Archive for MGM

The Sunday Intertitle: Ich

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 5, 2017 by dcairns

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“What power is at work here?” asks the government man, and Fritz Lang cuts to his chief villain, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, who says, simply “I” — even though he’s in another room in another building in another part of town and can’t be conversing with the spymaster who doesn’t know he exists…

The idea of words connecting to images to bridge scenes is a big Fritz Lang trope, and he used it again, after SPIONE, the example quoted above, in M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE. And then he took it to Hollywood and did it a bit in FURY at MGM. And then he phased it out, as if he felt it were somehow un-American, until his return to Germany to make THE INDIAN TOMB and THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, and it came back in full force: a line at the end of one scene will be picked up by an image at the start of the next. A bit of film language that had lain dormant in Lang’s dark heart for decades, and suddenly burst into life again under the lights of Babelsberg.

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MGM seems like a peculiar home for Lang anyway, and indeed “that marriage did not last,” as Donald Sutherland would say, though in fairness none of Lang’s studio relationships lasted for more than a few films. His journey back to Germany may have been prompted by the fact that nobody in Hollywood would talk to him anymore, I don’t know.

But the weird thing is, there’s a beautiful example of this device in my favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — see here. And this was the very first MGM release. It was meant to be.

The chances of anything coming from MGM are a million to one, he says

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2017 by dcairns


HULLABALOO (1940) is an odd thing. To be clear, we were only watching it for Virginia O’Brien’s debut.

Here’s the story with Virginia: when she first sang on stage she got stage fright, but carried on singing. The audience was comvulsed in hysterics at the sight of this frozen rigid, erect young girl with her eyes wide in panic, belting out her song like a song-belting machine. She liked the laughter, and incorporated the big eyes and stiff stance into her act.

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(In DUBARRY WAS A LADY, Red Skelton asks “Are you sure?” and Gene Kelly says “As sure as she’s alive!” and Red retorts “Aw, you’ll have to give me better proof than THAT!” and all the while Ginny is standing right there, and walks off mechanically as if she hasn’t registered any of it.)

But the plot in this one, though thin and constantly supplanted by random novelty acts, is interesting — it’s MGM’s response to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Here, a radio novice performs a play about invaders from Jupiter and panics America. This film followed pretty swiftly on the heels of the real incident, and came out a year before the first product of the Hollywood contract Welles won with his little stunt.

How does MGM re-imagine, or de-imagine the story? Well, the whole thing must be an innocent misunderstanding. The radio performer is a talented but innocent, lovable fellow who certainly didn’t mean to start a rumpus, and certainly wasn’t attempting to prove anything. He should be played by someone cuddly, muddleheaded and appealing. Someone like… Frank Morgan!

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Interesting to see Frank Morgan co-starring here with Dan Dailey before THE MORTAL STORM and with Billie Burke after THE WIZARD OF OZ. And Morgan is pretty enjoyable  doing his schtick. It’s just pretty weird to think this was somebody’s idea of Orson Welles.

One conceit of the plot is that F.M. radio relies on F.M. being a man of a thousand voices, which the actor wasn’t. So they dub him a lot whenever he does his impressions, except occasionally — he seems to be doing Charles Boyer without the aid of a man hidden behind a curtain (EVERY film we see lately seems to have a Charles Boyer impression, and we haven’t even been looking at Pepe le Pew cartoons… YET). Since all the celebrities — Gable, Lamar, Rooney — are from the MGM stable, I assumed they were providing their own vocals, but NO — impersonators, apart from an audio clip from BOOM TOWN that allows Morgan to lip-sync to Gable, Colbert and Tracy in a clip from BOOM TOWN, thus forcing the paying audience of HULLABALOO to sit through an ad for another MGM release.

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Mad genius costume designer Dolly Tree outfits Ann Morriss as Dan Dailey’s castrating fiancee with a set of scissors hanging from her throat.

You can tell it’s an MGM film also because the comedy punches down — we’re meant to laugh at a carny who has to give away all his prizes, and a love-starved widow, and a butler who doesn’t get paid, etc. Tenor Charles Holland gets to sing two songs, but the first is Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny, because he’s black, and the second, though it’s Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci, he has to sing dressed as a bellhop, in case we forgot he’s black.

A man walks through a door funny

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2017 by dcairns

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Do I need to explain the title? I will if you want me to.

