Archive for Judy Garland

Horseshoe Shuffle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2017 by dcairns


THE HARVEY GIRLS is like the ultimate film of entertainment, with memorable songs, lovely actors (and John Hodiak, a cartoon wolf), elegant dance and camera moves, sumptuous colours, and a huge amount of good-natured fun.

I’m really glad to be discovering George Sidney at this belated stage of my life — I had seen some of his work before, but had given no thought to him. One of the not-so-good things about the auteurist approach is it could cause one to miss out on a good Sidney or Charles Walters film as one concentrates on a lesser work by Minnelli or Donen. Now, those latter gentlemen are more significant artists, but the other exponents of the Freed Unit style are no slouches.


One moment I want to dwell on, amid countless terrific movements and moments. Virginia O’Brien gets one number of her own, shortly before she disappears from the film almost completely (she’d gotten pregnant, and she actually wears a smithy’s apron during her big song to disguise a little bump).

During her song, Virginia, who has dialled down the googly-eyed zombie act she first found fame with, and might have been moving on to more substantial and less gimmicky roles had parenthood not diverted her, prepares a horseshoe for applying to a hoof. The shoe is deposited in the fire, and after a rare cut (the sequence consists of only a few, very long, shots) it’s extracted with tongs and beaten with a hammer. Sparks and glowing makes it clear that this is now a real red-hot piece of iron.


Then Virginia picks it up with her bare hands. Sings a line or two. And drops it in a barrel of water, which emits an explosive hiss of steam.

The mystery/joke of O’Brien’s asbestos fingers forced us to rewind to see what the trick was. And it’s a very simple one — Virginia hangs up the glowing shoe, steps screen right, forcing a small reframing, and while the shoe is offscreen, evidently some property man with tongs of his own or real asbestos fingers, grabs it and substitutes for it a fake shoe painted red to simulate glowing. He achieves this during a two-second moment when the shoe isn’t on camera. the horseshoe is still swinging when the camera re/discovers it. The jet of steam from the barrel is a practical special effect.

It’s a lot of trouble for a joke that doesn’t make any sense — what are we to make of Virginia’s superhuman flame-retardant properties? Is she a Shadrach or Johnny Storm of the Wild West? In a way, it’s not even a joke about that, but about the deceptive nature of the continuous take, about MGM and George Sidney’s ability to pull the wool over our eyes and make us smile at our inability to see what’s in front of us.

The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns


I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~




Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

Everything that’s wrong with Stanley Kramer in one hilarious frame

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2014 by dcairns


This bit from the opening titles of JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG reduced Fiona and I to hysterics.

I know, it’s unfair. Miss Dietrich must have her gowns, and they must be by Jean-Louis, who must have his credit. Under a swastika?

In a way it sums up the film’s aesthetic, which is elucidating the darkest crimes of the 20th century using movie stars and the apparatus of Hollywood. Can commercial movies tackle such subjects? It would be more shameful not to try, I think. Maybe, as probably Claude Lanzmann would argue, the result is bound to be obscene in some way, but maybe it’s better to have that kind of artistic failure than to remain silent. Spielberg following Jews into the showers to create tension, or here, Richard Widmark narrating death camp mass burials, is undoubtedly a high-risk game.

Visually there’s some nice work, with Kramer enlivening his testimonies with a moving camera that creeps around the actors, examining them warily as if they were recently fallen space debris. He’s also discovered the zoom, and gets carried away, though one early crash in on Maximilian Schell is so powerful it causes him to CHANGE LANGUAGE. This must surely be the origin of the move-in on Peter Firth (as a character called Putin) in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, a real coup de cinema in which Firth switches to English from Russian on the word “Armageddon” (the same in any language), just as the camera reaches an ECU of his lips…

Abby Mann’s script, it seems to me, affords Kramer some excellent opportunities — I think everything that’s not a trial scene is, essentially dilution and a mistake, but the trial — if you can forgive the dramatic contrivances and what are probably blatant violations of courtroom protocol — is often riveting. Montgomery Clift proves he could still do it — his character is falling apart, so it’s hard to be sure how much is acting, but I *think* he’s actually in control of his performance. He certainly isn’t depending on an editor to manufacture it out of the most acceptable bits, as reportedly happened on his last film. He may have required a lot of special care to nurse him through it — Kramer was adept at that, dealing with Spencer Tracy’s alcoholism and later his declining health — but he offers up astonishing moments here, and I think he’s USING his physical and mental frailty.

Clift’s stuff is emotionally devastating — I would challenge any Kramer naysayer to sit through it without a pang — and I think it eschews cheap manipulation. Judy Garland’s far simpler performance is equally effective. Each of them is like a raw nerve, sat in the witness stand, getting pinged by Maximilian Schell.

Schell is also excellent — he doesn’t have sympathy on his side, but he has complexity, as he tries to make his character comprehensible, motivated, and even in some ways RIGHT — even while he becomes our hate-figure, standing in for the broad mass of Nazi Germany that went along with evil rather than initiating it.

And then Burt Lancaster is terrif, not in a feat of great acting to rank alongside his fractured co-stars, but as a towering monument of charisma, gravitas and contained energy. Star quality, with every muscle tensed trying to hold it in and focus it.

Spencer Tracy is also fine, but I could do without most of the between-courtroom filler, because what he does best here is LISTEN.

So, if one can accept the kind of film that has gowns by Jean-Louis and atrocity footage and isn’t afraid to juxtapose them almost directly, the real virtues of the drama here can be commended.