Archive for Leslie Howard

Secrets and Les

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by dcairns

SECRETS (1933), is Mary Pickford’s final film, and a remake by writer Frances Marion and director Frank Borzage of their 1924 drama of the same year, which I only realised after twenty minutes as I felt the deja vu lapping around my ankles.

Leslie Howard is male lead this time, replacing Eugene O’Brien, which helps Act 1 play as a romantic comedy (Norma Talmadge was the star of the original, which I caught in Bologna). Act 2 is a western, Act 3 is a kind of political/society drama, and then there’s a romantic comedy coda with the stars in old age make-up.

I don’t know what drove FB & FM to remake this film, since it never hung together the first time. With rapid course corrections as to tone and genre and location, and the characters aging from young (Pickford plays a teenager at forty-one without straining one’s credulity) to old (the make-up is kept shadowy but holds up well, as do the perfs), the only thing to stop this disintegrating into a bag of bits would be a thematic link, as suggested by the title. But the various story units don’t keep the idea of secrecy in play — it gets produced from nowhere right at the end to con us into thinking we’ve been watching something with connective tissue, cohesion, a reason to be one long film rather than three or four short ones.

That said, the chapters all have merit, and our protags make a sweet couple. Borzage ha become a lot more experimental since the early twenties, though he was always likely to reach for an unconventional touch from time to time, from the early days up until at least MOONRISE. Pickford talks well, and acquires, as Fiona observed, a bit of Howard’s technique — if it IS a technique — of stumbling over words and repeating them, adding naturalism to the theatrical situations. But her best moments are visual, and a tragic sequence where her baby is killed in the midst of a wild west gunfight leads to a masterclass in wordless performance, played out as bullets smash the window panes behind her, unnoticed by the grieving mother,

 

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Les’s Girls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2018 by dcairns

We’d enjoyed the documentary LESLIE HOWARD: THE MAN WHO GAVE A DAMN on Talking Pictures TV, and this led us to record THE GENTLE SEX, a propaganda film about women in WWII that Howard directed. It’s a little overextended and lacking in plot, but it has some really striking things that make one suspect that, had he lived, Howard could have made some great films.

The pattern of this one is similar to Carol Reed’s THE WAY AHEAD (aka IMMORTAL BATTALION) which did the same thing only with men, and where it differs is where it’s weaker. Rather than showing a disparate group of draftees from all walks of society being shaped into a fighting unit, putting aside their petty differences, it shows a group of volunteers being divided up into different units, performing different tasks and not really overcoming any particular difficulties. One woman is snooty and learns to get over herself, but that’s about it for character arcs. And the tasks performed are things like driving some trucks overnight, which could in theory have been rendered dramatic, but a fair bit of invention would have been required… instead, it’s just a very long sequence of driving.

The film really starts off well, though — Les himself narrates, and is glimpsed from the back as a shadowy figure looking down condescendingly at a bustling railway station, speculating on the movements of the women he sees — “They think they’re helping, I suppose, rushing about. What good can it do, for us? Well let’s swoop down [cue crane shot] and take a closer look at them.”

Les then selects a group for his camera to follow invisibly during the ensuing action. It’s fanciful, almost supernatural, and Howard seems already a kind of ghost of the war. Over the course of the film, his condescension will evaporate as he sees the brave efforts and important accomplishments of the women — HE’S the one with the character arc.

The cast is enjoyable, though most of them are given only one or two characteristics (always a risk in these ensemble pieces the Brits were addicted to) — Rosamund John is (unconvincingly) Scottish and dispenses sweeties; Joan Greenwood is small (but sexy); Barbara Waring is bitchy.

But Lilli Palmer is the whole show — a Polish refugee whose family were killed by the Nazis, she’s motivated by revenge, and has an astonishing speech when her tragic secret finally emerges after much teasing by the script. The scene plays out in the baggage car of an overcrowded train where the women have been forced to camp, and the cattle-car vibe adds a resonance that nobody at the time could have intended.