So having watched the later Esther Williams spectaculars, JUPITER’S DARLING, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, EASY TO LOVE and DANGEROUS WHEN WET (plus ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME) we eventually ran an early effort, BATHING BEAUTY, which sadly has nothing to do with Mack Sennett but features a scene I’d heard about, without recalling what movie it was from…

First, this film — it has Red Skelton as hero, getting more screen time than Esther, and it has Basil Rathbone as a louse, and an all-too brief Margaret Dumont bit. MGM evidently didn’t have confidence in Esther carrying a film yet (but her low-key performing style is DELIGHTFUL) so they stuff the film with all the crap distractions they can find — Xavier Cugat, pint-sized cutie Jean Porter, wild organist Ethel Smith, Lina Romay (not the Jesus Franco star, wonderful though that would be), Harry James and his orchestra, Helen Forrest, Colombian baritone Carlos Ramirez (although “Colombian baritone” sounds like something horrible they do to you in the drugs trade to send a strong message)… at the end there’s a big ridiculous water pageant so Esther can do her stuff, but she remains dry apart from that and the opening scene, so it’s really just a foretaste of the wonders to come. George Sidney directs with a lot of lush colour and swooping crane-work. Directorial suavity allows Harry James to float over the heads of his big band while blasting his trumpet…

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The film has seven credited screenwriters, absurdly — the story is paper-thin and the runtime is about fifty per cent irrelevant musical numbers, but I’m interested mainly in an uncredited scenarist, Buster Keaton, who was back working at MGM as a gag man, getting paid about a hundredth of what he’d earned there as a star, and happy to get it. They called Buster in having trapped Red Skelton in a closet with a big dog outside. Red has to escape the house and get back to his dorm or he’ll be expelled.

First he drags up in Esther’s clothes which he can somehow fit, but the dog recognizes him even in disguise (must be those overdeveloped smile muscles). Then he gets the idea of meowing, waving a fox fur at the hound, and throwing it out the window. The dog obligingly bounds out the window in pursuit. Red slams the window and starts to leave, but the dog is now waiting at the front door.

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Nice protracted bit where Red rushes from door to window and back, always finding the mutt waiting for him at either aperture. The dog isn’t really dislikably fierce — one actually admires his, ahem, doggedness.

This is all quite amusing but apparently none of the seven or was it eight writers (yup, IMDb supplies an uncredited eighth) could think of a solution that would allow Red to escape.

Buster suggested he go to the door, unfasten the hinges, and then lift the detached door. Holding it by the inside of the frame, Red turns it like a revolving door — he leaves the house as the dog enters, trying to get at him. The dog ends up stuck indoors and Red is free.

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The fact that this is an engineering gag marks it out as recognizably Buster’s, even if we hadn’t been told.

There’s another Buster moment though. As the only male student at a girl’s college, (long story — it took eight writers to write it — or nine, counting Buster) Red is forced to attend a eurythmics class, which turns out to be just plain old ballet. Former vaudevillian Ann Codee is teacher, mercilessly slapping Red around. At one point, she orders him to put his foot on the bar. Red does so, stretching his poor abductor muscles pitifully, then unaccountably decides to put his other foot up on the bar too. He succeeds, momentarily, only to fall on his ass on account of not having anything holding him up.

Fiona and I both recognized this gag — I was going to sat it’s the first movie pratfall Buster ever performed. In THE BUTCHER BOY (1917), Buster’s flap shoes get stuck to the floor with molasses. Tugging his right foot free, he places it on the counter to keep it out of the sticky mess. Then he tugs the left foot free and places it next to the right, for neatness’ sake, an instant before he finds himself sat on the floor. But in fact, that’s not what happens in THE BUTCHER BOY, that version of events only occured when Buster recreated the sequence in his TV show, as seen in Kevin Brownlow’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. And that’s AFTER the Red Skelton iteration of the “put your feet up” gag. But I still believe it’s Buster’s idea.

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The whole ballet routine is very good work from Skelton. He gets a sweetie wrapper stuck to his foot (shades of the molasses gag) and is trying to get rid of it while dancing, passing it from foot to hand to hand to other ballerina, who passes it on around the room via every other girl and back to Red. A nice idea, beautifully staged by Sidney, performed by Skelton and the cast — and almost certainly conceived by Buster.