Archive for Joseph Calleia

It’s Official —

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by dcairns

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— Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.

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There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.

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And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:

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Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…

Vendetta and Fugue

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2008 by dcairns

Got a packet of DVDs in the post, always an exciting thing! In some cases, the rarity value was balanced by a certain extreme visual decrepitude — Bresson’s FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER looked like it had been projected on a chipped door and video’d with somebody’s phone. The white balance was OK for some shots, while others blew out into garish abstraction:

An admittedly extreme example.

Also, the subtitles flare up into luminous smears, illegible except during the four frames when they’re fading in or out. Practice your speed reading!

However, I was glad to have it — it’s nearly impossible to see (I have a copy now and I’m still struggling to see it) and there’s something interesting about weirdly unreadable images.

SON OF HITLER, a frankly upsetting 70s “comedy” starring Bud Cort and Peter Cushing (the dream team!), which was so bad it went entirely unreleased except on the festival circuit, is in better shape, although you can occasionally hear people moving around in the room where it’s being telecined, giving it a haunted, possessed feeling. Also, a patch of “hair” (actually celluloid shavings) gathers at the top of frame almost immediately, and hangs around for the whole movie, looking like a disembodied Hitler ‘tache. Creepy.

In a spirit of perversity, the first disc I decided to watch was VENDETTA, a Howard Hughes production which appeared to be transmitted to me through the ether from a long-dead civilisation:

“I have no interest in these part-works,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the features he’d directed only a bit of, and he’s basically right: if the director’s job is to be considered important at all, it’s because s/he synchronises and synthesises the different aspects of cinema, the sound, the image, the performance, in a way that the writer, who after all originated the whole thing, cannot. So if the director is replaced or is otherwise prevented from exercising their own best judgement, the film, however interesting, no longer represents anybody’s unified cinematic vision.

VENDETTA is a pretty extreme example of the part-work, even by Howard Hughes’ standards. Preston Sturges wrote a script based on Prosper Merimee’s Columba, and was set to co-produce with Hughes. On his friend René Clair’s recommendation, Sturges selected Max Ophuls as director. According to most accounts, Ophuls had fallen massively behind schedule after two or three weeks shooting, and Sturges felt compelled to fire him (Ophuls seems to have alternated between extreme efficiency and major schedule and budget difficulties, through most of his career). Sturges took over the directorial reins, but a confused argument with Hughes over some bills from a stable-owner resulted in the dissolution of their partnership. (Sturges had been borrowing horses to go riding. He thought this was for free. But the stable-owner sent bills to Hughes,  who then thought Sturges was trying to scam him. Like many millionaires, Hughes was very upset at the thought of being taken advantage of.) Stuart Heisler was brought in to finish the film, but became ill, so was replaced for some scenes by Paul Weatherwax. Hughes then decided on a new ending, so actor Mel Ferrer somehow landed the job of directing pick-ups (another actor, Peter O’Crotty, winds up with screenplay credit). The resulting mess landed on Don Siegel’s editing table and he had the task of fitting it all together.

(Ophuls avenged himself on Hughes with CAUGHT, a later film where Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, a neurasthenic millionaire who sends “agents” out to pick up hot women for him.)

So the film is extremely handicapped in the business of forming a coherent artistic statement. To the extent that it HAS a presiding genius, that must be Hughes, who had more control than any of the relay team supposedly calling the shots. And indeed, the film exhibits most of the hallmarks of other Hughes productions: pedantic over-explanation, choppiness, moments of inexplicable prolonged stasis, flashes if surprising sadism, and inappropriate brandishing of female cleavage (here we get Faith Domergue tit-shots while she’s mourning her murdered father). Hughes’s other big favourite, the wanton violation of basic character psychology, erupts only in Ferrer’s tacked-on coda.

Adding to the film’s problems is a lack of star power. Faith Domergue, the starlet who tried to kill Hughes and Ava Gardner with her car, if you recall THE AVIATOR, plays Colomba, a fiery Corsican bent on avenging dad’s murder. She’s not actually terrible, and her lusciousness certainly explains Hughes’ interest in her, but she doesn’t set the screen alight. George Dolenz (father of Monkee Mickey) is a bit of a stiff, playing Orso, Colomba’s brother. He’s just in from Paris and doesn’t believe in this Corsican revenge malarkey — think Michael Corleone in the first GODFATHER. Joseph Calleia as a bad guy mayor and Nigel Bruce as Orso’s girl’s dad are reliably characterful, and that’s about it.

Some extra heat is generated by Colomba’s incestuous longing for her brother, so overt as to knock the prefix clean off of “subtext”. This is TEXT, baby. Hot, lusty brother-on-sister text. Of course, those who know their production code can guess roughly how this has to end.

We begin with murk and voice-over: a droning narrator tells us what the code of vendetta means. Then he tells us again. Then he explains just what he means. Then he sums up. A couple of scenes pass, setting up the particular vendetta this film is to cover, and introducing the distinctive cultural situation in Corsica, and then the narrator comes back to clear up any lingering confusion about vendetta. Having now established that he’s going to be a recurring presence throughout the film, the narrator collects his cheque and fucks off, never to be heard again.

BUT! In spite of all the mangling the film received at every stage of production, and the inconsistency that would seem its birthright, VENDETTA is quite Ophulsian. I had wondered whether it would be possible to tell an Ophuls long tracking shot from a Sturges one, given the confused production history of the film, but many of these shots feel utterly distinctive. The camera not only glides along ahead of a character, but then allows them to catch up, and tracks alongside, then lets them overtake and follows them. A great many of the scenes begin with shots that drift through densely forested sound stage, awash in dry ice, the many layers of branches passing before the lens absolutely typical of Ophuls’ fondness for having foreground details partially occlude our view of the action.

Murk!

What generally happens then is that the scene devolves into clunky medium shots, hacked together with somewhat random angle changes. The set-up is Ophuls, the development is everybody else. It’s possible that, having established the principle of beginning every scene with an exploratory track, Ophuls departed the project having set some kind of pattern that the other directors followed. But some of these shots are unmistakeably his.

And then comes the climax, where Orso hunts through the forest for his opponent, and Domergue rushes to warn him that a second opponent is waiting in ambush. So many sinister, gliding dolly shots, with so much foreground material passing between us and the characters. An effective sense of spatial confusion, rendered dramatically coherent by matching angles on every character, and then a gorgeous discovery shot where the camera glides around Orso to reveal the enemies he’s uncovered. Catching the bad guys, Orso wants to hand them in to the French authorities, but Domergue intervenes with tooth and claw, provoking a double-barrelled massacre. This graphically brutal sequence suggests the Hughes of THE OUTLAW (remember Billy the Kid getting his earlobe shot off?) and the extreme frontal angles, with characters looking, and shooting, straight into the lens, has a cartoony feel in keeping with Hughes’ tastes, but it’s without precedent in Ophuls’ work — see for instance the opening of LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI.

At any rate, it’s a sensational ending, defaced by the unnecessary, awkward and out-of-character scene that comes after (a Corsican bandit offers a speech in favour of modernisation and the rule of law!). One thing for sure: if we consider VENDETTA as, in some compromised way, an Ophuls film, it’s perhaps the only one to feature a duel at the end which we actually get to see.

Of course, in LIEBELEI, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and MADAME DE… it’s more effective NOT to see the duel.