Archive for Madeleine Carroll

Litvakuation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.

Return to Zenda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by dcairns

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“Why are old films so much better than new films?” asked Fiona in wonderment, as John Cromwell and David Selznick’s film of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) unspooled before us. It may or not be true, but it’s the kind of thought that certainly FEELS true when you’re seeing a classic Hollywood movie in which all the elements have come together. “The genius of the system” is the usual phrase on these occasions, because John Cromwell is not an auteur, because the source novel was adapted by a pretty big roomful of scribes, because “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke handled some unspecified reshoots, because Selznick was very hands-on. “A good film can be made good by anybody – the writers, the actors, the editor,” said Orson Welles. “Great films are made by the director.” So in a case like this, the film is ascribed either to providence, an impersonal system, or else we downgrade the movie to just “good.”

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Well, whether or not ZENDA deserves the weighty name of Greatness, it is definitely excellent. Everybody in it is perfect. Ronald Colman gets to be dashing but also soulful; Madeleine Carroll gets to be beautiful but also alert and alive in a way people in costume dramas often aren’t (acting in the past tense); David Niven gets to be funny; Raymond Massey snarlingly villainous in a monocle; Mary Astor tragic; and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. seems to be having the time of his life. Funny thing about Jnr. — he had big shoes to fill (although: “How did he perform such amazing stunts with such tiny feet?” ~ Hedley Lamarr) and when cast as roguish heroes he sort of doesn’t quite make it, but cast as outright rogues, something is UNLEASHED.

Great fights in this movie. Colman evidently can’t fence like Flynn, even with the aid of undercranking, so he’s doubled in the wide shots, and then we get quick cut-ins to tighter frames in which a few slashes are exchanged. It’s tremendously dynamic and effective, even if it’s born of necessity. The huge wide shots mean the misty backlighting and Gothic sets provide much of the drama. Colman’s character is also a master of bricolage, enlisting tables and chairs to help him fend off bullets and blades and opponents. He does this so consistently that Fairbanks complains he can’t get used to fighting furniture.

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But despite all the action, the film is at heart a love story: the true effect of all the plot is to bring a pair of lovers together in an untenable situation. It works admirably, even though stories that have people sacrificing happiness for the throne do leave me asking “Why?” a little. But the movie has done such a good job of presenting the conceit that being an English gentleman is the best thing you can possibly be, that it even makes me swallow this final silliness. Besides, if you don’t put Ronald Colman through some romantic agony, you aren’t really making the most of his unique gifts (even if he’s playing a dual role).

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.