Archive for Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights

The Sunday Intertitle: Backchat

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Tay Garnett, based on his terrific autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, could either be said to have led a charmed life — a long and frequently successful career, narrow escapes from death — or an unlucky one — a long and just as frequently UNsuccessful career, narrow escapes from death that left him with serious injuries. The big missed opportunity for me seems to come in the early thirties when, with HER MAN and PRESTIGE, Garnett showed himself to be visually just about the best director in town. The former film is also a very good movie, seemingly inventing a lot of the roughhouse comedy John Ford would come to specialise in.

For whatever reason, Garnett soon tamped down his photographic flamboyance, and made his best-known movies in a more anonymous style. A shame.

But all this made me very curious to see even earlier TG films. The only silent I could source was THE SPIELER, which came heavily recommended by The Chiseler’s Danny Riccuito, who praised its slangy intertitles. Here’s a fairly late silent movie whose title and concept are predicated upon speech, that of a carnival barker, played with characteristic and wearisome ebullience by Alan Hale (above). “You sure print a mean waffle,” he tells Renee Adoree. But it’s the scenes with bad-guy crook Fred Kohler (of UNDERWORLD) that get all the best slang.

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“Listen, Red — the twist caught me pinchin’ a pigskin. She aired me.”

It’s forgotten today, but this movie caused a Hollywood-wide apostrophe shortage, so informal were its intertitles.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but sadly THE SPIELER does not supply the wheeling, whooshing and arching camera moves of the Garnett pre-codes. There are a few snazzy bits, but they’re parceled out cautiously in key moments. The good crooks versus bad crooks in a crooked world approach does seem to anticipate the Warners worldview of later years, but I find all that more compelling with actual audible gab. Still, there’s a quaint thrill to be had from a prolonged closeup of Hale moving his lips rapidly, displaying the kind of verbal dexterity a movie of this era simply has to leave to the audience’s imagination.

 

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Let us never speak of this again

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2014 by dcairns

A few films have never made it into The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon because they were too desultory and depressing. Our main purpose is to celebrate overlooked films from late in the careers of great artists, which are often overlooked or disparaged because they’re out of step with the times. One likes to pass over in silence, where possible, those films which really stink like burning faeces. Who was it who said of Cukor’s JUSTINE, “to criticise it would be like tripping a dwarf”? (I often think Cukor should have filmed the Sade book instead of the Durrell. In 1932. With Joan Crawford. And tripped a dwarf in it.)

But on the other hand, there is fun to be had in the stinker, tinged though it may be by regret and embarrassment for a great cinematic mind now o’erthrown. With these emotions battling within me, I glance, mercifully briefly, at a few films I couldn’t bring myself to devote entire pieces to.

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THE DELTA FACTOR — written and directed by Tay Garnett from a novel by Mickey Spillane, produced by Spillane and featuring his latest wife in a supporting role. Garnett’s autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, is a hell of a lot of fun. At the end of a long and often distinguished career, Garnett wasn’t about to trash his more recent films, because he was still hoping for one or two more adventures in the screen trade — they never came.

This movie has all the obnoxiousness of Spillane’s writing and world view but with none of the awareness that Aldrich and Bezzerides brought to KISS ME DEADLY. Spillane hated that film, and with him holding the purse-strings one can’t expect Garnett to smuggle in a critique of masculine violence or anything like that, even if he felt inclined to do so. But did it have to be so obnoxious?

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There’s no Mike Hammer, but Christopher George plays tough guy bank robber and escape artist with a distinct air of Mitt Romney, which is unappealing to say the least. A “hero” who gloatingly threatens to rape the heroine (it’s okay, he’s only “joking”), he never inspires in the appalled spectator any of the admiration Spillane and possibly Garnett seem to feel for him. Yvette Mimieux tags along, the action scenes are low-budget uninspired, and there’s not even any of the astonishing nastiness that makes Spillane striking in print (“I shot her in the stomach and walked away. It was easy.” — “I took out my gun and blew the smile off his face.”) There is, however, a genuinely hair-raising car chase which breathes a little life into the thing. Unfortunately, it did so at the cost of nearly killing the director, and the hand-held shots taken from inside his car when it plunged off the mountainside road and through the trees is IN THE FILM. Had the adventures of Morgan ended there and the rest of the film detailed Spillane’s painful recovery from a broken cheekbone, broken ribs all down one side, a broken AND dislocated shoulder, and the loss of several teeth, it would have been more entertaining.

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Garnett bounced back — five years later he was in Alaska filming Mike Mazurki as a trapper in CHALLENGE TO BE FREE. This one sounds pretty dramatic in his book, but the result is slow icy death on-screen, thanks to a script that has no shape or sense of drama. Some of the wildlife footage is pretty extraordinary, but Mazurki, a reliable thug in decades of thrillers, is directed into an appalling performance, and so is everyone else — lots of characters nodding to themselves to telegraph to the audience that they understand what just happened. Did you ever nod to yourself? I suspect not, but if you see this one you’ll definitely be left shaking your head.

