Archive for Maureen O’Hara

Don’t Look at the Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Since I’ve been writing about those moments when characters can’t quite help but look at the machinery observing them, and by so doing make eye contact with the audience, documentarist Harry Watt’s memoir Don’t Look At the Camera fairly leapt off the shelf at me in Edinburgh University Library.

It was a short loan, so I just skimmed — school days, NIGHT MAIL and a surprise entry on Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN.

Schooldays at Edinburgh Academy — I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Watt was an Edinburgh man. He talks about being both sporty and academically bright, and says he joined the rugby players in their unmerciful bullying of the swots. This struck me as in bad taste. Not only is he saying he was a bully at school, he’s proudly admitting it as an adult. I award extra points to anyone confessing and repenting childhood misdeeds. If the tone isn’t repentant, I think silence is best. British public school graduates should stay as quiet about their bullying as they usually are about their homosexual experiences. In fact, if our Tory leaders were more frank about those, some social good might be done.

NIGHT MAIL — Harry wants us to know that he directed the damn thing, though thanks to John Grierson (another mean Scotsman) the credits don’t say so. But he gives Cavalcanti fair credit for his revolutionary editing and sound design (revolutionary for Britain anyway) and says he doesn’t remember who thought of getting W.H. Auden to write a poetic commentary, but it wasn’t him. So the best aspects of the film aren’t his idea, but he did preside over them.

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And then it turns out that H.W. had a brief turn as assistant director for Hitchcock and producer Erich Pommer. I’ll let him tell the tale in his own words. It’s funny, and then finally rather melancholic, and it’s probably useful to bear in mind that Watt is a bully and a dick, by his own confession (well, he doesn’t come right out and say “I’m a dick,” but he boasts of having been a bully which amounts to the same thing) and that he was a fairly unsuccessful director of fiction films for Ealing. His description of his own directing technique makes him sound pretty hopeless, if you’ve ever done it. If you haven’t, it sounds like he’s doing every reasonable thing a director could do to get a performance, which is obviously how he viewed it…

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When I got on the set it all seemed easy. Nice set, good bunch of boys, pretty young actress. I do remember being irritated because she kept eating buttered toast, which dribbled and spoilt her make-up, but, what the hell, it was only one shot. I showed Maureen the hole in the wall, checked she knew the scene and what was supposed to be happening next door, and tried a rehearsal. She ambled up to the crack, stuck a huge violet eye against it, uttered the sort of squeak a girl makes when she’s been goosed at a party, and disappeared from the frame in the wrong direction. I wasn’t too discouraged. I had spent years handling amateurs, so I gave her a little chat, and tried again. It was worse! Now it was up to me to show what I could do. I gave her the works–that the man there next door, hanging by his neck, was the man whose touch she thrilled to, in whose arms she would lie naked, who would father her children, AND HE WAS CHOKING TO DEATH! I even did a choking act. ‘Right, in you go, kid, and remember, take a moment to realize the whole horror of it. Then, your eyes wide open, you hold the look for, say, two seconds, then you turn your head slowly towards camera, remember, towards camera, as though you are hardly able to grasp what is going on in the next room, and then try and let us see your sudden decision to rush off and get help. But don’t move until you have made that decision. Do you understand that now?’ Maureen understood perfectly, moved up to the hole, and gave an impression of someone watching ‘What the Butler Saw.’ She got the giggles! It was my choking act, she said. I think the camera crew watched carefully to step in before I did it to her.

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I filmed that one goddam shot all afternoon–twenty odd takes, and then rushed off to Pommer: ‘Mr Pommer,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t get a performance out of that O’Hara kid. I know why, mind you, she’s a virgin, and until someone gives her a good roll, she’s got about as much animation as a piece of wet cod. But I’m afraid I’ve let you down.’ Pommer, chewing nervously on an empty cigarette holder, as he always did, agreed with me, but speaking from his experience, cheered me up by saying she was so lovely that people would not worry about her performance.

At the end of the picture, it was discovered that she had been secretly married to an assistant director all the time. So much for my sixth-sense about actors.

There was a most unholy row when Maureen’s marriage became known. The Laughton-Pommer Company, Mayflower Productions, was proposing to go and make films in Hollywood, and one of their major assets was their dewy unspoilt Irish rose, who would no doubt be excellent bait for the financial tycoons. The whole matter was hushed up, and Maureen was shipped off to the States with assurances, I believe, to the boy that he would follow. But time went on, and by now immersed in the process of being groomed as a star, Maureen agreed to a discreet divorce to be arranged. I don’t think they ever saw each other again.

