Archive for Lee Garmes

Selznick roasting on an open fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Well, there’s your problem right there.

I love, in an ironic way, the idea that the ultimate in David O Selznick’s perennial quest for QUALITY was to dispense with the services of Ben Hecht, Robert E. Sherwood and all the other top writing talent he could so readily afford, roll up his shirtsleeves and get down to work at the typewriter himself. His time being more valuable than anybody’s, the results would have to be impressive. Leave aside the fact that if Selznick wasn’t Selznick, there’s no way Selznick would hire him to write a screenplay.

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SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, his wartime epic about the home front, build on the MRS MINIVER model, is stuffed with goodies. EVERYBODY seems to be in it, and to be fair, Selznick finds something for them all to do. Just listing the favourite actors in the cast would make this piece too long. There are TWO top-notch cinematographers, Stanley Cortez to make it beautiful, and Lee Garmes to also make it beautiful and maybe get it all shot before the war is over. (Director John Cromwell had uncredited assists from THREE colleagues, including DOS himself.) The film deserves praise for making epic scenes out of an inherently small-scale, domestic story. Compare with the lovely THIS HAPPY BREED, directed by the future Mr. Epic himself, David Lean, which keeps everything simple and understated which is also a good way to go. But it must have been kind of thrilling for Americans to see their daily struggles turned into the stuff of Hollywood super-production.

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Some good scenes — some very good scenes — some scenes which work despite being unbearably schmaltzy — and some scenes which are just unbearably schmaltzy. It all ends at Christmas, and this is the best time of year for it because you’re more likely to find the icky sentimental bits bearable. Rather than the starry and excellent cast, I’m concentrating on Jack Cosgrove’s FESTIVE GLASS SHOTS. Because what is Christmas without in-camera optical effects?

A wet Sunday in Edinburgh, that’s what.

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That upper one MIGHT be a miniature, not sure — the last shot of the film is a model, with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple projected on a tiny screen in the upper window, transforming them into dollhouse residents for the occasion.

Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Like HORSE FEATHERS, MONKEY BUSINESS has no Margaret Dumont, but it does have Thelma Todd and it is one of the Marx Bros’ best films. While even the sublime DUCK SOUP spends long minutes (about four, maybe?) setting up its insubstantial plot (“and waiting for Groucho is agony”), this one gets to the brothers after a few seconds of stuffed-shirt exposition, and then we have to wait twenty minutes for anything resembling a plot at all to show its bashful face. This makes my life hard since I have sworn to write about the Marx Bros films while avoiding mentioning the Marx Bros, and this film has precious little non-Marxian action to speak of.

Fortunately it has Zeppo, who is an honorary non-Marx Bros on account of not being funny. While most of his roles cast him as a secretary or son to Groucho (which speaks of some kind of CHINATOWNesque family relations), here he’s an equal partner as stowaway, which means we can’t have the fun of Groucho mistreating him shamefully at every turn. Indeed Groucho and Chico get on pretty well too, partners in crime rather than competitors as is often the case. Even half of the brothers being hired as bodyguards and half as hitmen doesn’t cause any internecine disagreeableness.

That’s the plot out the way, but I was going to say that this film has Zeppo’s one funny moment on screen, swearing with a completely straight face that he is Maurice Chevalier, despire all evidence to the contrary. Apart from his unobtrusive good timing with Groucho, this may be the one bit of genetic evidence we have that Zeppo wasn’t swapped at birth. Of course, Zeppo could have been a great comedian but he never had anything to work with — no schtick of his own, and no gags — so we’ll never know.

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Kudos to Davison Clark as the customs official in one of Fiona’s favourite scenes (the others all involve Thelma Todd). Clark was able to jump from Marx Bros madness (he’s a finance minister in DUCK SOUP too) to the more rarified insanity of Von Sternberg melos, signifying a flexible, tolerant spirit.

The IMDb doesn’t seem to have identified the stuntman who does the great fall on the ship’s deck, but I wonder if he’s there because he’s also doubling for Chico? I can’t believe this is really Chico. If I were Chico, I wouldn’t be Chico for this shot.

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The movie has two rival gangsters, who aren’t very interesting, and two romantic interests, or three if we count the calf Harpo befriends in the final scene.

Speaking of the climax, this guy’s terrible, I think. He knows he’s in a comedy and is playing up to it. The best Marxian stooges are able to project an air of obliviousness so powerful that, in Margaret Dumont’s case, Grouch was able to claim it as genuine.

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Ruth Hall is cute, though her extremely tight marcel wave crenellations did give Fiona eyestrain. She gets a perfunctory romance with Zeppo, which fortunately wastes little screen time. Hall married cinematographer Lee Garmes and lived to be 93, and I say good for her.

Thelma Todd — beautiful, funny, tragic — is a delight as always, and seems to be enjoying the hell out of her scenes with Groucho They both independently announce their desire to ha-cha-cha-cha, so they are evidently soul-mates. Too bad she’s not in on the climax, but as she’s married to the bad guy there’s some uncertainty about what to do with her, I think. I want her to have a happy ending. I want her to ha-cha-cha-cha.

