Archive for Kim

Think of India

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2021 by dcairns
It’s actually quite hard to find shots favouring Dean Stockwell’s face in this film where he has the title role…

It’s definitely a mistake to watch MGM’s KIM (1950) right after reading Kipling’s novel, but it would also be a mistake to watch it before reading the novel. So probably the best thing is not to watch it at all.

The three screenwriters have actually done a passable job of compressing and adapting a book that has several aspects that render it tricky. Kim ages from aged ten to at least fourteen, and the change in him is remarked upon by others. Still, Dean Stockwell was around fourteen and manages to suggest a fairly ambiguous age. Also in the book, Kim both speaks and thinks in more than one language. The writers manage to quasi-suggest this without ever showing it.

The most overt distortions have come in the service of Errol Flynn, preposterous casting as a Sunni Muslim Pathan, but given the lack of Indians in speaking roles, not really that preposterous compared with everything else. But now they have to give his character more leading man action stuff to do — they kill off Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway, the only one who dares attempt any kind of Indian accent — his role was clearly intended by Kipling for Sydney Greenstreet, or would have been if the actor had been a bit older than 21 when the novel appeared, and if Kipling had been thinking of casting white folks as Indians in a movie version back in 1900) to give Flynn’s Mahbub Ali more to do. He obliges by chucking somebody off a cliff and then starting a rockslide.

All that I can kind of overlook, and I think you could just about make a passable Hollywood KIM even with all those changes. The numerous location shots are a help, even when they’re just used as rear projection fodder…

What I can’t forgive is the terrible flatness. Andre Previn seems to be asleep (maybe it’s the heat) — he provides a bit of martial splendor (absent in the book) but remains unstirred by scenes of nominal suspense. Director Victor Saville is one of very few Brit directors to go to Hollywood and totally give up any attempt at achieving cinema. His standard mode is the flat two-shot, and I do mean FLAT.

Dean Stockwell shows signs of being quite capable of playing his role, but I don’t think he’s been guided, and the camera doesn’t encourage us to consider Kim’s emotions as particularly important. You need Hitchcockian POV/reaction shot stuff to bring the character alive. It’s a bit like Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND — he’s a little powerhouse, not subtle but capable, but he’s under orders to emasculate every scene by playing it as a cheerful romp (Stevenson’s novel is a horror story).

Who the hell is this meant to be? He narrates the film, but the even credits don’t explain.

The biggest casualty of Saville’s disinterest is the Lama, played by a miscast Paul Lukas in his dullest manner. We get a voiceover — provided by some unexplained Indian — TELLING us that Kim grows to love the Lama, but the scant, desultory interactions depicted in flat and distant style give us nothing of this. I suppose it’s a typical Hollywood mistake to privilege the violent action stuff at the expense of character and spirituality, but there are plenty of movies of the time that do get this right. If Frank Borzage had been in charge, both the relationship and the religion would have come through strongly: Borzage believed, as does Kipling (speaking as Mahbub Ali), that all spirituality is a way to truth (Borzage would have insisted on kindness as a necessary tool). And he was at MGM!

Although Kim isn’t an easy book to film, it does have a number of very strong cinematic scenes. These are all either absent or ruined by Saville’s clumsy handling, except for the hypnosis bit, played by one of my favourite underused actors, Arnold Moss — the book is 100 times more powerful, and provides visuals that any competent director ought to have seized upon, but the material is so strong and Moss plays it so well that Saville actually wakes up very slightly and it becomes fascinating.

One weird thing: I’d seen bits of the movie as a kid, and now I understand why I was bored. No child focus. But I do recall the cliffhanging bit, and when I got to this passage in the book, describing the plunge — “No need to listen for the fall — this is the world’s end,” it rang a strong bell and I assumed the line appeared in the film. It SHOULD, but it doesn’t. I have this FALSE MEMORY of hearing the line as a kind and thinking “Is that TRUE?” Maybe I heard a similar line elsewhere. The child’s brain is strange — as Kipling knew.

The Rudyard Kipling Cinematic Universe

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on May 22, 2021 by dcairns

This journey began with a Penguin book of classic short stories, in which I read Wireless, a very strange story indeed, by Rudyard Kipling.