The Sunday Intertitle: Duller in Pink Tights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 15, 2012 by dcairns

LADY GODIVA. This Vitagraph film inspired by Tennyson’s poem highlights the nonsensical aspects of the story nicely. It’s the tale of a grasping earl who refuses his wife’s pleas to lower taxes unless she rides naked through town. The townsfolk of Coventry recognize the nobility of her cause and agree to look away, all except for one sleazebag, who is struck blind for his troubles.

The dictates of melodrama require Peeping Tom to appear early on, cackling and stroking his chin in an obviously wicked manner. He’s played, hilariously, by an actor named Harold Wilson — I’m surprised this film wasn’t revived as propaganda against the Wilson government. Tom/Harold is showing wicked delight just at the prospect of being taxed to starvation, which makes little obvious sense — I guess he’s somehow thinking “I’m going to starve, but at least — somehow — I feel that I’m going to get to see some skin.”

The Earl is also characterized as a nasty piece of work — something in the way he angrily tosses a piece of parchment on the floor suggests an ill-tempered swine, although we have no idea what was written on the parchment. Maybe he was just offended by the texture of the paper.

It’s likewise unclear why he demands this strange behaviour from his wife. I guess the logic might be, “If you really cared for the poor, your own modesty wouldn’t be as important as improving their lives,” but it requires quite a leap to even get to that point. I have to assume that the Earl has never seen his wife naked and has fixed on this whole thing as a desperate ploy.

Mrs Godiva then tells the townsfolk what she’s going to do and they all agree not to look. Cue the money shot, with Lady G’s golden tresses artfully arranged to conceal her bosom, and a horse strategically placed in front of her to conceal — no, she’s definitely wearing a big pair of panties. Stop sniggering. It’s the correct term.

Peeping Tom is sat at home, looking drunk and altogether miserable, when suddenly an intertitle gives him an idea of boring a hole in his shutters — Harold Wilson then gives a quite distressingly convincing impersonation of being struck blind.

The audience, meanwhile, gets to see everything he failed to see, and is NOT struck blind. Certainly not immediately. The power of cinema!

Mrs G gets back home and hurries indoors — no suggestion that she’s found her nudity liberating at all, and certainly no sign that being “clothed in her virtue” has been beneficial to morale — she just seems humiliated and terrified. She pauses at the threshold to give a dramatic, but impossible-to-interpret “Heil Hitler” gesture.

Apparently there’s no question of the Earl going back on his word, insane wagers being legally binding at the time, so the taxes are slashed and everybody’s happy. It’s not altogether clear, since apparently nobody at all saw Mrs Earl on her nude equestrian spree, how they can even be sure it happened. It seems like a pretty good religious metaphor.

(I don’t know how long I put up with prayer in school assembly before wondering what would happen if I didn’t take part. So I opened my eyes and looked around. Everybody else had their eyes closed, including the teachers, so there was no possibility of my atheism being detected. I kept waiting for someone else to look up and meet my gaze, maybe wink. Nobody ever did.)

Of course, what everybody basically remembers about Lady Godiva is the naked joyride, not the noble intent — that’s the most realistic aspect of the story. If it happened for real, the townsfolk would happily retain their taxes but they’d still regard Godiva as some kind of slut. Peeping Tom would take her picture for the Coventry Peeper, and everybody would buy it with the money they’d saved in taxes. And very few of them would find that an odd contradiction.

Look! Here’s the “nude” scene from the 1955 version with Maureen O’Hara. Interestingly, Peeping Tom is blinded not by divine justice per se but by a big bloke with a flaming torch. Seems a bit extreme. It’s all quite atmospherically staged with the clip-clop hoofbeats on the soundtrack and the languid tracking shots past crowds of men straining every fibre of their being not to peep.

Woman Error

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2011 by dcairns


There’s a blogathon going on! Tony Dayoub’s Cinema Viewfinder Nicholas Ray celebration was a welcome incentive to return to a favourite filmmaker’s oeuvre — I leapt at the chance to view and write about the only Ray film I’d never watched at all, the reputedly minor opus known as A WOMAN’S SECRET.

I went in expecting little — programmers like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, RUN FOR COVER and BORN TO BE BAD are perfectlyenjoyable, but don’t let Ray flex his cinematic muscles much — as with the very different Von Sternberg, for whom Ray subbed on MACAO, he didn’t seem to commit fully to films that didn’t excite him. But I enjoyed this one: the titular SECRET is ambiguous, the tone uncertain, the structure wobbly, but all that adds a kind of intrigue and unpredictability to a first viewing. I’d never call this a major film, but it’s pleasingly flaky, and it doesn’t give up its mysteries.

