Archive for King Kong

Philo Facts

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by dcairns

Warren William only made two Philo Vance movies, and he made them six years apart, which is not as surprising as the fact that there are so damn many PV movies. He’s a pretty tedious character — Sherlock Holmes without the interesting qualities, and without a Watson to place his inhuman intellect in relief. Also he, in the words of Ogden Nash, “…needs a kick in the pance.”

But the WW duo are of some interest. Partnering him with Gracie Allen is certainly an unusual idea: S.S. Van Dyne was a fan of the comic, and wrote her into a book, and she then consented to play herself. WW’s reactions to Allen’s “pretzel logic” are marvelous. He doesn’t do a full double-take, just a sort of irritated hesitation of bafflement. He knows he’s Philo Vance. He knows this is a Philo Vance movie. So what is this idiot woman doing making absurd statements and calling him “Fido”? He’s finally found a mystery he can’t solve.

The earlier film, THE DRAGON MURDER CASE amused me because the story of a guy who dives into a swimming pool but doesn’t come back out is a good sort of inversion of a locked room mystery, and because the suggestion that a dragon might be responsible is a pretty delightful red herring to throw in Fido’s path.

The natural pool is called “the dragon pool” after a Native American tradition, and one character has a bunch of books and articles about sea monsters, including “Nessie” — now, KING KONG had just been released and interest in the Loch Ness monster flared up at this time — cynics might say Willis O’Brien’s man-eating lake dinosaur was more of an influence on the reported sighting than any actual Scottish plesiosaurus.

Of course the dragon footprints found in the mud when they drain the pool are in fact — SPOILER ALERT —

— something else entirely.

Which led me to an odd connection. Yves Le Prieur was a prolific French inventor — among other things, he was the first person to take off in a glider from Japanese soil (a fairly niche record to hold) and he invented a plane-mounted rocket launcher for taking down German observation balloons in WWII. Remarkable guy.

Two of his big deals were scuba diving — he’s the one who got the idea to connect the re-breather mask to oxygen tanks worn on the back, rather than to a surface air pump — and the translux screen, which greatly improved the brightness of image possible in rear projection. He gave that invention to the world for free.

In the early thirties he accompanied producer Bernard Natan on his tour of American film production centres, and around this time rear projection became much more common. So maybe his trip made KING KONG possible.

And so THE DRAGON MURDER CASE could be said to be inspired by KING KONG which is inspired by Yves Le Prieur’s working holiday. If the “dragon” were actually a scuba diver, the poetic connection would be really satisfying, but sadly this is not the case. He wears a “shallow-water diving suit–the kind largely used in pearl fishing” says the source novel. This is regrettable, but it leads to a lovely image when the suit is discovered hidden in the family crypt ~

Is the lovely image worth the loss of the lovely scuba-Kong connection? Oh, I suppose maybe it is.

The other point I’d make is that Vance is so boring, the decision to turn the Perry Mason adaptations into WACKY COMEDIES, playing to WW’s sense of fun, is probably a direct result of DRAGON. And, more regrettably, the egregious SATAN MET A LADY is also a consequence.

 

Pg. 17, #4

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2020 by dcairns

fields

De Laurentis inspects Kong’s skeleton.

*

Vaudeville was born at approximately the same time as W.C. Fields and in approximately the same place. An outgrowth of the British music hall tradition, variety performances were initially used to draw customers into American beer halls in the 1870s. The first vaudeville theater, Tony Pastor’s, was opened in New York in 1881, and the trend to clean shows that could play to “double audiences” (meaning men and women) spread to other cities. By 1885, there were more than twenty such houses in Philadelphia, which was to become known as “the Cradle of Vaudeville” for all the important acts that got their starts there.

*

What vaudeville had to teach its practitioners was a discipline and method. The vaudeville act had to put itself over to a critical and not very patient audience, in a strictly limited time–it could be sixteen minutes or it could be eight–against relentless competition and without the benefit of a favourable context (a dramatic monologuist might be sandwiched between knockabout comics and performing seals).

*

The leaning towards violent contrast — which in Expressionist literature can be seen in the use of staccato sentences — and the inborn German liking for chiaroscuro and shadow, obviously found an ideal artistic outlet in the cinema. Visions nourished by moods of vague and troubled yearning could have found no more apt mode of expression, at once concrete and unreal.

*

Your world appeared to have everything. You grew up in Hollywood, you had the kind of adulation that people live lifetimes trying to achieve without ever attaining.

*

That June, I spent my first night alone in a hotel (at Grand Rapids), and so, a little more than a month before my sixteenth birthday, I was into a ten-week season–one production a week–during which I would end up playing leads not only in the children’s shows (for instance, the Lion in The Wizard of Oz), but in the regular Equity company too (Signe Hasso’s teenage son in Glad Tidings). I played a butler with Sylvia Sidney, worked with Edward Everett Horton (as his dresser), Veronica Lake and ZaSu Pitts (moving furniture around). I also received my first credit as director–of the Children’s Variety Show. That winter, I got special permission from my school to miss athletics so I could take afternoon and early-evening acting classes with the legendary Stella Adler, who became so dear to me in so many ways.

*

‘We were able to do that much for Bitsy, buster,’ Harry snarled. ‘We were able to get the Joint Chiefs to lean hard enough to get you an honorable discharge.’

*

Seven passages from seven page seventeens found in seven books in my living room, randomly but mostly on the same shelf. I like the mix of film and non-film here. It tells a kind of story, doesn’t it? Well, in roughly the same way that MARIENBAD does.

W.C. Fields, a Biography, by James Curtis, Buster Keaton, by David Robinson, The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, by Bruce Bahrenburg, The Haunted Screen, by Lotte H. Eisner, People Will Talk, by John Kobal (interviewing Gloria Swanson), Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich, and Arigato, by Richard Condon.

Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.