Archive for Kay Francis

The Daltons

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2020 by dcairns

George Marshall’s 1940 western starts with a bang: a low angle shot of a forested road, the branches forming a vertiginous-in-reverse canopy overhead, the gang riding past us, a looong whip-pan after them, landing on a reverse of the road and the gang riding off, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, as Slim Pickens would say.

Then there’s a very verbose bunch of print, all basically to tell us that what follows will be so historically inaccurate you won’t believe your eyes, and then a really nice narration by some never-identified old-timer (Ford fave Edgar Buchanan), and then it finally starts. And very rambunctious it is: does any western really need THREE surly lugs (Brian Donlevy, Broderick Crawford and George Bancroft) or two raspy goofs (Stuart Erwin and Andy Devine)? George Marshall never did like to stint on character. In fact, Bancroft and Erwin underplay so as not to clash with their co-stars.

It’s not all rootin’ and tootin’, though — Kay Fwancis is on hand, who may have tooted occasionally but certainly never lowered herself so far as to root.

Randolph falls for her, but she’s Brod’s broad. And he’s such a swell guy (all the soon-to-be bank robbers are loveable). “Why couldn’t Bob be a low-down no-account worthless Indian?” asks Mr. Scott, hypothetically. (Throwaway racism is something the movies can’t do anymore, which is mainly a good thing, but it means you can’t do lightweight period movies anymore without whitewashing away all the uncomfortable stuff that would have been there. Peter Jackson’s proposed DAMBUSTERS remake hits the rocks because the flyers gave their dog a racist name. (I think you could and should just rename the dog. Unless you’re making a serious film which notes that the raids killed 1,600 civilians and 1,000 forced labourers. If you do that, then you have to change the theme tune, I’m afraid.)

In this movie, the Dalton’s become outlaws when landgrabbers try to, well, you know. And there’s a fight and one of those guys with the narratively convenient glass skulls gets knocked down, so now it’s murder. In reality, they turned to crime after working in law enforcement and finding the horse thievery paid better. But their careers robbing trains and banks was largely disastrous. I like the sound of that movie. But in 1940 they made this kind. A shame, because I think Marshall quite liked bad guys, and would have made a good, piratical movie about them. He gets close, once things really get going here, which takes a while.

Ma Dalton is played by the great Mary Gordon, recently murdered by the Frankenstein monster and soon to take up landladying for Sherlock Holmes. The real Adeline Dalton was not only mother to most of one gang, but aunt to the Younger Gang and a cousin to Frank & Jesse James. This may be the biggest role our Mary ever had: not quite as much screentime as Randolph, but close. Because Randolph has VERY little to do, puttering impotently at the edges of the action and spending most of the climax unconscious.

Yakima Caunutt doubles Broderick to slide under a stagecoach, just as he’d done in STAGECOACH the year before. They’re figured out that giving this gag to a random Indian is less effective than giving it to a protagonist. “We’ll do it different this time,” growls Brod as he clambers aboard again to deal with the guy who knocked him under there.

The real Emmett Dalton, played by Frank Albertson here, had only just died three years before this movie. He had done fourteen years in prison then moved to Hollywood. He acted in one 1916 movie, THE MAN OF THE DESERT.

 

The movie’s OK, I guess. Easy to forget that westerns had been regarded as kids’ stuff for most of the ’30s until Ford made STAGECOACH. This wants to be adult — while Scott has nothing to do as an honest lawyer, the Daltons themselves are slowly by their brutal lifestyle. The trouble is it’s so full of phony stuff. Just as Scott is pledging his troth to Kay Francis, formerly Brod/Bob’s broad, a brick comes through the window with a message from Brod/Bob. Chased by a posse, the gang abandon their horses and leap from a convenient bluff, I believe is the word, onto a passing train — but how could they have known the bluff was there? Somehow, Ford’s movies use lots of unrealistic genre tropes (bullets cost nothing in the west) but seem passably true to life as well as compelling and beautiful. (One of this film’s writers, Harold Shumate, wrote westerns all through the kidstuff period of the ’30s, and that’s maybe the trouble.)

