Archive for Kevin Brownlow

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.

Reflections

Posted in Fashion, literature with tags , , , , on January 18, 2021 by dcairns

My friend Lawrie worked as an AD on David Lean’s THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS. We watched a documentary where Lean appeared, the twinkly elder statesman, in interview.

“David seems quite charming,” said Lawrie. “He wasn’t.”

Some directors are delightful on set, but probably the minority. Lean was a scowler. Kevin Brownlow, in his majestic biography David Lean, describes the great man complaining when he got stuck on the above scene from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, that his crew were full of annoying suggestions whenever he knew exactly what he wanted, but when he was short of ideas they were silent.

Lean was a great believer in prep — “You cannot turn up on location and go wandering in the woods looking for inspiration — it WILL NOT COME,” — but somehow had arrived at this boardroom without a strong image in mind to bring the scene to life. A plain old wide shot, followed by close-ups, would give us the setting and performances alright, but would not express anything cinematic.

The IDEA Lean wanted to express in visual form was that Lawrence, a terror on the battlefield, was rendered impotent in this political setting.

I think Lean prowled the set for a few hours before coming up with this —

“Of course. He’s a shadow of his former self.”

This is for the class I’m teaching today — it’s my contention that dramatic filmmaking is inherently expressionist.

The Sunday Intertitle: Full and Fuller

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2020 by dcairns

THE ROUNDERS is mainly known to me for its closing shot, which introduced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to me in Brownlow & Gill’s life-changing series Hollywood. (Me to Brownlow: Your series changed my life and made me become a filmmaker!” Brownlow to me: “You must be broke!” Me to Brownlow: “I am!”) Chaplin and Arbuckle, dead drunk, sinking underwater… one on his way to immortality, the other to obscurity.

A title identifies Charlie as “Mr. Full” — he’s doing the drunk act again, and also wearing a silk hat and an Inverness coat (swanky coat with built-in mini-cape) — so he’s not the Tramp. But he’s got the moustache, just like in ONE A.M. And the cane, and the disreputable boots (out of keeping with the rest). So I guess the walk has become central to Chaplin’s screen persona, even if the rest isn’t secured yet. It seems that it has not been definitely determined yet that the public wants to see Chaplin as a Tramp at all times. He would find that out later, and his experiments with departing from the familiar character would become very, very occasional.

I don’t know if Chaplin really felt the Tramp character limited him unduly. Looking at all he did with it, he would clearly have been WRONG to think so. I think perhaps he just felt that he SHOULD play other characters, because clearly he COULD, and he wanted the world to know it. I mean, he wanted to play Jesus Christ, for Chrissake.

Even though shitfaced, Mr. Full take it upon himself to twist his own ear and emit cigarette smoke from his mouth, as if his head were a contraption. Nobody is around. This little performance is executed for an audience of one: Mr. Full. He doesn’t seem to be aware of us watching, though with Chaplin that’s always a possibility. Chaplin never quite gave up on these little tricks performed for his own amusement, which are almost breaking character, but he did cut down on them as his character got more involved in the world of his stories. It’s possible, I suppose, that Mr. Full isn’t doing this as a conscious trick, but is so drunk his body has become alienated from him, and he feels he NEEDS to operate it like a machine to get results.

Now Mr. Full is staggering around a hotel lobby, just as the proto-Tramp did in his first appearance. Compelled to churn out films at an appalling rate, Chaplin seems to have grabbed at anything he’d already done for other directors, reworking it to suit himself.

Mr. Full seems to be a far less aggressive, more genteel inebriate than the predatory creep of MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT: bumping into a large man’s backside, he raises his hat politely to the backside, apologising to it, rather than its owner.

I’ve now picked up a second hand Chaplin, the biography by David Robinson, a book even better than its high reputation suggests. Not just a bio but an unbeatable critical study (superior even to Walter Kerr, so far as Chaplin goes). Here he is on the Chaplin hat-tip:

“The traditional historical explanation of Chaplin’s innovations at Keystone is that, despite the doubt and resistance of Sennett and the Keystone comedians, he succeeded in slowing down the helter-skelter pace, and introduced new subtlety to the gag comedy. This is true so far as it goes, but the difference lay deeper. Keystone comedy was created from without; anecdote and situations were explained in pantomime and gesture. Chaplin’s comedy was created from within. What the audience saw in him was the expression of thoughts and feelings, and the comedy lay in the relation of those thoughts and feelings to the situations around him. The crucial point of Chaplin’s comedy was not the comic occurrence itself, but Chaplin’s relationship and attitude to it. In the Keystone style, it was enough to bump into a tree to be funny. When Chaplin bumped into a tree, however, it was not the collision that was funny, but the fact that he raised his hat to the tree in a reflex gesture of apology. The essential difference between the Keystone style and Chaplin’s comedy is that one depends on exposition, the other on expression. While the exposition style may depend on such codes as the Keystone mime, the expressive style is instantly and universally understood; that was the essential factor in Chaplin’s almost instant and world-wide fame.”

Also in the lobby: future Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline. And in the next scene, the eternal bellhop Al St. John. St John, I must say, always catches the attention and holds it. He’s an unusual presence. His solo shorts may or may not be great but he justifies star billing by being TOO ATTRACTIVE TO THE EYE to really work in a bit part. How long before Chaplin gives him the elbow?

Phyllis Allen plays the scold, Mrs. Full, first seen alone, “nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” Mr. F. tries a winning smile on her. Twice. She’s having none of it. It’s a very Tam O’Shanter marital set-up with very clearly defined roles.

Meet Mr. Fuller: Arbuckle, of course. Equally paralytic in his drunkenness, he has an innocence about him that Chaplin hasn’t quite discovered. Children loved both Chaplin and Arbuckle because they’re both naughty boys. Arbuckle is basically a giant, polluted baby. He staggers into the lobby, mirroring Chaplin’s bit, but doing his own thing with the set-up.

Mrs. Fuller is Araminta Estelle “Minta” Durfee, with her huge wad of hair that seems to have fallen on her scalp like dough, who, as I perhaps haven’t previously remarked, was the real-life Mrs. Arbuckle. She’s bemoaning her husband’s alcoholism, which may have been Minta’s real-life situation.

Minta is mainly responsible for our knowing that Chaplin smelled bad (like Robert Pattinson and Michael Fassbender, allegedly). He had apparently embraced or invented a theory that one should wear a single set of clothes, unwashed, until they disintegrated out. This doesn’t seem to have any particular advantage over the more conventional, society-approved procedure of washing and changing. I guess you save on laundry bills and your clothes fall apart before the moths get ’em.

I don’t know when Chaplin stopped reeking, but his stinginess, embossed upon his psyche by childhood poverty, lasted. Nestor Almendros, filming an interview with C.C. at the end of his life, was appalled to hear him answer a question about whether he was happy with “God, yes. I’ve got money!” But if you grow up in extreme poverty, isn’t that understandable?

Mrs. Full uses the Chaplin cane to hook her husband by the neck: a rare occurrence. Charlie never normally allows anyone else to use his cane. It’s like a fifth limb.

Good bits: Arbuckle trying to pick up his topper, but kicking it away each time; Chaplin falling onto his bed and hooking his feet around the headboard so as to lock himself into a vulgar, arse-up, body-rictus. Minta unlocks him by thrashing his upturned posterior with the cane, which is now officially hers, it seems. A kind of marital emasculation.

Mr. Fuller is a bit rough to his missus, but Arbuckle’s performance makes clear that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing: any brutality is unconscious. As is he, practically, after Minta retaliates with roundhouse slaps to the spherical physog.

That’s all funny enough, but when Fuller starts strangling his wife it’s slightly less amusing. He’s strangling so loud, Mrs. Full can hear him clear across the hall. She sends Mr. Full to the rescue, a curiously futile idea. But it works! Full knocks down Fuller with the door upon entering, but then is set upon by Mrs. Fuller. How dare you prevent my husband strangling me? Then the formidable Mrs. Full counterattacks. How dare you assault my worthless drunk of a husband?

This is all good, well-observed stuff. If you allow that alcoholism and domestic abuse are suitable subjects for “farce comedy” — and on the one hand, this is a terrible, insensitive idea and on the other, they are IDEAL subjects, perhaps the ONLY subjects, for Keystone-type “farce comedy” — then what Chaplin and chums are doing is reasonably accurate knockabout satire.

