Archive for Lionel Bart

Crossing the River

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2021 by dcairns

I’m not 100% but it’s entirely possible that the references to “crossing the river” in THE OPTIMISTS (OF NINE ELMS, 1973) take in Egyptian mythology about the journey to the land of the dead. At any rate, it’s a deliberately death-haunted film, with Peter Sellers in old-age makeup as an impoverished music hall entertainer befriended by a couple of scrappy kids.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons had been planning the film, based on his novel, for years — Buster Keaton was pencilled in originally. I found myself wondering how heartbreaking the film would have been with Stan Laurel — a near-impossibility, of course. Sellers is perhaps too theatrical to really move you. Here he’s walking around in a Loachian realist environment, in a Stuart Freeborn false nose and teeth (the teeth have a very subtle effect, the nose sticks out) and special hump-soled shoes to give him a rolling walk.

The film has some stupendous credits — George Martin scoring, Lionel Bart songwriting, though Sellers also plays some authentic old numbers his father taught him. His father also taught George Formby, and there’s a Formby standard in there — I bet nobody cleared the rights. G. Martin’s film scoring career was intermittent, but he seems to have plunged in wholeheartedly around this time, doing PULP and LIVE AND LET DIE close to it.

This was viewed in our weekly watch party. Regular participant Donald Wisely wisely said, “Really liked the shot early in the film of the helicopter hovering over the Thames. It looked a vision of the London that was coming, where it was all finance and property, but no actual productive industry. As a piece of understated social commentary, and possible prophetic vision of, the decline of Britain this film deserves to be better known.”

The kids are great, though their naturalism tends to point up Sellers’ schtickiness. But I guess he’s playing Old Sam as a man immersed in his old routines as a shield against bitter reality.

The film is about death, though Sam is still going at the end. Only the dog dies. But at one point we cut from Sellers standing in the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery — a true thing I never knew existed — to the Dorchester Hotel, where he would have a massive fatal heart attack, alone, seven years later.

I first became convinced that Simmons knew what he was doing when the kids are playing in Thameside landfill and the little boy disappears from view. As his sister looks about frantically, every POV shot features some piece of crumbled, crushed debris that looks, for an instant, as if it could be a small boy’s body. Terrifying.

Fiona’s re-reading The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis, so I picked it up and read the OPTIMISTS stuff, but of course I also turned to page seventeen. There, Lewis speculates on Sellers meeting his stand-in (or doppelganger) just before his fatal heart attack, and also mentions that Sellers had just visited Roger Moore on the set of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. He notes the eerie coincidence of the film’s director, Basil “room for one more inside”, Dearden perishing in a car crash at just the same stretch of motorway where Moore’s character is killed (maybe twice). He fails to note that Moore himself was a Sellers doppelganger, even though his actual doppelganging hadn’t happened yet: in CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, Moore, using the pseudonym Turk Thrust, plays a reincarnated, plastically-surgeoned Inspector Clouseau.

We might pass the future scene of our own deaths a thousand times without knowing it, or shake hands with our fatal double.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Twist in the Tale

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d never seen the 1922 OLIVER TWIST, directed by Glasgow’s own Frank Lloyd (why don’t we do a retrospective on his amazing career, which includes MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY?) despite owning it in T-shirt form. It’s billed as an “all-star” version, but Time has anonymized the cast to the point where only Jackie Coogan as Oliver, Lon Chaney as Fagin, and, rather dimly, Esther Ralston as Rose have any vestigial fame left. Ralston should have chosen to play Nancy if she was looking to be memorable, but she had a good-girl image to protect (she protested when Dorothy Arzner tried to sex her up in undies) — Gladys Brockwell is rather good in the role, with her strong features, aspiring to the condition of a symbolist painting.

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Audiences today are likely to come for Chaney’s sake, and he rewards with a fascinating makeup and physical performance. This is Fagin as grotesque, with the more sympathetic aspects added by Lionel Bart and Ron Moody in the musical quite some way off, but it’s not the icky ethnic stereotype of Alec Guinness either — Chaney avoids the crude beak effect, extending his nose DOWN towards his lips rather than hooking it. The straggly beard adds character, and he essays a marvelous hunch, just by stooping — no vast plaster hump required here. Despite his simpering villainy, the last shot of Fagin in prison still inspires pathos.

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Good though Chaney is, the miracle of Jackie Coogan still holds the film together. Still hanging onto his infant cutes, Coogan delights with Chaplinesque business which makes Oliver far pluckier and scrappier than any other rendition of the character. In a sound film, Coogan’s accent would have killed it, but he has an edge over most filmed versions prior to the Polanski. For some reason, despite being raised in a workhouse, Oliver is always played posh. As if his mother being a respectable woman means that young Ollie would be genetically superior and would be born speaking like a BBC presenter. John Howard Davies and the eerie Mark Lester both cemented this idea so firmly that when we imagine the phrase “Please sir, I want some more,” most of us probably still hear it in a plummy soprano.

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Coogan’s pantomime performance includes great details like Oliver swiping finger-smudges of gruel off the ladle even as he’s being lambasted for his temerity in requesting seconds. Details like this make the character a feisty hero, not a passive victim, and make us care MORE, even if he suffers less than most of his successors in the role.