Archive for Lew Ayres

In the playroom

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by dcairns

So, we saw, and were very entertained by a film in which a young man meets his girlfriend’s wealthy family at their home. They include an authoritative dad and a drunken son. Something isn’t right. He starts to suspect he’s fallen into a terrible trap…

But I’m not talking about GET OUT, which we also enjoyed very much. Today’s topic is HOLIDAY, which I can’t believe I haven’t seen before, and which has now shot up to the top of my George Cukor list. What was there before? I’m not even sure. The problem with me, when you come right down to it, is that I probably didn’t have a George Cukor list at all.

This one is classed as a screwball comedy — while I realise that nothing is more boring or pointless than arguing about genre definitions. Screwball, apart from being quintessentially American and essentially mid-thirties to mid-forties, is really more like a collection of desirable items than a readily-defined genre. If you have enough of the items, as we do here (eccentric heiress, class barriers overcome, playful/childish behaviour asserted as a right) then it ought to qualify. But there’s also the indefinable, personal quality of what it feels like. And in a sense I felt the anxiety of the pressure to conform in HOLIDAY more strongly and consistently than I felt the joy of letting go. In a sense, the joy is intensified by the pressures around it, but the forces that are at work to make Cary Grant into a highly-paid wage slave and trophy husband are always on our minds.

Cary Grant gets to show off his expertise in tumbling with a series of spectacular back-flips. Katherine Hepburn is more vulnerable than usual, and makes it work. Lew Ayres is, my God, TERRIFIC — the heart and soul of the film, in a way. If the movie isn’t as well-known as the Hepburn-Cukor PHILADELPHIA STORY, also from a play by Philip Barry, it may because Ayres complicates it, makes it less than totally joyous. He’s a casualty of the household Hepburn and Grant have to escape, and we don’t really believe he’s ever going to be alright. So the happy ending, which is inevitable, is surprisingly compromised, undermined — elated, but with a scintilla of unease.

This movie makes me curious to see the 1930 original — it was an indecently-soon remake. Edward Everett Horton plays the same role in both versions (he’s marvelously understated, by his eccentric standards). I’m also curious about another Barry adaptation, the pro-Soviet SPRING MADNESS, with Ayres again, directed by my recent discovery S. Sylvan Simon. TCM is airing that one soon if American readers are curious.

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-1569350

I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

ladyandthemonstera

Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h10m25s182

 

Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h07m35s29

Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h02m56s59

Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

 

Punchy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2011 by dcairns

Being a big Tod Browning fan, when I was invited to jump in on the Jean Harlow Blogathon hosted by The Kitty Packard Pictorial, my thoughts turned to IRON MAN, a pretty much despised MGM boxing melodrama which pairs La Harlow with Lew Ayres. He’s a boxer, she’s his no-good gal. Robert Armstrong is the kid’s manager.

People, this film is kind of a zombie. I’m generally iffy about MGM flicks unless they’re properly splashy, which this ain’t, apart from Jean’s spectacular furs and gowns, proof of her shameless leaching of Ayres’ winnings. Browning had just come off DRACULA, and was about to make FREAKS (unless IMDb chronology is off — it’d make sense if this were his punishment for the latter film), but while this movie has some of the stilted awkwardness of both — dead pauses, flat delivery, static, airless shots — it doesn’t have the bizarre elements that alchemise that lead into weirdo gold. (Correction — it seems that, as the saying goes, “It’s a Universal Picture.”) Browning could have worked wonders with a boxing story, since it relates to his love of cheap, grotesque showbiz, sadism and exploitation, but this one isn’t it. It plays pretty much like the Wallace Beery wrestling picture Barton Fink is expected to write: generic and soulless. Even Robert Armstrong, who at least was a dynamic (read: shouty) performer, is slowed down to moderately loud drone. Browning did like his talk pretty ssslllooowwww (but his last movie, MIRACLES FOR SALE, is unexpectedly zippy), but here the sheer lack of interest in the situations seems to seep through everything and everyone.

But those furs are pretty impressive.

After grooving to THE WHITE TIGER, which restored my faith in Browning’s abilities with both dramatic tension and performances, I swiftly gathered up another obscure Harlow ~

Remarkable how Oliver Hardy can express frustration/desperation by raising and lowering his hat with both hands — a bizarre gesture, but completely transparent to the viewer.

BACON GRABBERS is one of two Laurel & Hardy shorts Jean breezed through on her rise to fame. Later, in BEAU HUNKS, there would be an excellent gag about everybody in the foreign legion being there to forget a woman, and they all carry a photograph of her: it’s Jean, of course.

Despite buying the mighty L&H box set when it was on sale, and being pleased as punch about it, I’d never watched BACON GRABBERS, a 1929 silent where Harlow appears very briefly as heavy Edgar Kennedy’s wife. The short sees the boys on the right side of the law for once, as repo men trying to reclaim a radio from Kennedy. Said radio gets smashed by a steamroller, needless to say. Kennedy, having already given it up, is amused, until his wife appears to tell him she’s just paid for the thing.

Fiona: “I was always fascinated by those blasted sub-urban landscapes in Laurel & Hardy. When I saw them as a kid, I thought, ‘That looks like a terrible place!'”

Although L&H are maybe unique for actually getting funnier when sound came in — wait, no, W.C. Fields virtually becomes funny with sound — their later silents are pretty close in quality to the better-known talkies. This one has a classic “failing to leave the room” sequence where Stan keeps forgetting his hat, or the list of instructions, or both, and a fairly early example of tit-for-tat violence and destruction. Plus a very funny, ridiculous bit with Stan up a ladder which is caught in Ollie’s trousers and wagging violently about, while Kennedy throws things at Stan from an upper window.

A guy like Kennedy, married to a gal like Harlow, ought to look happier than THAT.

In her tiny appearance, Jean doesn’t have to act much beyond looking happy, and the weather seems to have buffeted her about so her hair is in her face and the sun is in her eyes. She’s swaddled in huge furs again, so we can barely see her. How’s a girl going to get her talent spotted in these circumstances?