Archive for Kathleen Freeman

Magnetic Corps

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by dcairns


I thought Curt Siodmak’s THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was going to be good corny fun, the way BRIDE OF THE GORILLA certainly is — the title promises much. But it’s false advertising, as the film contains no monster, magnetic or otherwise, unless, like THE INVISIBLE MENACE it’s one that doesn’t register on film and stays well away from the main action.

Still, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother deserves credit for attempting something with a bit more natural dignity than his previous Raymond Burr were-gorilla romp. This one concerns the activities of America’s A-Men, the Atom Men who police crimes of a scientific nature. The premise has potential and the name “A-Men” is amusing in a good way. The stylistic approach is borrowed from all those pseudo-documentaries like G-MEN, which I tend to find stodgy and unappealing, even with the added lift of Anthony Mann directing and/or John Alton lighting. This movie has neither: it has Curt Siodmak directing and steady workhorse Charles Van Enger lighting.


The ending, filmed in an impressive location — IMDb mentions the McCulloch Plant at Los Angeles International Airport — manages to look properly epic and science-fictional, even with stock-footage explosions spliced in,  but what impressed me most was an appearance by Kathleen Freeman as the A-Men’s switchboard operator. Completely uncredited, the great comedienne has plenty of scenes and lots of dialogue, even if she’s basically only there to make a fat joke about herself. I realized, watching her, that a major problem of 50s sci-fi is the lack of people like Kathleen Freeman in them. I quite LIKE Richard Carlson, but he stepped out of a cookie-cutter at Central Casting, and so did most of the other players. Freeman is both more realistic and more extraordinary — one of those people who makes you smile with every appearance.vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h24m59s133


BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH suffers similarly from a lumpen, authoritarian and plodding sensibility — but it’s actually a British film from the untalented Irish hack Montgomery Tully — some of its interest comes from a deft use of stock footage and bit players to pull off an American setting fairly convincingly. But it’s best trait is the very opening, where a deranged scientist is discovered with his ear to the sidewalk in Las Vegas, raving about some unidentified other moving about beneath the ground “just like ants.” In a phildickian twist, the scientist is both crazy and correct, but Dick would never have settled for a storyline about a rogue Chinese general deploying digging machines to plant nukes under the USA.


The portrayal of the Chinese baddies isn’t as bad as you might expect — it’s worse, and far crazier. The lead villains are played by Caucasians in yellowface, not because the production wanted to cast movie stars — they’re unknowns — but presumably on the assumption that the Chinese can’t act. Tell that to Chow Yun-Fat, but then retreat rapidly before he punches your face in. Here, Martin Benson tries to suggest foreignness with a clipped delivery that makes him sound like Noel Coward. There are lots of lines about “the gods,” suggesting that screenwriter Chares F. Vetter didn’t know as much about Maoism as he should have.


The production design is hilarious — papier maché cave walls decorated with Chinese restaurant trimmings, set dressing from a Fu Manchu pic, orientalist nonsense. I like the tacky little calendar fixed to the wall, though — surely the art director was having a laugh. But if you’re a Chinese troglodyte on the wrong side of the world, you probably do want to keep track of the passing of time.

This has been a science fiction double feature for The Film preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island Rod.


Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns


Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.


As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.


By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.


Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.


I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…

Take Infinity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2009 by dcairns


I got a copy of O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE ages ago, through my sister-in-law taping it off Sky Cinema, and of course failed to watch it. All I knew at the time was that it was a compendium film adapting stories by O. Henry, and that one episode was directed by Howard Hawks. I had no strong feelings about the other directors.

Fast-forward a couple of years (on V.H.S. that’s going to take looong time) and I’ve grown quite interested in Jean Negulesco, and somewhat more interested in Henries Koster, King and Hathaway (given the name of the author, did they try to cast only men called Henry to direct this thing, then give up when they suddenly thought, “Wait — what the hell are we doing?”) , so I eventually overcame my boundless inertia and played the thing. Well, I have a kind of creeping dislike of O. Henry’s famous story The Gift of the Magi, recreated here with Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain, who inevitably fit right into the heart of mush that beats and oozes within that tale, so that ended the film on a sour note, (I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Henry king movie yet) but the rest was not bad ~

To take the stories in no particular order — Hathaway’s adaptation of The Clarion Call was perfectly fine, it’s a good story, and here it was used as an excuse to have Richard Widmark play another cackling black-shirted psychopath. No bad thing, and the story was genuinely smart.

Negulesco’s episode, The Last Leaf, with Anne Baxter, Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff, was another sentimental tale, but it did boast some florid and eccentric work from the Romanian maestro — his camera lurches into Dutch tilts as Baxter staggers home, feverish in a snowstorm. The camera makes little darting movements, motivated by nothing at all, perhaps trying to create a discombobulated and fevered reaction in the audience.

Hawks confirmed his reputation as the best filmmaker of the bunch by turning in the best short, a sterling adaptation of the Ransome of Red Chief. The late Donald Westlake riffed on this idea in his third Dortmunder novel — the kidnappers outkidded by the kid they kidnap. Hawks’s dry approach to comedy is here exaggerated by very very dry performances indeed — Fred Allen and Oscar Levant realise that the only way to deal with this overwritten, literary comedy dialogue is just to say it, with a little inflection but zero emotion. The mighty Kathleen Freeman also turns up as the kid’s mother, and the kid himself is an astonishing prodigy called Lee Aaker. His throaty, serious, preternaturally adult delivery makes him like a country cousin to legendary comedy child Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. “I’ve changed my mind about you, Slim. I still don’t like you, but now I think you’re stupid,” he intones, with a level, deadly gaze.

But the most exciting moment was in Henry Koster’s comedy episode, The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is great value as a tramp trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in a nice warm penitentiary. David Wayne makes a fine sidekick. But it was the brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe that caught my imagination.

Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? Between waiting for Laughton to “find the man”, waiting for Monroe to show up, waiting for Laughton to “feel it”, and waiting for Monroe to actually give voice to her lines, surely this is a sequence which would have had to be begun years before the film’s projected release date. My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW. By the time the scene (a couple of shots long) is complete, time travel will have been invented, and Koster will be able to pop back to 1952 and seamlessly insert the fresh footage into the cut negative, all ready for its release. And we can already see that it will be worth the effort.


Oh — the film also features introductions to each section delivered by John Steinbeck. He has the porous, jowly features of James Ellroy, but he doesn’t say “copacetic” all the time so is clearly a better writer.


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