The ending — well, not the cozy VERY ending, the climax, is practically peckinpahesque, with great physical perfs from the various bodies who expire in it.

Randolph Scott faced the Dalton’s again in BADMAN’S TERRITORY, then again in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN, then joined the related Doolin Gang in THE DOOLINS OF OKLAHOMA.

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE stars Gil Westrum; Mary Stevens, MD; Quatermass McGinty; ‘Bull’ Weed; Harry Brock; Merton Gill; Link Appleyard; Sam Wainwright; Mrs. Hudson; the Wienie King; and The Mister.

Cocoa Without the Nuts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2016 by dcairns

weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

THE COCOANUTS, the Marx Bros’ first film. As is my custom, I’ll be looking at anything I can find of interest APART from the Marx Bros.

Like the dancing bellhops, above, and the Floridian beach musical number which opens the film, or better yet, the title sequence ~

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It seems entirely appropriate that the Marxes’ debut opens in negative, as it’s going to reverse a lot of filmic conventions. The director is the gifted Robert Florey (with back-up from Joseph “who he” Santley), and he does his best to keep things moving despite the fact that this is a VERY earl talkie. His scheme is generally to hold a wide shot until breaking point, then perform a brief tracking movement to enliven the frame, then hold on the resulting fresh composition until breaking point, then do it again. It’s not exactly Eisenstein, or Sam Raimi, but it staves off rigor mortis.

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Still, this time round the movie seemed lively enough. I first became aware of the movie’s problematic status via Leslie Halliwell’s column in the TV Times, where he cited this film as the movie he got the most requests for. He apologised for its absence from Channel 4’s (at that time) lively film schedule, saying there just wasn’t a decent print of it available. Eventually he yielded and screened an indecent print, which had super-crackly sound and variable picture. I still enjoyed the movie, but it seemed a world away from the subsequent Paramount classics.

I next saw THE COCOANUTS on VHS, a fuzzy release even for a tape, and can remember only laughing at one bit, Harpo’s repeated slow rise from the dinner table with sour expression (this had us on the floor all over again this time round).

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Seeing the movie once more, with some bits of it looking and sounding almost pristine, a few key scenes dropping off into crackling blotchiness, I was able to appreciate it a lot more. ANIMAL CRACKERS is really a clone of the set-up here, with the aspiring architect replaced by an aspiring painter, the stolen jewels replaced by a stolen painting. The plot in this one makes more sense — that’s not necessarily a good thing, though.

The young lovers in Marx movies are always terrible, even if the actors involved aren’t terrible. Here, they’re terrible.

Oscar Shaw, gap-toothed and anglicized, might have made a pleasing foil for the brothers if he’d been cast as a chump/villain, and he gamely partakes of a good bit of pickpocketry with Harpo, but you can’t root for the guy. I know it takes ages to become an architect, but he’s about twenty years too old for his role, and shows it. As his rich girlfriend, Mary Eaton (GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL) is pretty weak and colourless. She can’t seem to differentiate the sad, solo version of her song (basically the film’s only melody, repeated ad infinitum, Irving Berlin apparently working to rule) from the happy duet.

Cyril Ring as Yates is first in the long tradition of grating, low-charisma baddies the Marxes can humiliate with impunity. Nobody’s a match for Louis “the walking Fontanelle” Calhern as Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, but the oily Ring is quite adequate. Bill Ruysdael is a hackneyed Irish cop, briefly coming into his demented own during the “I want my shirt” aria.

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Bellhop straining not to laugh. Take One?

Big news here is Margaret Dumont and Kay Francis.

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Dumont plays maybe her least sympathetic role, used more as a barrier to true love than as a target for Groucho. There IS some prime material here, more than a hint of pleasures to come, but you can’t help but compare it to later outings and find it less sustained and outrageous. Weirdly, I didn’t fancy her in this one, where she’s my age (ulp). Is it ANIMAL CRACKERS where she seems suddenly cute? Maybe because Mrs. Rittenhouse is a nicer character, and Margaret’s natural warmth and unexpected girlishness can come out more. Here, she wields a mean lorgnette and looks down her prow at people and does all the expected grande dame business — and then Groucho hits on her and the magic starts.

