Archive for Merton of the Movies

Silent Comedian, Talking Picture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2015 by dcairns

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So: Chaplin resisted talking, and even as late as THE GREAT DICTATOR (1939) was carving out sections of his films which could work as pantomime. (But people don’t acknowledge the extent to which Chaplin embraced and experimented with sound — just not dialogue). Keaton lost control of his career when sound came in, due to the tyranny of the screenplay, Louis B. Mayer, and the bottle. Harold Lloyd was the happiest case, remaining fairly productive until 1937, making some good talkies, maintaining the visual gags he was known for an augmenting them with verbals. The only thing lost is the ability to undercrank, which robs the action of that lighter-than-air, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quality it can have in silents.

I really like Leo McCarey’s THE MILKY WAY, especially the scene where Harold has to transport a small horse (as I recall) in a taxi cab without the cabbie realising. Harold alibis the occasional whinnying sounds by grinning maniacally, doing his best to look like the kind of man who WOULD whinny in the back of a taxi.

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We ran MOVIE CRAZY (1932) after a hot tip that if we enjoyed Constance Cummings in SEVEN SINNERS, which we did, we should see this one. And how!

Half of the plot is a straight reprise of MERTON OF THE MOVIES, filmed by the same studio the same year under the title MAKE ME A STAR. Deja vu must’ve been a common sensation in those days. Both version suffer from the same problem, the hero being a delusional hopeful who wants to be a movie star. Rooting for his aspirations when he clearly has no talent is tough, and in both cases the filmmakers try to enlist our sympathy by pouring troubles on the hero’s head — Harold’s character even acquires the nickname “Trouble.” Harold wasn’t inherently a lachrymose type, and most of his stories are American success stories about conquering adversity — not too much time for pathos. His best protagonists gain sympathy while keeping busy. So that aspect of the film isn’t too great.

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The other half of the film, loosely connected to it, is the romantic triangle between Harold, Constance Cummings, and Constance Cummings. Harold meets CC twice, once in black wig and costume as a vampish senorita, once in civvies. He doesn’t realise it’s the same dame. Confused by a cunningly contrived chain of circumstance, he comes to believe the dusky damsel fancies him, whereas he does actually stand a chance with the blonde version — but keeps ruining his chances by flirting with her alter ego, thinking she’ll never know.

Cummings is just awfully good here. First she has to make us believe she’s taken a shine to Harold’s no-hoper. Suspending our disbelief requires Herculean efforts: in the end, we can say that she plays it magnificently, but the task is not really a possible one. It’s a bit like a CGI special effect, immaculately rendered with photorealist care, but inherently unbelievable, like all those bits in modern action movies where heroes survive colossal death plunges. Nobody could possibly do it better than Cummings, and the commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t quite result in a success. Harold is penniless, accident prone, talentless, and his self-belief comes across not as admirable but as unjustified arrogance tinged with insanity. But everything else Cummings is given to do, she does with equal commitment, and that stuff works great.

Apart from some very nice gags, scattered a little too far apart, the movie also maintains interest with an elaborate, spectacular shooting style. There are graceful, sweeping crane shots, particularly one which explores a movie set representing a ship at sea, where the camera swings from one position to another, guiding us through the geography of the scene about to unfold and building a fine anticipation. Occasionally, the visual ambition gets a bit carried away with itself, as in one of those “Santa POV” shots, filmed from inside the fireplace, but most of the elaborate moves and angles are more tasteful and effective, as well as being striking.

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“Oh no, Dad’s on fire!”

That ship scene leads to an impressive knock-down fight between Harold and his nasty romantic rival. It’s quite funny, visually grand, and mainly it’s a tremendous release of energy as Harold stops being pathetic and takes care of business. I don’t really like the idea that our hero has to beat the living crap out of someone else to prove he’s a man, but if ever a plot needed a violent drubbing to shake it from the doldrums, this one did.

Come for Harold, stay for Constance, and then fall in love with Harold again, eventually.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Galloping Tintypes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2014 by dcairns

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Jeff Bridges goes ruggedly retro.

Getting into this thing — the New Hollywood observing the old. First, we stuck on GABLE AND LOMBARD, figuring it might make for an entertaining train wreck. In fact, it put us less in mind of a derailed locomotive and more of a shitcart struck by lightning. Sidney J. Furie doesn’t do anything too wrong in the director’s chair except put himself in it in the first place — a Canadian who was so inspired British realist drama he traveled to the UK and made cheapjack horror flicks and Cliff Richard musicals until he could get a gig directing Dudley Sutton and Rita Tushingam (Hey! I’ve worked with both of them, I just realised!) but then seemed to lose his way comprehensively, although THE IPCRESS FILE and THE ENTITY are damned good films. And THE APPALOOSA was big in Romania.

