Archive for Mervyn Johns

Final Curtain for Mr. Curtiz

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2018 by dcairns

This is a hilarious directorial credit: an unresurrected Christ lying just below the moniker of a man moments from death himself. Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

The idea of making a study of late Curtiz would normally only occur to somebody actually writing a book on the Hungarian-born filmmaker, because the view has long been that Curtiz had a strong sense of visual style but no particular set of obsessions to make a traditional auteur of him. So why look at his later, not-so good movies?

Curtiz made every kind of film, it seems. (Those who claim to have made every kind of film tend to be lacking in the horror, sci-fi and musical departments, but Curtiz made those too.) He brought a strong visual sensibility, but apparently cared nothing for themes and not much for actors or story. His boss, Jack Warner, wrote: “I had a general conversation with Mike Curtiz in the usual Curtiz manner in the dining room at noon, and all he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say a word about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz—as he always will be!”

B. Kite is very good on this here. (Scroll down past my nonsense.)

B. also once opined to me that Curtiz maybe only works in black & white, though perhaps it’s truer and fairer to say that a certain quality of Curtiz comes through strongest that way. I think his two-strip terrors MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DOCTOR X. are terrific, so maybe Curtiz is still Curtiz with two strips of colour, but loses out with three. There are definitely good colour films made by Curtiz: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, WE’RE NO ANGELS, etc. But they don’t quite have the distinct visual splendour of his WB monochrome movies. B. sees him, I think, as a very pure channel for the WB house style.

Still, the first thing to be said about Curtiz’s last three features is that they’re visually lovely, at least in places. All three are widescreen, and he seems able to adapt his tight compositions to the 1:2.35 frame ratio more comfortably than I would imagine 1:1.88 might suit him. A degree of difficulty helps him, and widescreen and academy ratio are both hard to compose for (snakes and funerals on the one hand, bungalows and bulldogs on the other).

   

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1960) is frequently absolutely gorgeous, which matters a lot because it doesn’t quite find the right tone: you feel like some very good humour is being reported to you by somebody who doesn’t quite get it. Eddie Hodges (Huck) and Archie Moore (Jim) are decent, but don’t seem to gel with each other or anybody else. The rest of the cast go for big and broad: Tony Randall makes the most and then some of a series of phony accents, partnered up with Mickey Shaugnessy to create a team similar to the bad guys in Disney’s PINOCCHIO; Buster Keaton forms another of his unlikely double acts with Andy Devine, and doesn’t get to MOVE; Finlay Currie is fine as always. The best completely straight perf is Neville Brand, authentically scary and nasty as Pap Finn.

Now, as far back as THE EGYPTIAN in 1954, Peter Ustinov had formed the impression that Curtiz was not all there. He had always laboured under a considerable linguistic handicap (his mangling of the language was legendary, and wonderfully poetic at times — “Bring on the empty horses!” was evocative enough for David Niven to use it as title for one of his memoirs), and this combined with age and his disengagement from his actors maybe made him not the ideal man to do Twain. But he had succeeded at many other unlikely subjects in the past.

The Cinemascope stiffness, coupled with Curtiz’s own, the big, forced performances, and a lot of overplaying whenever Huck has to invent a “stretcher,” combine to stifle most of the comic possibilities here, so what we get instead is some moderate suspense and a pageant of grotesque characters and attractive settings. Ted D. McCord does a great job shooting it and Jerome Moross provides a typically ebullient score. It’s not poor, but it’s not quite alive.

Never mind, FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1961) is a religious epic, so you wouldn’t ever expect it to be alive, and it sure doesn’t disappoint. Saint-to-be Francis is played by a series of beautiful matte paintings of Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman is his frenemy/rival, and Dolores Hart the girl he throws over for God. She’s the only one in the film who breathes any humanity into her role, struggling against stiff dialogue and stilted situations. There’s a surprising lack of miracles and the animal-taming bit is given very  little play, surprisingly. Finlay Currie is fine as always, promoted from riverboat captain to pope, a big step up for an Edinburgh man.

   

Lots of spectacle, some of it impressive. The landscapes and the groupings of people fill the frame inventively, but Curtiz’s signature camera moves are becoming ever less frequent. He’ll push in occasionally; follow people about a little; but the grand sweep of his glory days when he’d hurry on to a set at an acute angle to the action, letting foreground furniture flash past, that’s all gone.

Bradford Dillman is someone I quite like, but he’s hopelessly adrift here. I’m not sure who could animate the script’s plaster saint. Occasional lines referring to Francis as “little” make you imagine someone intended him to be mild-mannered and tiny: by chance, Mervyn Johns is to hand, and I thought to myself, “Get me a young Mervyn Johns.” It can only work as a character part, as it’s so sexless. (Dillman could have slid some sly sensuality in there if there’d been the faintest opportunity: isn’t that what he’s for? Those lips!)

