Archive for Louis Calhern

The McCarthy Era

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2018 by dcairns

Frank Tuttle directed 1939’s CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE. I don’t know what they had on him to make him do it, but it must have been damning.

Charlie McCarthy plays himself in the title role. I’m not sure how he ever became a star. Plenty of movie stars are short, of course, and plenty are not classically handsome. Plenty more, these days, have rigid, immobile features, thanks to Botox. But McCarthy is tiny, knee-high to his co-star Edgar Bergen, and apart from his flapping jaw his face doesn’t seem to move at all. Added to these disabilities, either of which might be expected to disqualify him from motion picture prominence, he seems to be totally disabled from the neck down. His co-star literally carries him through every scene. I suppose it’s commendable that Universal were willing to overlook the actor’s physical problems, but he also has a really obnoxious personality, so I’m not sure why they thought it was worth it.

McCarthy, left, with his supporting actor.

Bergen isn’t so great either. When McCarthy speaks, Bergen seems to move his lips slightly in rhythm with his lines, as if he’s learned the whole script and is waiting for his own lines to commence. (You can see Emma Watson do this in the last scene of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, but at least she has the excuse of being a little kid.)

Bergen and McCarthy never made any films on their own. They were truly an inseparable team. I don’t know anything about their offscreen relationship, but there’s something I noticed in this movie… I hardly like to point it out. I feel like it’s bound to upset someone. But, in several of the wide shots of the two actors, it’s painfully obvious that as Bergen carries his diminutive partner about, his hand is vanishing up the seat of McCarthy’s trousers. It’s really impossible to miss. I can’t imagine how they got this past the censor, or why they did it in the first place. I mean, in private, sure, we’ve all done it. But on a movie set? When it’s NOT essential to the plot? I mean, none of the other characters in the scene respond to this startling behaviour in any way, just as they politely overlook McCarthy’s inhuman tininess and terrifying, corpse-like, unmoving features.

Charlie auditions for the role of Mr. Scratch, which he failed to play two years later.

I think perhaps Tuttle intended the film as a Bunuelian satire on the mores of the wealthy. The upper-class characters among whom McCarthy operates, in their swank night clubs and country manor, are shown as so absurdly polite and civilised that they react not in the slightest to the grotesque sight of this shrunken paralysed homunculus, face fixed in a hideous rictus, being carried aloft with another man’s fist crammed into his tiny anal compartment. They smile and nod and show their impeccable manners and their utter separation from reality. Viewed this way, CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE is a powerful condemnation indeed.

Also starring the Butcher of Strasbourg and the Walking Fontanelle.

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I Have Questions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 9, 2018 by dcairns

    

    

 

      

        

                                

     


    

 

For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by dcairns

THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI is a very odd affair. It’s a Gregory La Cava pre-code, or thereabouts (1934, so on the cusp). The opening titles give us the sense it’s going to be a rip-roaring historical melodrama, but it’s much stranger than that — it’s a broad farce whose main jokes are about torture, murder and mutilation or the threat thereof. It stars two actors who worked well for La Cava in more conducive material, arch-ditherer Frank Morgan (THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH) and Constance Bennett (BED OF ROSES) plus a third, Fredric March, who one doesn’t associate with this sort of material at all. Wait, WHAT sort of material? The murder, torture and mutilation farce genre?

It’s a Fox picture, under Zanuck, and it makes sense to consider it as a similar kind of thing to that indefensible, stomach-turning “romp” THE BOWERY, only projected further back into the past. Portraying terrible historical events “light-heartedly” — with no moral attitude whatsoever, no matter how ghastly things get. As when Morgan, wooing artist’s model Fay Wray, tells her not to worry about the servants overhearing as he’s had them all deafened so he can enjoy privacy and service at the same time.

La Cava certainly had a dark sense of humour and willingness to disquieten his audience — the horrible ending of THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH proves that (Lee Tracy slowly makes a fist at a terrified Lupe Velez as the Wedding March plays us out). But Zanuck may be more relevant here, his output at Warners having shown a similarly carnivalesque attitude to social horrors. We can attribute the rambunctious tone of THE BOWERY to director Raoul Walsh (“Walsh’s idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse”) but Zanuck oversaw that one too (and Fay Wray was in both, come to think of it).

Jessie Ralph (DOUBLE WEDDING) plays Wray’s mother, mocked for having whiskers. Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern looks suave and saturnine in whiskers of his own. The only sense of the Code coming into effect, amid all the talk of men having hot eggs placed in their armpits, is that nobody ever actually gets laid, not even during the darkened lull betwixt fade-out and fade-in: March and Morgan both chase Wray, Bennett chases March, nobody is sympathetic and there’s no reason to care. But Morgan gets laughs just by breaking off his sentences, and it’s amusing to see Fay play dumb (and brunette!).

Also: ugly at heart, it’s bee-yoo-tee-ful on the surface.