Archive for Mary Gordon

The Hepburn-RKO-J.M. Barrie Axis of Whimsy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2013 by dcairns

Two J.M. Barrie adaptations, filmed at RKO, starring Katherine Hepburn, QUALITY STREET and THE LITTLE MINISTER.

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THE LITTLE MINISTER, directed by Richard Wallace, is set in Barrie’s native Scotland and showcases Kate’s Bryn Mawr version of a Highland burr. Several real Scots provide doughty support — Andy Clyde is particularly enjoyable, and Sherlock Holmes regulars Alec Craig (in his first movie role, according to the IMDb) and Mary Gordon make welcome appearances. Donald Crisp looks exactly as he did thirty years later in GREYFRIAR’S BOBBY, but sounds different — he nailed the accent sometime in the intervening years.

But why no James Finlayson?

Poor John Beal struggles with the R-rolling, and is blown off the screen by Hepburn in gypsy drag. Flashes of authentic Scottish scenery, including brief use of the zoom lens (quite popular at RKO at this time — see also KING KONG).

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QUALITY STREET is, we thought, the superior production. Never mind that Barrie’s conceit, Hepburn scrubbing up and impersonating a fictitious younger relative to fool Franchot Tone, even though Tone knows perfectly well what she looks like, is unworkable on-screen (suspension of disbelief and the perpetual long-shot would sell it on stage). Never mind that the whole cast is doing convincing English accents except tone-deaf Tone. Enjoy the Napoleonic era gadgets (women’s veils which swish open on a drawstring like net curtains, English geisha shoes for walking in the rain) and the dialogue and performances and director George Stevens’ elegant, witty framing.

In the prologue, Hepburn is disappointed in love as her beau decides to go off to the wars — she sits by the window with her aunt, and the Greenaway-symmetry does something expressive and very un-Greenawayesque: it captures their resignation to staying unmarried for life. Possibly while sitting in the window.

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The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, it’s not exactly an intertitle, but I had to honour the fact that John Ford pasted my address across the screen in MARY OF SCOTLAND.

It’s a legendarily quite bad film, though more of an honorable failure than, say, THE HURRICANE (a commercial hit but a veritable TOWERING INFERNO artistically), part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH. In fact, the movie is quite interesting, or anyway “interesting” — it rarely achieves anything resembling compelling drama, and censorship forces it to take the dullest path whenever there’s a knotty historical issue to be resolved. Dialogue is of a heavily expository nature, with everybody always telling each other things they must already know — you’d never guess that either Dudley Nichols, or Maxwell Anderson whose play he’s adapting, was a good or even competent writer.

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However, it’s possibly Ford’s most gay film, with Lord Darnley in particular striking a bold blow for the lipstick, earring and ruff look. Queen Elizabeth surrounds herself with rather camp confidants too, despite the fact that she’s basically a sullen mound of beads.

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(This was the movie where Ginger Rogers campaigned hard for the role of Elizabeth, and shot a screen test in heavy makeup which the suits loved until they realized who it was. The thought of Ginger as the Virgin Queen was apparently too much of a stretch. So Florence Eldridge lands by far  the best role and does well with it.)

Katherine Hepburn as Mary is surrounded by several of the same stock Scots and pseudo-Scots from RKO’s  THE LITTLE MINISTER (Alec Craig, Mary Gordon, Donald Crisp). Fredric March does do more than hint at a burr, but Fiona felt he captured a quintessentially Scottish attitude. It seems to involve bellowing heartily. He also presents a baby with the present of a broadsword, which does seem quite authentic behaviour.

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Perhaps sensing the inertia of the material, Ford attempts a few stylistic flourishes. In one key scene, Mary/Hepburn must decide whether to sign, at sword’s point, a pardon for the murderers of David Rizzio (John Carradine [!]). In her closeup, she’s separated by the characters over her shoulder by a layer of scrim — and interesting psychological effect, thrown away by too-hasty editing. I suspect the film was so stodgy they took the shears to it, and out went the more promising material. (Tag Gallagher certainly suggests that the studio botched the edit, and it appears that Ford’s system of protecting himself by shooting no coverage was not yet in place.)

Ford also plays with theatrical lighting changes, dimming the key light on Darnley when he acquiesces to an assassination plot. Did Orson Welles check this movie out when he was running STAGECOACH all those times? It’s made by the same studio, so it would have been to hand. CITIZEN KANE advanced on the idea by staging the fades during dissolves, so that one part of the shot would linger longer as the rest faded out, but the initial idea had to come from somewhere

For years (decades?) Alexander Mackendrick dreamed of filming MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, his office papered in storyboards. Since historical movies usually ossify alive onscreen, he was determined to make his version live and breathe — the western was his role model, a genre in which history is depicted IN ACTION. Ironically, the man you would have thought ideally suited to make such a film had already tried, and fallen victim to period movie syndrome.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.