene I wanted, but it was never shot, was for Cary Grant to bring her a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and Joan Fontaine has just finished a letter to her mother: “Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer. Though I’d rather die, I think society should be protected from him.” Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, “Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?” She drinks the  milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops the letter in.”

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Leaving aside the logic of Fontaine’s suicide (I wonder if a court would convict a man of poisoning his wife if she drank the poison in full knowledge of what she was doing? I expect they would) which is tortuous but sound, and the question of whether Grant ought not to be acting the grieving widower, and whether he might consider that to be whistling about posting his late wife’s correspondence might be rather, well, suspicious, we have a sound ending that would, I think, be better than the one we’ve got, which was cobbled together out of reshoots, stand-ins, swapped-around sequences, and represents Hitch’s most troublesome last act until TOPAZ, decades later.

But the problem wasn’t anything to do with the ending Hitch describes above, taken from Francis Iles’s novel Before the Fact, which as he says he never shot, it was with the original ending filmed, in which Joan drinks the milk, then realises it’s NOT poisoned, goes to confront Cary Grant, and finds him preparing to kill himself, which is why he’d wanted that untraceable poison, which we’re going to hear all about later. By way of some prolix and unbelievable dialogue (Lubitsch’s right-hand man, Samson Raphaelson, wrote the script, but he wasn’t quite at home with this kind of material) Joan talks him round, and we have a quasi-happy ending. But one which preview audiences laughed off the screen until it fluttered, shredded, into the orchestra pit. Read all about this at The MacGuffin, where Bill Krohn has done an amazing job of excavating the full true story, or as much of it as the historical record preserves.

My remaining problem with SUSPICION, which I enjoy a lot but am left frustrated by, is an uncertainty in the handling, as if Hitchcock hadn’t quite abandoned his very first ending. From the opening scene  ~ beginning, wittily, as a radio play over black screen, until the train comes out of the dark and we get this John Tenniel composition ~

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~ which also reminds me of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, and then Cary Grant pays for his first-class upgrade with a stamp, saying “Write home to your mother!” to the conductor ~ and the regular talk of post offices, scenes in post offices ~ and Hitchcock’s cameo, posting a letter ~ a prominently positioned post box in the foreground of one scene ~ the ubiquity of notes and printed matter throughout, as seen in this blog post ~ the specter of the Royal Mail hangs over this film like a pall.

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Also, there’s the phantom of REBECCA, with Fontaine’s character superficially quite similar, and rocky sea cliffs prominent in the story. Also Leo G Carroll popping in for a scene.

After the opening, in which both screenwriter Raphaelson and performer Archie Leach are on top form, delivering a very acceptable romantic comedy, augmented by Hitchcockian touches such as the way Fontain’s purse snaps crisply shut in ECU as she rejects Grant’s advances — a wonderfully smutty sexual reference to her virginal status — the thriller element comes into play, as Fontaine begins to imagine, on no real evidence, that her cash-strapped hubbie is planning the murder, first of his best friend Beaky (Dr. Watson himself, Nigel Bruce), then of herself.

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The game of anagrams where Fontaine leaps to her first false conclusion is masterfully done, a grand old subjective freak-out in the classic silent Hitchcock manner, and this is the point where the idea of Fontaine as a fantasist comes into play most strongly. But Hitch also wants us to take her suspicions seriously, and so Grant behaves in a rather dark and moody manner at various times, in scenes shot in a way that makes it clear this isn’t Fontaine’s imagination. Grant always claimed he played the character as a rogue, not a heel, but several shots distinctly contradict this.

So I find the film increasingly schizoid — Fontaine is clearly over-imaginitive, but Grant is clearly suspicious in his behaviour, in a way that his final explanation doesn’t cover. Fiona finds the “happy” ending a bit sinister, and I’m inclined to agree. The post-production fiddling does show, and a feeling of discomfort remains. As intriguing as the “female Walter Mitty” idea is, I don’t find it wholly successful, and would certainly have preferred the original ending Hitch found in the book.

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Now for some reasonably close analysis of one particular scene…

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