Piero Portalupi shot it and Mario Nascimbene provides the choral uplift.The film Curtiz bowed out on, however, was THE COMANCHEROS, released the same year (Curtiz died, aged 75, the following year). It’s pretty fair, I guess. If I liked John Wayne a bit more, or Stuart Whitman at all, I might call it an impressive finish for him. I think Whitman is miscast as a New Orleans gent on the run for killing a man in a duel. A lot of this movie is supposed to be enjoyable because of the spectacle of the plebeian Duke shoving his highfalutin prisoner around, but Whitman isn’t enough of a toff. You need Peter Lawford, probably. Wow, I never thought I’d type those words.

John Wayne had quite a track record of late films, didn’t he? After all there’s this, RIO LOBO, which was Howard Hawks’ last; BIG JAKE, George Sherman’s last; JET PILOT, a late Sternberg; BLOOD ALLEY, a late Wellman; TRUE GRIT, a late Hathaway; and THE CONQUEROR, which killed just about everyone in it. He also directed his own last film as director, BIG JAKE THE GREEN BERETS, and starred in his own last film as actor, THE SHOOTIST, a conscious self-elegy. I guess he just liked working with old guys when he was old, The most charming moment in THE COMANCHEROS is when Wayne signs into a hotel using the pseudonym “Ed McBain” and we notice that cinematographer William H. Clothier and the rest of the crew have checked in ahead of him. Curtiz hasn’t checked in, probably because he’s too busy checking out.

The best scene is a poker game where the single-source lighting is really beautiful and Wayne looks SO different and so much more interesting. Also playing is Lee Marvin, a bad guy with half a scalp (you could probably build a whole other Lee Marvin out of the bits Marvin had removed in his various characterisations). Elsewhere, the Arizona and Utah settings are epic and prehistoric. The finale is a bit pathetic: leading lady Ina Balin has to get over the death of her bad guy father in abound four seconds so she can look overjoyed at the happy ending. See also the studio-imposed finish of ONE-EYED JACKS.

Elmer Bernstein does the music on this one, and although it’s a bit more stately than THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, as befits Wayne’s age and lumbering gait, you get the idea. It seemed kind of weird to me how the music stays celebratory during life-and-death conflicts and chases. Shouldn’t we be taking this seriously?THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: Starring Rockwell P. Hunter, Rhoda Penmark, Maj. Marvin Groper, Hunk Houghton, Daisy Hawkins, Link Appleyard, Rollo Treadway, Reinhardt Heidrich, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Fury, Johnny Farragut and Magwitch.

FRANCIS OF ASSISI: Starring Big Eddie, Lisa Held, Orvil Newton, Prof. Thurgood Elson, Dr. Stern, Mrs. Karswell, Bob Cratchit and Magwitch again.

THE COMANCHEROS: Starring Ethan Edwards, Orvil Newton again, Little Bonaparte, Liberty Valance, Lt. Greenhill, John Driscoll, Charlie Max and Garbitsch.

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Frends at Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by dcairns

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OK, a little gentle nudging got me to look at Charles Frend’s unofficial trilogy of WWII sea pictures. When we get to THE CRUEL SEA it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be, so be patient…

First up, THE BIG BLOCKADE (1942) isn’t purely a sea picture, it’s about the economic war on Germany. It’s pure wartime propaganda, Ealing’s bit for the war effort, just over an hour long and a kind of sketch film, written by former Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail. Forced jocularity and British actors playing Germans and Italians and Russians. Historically interesting, of course. The Germans are the baddies — we’re encouraged to laugh as the factory management are threatened with Dachau if they don’t keep up production — the Italians are just a joke. “You violate me in international law!” protests a wop captain. “Wouldn’t dream of it, old boy,” comes the dry response.

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Robert Morley as a Nazi is a sight to see. Even more lip-smacking than usual.

The ocean-going bit involves Will Hay, popular British comedian — certainly a better character actor than George Formby or Arthur Askey, so I suppose we should be grateful. But his whole scene is basically a lot of information shoveled down the audience’s throat without enough comedy to make it halfway palatable. In the flying bit we get John Mills and Michael Rennie — Quatermass and Klaatu! — on the same plane. No wonder we won.

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I enjoyed the film mainly for the model shots and the sometimes bizarre stunt casting. Nazi Germany as Toyland.

Naval pictures are quite weird animals. They consist on the one hand of miniatures and special effects — the fantasy cinema of Georges Melies where everything is flimsily constructed and presented with a magician’s sleight-of-hand — and on the other hand, of stock footage, actuality material of the real war, with real waves, ships and (implied) death. In between these two extremes are the actors, sometimes on location, sometimes in sets. They have the tricky job of gluing it all together with dramaturgic paste. All Frend’s skills as a former editor are needed to maintain an illusion of cause and effect.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) is Ealing Studio’s tribute to the Merchant Marines, with a no-star cast but some favourite character people turning up amid the ensemble, such as Mervyn Johns and a baby-faced Gordon Jackson. Script is by Frend with Robert Hamer and F. Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to see the Peepshow was Hamer’s dream project as director. The team concoct some amusing banter.

