Archive for Mae Busch

The Sunday Intertitle: The Flamingo Kid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2017 by dcairns

 

SLIPPING WIVES is supposed to be a star vehicle for Priscilla Dean, who used to be big — she was in OUTSIDE THE LAW and WHITE TIGER for Tod Browning. But gagman-director Fred Guiol can’t find much business for her, which means the slack gets taken up by Stan Laurel as the traveling salesman and Oliver Hardy as the butler. The two get quite a lot of scenes together, most of them roughhouse stuff, but the idea of them as a team hasn’t quite taken hold yet. It’s only 1927.

An artist’s wife wants to make her neglectful husband jealous, and Stan is enlisted as faux-respondent. The intertitle greeting his entrance seems like a paraphrase of whatever Buster Keaton was spoofing in HIS first intertitle as a solo comedian, in THE ‘HIGH SIGN’. Was this “came from nowhere” line a famous title card for William S. Hart or someone like that? Lost to time?

There are several good laughs in this but it’s not quite there yet — Stan and Ollie’s hairstyles would be enough to confirm that. But the story came in handy — THE FIXER UPPERS reuses a good part of it. Hard-bitten vamp Mae Busch recruits greetings card salesman Babe Hardy as faux beau in this one, and Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton is hilariously cast as the husband. And the stakes are raised tremendously: Middleton, a crack shot, challenges Ollie the interloper to duel to the death with pistols at midnight.

In the local artist’s bar, Stan blows the foam from his beer into Ollie’s lap, causing him to complain that not only has he got to die, but that Stan is making his last moments miserable. Which is indeed Stan’s purpose in life, though he’s unaware of it. The boys resolve not to keep the fatal rendezvous, but just then they meet an old acquaintance from reel one, comedy dipsomaniac Arthur Housman.

Cut to the boys, now completely drunk, being delivered by cops to Middleton’s house. The cops found the card Chas. presented in Ollie’s pocket and think this is his address. With the perfect logic of a nightmare, Ollie will awaken at exactly the hour he’s to be shot at, in just the place it’s scheduled to occur.

As always with matters concerning Ollie’s fate, it gets worse. Busch convinces her  grim-visaged, overly declamatory husband that she was only fooling to make him jealous — instants before Stan’s snoring gives away the boys’ presence in the marital bed itself. You see the brilliance of it: the explanation has been given once, and believed, which means it won’t be accepted a second time, even if true. This obeys a screenwriting principle that if any good luck should befall your protagonist, it must happen at the most inopportune, or indeed disastrous, moment.

The climax of the film isn’t quite up to the middle act, but it’s all very enjoyable. Hard to believe this was made right alongside the disappointing BONNIE SCOTLAND. That moment of strongest suspense — the boys in a room with a deadly enemy, but as yet undiscovered — is done even better in the earlier SCRAM!, where it’s kind of extended for the better part of the film. Haven’t seen that one since I was a kid, when it caused my mother, a vulnerable target for comic suspense (she screams at Harold Lloyd human fly stuff) to have near fits.

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The Sunday Intertitle: No Great Sheikh

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by dcairns

Why a Howard Hawks Week? It just seemed like fun, and there are enough films I’d enjoy revisiting and enough I haven’t seen. Hope you enjoy.

FAZIL is an unapologetic dose of orientalism, and a late silent/soundie — it has a recorded music score and occasional roughly-synched representations of sound effects such as horses’ hooves, plus a bit of vocalisation — a vague stab at the  call to prayer, and a gondolier’s song, complete with superimposed music and lyrics (as a guide for cinemas which can’t play sound yet?)

It may be Hawks’ only soundie, but I haven’t seen TRENT’S LAST CASE, although I long to. I’m a Raymond Griffith obsessive.

FAZIL stars the quite un-Hawksian Charles Farrell, best-known for his Borzage collaborations, as an unlikely sheikh, with all the barbarity such romantic figures are supposed to have. The culture-clash plot sends him to Venice, so even the film’s representation of the west is exotic and romantic. My fuzzy, grainy copy is just barely good enough to let you see that this is a beautifully photographed film: lots of soft lighting and soft focus and shallow focus. It’s shot by L. William O’Connell, who lensed A GIRL IN EVERY PORT for Hawks the same year, alongside Murnau’s now-lost FOUR DEVILS. Yet he seems to slide into B-pictures as soon as sound arrives, his only big picture being SCARFACE, where he’s paired with Lee Garmes who usually gets credit for the more interesting stuff (Hawks certainly stressed Garmes’ inventiveness in interviews).

