Archive for Lucky Partners

Ronald Colman, Smut Peddlar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Ginger Roger and Ronald Colman enjoy a bit of chaste phone sex.

LUCKY PARTNERS, one of Lewis Milestone’s comedies, strikes me as seriously underrated. The IMDb reviews seem sniffy, so even the classic movie crowd seemingly haven’t warmed to this one. And Milestone isn’t particularly thought of as a director with a light touch, probably because his best known films are very heavy indeed — ALL QUIET, RAIN, MARTHA IVERS, MICE & MEN — they’re not exactly laugh-a-minute material.

But in fact there’s a strong thread of comedy running throughout the man’s career, which ended (ignoring a few TV shows) with OCEAN’S 11, which is basically a romp, and includes comic work in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. These movies are less familiar and acclaimed, and maybe they’re more minor — or maybe just more modest. NO MINOR VICES doesn’t come on like it wants to change the world, THE FRONT PAGE is overshadowed by Hawks’ superior remake, and it’s hard to assess his uncredited contribution to Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER, the one renowned classic comedy on his CV, because it seems to have been directed by anybody who chanced by — but I might guess at the spectacular crane shot where Harold climbs a tree to indefinitely prolong his farewell to the girl (his increased elevation makes the horizon recede so she stays in view longer) or the dark, horror-noir chase on the boat could betray his elegant and dynamic touch.

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In LUCKY PARTNERS, Ginger Rogers (perhaps America’s best ever actress) works in a bookshop in Greenwich Village with her ditzy aunt Spring Byington (yay!) and is planning to marry prize schnook Jack Carson when the impossibly romantic Ronald Colman walks into her life. With screwball comedy plotting so archetypal as to be almost unacceptable, he wishes her good luck at random and she immediately gets good luck. So she has the idea that they should buy a sweepstake ticket together, since he’s lucky for her. Colman, an eccentric artist, agrees on condition that if they should win, he ought to take her on a cross-country trip, which he calls a honeymoon, before her marriage to Carson. Ginger is outraged at this lewd suggestion and immediately enlists Carson to beat up the bad man.

What follows is a brilliant scene of nonsense comic suspense. played to the hilt by Milestone, his actors, and his editor ~

Of course, a scene like that can only end in comic anti-climax, and as you can see, it does.

Milestone repeats himself, first as tragedy, then as farce. For you see, this is a reworking of the shooting-the-dog scene in his big classic OF MICE AND MEN, made just a couple years earlier. Nobody who has seen that movie can have forgotten, surely, the way Milestone draws out the drama as the boys in the bunkhouse for the sound of Ralph Morgan’s Roman Bohnen’s old, sick dog being shot. The exact same technique is employed here for an almost opposite emotion.

I got very interested to know who Milestone’s editor was here. I thought I detected a faint RKO house style, uniting the Robert Wise of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, CITIZEN KANE and CAT PEOPLE with the exquisite cutting on George Stevens’ films at the same time and studio. In fact, Henry Berman was the brother of studio boss Pandro S. Berman and he *did* cut several of those Stevens pictures, with their very musical rhythms (and not just the musicals). He also did a lot of TV and — get this! — he cut John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. That knowledge makes me giddy!

Anyhow, Ginger and Ronald do go on their trip, and it becomes clear that we’re in the quasi-fantasy world of John Van Druten, who wrote BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (Milestone, Van Druten and Colman also got together on MY LIFE WITH CAROLINE, which I found a lot less appealing, perhaps because Anna Lee is no Ginger Rogers — but it does have a great comedy butler, played by Hugh O’Connell). There are no witches in this one, but there’s a kind of enchanted bridge, coming from left field and leading to Wonderland.

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And there’s also an eleventh-hour plot twist relating to Colman’s mysterious backstory, and here I’m afraid my title is something of a spoiler. Colman is a disenchanted artist with a criminal record, but we don’t find out the facts until a comic trial at the end (Harry Davenport as one of those flustered justices screwballs abound in). It’s quite an eye-opener. Colman painted a series of illustrations of a mythological or folkloric nature for a book on myth, and they were deemed indecent and he was briefly jailed. This all comes out in a testimony by Ginger, who tells us that the book is now studied in universities and considered perfectly respectable. It’s quite exciting to see her impassioned defense of Ronald’s dirty doodles. For although the words of the dialogue are stressing the essential wholesome, healthy nature of Colman’s smutty daubings, we all know that even in the ‘forties an artist couldn’t be jailed merely for doing nudes. We have to imagine Aubrey Beardsley style fauns running about with massive hard-ons. And so the meaning of the scene is that Ginger Rogers is all in favour of massive hard-ons. Which we’ve always suspected anyway — one only has to look at her — and it’s one of the reasons we love her so (along with her being America’s greatest actress). A girl with a healthy appetite for the good things in life.

