Archive for Melville Cooper

The White Russians Are Coming

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hit Hollywood, via RKO, with a remake of his recent L’EQUIPAGE, with Miriam Hopkins, Paul Muni, Louis Hayward (replacing Annabella, Vanel, Aumont) and Colin Clive. We get a big-budget studio Paris 1917, with an air-raid interrupting a big musical — an excuse to show fishnet-stockinged girls running for the shelters. It’s a great big glitzy, vulgar spectacle, as Litvak films are even when he’s peddling “quality,” but I can never associate Litvak with “white elephant art” because his films all have a compulsive, jittery dynamism to them — the zip pan is his signature move, but the camera will be dollying or booming rapidly on either end of the zip, to add force to the nervousness.

The theatre scene isn’t in L’EQUIPAGE but the hero’s departure by train plays out line for line the same. Litvak has even been allowed to import his editor and his composer — and all the expensive wide shots, making this one of the most literal remakes ever.

But the same year, Litvak made his first Hollywood original, and it’s much more worthy of note, but it, too, is laid in Paris.

I don’t know why we hadn’t sought out TOVARICH before. Of course, I’d made no systematic attempt to see all Litvak’s films, and of course he’s not really known as a comedy director. But his early French and German films are mostly light comedies. TOVARICH, however, is much better and funnier.

Charles “Bwa-yay” Boyer is also not massively associated with comedy, except as the inspiration for Pepe le Pew’s voice. But CLUNY BROWN is one of my very favourite films, and he’s amazing in it. He’s an ideal screwball actor because he can do silly things with the utmost seriousness and precision. Hollywood really missed a trick by not letting him do more funny films.

Boyer plays a penniless Russian with forty billion in the bank: money entrusted to him by the Tsar when the Revolution struck. Now he and his wife Claudette Colbert (really good, avoiding her occasional lapses into mannerism) are starving in a Parisian garret, unable for ethical reasons to touch a single sous of the vast fortune. This absurd situation starts things off on a light note which is maintained for so much of the film that you never expect things to get serious at all, and then Basil Rathbone walks in and they do, very. It makes for a real surprise.

Since the couple’s privation is essentially self-willed, we don’t worry about it too much, and then they get a job as servants to Melville Cooper (THE LADY EVE) and Isabel Jeans (GIGI) and start to really enjoy life. Their master and mistress are besotted with them, they’re winning a fortune at cards with the son and daughter of the house… enter Rathbone.

We sensed the film might need some shaking up — you can’t have a film just be fun and games forever, generally, though this manages it for two acts — we weren’t expecting to meet a man who as actually subjected our light comedy leading man and lady to physical torture. For a while it seems that Rathbone may be disposed of in the manner he would later enjoy in WE’RE NO ANGELS — the rat poison is to hand, after all. But the ending is stranger and more surprising.

This is based on a play by Jacques Deval, translated by Robert E Sherwood, adapted by Casey Robinson — all good people. Not too much opening-out has been performed, and the end of act curtains are still visible, in the form of fade-outs. Which is fine — the film is still a film, photographed from inside the action, using movement and music and cutting to create cinematic beauty. As in MAYERLING, Litvak exults in people having an out-of-control good time. In the previous film, Boyer’s debauchery had a tragic undertone, but here it’s just Lubitschian joi de vivre. Russians are mad, the film tells us, and they like it.

Depending on your sympathies, this is either a dry run for ANASTASIA (and in Yul Brynner, we may think, Litvak found his new Boyer, commanding yet crisply amusing), or its the original from which ANASTASIA is merely an off-cut. I actually like this one better, but fortunately we don’t have to choose.

Note: unlike most of the European influx, Litvak seems to have had no trouble starting at the top in Hollywood, perhaps because MAYERLING had been a big hit — it came out in time to capture the interest of a public recently wowed by Edward VIII’s abdication. Given that Litvak seems now to be mostly regarded as a minor figure, it’s worth noting what a big deal they thought him back then. And when he eventually returned to Europe, of all the emigres who went back, he alone kept Hollywood’s interest, backing him in big-budget US productions films in France to the end of his days.

THE WOMAN I LOVE stars Emile Zola; Becky Sharp; Louis XIV; Henry Frankenstein; Moose Lawson; Mrs. Raskolnikov; Frau Berndle; Bunker Bean; Red Ryder; Salty Sam; Scottish Farmer Without Mustache; Winnie the Pooh; Charleston; and Sylvanian Agitator.

TOVARICH stars Gerry Jeffers; Pepe le Moko; Sir Guy of Gisbourne; Marie Antoinette; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Aunt Alicia; Morris Gershwin; ‘Pap’ Finn; Tailspin Tommy Tompkins; Count Alexis Rakonin; Colonel Weed; Maggie Jiggs; Mrs. Wellenmellon’s Hairdresser; Anna Dora, an Actress as Actresses Go; Mud Mask; Mrs. Watchett; Homer; Lord Henry Delves; Madame Napaloni; Norman Bissonette; and Dr. Kluck.

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.