That gondolier’s song has a plot role to play, accompanying the central lovers’ first glimpse of one another, from opposite windows across a canal. Hawks crosscuts reverse angles, moving closer as the love-at-first-sight builds, and throws in tracking shots drifting past each lead from the gondolier’s point of view. It’s a very elaborate set-piece, quite removed from his usual, later low-key, apparently effortless mode of presentation. Very interesting to seen him stretch himself, as with the expressionist effects in SCARFACE.

Hollywood has already caught on to the idea of selling sheet music — so that gondolier’s ditty follows the characters about from canal to soirée. where a dissolve sweeps all the other dancers from the floor, leaving Farrell and Greta Nissen alone at last. Then the dance ends and the surrounding throng fades back into existence. There’s nothing else like this in Hawks, so it’s very interesting indeed: what one wants to balance it is some trace of the filmmaker to come.

We also get Mae Busch, always welcome, and John Boles with his huge cranium. To me he has the look of a man smuggling a busby under his scalp.

Censor-baiting screen narrative — we go from Farrell & Nissen on a gondola to her lying in bed in what’s obviously his apartment or hotel suite at dawn. Quelle scandale! Some dialogue, some kisses, and then an intertitle tells us we’ve slid from Venice to Paris during the fade-out and a newspaper headline informs us that the lovers are newly wed. Sex happens during fade-outs, but a lot more than that can go on, it seems. (“At least I had some fun with that.”)

It’s interesting that these Arab barbarian lover types are never played by actual movie tough guys — from Valentino to Novarro to Farrell, they’re all elegant rather than rugged. Farrell is a great big hunk of man, but we know he’s a softy from his other movies, and though he begins this one by having an insubordinate head scimitared off, his attempts to play the master of the house come across as petulant, the result of weakness rather than strength, and I suspect Hawks saw it that way too, frowning from behind the camera. (Actual quote from Hawks on Hawks: “Christ Almighty, can you imagine Charlie Farrell as an Arabian sheikh?”)

Big harem scene, staged as a proto-Busby Berkeley sex fantasy of flesh and art direction. The lovely Nissen — vivacious in TRANSATLANTIC but merely lovely here — comes close to swooning at the perfumed horror of all those diaphanous scanties. Remember, exoticism is racism’s sexy sister. You wouldn’t be seduced by racism… but the sexy sister? You might weaken. And be lost.

Dreaming Awake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

“I was dreaming I was awake, and then all of a sudden I woke up and found myself asleep.” ~ Stan Laurel in OLIVER THE EIGHTH.

Well, I did a foolish thing. To celebrate handing in my Shirley Clarke article (henceforth, “the Clarkicle”) I shelled out fifty clams for the giant 21-disc LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION. Admittedly, I’ve been coveting them for ages. I have most of the stuff on old VHS off-air recordings, but knowing I have something as complete as necessary is a nice feeling. (Nobody needs to have all the shorts with Stan but not Ollie, or vice versa, and nobody WANTS to have UTOPIA/ATOLL K, that misbegotten final film which I’ve never had the courage to investigate.)

Having lugged the box home (it’s like a little briefcase in size) I immediately rifled through in search of what was to be my first watch. When I got to Disc 6, OLIVER THE EIGHTH leaped out at me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this L&H. It might be due to the responses instilled in me by my mother, who would always get very excited by anything mixing fear and comedy. Well, I say always, but I’m probably thinking solely of her very audible reaction to the Disney Legend of Sleepy Hollow adaptation that forms half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD. All that screaming and laughing made a big impression on me, and influenced my love of the chases in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

So, to O8, as it will be known when Roland Emmerich remakes it as a Summer Blockbuster. Fiona had seen it before, but I don’t think she remembered it in detail. What was weird was, seeing it with her, it became suddenly clear to me how brilliantly structured the film was. There’s no way to discuss this without spoilers, so run away now if you’re bothered by such things.