Mr. Full now tries to extricate his wife from her battle with Mrs. Fuller, but gets knocked flying by a thrust of her pugilistic buttocks. So Mrs. Full is fighting to defend her husband, and thumping her husband at the same time. Because that’s her inalienable right, and no other woman is going to horn in on it. It all makes perfect sense, you see.

Rendered irrelevant to the hostilities they sparked off, Full & Fuller now recognize one another as brothers in inebriation, and sneak off, with Fuller using his cane to filch his wife’s handbag.

Hand-shaking now becomes a terrific bit of business — every time the boys look away, they forget the other is there, and so when they turn back it’s a surprised and they have to shake hands again.

With the wives arguing in the Fuller rooms, the husbands ransack the Full household: the second cane and hat are fetched and the second purse is pilfered. Now as synchronized as Siamese twins, the two freshly-moneyed gentlemen stagger off in search of booze. It’s interesting to see that film grammar of the day requires us to see them pass through the lobby on their way out, even though nothing happens during this part of the voyage. Al St John is placed in the lobby, just for continuity’s sake — he’s got to be in the hotel somewhere, so why not here? — but gets nothing to do.

The wives discover the theft(s) and console one another. Sisterhood! They set off to find, and possibly assassinate, their errant spouses.

Arbuckle hauls Chaplin to “Smith’s Cafe,” which, like all the best establishments, had a doorman in blackface. This is Billy Gilbert, but not the later Laurel & Hardy co-star, Joe Pettibone in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Herring in THE GREAT DICTATOR. I presume Chaplin knew he was hiring a different Billy Gilbert on that occasion: clearly, Herring/Goering needed to be fat.

Arbuckle and Chaplin abuse the blackface guy just for the hell of it, which makes an already uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin later said of African Americans. But blackface comedians are fair game.

(Sidebar: King Vidor, talking of the difficulty he had getting HALLULUJAH! made in 1929, said that even the success of Al Jolson didn’t help, a clear and clueless case of category error if I ever heard one. God bless him.)

During this whole segment of the film, Chaplin’s Mr. Full has gone from falling-down drunk to the next level, fallen-down drunk, and is reduced to the status of carry-on prop for Arbuckle. Hauled lifeless into the presence of table service, however, he revives enough to light a match on a bald man’s scalp. We then get a little tour-de-force on the myriad offensive uses a stranger’s head may be turned to.

These two barbarians are pretty great together, if you can get behind the Marxian project of destroying all rational thought and civilized behaviour. Arbuckle uses the tablecloth as a bedsheet, putting his feet up in a winestand and attempting slumber. Chaplin begins to undress. Assailed by waiters, they turn pugnacious. But then the wives arrive like the Seventh Cavalry (not to rescue but to massacre). Their attempts to clobber their befuddled consorts are frustrated somewhat by the men’s inability to stand in place, or even stand at all. One feels that Dante missed a trick by not placing in his inferno a wife attempting eternally to batter her better half who keeps falling on his keister before she can lamp him one.

The husbands flee into the inevitable park. The situation is too urgent even to allow them to pause and abuse the doorman. Strictly speaking, introducing a whole new location, previous unprepared-for, is poor structure, but the appearance of Westlake Park in a Keystone short is so inevitable that one feels no dereliction by the scenarist in resorting to it.

Fleeing their fate, Chaplin and Arbuckle run smack into it — a watery appointment in Samarra — the short film collides with the famous excerpt. Launching themselves in a leaky vessel, and apparently drowning two innocent bystanders, our shitfaced heroes fall asleep as the waters of the fatal pond gradually creep up to absorb them. Arbuckle’s abdomen, a waistcoated Atlantis, remains for a moment after the rest of him has gone, and then all that remains is a top hat.

It’s not markedly more “sophisticated” than previous Chaplin endings (everyone is knocked unconscious or into Echo Park Lake), but it feels much more like a proper ending. Some care (and discomfort) has been put into it. An ending, the Coen Brothers have claimed, is just a bunch of things that, when put together, feel like an ending. But surely a certain compositional shape or attitude is also required. THE ROUNDERS, for maybe the first time in Chaplin’s directorial career, achieves this. And by cutting out extraneous business and characters (even the meaningless drowning couple are there to provide a boat), and focussing on what we might even term an over-arching THEME — the Dysfunctional Relationships of Hotel-Dwelling Drunks — it actually feels like a little story. Without being as funny as THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, it builds on that film’s sense of shape and purpose.