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Drowned Out and Cut Short

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2008 by dcairns

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I wish I’d recorded Julien Duvivier’s LYDIA on a previous occasion when I had the chance — it played on the late-lamented Carlton Cinema cable channel quite a bit, I think. Instead I downloaded it and got a pretty good copy, good enough to show what a handsome, plush film it is, but with a curiously distorted soundtrack.

Basically, all the music and sound effects were way too loud. Miklos Rosza’s beautiful score, which there is a lot of (I love Miklos but he could overdo it slightly) swamped the dialogue. The FX track wasn’t able to completely smother speech, but it did become very strange when every footstep or rustle of clothing popped out at high volume, announcing how artificial it was. I couldn’t work out HOW such a version of the film had come to exist — it seems like somebody must have access to the original unmixed tracks and put them together in this peculiar way on purpose.

There was another problem — the ending. A weird jump dissolve in the middle of a shot, and then a VERY abrupt transition to the end credits a few seconds later, in which the background score gets chopped off before it can fade. Apart from it’s technical sloppiness, the conclusion seemed dramatically wrong too — we were clearly very close to an ending, but it hadn’t quite come along. “That CAN’T be the ending!” protested Fiona. But it was all the ending we were going to get. It reminded me of the stories about the truncated version of KISS ME DEADLY, which I’ve never seen, where a damaged print resulted in an ending where the house blew up prematurely and we never even knew if the supposed hero escaped with his life. And for years that was the only version in circulation, resulting in critics heaping praise upon Robert Aldrich’s courage in ending the film so harshly.

I’d love to know how this version of LYDIA came to exist, but not as much as I’d love to see an intact one. Duvivier certainly suffered from studio-imposed truncations in Hollywood — episodes of TALES OF MANHATTAN and FLESH AND FANTASY were lopped out. The W.C. Fields section of TOM has since been restored, and while it’s easy to see why Fields’ desperate physical condition appalled the studio suits, it’s a bit harder to see why his only-slightly-less-desperate p.c. in previous films apparently didn’t bother anyone. The deleted chunk of FAF got padded out to make a whole new feature, DESTINY, with such weird results that I really must write about it. But back  to LYDIA.

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The film is billed as a remake of Duvivier’s French classic CARNET DU BAL, in which a widow, Francoise Rosay, rediscovers the old dance card from her first ball, and goes in search of the men she danced with, to see how differently her life might have turned out. It’s a lovely idea, leading to an episodic structure in which the cream of 30s French acting strut their stuff in a series of brief scenarios — the weakness of which rather let the film down.

LYDIA borrows only one idea from its predecessor — the first ball is seen in flashback through Lydia’s eyes, as a glorious production number, and then revisited as it really was, a much smaller, almost tawdry affair. But while CARNET brackets the film with the two versions of the ball, LYDIA boldly disposes of the idea a couple of scenes in. When Joseph Cotten, fresh from CITIZEN KANE and in old age makeup again, invites his former competitors for Lydia’s hand to meet her once again, after she’s been honoured for her charity work (blind and crippled orphans), Lydia (Merle Oberon under an inch of Westmore latex) reminisces about the wonderful ball, filmed in slow motion —

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— and Cotten gently corrects her. All these transitions, by the way, are done by direct cutting, about twenty years before the nouvelle vague popularised it. Since apparently Cotten was cast because Orson Welles, a Duvivier fan, recommended him, possibly the unusual straight cuts across decades are influenced by similar moments in CITIZEN KANE. Duvivier does occasionally shoot from floor level, too.

By getting the misremembered ball out of the way, treating it almost as an incidental gag, Duvivier is now able to use the idea of faulty perception as a motif. Lydia’s first beau is a sportsman who impresses her with his eloquence — except he’s a big dope and his poetic soul is all her own projection. When he gets drunk and tries to be over-friendly, she misinterprets his clumsy affection for a rape attempt. Lydia’s blind pianist suitor composes a piece based around her face, as it was described to him by a child — but the description was faulty, so he has the hair and eye colour wrong. With a dashing sailor, Lydia sees undying love where there’s only the whim of the moment.

As if all this incident weren’t enough, there’s historical incident (the invasion of Cuba), music hall entertainment, imaginary landscapes —

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— and Edna May Oliver, in her final role, as Lydia’s domineering but sweet grandmother. With her booming voice and rangy form, EMO is an impressive presence, and that face! A sort of elongated hippopotamus seems to have been worked into it somewhere.

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Hard to assess how good or great the film is with this flawed copy, but the visuals are superb. Lee Garmes photographed it, and Vincent Korda designed it, and it’s frequently breathtaking. Big studio gloss, but executed with intelligence and taste. Merle Oberon has never been so good, and so animated — she seems to feed off EMO’s considerable energy, and they make a brilliant and unlikely screen pairing. One shot where EMO lopes across her lobby and the much smaller Oberon trots along behind her had a beautiful comic choreography to it. Oberon also manages the transition from stroppy teen to elderly lady, with several stages in between. Then there’s Cotten, as likeable as ever, who’s given one of the film’s most quietly devastating moments, when Oberon pays him what she thinks is a complement:

To his father, the butler, Cotten observes, “I’ve just been told I’m a gentleman.”

Dad: “So you are, my son.”

Cotten looks grim. “A gentleman is never told he’s a gentleman.”

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Also — if you can get a copy right away, do so: it’s very Christmassy.

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