“Nice bit of gun, that.”

“Ah, guns is like women, you never know until you’re in action. And then it’s too late.”

And Hamer’s reputation as a boozer is confirmed by some nicely observed drinking rituals. “Drink?” “At this hour? Thanks.”

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The first surprise is when the titular boat is shelled at sea and the crew have to man the lifeboats. One lot endure a rocky couple of nights in an inky ocean which is actually rear-projected in negative. It’s like the coach ride from NOSFERATU, an intersticial realm between filmic dimensions of reality — I suppose they slipped into it owing to that weird gulf between archive footage and miniatures.

The second surprise is when, spotting what they think is a rescue ship, the lifeboat survivors find it’s their own bloody ship again, still ablaze but miraculously unsunk and unexploded. In a gingerly fashion, they get aboard and try to make her shipshape, since another night in the lifeboat seems unsurvivable. So what we have is a tale not of warfare but simple survival. It’s all quite compelling, low-key and restrained in the British tradition. The really touching bit involves the men getting a cash bonus for salvaging their own vessel. Ealing’s love of camaraderie and the common man shine through. In fact, the studio was somewhat socialistic, and Ealing boss Michael Balcon was on a secret committee tasked with preparing the British public for a Labour government after the war. Here, the sailors share in the profits of their toils as we were all supposed to.

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SAN DEMETRIO LONDON ends in Scotland, and THE CRUEL SEA (1953) begins there, as Jack Hawkins gets his new vessel and new crew. The immediate dramatic issue becomes Stanley Baker, loudmouthed first mate, a used car salesman in civilian life (the other officers are all respectable middle-class solicitors and copywriters and such). He has to be gotten rid of with what’s either a duodenal ulcer or neurotic malingering. It’s suggested that he wouldn’t have had the mental resilience for war — although two of the remaining men show marked signs of strain later. Baker certainly makes a strong impression, snarling and sneering as if on the verge of erupting from sheer class resentment. He even vomits angrily, in what must be the most shocking emetic sequence of fifties British cinema — it’s not that it’s explicitly depicted, it’s just what Baker is able to do with the power of acting alone. That man could puke for Wales.

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With Baker out of the picture, genteel Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and John Stratton supply Hawkins’ support, and the film gets into its stride. When Elliot died, Dennis Potter appeared on TV to testify to his chum’s unique ability to suggest, by the merest contractions of the muscles around the jaw, the good impulses in a bad man struggling to get out, or the bad influences in a good man struggling to get out. He’s already doing it here!

The whole movie is about the psychological effects of war: living at close quarters in unpleasant conditions, fear of death, dealing with suffering and mutilation, and ultimately, being forced to make decisions that are hard to live with. The kind of material dealt with would have been impossible to show in wartime, I think. IN WHICH WE SERVE features civilian casualties and isn’t all upbeat flag-waving, but it’s hard to believe they could have gotten away with a captain sacrificing men in the water in order to depth-charge an enemy sub — that might not be there.

The sequence is boldly conceived and brilliantly cut. Realizing he needed a shot of the dead bodies drifting away from the ship, a shot he’d neglected to take, Frend reversed a shot in which the bodies are coming closer. So the emotional climax of the scene features seagulls whirling in the air tail-feathers-first, something nobody ever notices since the attention is riveted upon the centre of dramatic interest.

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Hawkins is excellent, of course, in the role that made him. He’d been bumming around the British film industry since the early thirties, appearing in a talkie version of THE LODGER where his great jack-o-lantern head bobbles about atop scrawny scarecrow limbs, made the more ghastly by pallid greasepaint and dark lipstick. Hawkins the Death-Clown. Putting on a bit of weight was essential to balance off that vast cranium — once he turned into a toby jug he was somehow acceptable, and made a fine character player for Reed, Powell, Gilliatt, Dickinson, Mackendrick. But he wasn’t usually asked to carry so much of the show as he is here.

Frend helps his actors along with some striking uses of sound, no doubt indicated in Eric Ambler’s script. As dead men float on the waves, we hear their memories, as if their brains, winding down to a long sleep, were replaying a few stuck phrases… and when Hawkins gets his new command, he momentarily hears screams coming from the speaking tube, a stray memory of the sinking of his last ship. I think these unusual effects come jointly from Ambler’s background as a novelist and Frend’s as editor, pushing the emotional dial up to a near-unbearable pitch by sheer brilliance of technique.

The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by dcairns

From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.

A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.

By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.

Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:

“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”

There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”

“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”

It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]