Archive for Korda

Russian Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by dcairns

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way —

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Actorly Through Air Power

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2012 by dcairns

CONQUEST OF THE AIR is one of Alexander Korda’s experiments, an hour-long dramatized documentary history of manned flight. Typically of Korda, it’s “directed” by whoever happened to be around, especially if they were Hungarian (brother Zoltan is one of the troupe of what I’ll call “nauteurs”), leaving it to editor and narrator Charles Frend to tie the whole shambles together. Frend was later a dependable maker of staunch war dramas, staunch police dramas, staunch Antarctic expeditionary dramas…

What caught my eye was the fact that the film is based on a book by John Monk Saunders, aviator and screenwriter (WINGS, THE LAST FLIGHT), and I’m a bit of a Saunders completist. He’s one of the few Hollywood specialists — his best scripts always hinge on aviation, just as Maurine Dallas Watkins’ always trot out women in prison. As long as the key element is in place, the entertainment is assured.

An experiment such as this could only be put over to a British public skeptical of home-grown product by the deployment of star power, so it’s odd that the jaunt through history throws up so few familiar faces. My favourite grouchy Dundonian of the period, Hay Petrie, pops up as Tiberius Cavallo, and I glimpsed an uncredited and dubbed Francis L Sullivan as Nero, witnessing a spectacular failed levitation. Asides from those, it’s left to Laurence Olivier to impersonate Vincent Lunardi in amusingly showy fashion.

Olivier is a beast of quicksilver, sometimes sluggish, sometimes fleet and sparkling. David Mamet cites his performance as a French Canadian trapper with what sounds like a Pakistani accent in 49TH PARALLEL as the one bad performance in an Archers’ film (he needs to pay closer attention to Bob Arden in AMOLAD). Here, he manages to sound convincingly like an Englishman pretending to be French, which I assume was his intention. Quashing a heckler, he declares his intention to “soar over the heads of groundlings like you,” and flashes a cheeky smile. He’s a star, even if Lunardi’s ballooning lacks some of the dash and derring-do of early flight by virtue of its being conducted safely indoors.

The early part of the film is one long succession of deluded hopefuls crashing earthwards from high places (so few of them seem to have considered launching from a runway, rather than a tower/bridge/wall). Frend seems unaware of how comical this all is — the only unfunny entry is the Scottish one, which fails both as aeronautics and comedy, because the guy lived (although he gets points for landing in a dunghill). This sequence seems like a clear influence on Terry Gilliam’s early toon THE MIRACLE OF FLIGHT ~

And a later mention of Baron Von Richthofen’s Flying Circus suggests Korda’s influence on British comedy may be greater than previously assumed.

And then there’s this image of Italian peasants fleeing a stray bag of hydrogen, which seems to anticipate Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Aaargh! It’s the Devil!”

By curious coincidence, Marvelous Mary just dropped in for a cup of herbal infusion and told me about the nineteenth century zookeeper, George Wombwell, whose animals seemed to have spent a lot of their time loose and rampaging. “It’s the devil!” was the cry uttered by a poor housewife, fleeing her home, which had become occupied by a stray kangaroo…

When Anecdotes Collide

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2008 by dcairns


I collect movie stories in my brain. Some of them may just be stories. But sometimes two stories link up, and we have CORROBORATION.


A chap I know once worked on a commercial for Kwik-Fit, a garage company notorious for their cheesy musical T.V. ads. The cinematographer, bizarrely, was the great Douglas Slocombe, slumming it rather. My friend got a few stories out of the great man:

“I never use a light meter. I used to have one, but I was on a boat and I threw it at the director. It went over the side and I haven’t had one since.”

Now Slocombe measured the light just by looking at the shadow of his thumb on the palm of his hand.

When somebody asked Freddie Francis (Slocombe’s near-contemporary) about light meters, he said it was impossible to work without one. “You’ve got to bear in mind not just the difference in the light between 8am and 8pm, but the difference in your eyes.”

Anyhow, in Philip Kemp’s study of Alexander Mackendrick, Lethal Innocence, we hear about Mackendrick arguing with Slocombe about the lighting of a ship’s figurehead during the fraught shooting of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. Slocombe hurled his light meter at his intransigent director. “I think it missed him.”

Sandy looking cute


My late friend Lawrie Knight worked in commercials after his career as an assistant director in British films such as THE RED SHOES. He recalled with awe his one glimpse of Orson Welles, emerging from a taxi in a foggy London street, swathed in cape.

Later that day he was in a recording studio and mentioned the dramatic scene. “Oh yes, Mr. Welles was in here today, doing a voice-over for fish fingers.”

crumb crisp coating

Yet Lawrie was unaware, until I told him, of this famous set of outtakes:

(Incidentally, this clip has some of the smarter comments I’ve ever seen on Youtube: voice-over artists and directors supporting Welles against the ad people!)


The elusive Mr. Welles again. Many of you will have heard about how, while shooting OTHELLO, Welles ran up against various cash difficulties. The film was made “on the installment plan,” whenever Welles was able to raise enough cash by acting in other movies.

At one point, although the costumes had been made, they could not be delivered, due to a little matter of unpaid bills, so Welles brilliantly improvised the murder attempt on Cassio, staging it in a bath-house so that most of the characters would not require costumes, only towels or undies.

Big bathers

Flicking through the pages of Charles Drazin’s In Search of The Third Man, we learn that Welles, engaged by Alexander Korda to act in THE THIRD MAN, was charging his OTHELLO costume bills to the budget of THE THIRD MAN. (Some Welles fans would like to deny the confidence trickster side of his personality, I prefer to revel in it.) Knowing the importance of keeping your star happy, Korda shrewdly allowed this fraud to continue — until Welles had completed his scenes in Korda’s movie. Then he swiftly stopped payment.

The result would seem to be: a masterful piece of cinema flung together by Welles in a fit of inspiration to get himself out of a purely practical difficulty.

black market

Drazin’s book is highly recommended, but Michael McLiammoir’s account of filming OTHELLO, Put Money in thy Purse, is even better. And then there’s Welles’ own documentary, FILMING OTHELLO. In some future Utopia where Welles’ heirs actually speak to each other, we shall have all the various edits of Welles’ OTHELLO together in a box set, with FILMING OTHELLO as the main extra. If we eat well and get some exercise, we may live to see this.