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But Furie is saddled with a drama-free script — the tragic death of Carole Lombard is brought up front, which I guess makes sense because that’s all they’ve got — and he has truly unsuitable stars. James Brolin (!) tries hard as The King of Hollywood, who never had to try hard at all — he does better than you’d think. Jill Clayburgh is the most ludicrous miscasting since John Candy played Basil Rathbone and Leo G. Carroll played Norma Shearer, in films which, strikingly, NEVER EXISTED, and FOR GOOD REASON. WHY does this film exist?

Since there isn’t a story except that sadly she died — I know, it worked for LOVE STORY — a movie like this could only exist via convincing history (Gable’s overnight stardom seems to occur LITERALLY overnight and between scenes) or vigorous caricature (Allen Garfield as Louis B. Mayer seems to be under orders to underplay, and play it nice, and he seems to have just been handed his script seconds before “Action!” is yelled) and Kenneth Anger-style gossip, none of which this movie has. If you’re telling the story of Lombard in the seventies, she HAS to walk around naked and swear all the time. Clayburgh says “shit” but that doesn’t cut it, and she strips to her camiknickers and that’s quite far enough because she doesn’t radiate sex and loveliness — few do like Lombard. I think, making this in the seventies, you probably needed Jane Fonda. Or a Cybill Shepherd who could act. And Jessica Lange hadn’t quite been invented.

(Watching NICKELODEON, it was obvious that Burt Reynolds could have succeeded as Gable. Now imagine him and Shepherd — how much armour would the director have to wear?)

Really awful, and not in an edifying way.

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So we quit (so this should not be seen as an educated assessment of Furie’s film — you can’t REALLY judge something without seeing it all) and tried HEARTS OF THE WEST, directed by Howard Zieff. This was a lot better, though it’s basically MERTON OF THE MOVIES. It has Jeff Bridges in naif mode, Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin. But also felt undercooked, as if everybody was groping their way through the first take and hoping to get better. There are some good longshot visual gags, slightly but not disastrously over-edited. Zieff can’t keep his hands off the zoom, even when staging 30s movie footage — now, regular Shadowplayers will know that they did HAVE the zoom in the early thirties, but it’s not really a sensible way to fake up vintage material.

The movie is fine, but we bailed on it after twenty minutes, because something about the flakey timing reminded us of GABLE AND LOMBARD. Fiona was ready to call it quits, but I proposed sneaking a look at the first five minutes of Peter Bogdanovich’s NICKELODEON — my theory was that it would immediately be obvious when a real director’s work came on. Bogdanovich has a great sense of the rhythm of action and dialogue — arguably he’s sometimes TOO rigorously rhythmic, but that sense of pace was something I was feeling starved of.

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Two hours later, the film was finished — we hadn’t been able to tear ourselves away, and it was 1am. Now that’s a pretty good test of a picture.

So — this week ought to deliver a proper appreciation of Bogdanovich’s achievement. Could it qualify for The Forgotten? I haven’t decided yet…

The Sunday Intertitle: La La Land

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2013 by dcairns

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Title from THE EXTRA GIRL, a Mack Sennett production starring Mabel Normand and directed by F. Richard Jones, in that order.

Title is followed in the movie by a scene of indescribable chaos, as jalopies run riot in the streets and buildings and sidewalks explode with firecrackers…

Plot is a basic MERTON OF THE MOVIES swipe though the story is credited to Sennett, and he got it into cinemas a year ahead of the first official adaptation of Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman’s play. The Gloria Swanson vehicle STAGE STRUCK tread similar water another year later. Basically, the humour derives from a real star playing a no-talent small-town dreamer who WANTS to be a star.

The starting point may be derivative, and the ending is a cheesy “woman, know your place” homily with Normand finding happiness in motherhood rather than a career, but there’s a pretty impressive climax with a lion running wild in the movie studio offices, while Mabel tries to thwack it away with a feather duster. You don’t see that every day.

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Actually, it’s not even the climax — the film unwisely tries to top it. Sennett never did have much structural sense, even in shorts. But not only does the lion sequence impress with its physical reality (no tricks), and serve up some delicious comedy of terror in the best Harold Lloyd manner, but nearly every image in it has a beauty-and-oddity shock effect, as seen above.

Anyway, I’m off to L.A. at an ungodly hour tomorrow morning. on secret business. I’ll try to keep you posted on what goes on there. Hopefully they’ll have the lion problem well in hand by now.

Another version of MERTON.

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