Archive for Leon Shamroy

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?


Annie Laurie, Slight Reprise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by dcairns


One night after being wowed by WILD RIVER, we sat down to A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Elia Kazan’s first feature. Ironically, the blue and golden light of the 1960 movie had caused me to erroneously deduce it to be photographed by Leon Shamroy, whereas ATGIB really IS shot by Shamroy, and by Kazan’s own account, the visual direction of the film is largely Shamroy’s — Kazan wasn’t technically confident at all, and so was encouraged to direct it like a play, with Shamroy figuring out how to cover it. The performances are superb, but I also wanted to compliment Kazan’s visuals, but I guess they’re Shamroy’s. (Lyle R. Wheeler’s production design is also remarkable — always a bit weird seeing huge Hollywood resources targeted at recreating poverty, and Kazan himself felt he failed to capture the real quality of slum life, which he knew well — the sets impart an epic scope which mitigates against the movie becoming depressing.)

Kazan confesses to manipulating tears from his young star, Peggy Ann Garner by discussing her father, who was in the air force, and subtly implying that he might never come back from the war. Later, when the scene required her to mourn her character’s dad, he just needed to reconnect her to that emotion, and it was unleashed. Then his producer ordered him to reshoot it because it was too raw, too mushy — filming her with her back to the camera resulted in a more discrete and affecting emotion. It’s very frequently true that the audience won’t engage with shocking displays of raw emotion — too much of the work is done for us and we can’t find space for our own reaction. I must say, my face was soaking by the end of this movie. It’s a movie with a free wash thrown in.

Kazan’s secret weapon is James Dunn as the drunken father, whose rendition of “Annie Laurie” was the only scene in the movie I knew. Kazan’s assistant Nick Ray, a lifelong alcoholic himself, spoke with immense admiration of the director’s patience in coaxing that performance out of a vulnerable man. Kazan chose Dunn because he WAS the character: once a promising star, his career had been wrecked by booze. The disappointment and sense of personal failure were written in his face. Rather cruelly, Kazan was making Dunn play himself, and making him confront his own inadequacies, but he also got from him his one really effective performance, and immortalized him.


Most people seeing this film have never seen Dunn in anything else, but because I love pre-codes I’d seen him in SAILOR’S LUCK, THE GIRL IN 419 and TAKE A CHANCE. My impression was always one of desperation, eagerness to please that shades into mania, anxiety trying to look like charm, flop sweat personified. All those qualities can now be acknowledged and used, which allows the actor’s real charm to emerge around the edges.

Also nice — Joan Blondell, of course, a pre-code performer who was always utterly relaxed and natural, Dorothy McGuire excellent in a challenging part, the underrated Lloyd Nolan… and it’s always nice when James Gleason drops the why-I-oughta schtick (which he was so good at) and plays a human being (see also NIGHT OF THE HUNTER).


“They should stop making films,” I said to Fiona afterwards, drying my soggy face. “After this, it’s all just noise.” I suppose I’ll get over that feeling — I have to, I’m making a film of my own — but when a film is this powerful, it puts a lot of stuff in the shade. Through a mix of blind ego and ignorance I’m able to make my little films and not worry about comparisons with the greats, most of the time, but once in a while I see something and think, “Well, I can’t even hope to touch that…”

A River Runs Over It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 19, 2015 by dcairns


Elia Kazan’s WILD RIVER  (1960)begins with a snippet of documentary so shockingly raw — a man describing how he lost all his children in a flood of the Tennessee River — that it seems indecent to tie it to a fictional drama, no matter how much time has passed between the original event and the movie’s date of production (certainly more than twenty years). But if we can forgive the ruthlessness, an important dramatic purpose is served — in the ensuing story, we might be inclined to favour the romantic, stubborn individualism standing in the face of “progress” — this moment hopefully makes its mark and reminds us that the dam which Montgomery Clift has come to clear the way for serves a vital human purpose.



In his path is Jo Van Fleet (forty-five playing maybe eighty, and damned convincing — a good face, excellent, well-observed makeup, and a brilliant performance making particularly effective use of posture), who owns an island in the river which is due to be flooded. She’s lived there all her life and has no intention of moving. Kazan discovered, in making the picture, that despite his (shaky) liberal side, he had more sympathy with her than with Clift’s New Deal progressive, but the film he made strikes a perfect balance — between the two sides, and between the love story/human interest and the wider concerns.

Clift is also very good here, the best post-accident work I’ve seen from him, asides from JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, which seems to use his disintegration rather than concealing it. And Lee Remick is astonishingly sexy — also a brilliant performance — the sexiness is part of that. “I’ve never found Clift sexy before, but he is here — why is that?” asked Fiona. “Reflected desire?” I suggested. She formed a question mark with her eyes (a neat trick). “She wants him so bad, so obviously, that it makes him seem desirable to you,” I suggested. The actor’s homosexuality is no obstacle — as Nick Ray said, “It doesn’t matter if an actor is heterosexual or homosexual, as long as they’re sexual.” Whatever sense memories Clift may be deploying to make us believe he craves Remick, they totally work.


Everybody — even Scorsese, to an extent — focuses on Kazan’s work with actors, which is of course key, and remarkable, but I feel his visual panache is underappreciated. EAST OF EDEN has that expressionistic intensity, of course. This one manages to make autumn lush. Ellsworth Frederick’s Deluxe Color Cinemascope photography reminded me of Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) in its rich use of complimentary colours, notably orange and blue light for night and dusk scenes. Some of the scenic stuff, particularly the miniaturized version of the island when the river rises, are stunning not only as compositions but for their emotional impact in the story. Kazan seems sometimes to follow Welles’ principle — cut your most beautiful shots down until they flash by almost subliminally. The sense of visual richness this gives is tremendously impressive to the onlooker.



After watching the film with Fiona, I realized my Spanish DVD was the wrong ratio, so I’ve now obtained a proper widescreen copy to run for my students — partly as an excuse for me to see it again.