That lead me, after weeks of time-wasting, to pick up and devour a volume called Strange Takes, which collects many of Kipling’s tales of the uncanny but NOT Wireless, which is incomprehensible to me since Wireless is, as noted, a very strange story indeed. With telepathy compared to radio as its theme.

Strange Tales shows a fantastic breadth — there are fairly straightforward accounts of supernatural vengeance, but also an uncanny dog story, the healing of a sick building, an account of what the Victorians termed “maternal influence” and an encounter with something called a “wishing house” — a creepy element in a story that’s otherwise plain tragedy.

Two features recur — the casual racism of the time, and a fear of madness so persistent that I wondered about Kipling’s own mental health history. He seems familiar with manias, persecution complexes, depression, the horrors, and all manner of malaises of the mind.

A character called Strickland recurs only twice, in the first two stories, written at the outset of the Great Man’s career, both tales of native revenge and both fairly horrid — contemporary reviewers were repulsed by the grisly imagination displayed, one critic declaring that the author would end in the madhouse.

Strickland is described as the sort of man things happen to, a throwaway line to account for the sheer implausibility of High Weirdness striking twice in this character’s life. He’s like Kolchak. Strickland is an effective sort of bastard, driven to grisly extremes in his first appearance in Mark of the Beast, and I was sort of looking forward to reading more of him, but he doesn’t appear again.

Still, Kipling’s prose and imagination lead me to pick up Kim, which is free of racism and cultural prejudices to a striking degree, magnificently written, and combining high adventure with still loftier spirituality. And here comes Mr. Strickland, walking into the book and out again within a page or two.

I’d started reading Edward Said’s intro but discovered to my fury that it was full of casual spoilers so I set it aside. Now I’ve finished the novel I’ll go back to it, but right now I’m following Strickland’s trail on the internet and discover he’s in four more short stories so I’ll have to read them too. Mark of the Beast is not his actual first canonical appearance. And he’s one of these masters of disguise the Raj seemed to be full of, dragging himself up as natives like the hero of The Deceivers.

But first I’ll watch Victor Saville’s film of Kim — from the one scene I remember of it, it’s clearly going to be a travesty, but then Kipling’s novel is not conventionally filmable. I did recognise a line of dialogue from the book repurposed for the movie, dropped into another character’s mouth in another situation, and I sort of appreciate that kind of effort.

“He’s sorry.”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2008 by dcairns

Necessary background: in FIRST A GIRL, Jessie Matthews has disguised herself as a young fellow in order to get a break in show-business. This is where the leading man discovers her secret, and… he’s sorry?

It’s either a direct homosexual allusion, a joke on effete British leading men, or both.

Directed by Victor Saville, FIRST A GIRL is a remake of the German VIKTOR, VIKTORIA, which formed the basis for Blake Edwards’ VICTOR, VICTORIA, which is also pretty bold about gender and sexuality themes — only forty years later.

Jessie M deserves a chapter of her own in any Encyclopaedia of British Rumpo — her fondness for seriously diaphanous costumes ran afoul of the American censors, and her dancing impressed Fred Astaire. she had offers from Hollywood but stayed in England to get married (to that chap in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE) and have a kid. By the time she was disillusioned with that, America was no longer calling. She was a working-class cockney girl who trained herself to talk incredibly posh, and somehow it goes with her cheeky chipmunk smile. Her husband, by contrast, was a posh lad who trained himself to speak cockney, leading to music hall success.

Like Barbara Windsor, Jessie always pissed in the dressing room sink. You don’t want to use the toilet — who knows who’s been in there?

Her leading man is Griffith Jones, best known (to me, anyhow) as the villainous Narcy (Narcissus) in Cavalcanti’s THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, just about the best British noir ever. According to my friend Lawrie, Jones had a slight bitter streak: “Of course, they don’t want sincere acting nowadays,” he would grumble, when “in his cups”.

Victor Saville, who directed Jessie in a number of successful British musicals, did go to Hollywood, where he directed Rita Hayworth in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (memorable scene: a young man dances to a Hitler speech on the radio), Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell in KIM, before tanking spectacularly with THE SILVER CHALICE, which sent him back to England and a long retirement.

NB: though Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL is often listed as Britain’s first talkie, Victor Saville’s KITTY, which is half-silent and half-talking (BLACKMAIL’s first reel is also mute) was apparently first. I wonder what it’s like?