Lewis Milestone Week *ought* to end today — but I have more! Gimme a few more days.

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Millie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Paramount star George Raft visits Lewis Milestone and “General Pappy” on the set of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which GP has a featured role, though not the title part.

What this is, is a kind of biography-critical overview, to be expanded upon in a further piece on Milestone’s war pictures. Where I’ve written about a film more extensively in the past, I link through to it.

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Lewis Milestone was a pretty funny guy. There’s the famous exchange of telegrams when he was filming THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA on location on a real ship in bad weather with a cast including John Gilbert and some other serious drinkers. “HURRY UP THE COST IS STAGGERING” wired the producer. “SO IS THE CAST” replied Milestone.

Earlier, on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, “Millie” replied to a request by studio boss Carl Laemmle (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”) to provide the film with a happy ending by offering to let the Germans win the war.

Late in his career, Milestone adventurously went into television, “to see how it works.” His verdict: “Slavery.”

I’m not actually sure that one is a joke.

He was born Lev Milstein in Russia. While in away in high school, he received money for his father for a Christmas trip home, and instead used it to go to America. He had an aunt in New York. When she was unable to help him, he wrote to his father optimistically asking for more money. The reply: “You are in the land of opportunity–use your own judgement.”

Milestone did odd jobs and enlisted in WWI, where his duties included gathering and photographing severed body parts. He also shared a unit with Frank Tuttle and Josef Von Sternberg.

Entering the movie business, he swept floors for Sennett and Ince and became an assistant editor, editor and assistant director to William Seiter. Seiter preferred playing golf to directing so Milestone had ample opportunity to study his craft.

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The ‘twenties: one important job was cutting WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS in 1923, the first major Rin Tin Tin movie. Huge amounts of location and dog footage was pouring in, from two units who were working from different scenarios. Milestone screened all the material for weeks and eventually cut the film like a documentary, building a story from the footage rather than fitting the shots into a story. The film was tested and went through the roof. All three Warner Bros congratulated Milestone for saving their investment. But when Lee Duncan, the dog trainer, was seen shaking hands with most of the audience as they left, they asked him what was up. “Well, this is my home town, so naturally a lot of these people know me.”

The film was re-tested further afield — and was an even bigger success.

After a row with Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off FINE MANNERS and began work on THE KID BROTHER for his friend Harold Lloyd, but Warner Bros kicked up a stink about his contract violation and he was forced to quit that one after maybe only a few days. Somewhere in there he’s supposed to have contributed to TEMPEST too.

Milestone’s first big hit was TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS, or at least it’s the earliest one anyone remembers. Something of a carbon copy of Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY? it made a star of smush-faced Louis Wolheim and made fine use of rising star William Boyd, before he became Hopalong Cassidy.

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Milestone directed THE RACKET for Howard Hughes but heard, when shooting was complete, that HH was recutting it. Furious, since he had legal right of final cut, Milestone confronted his boss, catching him in flagrante with the cutting copy and dragging him from the building. To calm his director down, Hughes got him into his limo and drove at terrifying speed until Milestone lost the edge of his rage and began instead to fear for his life. Then Hughes announced that the film was being released just as Milestone left it. Out of his own personal curiosity, he had wanted to see what would happen if he reduced each scene by ten per cent, so he had been tinkering just for the sake of it.

(An interesting insight into Hughes, who also took a projector to pieces to see how it worked, thus delaying a screening of rushes. Cutting everything by ten per cent is a very obsessive-compulsive trick to try. It’s also an amazingly uncreative approach to a creative job. Don’t try to make each scene work as well as it should. Don’t try to balance the length of the scenes to create a satisfying structure. Just take ten per cent out of everything. Boneheaded.)

Milestone’s first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS, is a gangster picture with an unconvincing gangster, John Wray, and the director thought it a disaster, trying unsuccessfully to take his name of it. Largely forgotten, it’s pretty interesting — Milestone shoots from a real car on real streets (rear projection hadn’t taken off yet), tracks energetically all over the place, and even puts the camera inside a dumb-waiter and rides it between floors.

RAIN is even more experimental, and THE FRONT PAGE, again made for Hughes, satisfied Milestone that a talkie could combine the qualities of a good stage play with cinematic values. But ALL QUIET is where he’s able to minimize dialogue for much of the picture and exploit purely audio-visual means. A tough, uncompromising film, a troubled shoot, and a colossal critical and commercial success, it became Milestone’s millstone — he grouched to the end of his days about the tendency of the ignorant to think of it as the only film he ever made.

The ‘thirties:  Milestone experiments zanily, restlessly. HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM is a jaw-dropper, and even a rather weak project like ANYTHING GOES has moments of visual energy, wit and imagination. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is a Sternbergian melo with socialistic tendencies and baroque poetry-of-the-streets dialogue by Odets.

