Archive for Leon Shamroy

Heaven at Either End

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona declares these to be cinema’s best sunglasses.

Thursday’s other screenings:

The one film in the John Stahl series we didn’t see was WHEN TOMORROW COMES, which has a cast of our favourite people… we’ll see it post-Bologna and report back.

The Marcello Pagliero season passed me by, except that I wasn’t about to miss LES AMANTS DE BRASMORTS since it was billed as a misty, melancholic drama about the lives of barge workers. It’s my view that you can’t make a bad film on a barge. You may not do it. This one was very fine, apart from a slightly confused happy ending. Barge movies, like films noir, are generally stronger when they turn out bleakly, though even when they don’t, they sort of do, because your lovers’ reconciliation is, after all, being staged on a fucking barge.

Friday started at the more civilized hour of 9.30 am with the stone-cold masterpiece that is LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, screened in a vintage (sixties) Technicolor print. In sert the words lustrous, lambent and amber into the following paragraph at random. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography didn’t look as intensely-coloured here as it has on home viewings, but the size, the audience response and the atmosphere added to the movie’s power.

That movie filled our whole morning, meaning, for example, that we couldn’t see Boorman’s LEO THE LAST, which also a very beautiful show, with the richest assortment of browns I’ve ever seen. I bet the big-screen experience would have been wonderful, even if the movie itself has problems. It shows why Marcello Mastroianni was never a big star in English-language films.

Then we bumped into Angela Allen, John Huston’s favourite continuity girl, and had lunch with her, where she was fabulously indiscreet. I’d first inveigled my way into her confidence last year, and was thrilled to meet her again. But I won’t dish the dirt. Angela was planning on seeing LIGHTS OUT OF EUROPE, newly restored by MOMA, a 1940 documentary by Herbert Klein, partially shot by a young photographer named Douglas Slocombe. Alas, Slocombe passed away at 104 before he could see this magnificent restoration of his first movie.

We’d been thinking of seeing Rene Clair’s LES DEUX TIMIDES, which has been very well received, but we switched to the Klein film to hang out with Angela, and couldn’t regret it. Extraordinary footage, gather by Slocombe in hazardous conditions — he’d gone to Danzig in 1939 to film conditions, and was there when the Nazis invaded, getting out by the skin of his teeth. Had he not done so, somebody else would have had to shoot IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, THE SERVANT, THE MUSIC LOVERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

The movie screened with Joris Ivens’ LA SEINE A RECONTRE PARIS, scripted by Prevert. I now have to see everything Ivens ever made. I was impressed, let’s say.

Then we saw Bette Davis’ assistant giving an interview and plugging her new book, which we’re told Bette commanded her to write. Well, better write it then. What took you so long? One wouldn’t want Bette’s shade performing a vengeful haunting, would one? Well, maybe just a little.

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Fiona ran out of juice at this point and hit the hay, or what passes for hay at our modest pensione. I went on to Buster Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and GO WEST, with music from Neil Brand (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion, slide whistle et al). While the day’s final show was highly emotional and had a magnificent score, it was this screening that brought a tear to my eye. There’s a lot of discussion about whether GO WEST is chaplinesque sentiment or a parody thereof. I think it’s something different from either — Keaton invites you to laugh sympathetically at his character’s misfortunes, and the whole first act is misfortunes. It’s closer to what Harold Lloyd does with THE FRESHMAN. He doesn’t stop the comedy in order to aim for tears, as Chaplin will (with lightning-fast transitions of tone). When Keaton, bilked of everything he owns, sits down next to a dog, and tentatively pats its head, and the dog turns tail and walks off, we’re meant to laugh, not cry.

The emotional whammy, which had never happened to me on previous screenings, came when Keaton finally makes a friend, Brown Eyes the cow. By playing this moment TRIUMPHANTLY, Brand and Bockius unleashed all the sorrow of the previous scenes which Keaton had suppressed. It took me by surprise, which is always a good way to disarm. I blinked away a manly tear, stinging with sun-block.

Then I was off to the Teatro Communale — pictured — Bologna’s epic opera house — for SEVENTH HEAVEN, likely to remain the highlight of this fest. A great silent movie in a new, Foxphorescent restoration and an orchestra playing Timothy Brock’s new score and a spectacular setting and the company of Meredith Brody and Gary Meyer are a hard combination to beat. I hope to say more about this experience, but right now words fail me, as they must always do when the subject is a Frank Borzage masterpiece.

 

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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

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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.

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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).

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“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…”