THE PLOT: Stan and Ollie run a “Tonsorial Parlor”. Stan discovers a classified ad of the “rich widow seeks husband” variety, and both he and Ollie resolve to apply. But Ollie hides Stan’s letter (“Oh noooo!” cried Fiona, who can be a little like my Mum in terms of her vocal emotional response to movies) before sitting down smugly to be shaved…

His application successful, Oliver Norville Hardy duly arrives at the designated mansion, where he finds a mad butler, Jitters, played by Jack Barty (born in London during Jack the Ripper’s autumn of terror, died two years after appearing in GASLIGHT, his final role) and Mae Busch (hard-bitten vamp, memorable in TIT FOR TAT and several other L&H films, deserves a statue in her honour in Adelaide, Australia). Then Stan turns up, having found the hidden letter, demanding half of what’s coming to Ollie.

BUT — Mad Mae was once jilted by an Oliver, and has spent her subsequent years revenging herself upon the race of Olivers — they’re all alike, those Olivers! — inviting them to her home and cutting their throats as they sleep (there’s an understated grisliness about this film). Learning this, but locked in the house, Stan and Ollie must try to stay awake and defend themselves.

This is where the film really begins for me. The plot set-up is fine, an engaging tall tale kind of thing, and the business with the screwy butler (playing solitaire with imaginary cards, serving imaginary soup and crackers at dinner) is kooky and provides a great excuse to linger on the details of performance — like the individual ways Stan and Ollie and Mae crumble their phantom crackers, humouring the nut who waits on them. But once the real suspense kicks in, it’s a perfect excuse for Ollie’s slow-burn reaction and the painstaking methodology of the usual Laurel & Hardy destructiveness to play out with a ticking clock of serious suspense underneath. Unusual!

Stan keeps falling asleep, so Ollie fixes up a primitive Rube Goldberg contraption to keep him alert. The circumstances leading from that little ploy, to Ollie’s sitting unconscious in a chair with a sheet over his body, throat exposed, while Stan is trapped in a closet with the shotgun which is their only weapon, as Mae advances upon Ollie with grim determination and mesmeric trances expression, stropping her giant blade — well, I want to say that those circumstances have the logic of a nightmare, but actually it’s better than that. They have the impeccable logic of reality, or the L&H version of it anyhow, combined with the TERROR of a nightmare.

At a scene of high tension, reaching a peak, with a “get out of THAT” plot problem closing on the heroes like a steel trap, I am always reminded of my maternal grandmother’s reaction to suspense climaxes in movies — maintaining a sitting position, but her arms and legs would magically RISE INTO THE AIR and WAVE ABOUT, animated as if by invisible wires. It’s my ultimate mental image of unbearable tension, and my dream as a filmmaker is to make everybody in a 500-seat auditorium do the same.

Anyhow, through what is basically a hackneyed cliche, but suddenly seems to me fresh and brilliantly structured, Ollie awakens at the instant of death and finds himself back in his old barber’s chair. “I just had a terrible dream,” he declares, redundantly, the end credits music already starting to hurry us out of this delightful nightmare.

What’s great about this is that it’s cunningly prepared for, and the dream can easily be seen as motivated by Ollie’s guilt at hiding Stan’s letter (this could be the most Freudian of L&H films), but this doesn’t need to be explained. Nor does the film need to go into what’s going to happen next. Ollie might decide to post Stan’s letter, or he might be so freaked out by the dream that he thinks it best not to, and will refrain from replying to any missives from that rich widow…

Also nice — there’s a loud crash as Ollie awakens, which presumably is Stan, in the closet, with the shotgun, but (a) we never see him fire it and (b) the sound carries on into the next scene, which is a wholly different reality. So it feels like on of those Bunuel moments, where the great Don Luis will play a sound which is perfectly recognisable but has no obvious diegetic source in the scene, and only the most allusive meaning in symbolic terms.

In fact, while Bunuel may have enjoyed Chaplin and Keaton, he feels more similar to L&H in some ways. Use of offscreen noise; extremes of cruelty enacted with ritualisitic politeness, simplicity of framing which is neither stagy like Chaplin nor super-composed like Keaton. The “clutching hand” that terrifies Stan in O8 has a counterpart in the crawling, or rather gliding hand that sweeps across the living room in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Mae Busch is could almost be a distaff version of ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, and the mimed meal the characters “enjoy” is like a foretaste of the many frustrated or skewed dinners served up in the Spanish surrealists films.