It doesn’t make any sense to blame Milestone for his inconsistent career — it’s full of false starts, aborted projects, and movies he walked off of rather than make intolerable compromises. But this sometimes paid off — when Hal Roach fired him from ROAD SHOW, Milestone sued, and as settlement, Roach agreed to finance OF MICE AND MEN, which became Milestone’s most acclaimed film of the decade. Milestone bagged the great reviews, Roach carried the can financially, and audiences stayed away. Justice! But the audience’s loss.

The ‘forties: an erratic period for Milestone, but I like a lot of the films nobody else including their director seems to care for — LUCKY PARTNERS, NO MINOR VICES. ARCH OF TRIUMPH was supposed to be the blockbuster, but the mob found it turgid. Milestone’s wartime output was geared to propaganda, and the skills used to make a pacifist point in ALL QUIET could be turned just as easily, it transpired, to stir the blood and encouraged enlistment. Some of these films are good, some are very problematic indeed, especially if one wants to see Milestone as an auteur. I’ll be talking about some of these films in more detail later.

Attempts to propose a consistent subject or theme for Milestone founder. Some have argued half-heartedly that he is obsessed with groups of men on missions, like Hawks or Ford, but this forces us to ignore most of his output. I have no trouble seeing him as a man interested in many things, and I don’t think that makes him less interesting than those filmmakers who pursued a more narrow range of subjects in their work. Are conversationalists who can only deal with one topic more interesting than those with eclectic tastes?

Milestone’s fluctuating view of war is a bigger issue, because one does want integrity in ones artists. I think the fact that he pursued a left-wing agenda and tried to smuggle in thoughts about group unity and responsibility does give his work the consistency we look for.

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As soon as the war was over, A WALK IN THE SUN took a more considered view of the conflict, and his sole noir, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, partook freely of that post-war malaise everyone is always talking about with regards to this genre. The references to Van Heflin’s military service are brief, but pungent — nobody respects him for serving his country, not even the cops.

The ‘fifties: Milestone’s leftist connections brought him under the eye of HUAC — he was protected somewhat by Zanuck, the studio boss least hospitable to the blacklist, who sent him abroad to work. (Fox exec Raymond Griffith, the former silent comic, played his last acting role in ALL QUIET.) Fox had money tied up in Australia that they wanted to spend, so Milestone shot KANGAROO, the most faux-Australian film imaginable. Before the credits are over we’ve enjoyed the titular marsupial hopping all over the frame, koalas in trees, and then we repair to the office of a policeman, who promptly brushes the monitor lizards off his desktop to make room for his boomerang.

In England, Milestone shot THEY WHO DARE, a run-of-the-mill Technicolor war movie with Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot stiffening their upper lips in Greece, and a rather interesting, unfaithful and truncated film of LES MISERABLES. “It had been done before. I hope it will never be done again.”

I haven’t been able to see Milestone’s Italian film, LA VEDOVA X (THE WIDOW) — if any reader has a copy, let me know.

The ‘sixties: Returning to the states, Milestone made a Korean was drama for Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, which Peck recut and subverted to add patriotism. Milestone walked away, straight into OCEAN’S 11, a big hit but an unhappy experience. I see Milestone in the figure of Akim Tamiroff in that film (an actor who had worked with Milestone several times before) — saggy, grumpy, melancholy, droll, tired, ignored or slighted by his rat pack collaborators. But he did deliver the coolest last shot in cinema history.

Milestone then sensed the chance to get rich with MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The production had rumbled on for a year, Carol Reed had just walked off, and Milestone thought he could polish it off quickly. In fact, almost nothing had been shot, and Milestone was unable to accelerate the production, which was at the mercy of Marlon Brando. Brando didn’t take direction, and had his own set of signals to communicate with the cameraman, cutting the credited director out of the loop. Incidentally, I like the film a good deal.

The ‘seventies: Ill health kept Millie from working further. Somebody stole his two Oscars, which were only retrieved after his death. He spent ten years in a wheelchair.

Milestone on Hollywood: “A fear and psychosis pervades the town, engendered by the recent witch hunts on the national, state and community level. Producers are asking for and getting pictures without ideas. In the frantic effort to offend no one, to alienate no groups, to create no misgivings in Congressional minds, studios are for the most part obediently concentrating on vapidity. The public… did not not ask that pictures be sterilized of ideas; the notion was self-imposed.”

From Wikipedia: “Lewis Milestone’s final request before he died in 1980 was for Universal Studios to restore All Quiet on the Western Front to its original length. That request would eventually be granted nearly two decades later by Universal and other film preservation companies, and this restored version is what is widely seen today on television and home video.”

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Principle sources: Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Milestone. Philip Kemp’s profile in World Film Directors Vol 1. Richard T. Jameson’s piece in Richard Roud’s Cinema A Critical Dictionary (better than David Thomson’s book, fine though that is). And thanks to Phoebe Green!