Even stronger is her reaction when she sees her comrades shoot down an enemy plane. Fiona was wide-eyed at this bit of performance —

           

There’s excitement — anxiety (that the plane might escape) — then a kind of orgasmic ecstasy — a tenderness like she’s looking at a lover — triumph — this is all pretty unsettling, better dissolve to another scene…

Extraordinary. The script is by multiple hands, two men and three women, and something must have been indicated on the page. But kudos to Palmer for coming up with such an extraordinary detailed range of unexpected reactions, and to Howard for recognizing what he had and privileging it in the edit.

 

Humphrey Bogart had horns, apparently

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2018 by dcairns

The same evening that we watched CHRISTOPHER STRONG, in which Katherine Hepburn wears silver moth antennae, we watched THE PETRIFIED FOREST, in which Humphrey Bogart has horns. He totally has horns.

This was Bogie’s breakthrough, or one of them. It got him showy heavy roles. MALTESE FALCON moved him up to leading man roles in A-pictures. And he got to stop being showy, and just be Bogie. (Jeap-Pierre Melville claimed that Fred MacMurray invented underplaying, and that Bogie didn’t underplay until after DOUBLE INDEMNITY. I wonder.)

Now, I don’t know if Bogie had his horns filed short for other roles, like Hellboy, or he kept them long and Warners had them removed using the 1930s equivalent of photoshop (basically a sweat shop full of girls with paintbrushes, ruled over by a whip-wielding Hugh Herbert). I leave that for the likes of Rudy Behlmer to determine.

The horns are, arguably, a silly idea, but there’s other business, like a radio announcement in one scene starting to describe a car, followed by a series of hard cut to the bits of the car being detailed, leading out to wide shot showing that car in the desert, broken down but with the radio still describing it. That stuff is smart. Delmer Daves contributed to the script (from RC Sherwood’s play), so…

The Painted Desert

It’s taken me a VERY long time to get around to this film. I had heard of it as stagey and unconvincing in its set design. It IS remarkable how the same studio could make HEAT LIGHTNING, which has basically the same single location, a desert auto camp, and make of it a striking blend of reality and artifice that basically convinces, and then make this a few years later, with its weird, slanting cycloramas that feel close enough for Bette Davis to kick a heel through. As for the staginess, a hostage scenario creates a built-in dramatic tension that can basically let the writers get away with almost anything, so it’s not like it’s ever dull, and even in the long build-up, the whole setting is such a prison, there’s still tension before anything has happened. What makes it feel overly theatrical is the tendency to push character at the expense of situation, having characters reveal themselves in ways they wouldn’t, and eventually playing a love scene during a shoot-out.

Bette is miscast, I fear. You certainly believe she doesn’t belong in this desolate environment (“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” as the Waco Kid once inquired) but you don’t see how she ever got there and there’s no trace of the naive hick about her. She has to be able to call Villon’s poetry “swell” and sound like she really does appreciate it BUT doesn’t understand that “swell” is a gauche word to use in the circumstances. With Bette, that moment is just kind of surreal. Still, though I can think of other Warners starlets who might have embodied the character more aptly (Ann Sheridan?) I can’t think of any with more star wattage (or oomph, if you will).

Leslie Howard is great. Kind of hated where the character was headed, but he made it electric. I guess we’re in the same phase of inter-war fatalism that gave us French poetic realism. It’s a beautiful, dreamy, melancholic mood, but probably the worst possible mood to have with fascism on the rise. KEY LARGO would have been a more switched-on version of this story to make in such a climate.

And then there’s the great meeting between two contrasting black characters, a moment that allows this film to pass whatever the African-American Bechdel test is. The stick-up man, Slim (Slim Thompson) greets the chauffeur, Joseph (John Alexander) with a jaunty “Hello, colored brother!” and gets a stiff “Good evening!” in reply, which makes his head go back about a foot in surprise. An amazing moment, built on in subsequent interactions. There’s the fact that these two black men ARE contrasting. And while the gangster expects them to have something in common, the driver knows he has NOTHING in common with this crook, and is positively alarmed by the other’s bonhomie, as if he were being cheerfully hailed by a rattlesnake or a hand grenade. And Slim looks at Joseph like he’s just plain from another planet. Warner Brothers’ progressive tendency could fire off in all kinds of directions…