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I had long dreaded the inevitable moment when I would look at Ronald Neame’s FOREIGN BODY, whose title already suggests something very bad. Victor Bannerjee, fresh from A PASSAGE TO INDIA, cheerfully kills any vague career momentum he may have acquired by playing a penniless Indian emigrant who becomes a bogus Harley Street doctor so he can undress white women. The role was written for Peter Sellers and the screenplay was a trunk item that had lain wisely unmolested by production for at least a decade and a half. Warren Mitchell plays Bannerjee’s uncle with “My goodness gracious me” mannerisms and shoe-polished features, and Amanda Donohoe supplies the gratuitous nudity. (Oddly, she also starred in PAPER MASK, the only other British film about a fake doctor I can think of.) The whole thing is so staggeringly time-warped (and bad, to boot) that it uses a landlord’s “No coloureds” as a hilarious punchline to a scene. Break and dislocate your shoulder before you see this film.

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I can’t review Ken Russell’s THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER, his last feature-length offering (Poe seems attractive to late-period filmmakers, see also Curtis Harrington) because I could only watch five minutes of it, in the videotheque of Edinburgh Film Festival back when it was new. The festival declined to screen it but put it on in their ‘theque along with all the other British productions of 2002. It was the cheap synth music that put me off — this from a filmmaker who had filmed the lives of most of the great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and worked with the Who, Thomas Dolby, Peter Maxwell Davies, Rick Wakeman. It’s too sad.

I’d rather remember this —

My schoolfriend Robert told me that he was taken to see BAMBI as a kid. In front of the film they played trailers for SHIVERS and TOMMY. Of the two, TOMMY was the more disturbing. He didn’t go to the cinema again until he was about sixteen.

A Dunne Deal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by dcairns

In his magnificent memoir, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, the ebullient Tay Garnett’s chief complaint about his Hollywood career seems to be the number of times he had his titles swapped on him by producers. In the case of JOY OF LIVING, which started out as JOY OF LOVING, the author of the switcheroo was the Breen Office, who objected to the perceived Lubitschian lubriciousness of the original name.

It’s an odd film — torn between the travails of Irene Dunne as a Broadway star who’s working herself into the ground to support her layabout family (who include favourites Guy Kibbee and Lucille Ball), and the romance with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who inveigles his way into her life, and the movie, coming across rather like a crazed stalker (as many romantic comedy lading men did in those days). Fairbanks also disturbs by doing Donald Duck impersonations (producers RKO also distributed Disney, so Fairbanks’ vocalisations are authentic), which makes him seem disturbingly like Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER.

For the first half, we weren’t sure this film was working at all. The Jerome Kern songs aren’t remarkable. The oppressive opening, in which Dunne is persecuted by admirers as soon as she gets off-stage, has a genuinely exhausting relentlessness (and a shot of Dunne’s face-cream, ruined by discarded cigarettes during an opening night party that’s invaded her dressing room, provoked an exclamation of sympathetic pain from Fiona), but is never actually funny, even with Eric Blore as a butler. In fact, the film throws all the character comics it can at the screen, not always effectively, BUT —

Franklin Pangborn as an orchestra conductor is great value. Garnett had used FP since silent days, and in HER MAN (1931) the comic even drops his traditional “flustered homo” persona to punch someone out. Everybody has to brawl in a Garnett movie. “Who’s Tay Garnett again?” asked Fiona. “He did HER MAN and SEVEN SINNERS, with the great brawls,” I said. “I want to see Irene Dunne brawling!” exclaimed Fiona, suddenly enthused. She got her wish!

(There’s nothing inherently funny, to our modern minds, about someone slapping a woman. Oh, I know, everyone used to think it was just great. What amuses me here is pure timing, most of it la Dunne’s. That, and Irene’s unusual reaction to each slap — there’s the beautifully judged pause, then the wise and insolent look which makes the whole affair kind of surreal, and diffuses most of the potential offense.)

When Fairbanks takes Dunne out to show her a good time on two bucks, we get drunkenness, a slapping dance, and Billy Gilbert bulging his eyes fit to pop. In Common Physical Complaints of Hollywood Character Comedians, a popular medical text of the ’40s, you can read how Gilbert once went too far in a double take on COUNTY HOSPITAL and popped his eyes right out of his head. They had to be pounded back into their sockets with small mallets, a process which took several hours. “It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole played with my face,” remarked the comic, looking like a panda afterwards.*

Garnett, a former Sennett gag-man, also finds work for his stunt-man buddies by staging an elaborate roller-skate rink sequence, featuring copious contusing pratfalls from the cast and their doubles. Gratuitous stuff like this actually gets the movie up on its feet so that by the end it feels pretty nearly successful. Not a classic, just a good fun film — a drunken Dunne makes anything worth seeing, so it wouldn’t really matter if everything outside of the beer hall was images of metal corrosion shot on dental film.

*Skeptics may point out that Whac-a-mole was introduced to games arcades in 1985, and Mr Gilbert died in 1971. “How, then, could he make that analogy?” ask the skeptics. To which I say, look at the man’s body of work. He was clearly ahead of his time.