Suddenly realized that Groucho’s characters are divided between low-status bums like his failing hotelier here (played with suitable hotelier-than-thou attitude) and his horse doctor in A DAY AT THE RACES, and his exalted explorer Captain Spaulding in ANIMAL CRACKERS and his glorious leader Rufus T. Firefly in DUCK SOUP. The respected characters prove unexpectedly funnier, because it’s more incongruous and inexplicable that he should enjoy such status with a painted-on moustache, and because Dumont has to somehow fail to understand his insults when the plot requires her to adore him. It’s only really when Groucho is a heroic figure that he can enjoy the myth of Dumont not understanding that she’s in a comedy. Here, Mrs. Potter knows damn well that Hammer (an unsuitably bland name for a Groucho character) is a nogoodnik, and she knows when she’s been insulted.

Margaret actually stumbles over one line, an un-heard of thing, but neither of her two directors apparently could be bothered with a retake.

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Kay Francis lisps appealingly and her liltingly tilting eyebrows, which seem to put her forehead in quotation marks, are a surprising attribute for a fiendish adventuress, the kind of role she didn’t often get to play. She’s a really horrible character, in fact, but such an agreeable presence that one tends to root for her over the heroes. There’s a slight sense that she’s too good for this material, and too genuinely dignified to support Harpo’s leg, which he very badly wants her to do, but because it’s a Marx Bros film and not, say, a Wheeler & Woolsey film, you don’t need to feel bad for her. I like Wheeler & Woolsey, but there’s a definite hierarchy, isn’t there?

Great props in this film. To avoid paper crackle ruining the sound, all the letters and documents are soaking wet. This adds great joy to their appearance, and should be revived as a technique even if it isn’t needed anymore. The blueprint in the “Why a duck?” scene is a particular stand-out, drooping like a flannel from Groucho’s fingers.

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It’s amazing the thing doesn’t disintegrate in his hands. What is it, oilskin? I’m determined to make a wet document film before I die.

The two-headed director’s best touches — inventing Busby Berkeley with an aerial shot of dancers making floral patterns, and filming the bedroom farce bit from outside, set walls split-screening the action. A necessary solution to an inherently theatrical problem. Getting cinematic — i.e. editing — nearly destroys the coherence of the action.

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On Channel 4 or on VHS, it would never have been apparent how radiantly lovely the last silvery images of the film are, the Paramount soft-focus glow in full effect. And then, cluelessly, the directors put their heads together and decide to finish on the awful young lovers instead of the brothers. I’m not making that mistake.

The Sunday Intertitle: Whirling Pants

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2012 by dcairns

LET’S GO NATIVE is an odd early Leo McCarey feature, unstructured and undecided as to what it’s about, but fitfully very funny indeed. Like a Laurel & Hardy film, it has jocular intertitles (even though it’s a talkie).

Jack Oakie plays Voltaire McGinnis, cab driver (but much of the action takes place on an ocean cruiser). Jeanette MacDonald plays a costume designer (but spends most of the story as a performer in a Broadway musical [but much of the action takes place on an ocean cruiser]). Kay Francis plays her rival (but doesn’t appear for the first half hour).

My copy of the film is really too ratty to show of the gowns, but here’s a still sourced from Everyone Says I Love You.

Apart from its obvious double-feature potential with DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT, I’m not quite sure why this film exists, but then I’m not sure why DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT exists (although it might have something to do with dressing Sidney Fox in revealing desert island undies).

McCarey stages a mass tit-for-tat routine involving hats being flung overboard, a direct descendant of PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, and overall, the spirit of Laurel & Hardy hangs over the proceedings. If, as a friend remarked, RUGGLES OF RED GAP takes a step from L&H slapstick towards reality and real people (with Laughton sometimes seeming to directly ape Laurel), LET’S GO NATIVE shows McCarey taking those first faltering steps from short subjects to coherent features, without having grasped structure, character arcs, thematic development, or the level of conviction usually needed to keep an audience occupied for over an hour.

In later films, for instance the aforementioned RUGGLES, McCarey nailed all of those qualities, but in DUCK SOUP he triumphantly found a way to do without them.