Ray is at RKO, where he did some good work, and he’s in the hands of fellow tippler Herman J. Mankiewicz, as producer and screenwriter, which must’ve been interesting, if Ray’s fraught experience with Budd Schulberg on WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES is anything to go by. It looks as if Mankiewicz had noticed that CITIZEN KANE’s flashback-investigation structure was becoming popular in films like THE KILLERS and LAURA, and resolved to swipe it himself (well, he helped invent it in the first place) — so the movie begins with a near-fatal shooting and proceeds to examine the lead-up through the eyes of various interested parties.

Sorta funny/sick the way Gloria Grahame is left unattended on the floor with a bullet in her for long stretches of dialogue.

Mankiewicz can’t quite make up his mind who his main character is, which creates a stimulating muddle: first we get ex-singer Maureen O’Hara, who claims to have fired the shot (which perforated protege Gloria Graham), but the investigation is taken up by their pal, Melvyn Douglas. he’s playing a popular radio personality and music expert / musician, of the temperamental genius/wit variety, so in theory it’s like having Oscar Levant as a detective, which is a wonderful idea. Melv’s casting smooths off some of the gloriously absurd edges of that premise, but it’s still good for some entertainment value.

And so the story moves on, with Douglas narrating his experiences to detective Jay C. Flippen, the man with the face of a tick, then a variety of characters giving their part of the story. Bill Williams figures in as a bullish ex-serviceman somehow mixed up with the ladies’ past, and then Flippen’s wife (Mary Philips) weirdly hijacks the narrative, an armchair detective and mystery fan who can’t resist getting mixed up in her husband’s cases.  It doesn’t make any sense for this comedy character to turn up, stealing fire from our other novelty investigator (both Melvyn and Mary deserve a series of their own!) and cracking the case with a mixture of idiocy, intuition and boundless self-confidence.

One thing this movie helps with is clearing up the CITIZEN KANE authorship debate (if anyone’s still in doubt). See, this movie is Mankiewicz’s baby, with Ray a hired gun brought in to execute it. Mank wrote and produced it. He did a perfectly good job, with even the weird lacunae and ambiguities adding interest. But there’s absolutely no artistic ambition at work: all he wants is a nice little melodrama. Without Welles’ drive and imagination and will to achieve the impossible, Mankiewicz was little more than a heap of kindling without a spark.

And a slow sapphic subtext builds nicely —

Y’see, not only do Maureen and Gloria live together, but they took a trip to Paris together and Maureen says she regards Gloria as an extension of herself. It’s all a bit suggestive, although the scene where Grahame first demonstrates her singing ability is carefully played — she sings to Melvyn, who looks at Maureen, who looks at Gloria.

Another scene, at a cafe in Algiers, has an ambiguous reaction from two old duffers when Melvyn embraces Grahame. Are they dismayed that she’s got a man, or dismayed that he’s got a woman? These are two gentlemen vacationing together in North Africa, so I wondered. The reaction made is a sort of expulsion of air through the lips — not a razz, but something looser. here, I’ll do it for you. Like that, you understand?

And this is how Jay C Flippen reacts to Melvyn Douglas’s lunch invitation.

Of course, these actresses, though not devoid of camp value, certainly don’t strongly suggest lesbian vibes, but anything that makes a film more interesting is a worthwhile reading, no? And the film has a certain shambolic quality that encourages one to look between the lines, because the gaps there are pretty huge. For one thing, it’s not 100% certain which woman it is who has the secret, and the movie never actually explains why O’Hara has told a self-incriminating lie. Her abrupt romantic feelings for Douglas at the end certainly seem like a classic Hollywood dash away from incriminating material.

Still, Ray is in full control of his mise-en-scene, even if he doesn’t have the opportunity to really push it into the neurotic and intense terrain that suited him best. My friend Chris “Chainsaw” Bourton once pointed out to me how Ray will do anything to avoid shooting straight shot-reverse-shot dialogue scenes, and there’s a good example of that in the first scene here — in this argument prior to the shooting, Grahame moves up and down a flight of stairs, followed by the panning camera. This means that while all of her lines are covered by one set-up (with a changing composition), each of the cutaways back to O’Hara is taken from a different camera position to make the eye-lines match.

Since this means shooting more angles (on one character) than a static scene, and angles = time which = money, you have to know that Ray really wanted this effect and thought it worth spending the studio’s money on.

Little things like this aren’t the secret (that word again) of Ray’s brilliance. But they do point to the care he took and his desire to avoid the predictable patterns of shot-reverse-shot, where the audience can settle into being subconsciously confident that they know what they’re going to see next. With Ray, you never know.