Archive for MGM

Send in the Clans

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Or, 2,000 McManiacs.

It was inevitable that, on my journey through Vincente Minnelli’s cinema — which is extremely rich and there’s more of it than you think — I would have to face BRIGADOON, a movie which seems to give Scots some trouble. In the same way as you’re unlikely to find anyone in Ireland with uncomplicated admiration for THE QUIET MAN. I guess that film is MORE embarrassing because Ford claimed Irishness, yet produced a gruesome slice of what is known as paddywhackery. The tartan tat of BRIGADOON is entirely the work of outsiders — Lerner & Lowe don’t sound too Scottish, neither does Minnelli, and it’s amusing to go through the cast list and check off the birthplaces of the actors. Elaine Stewart and Hugh Laing SOUND Scottish, but they’re from New Jersey and Barbados respectively. Other “highlanders” hail from Lancashire, Wales and Northern Ireland — it’s like they wanted a sampling of every distinctive accent they could find without ever touching upon the authentic.

Quite sensible, perhaps — anything authentic in this studio confection could prove fatal. Cyd Charisse sets the style, adopting a weird vowel (not necessarily the RIGHT weird vowel, but an alternative from her usual pronunciation) roughly every third word. It’s hilarious for five minutes, then we got used to it. I imagine it’s pretty amusing to most Brits, less obvious to Americans. Australians, Kiwis and Canadians probably see through it.

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(Cultural appropriation is GOOD, as a rule, and I feel flattered that Broadway and Hollywood found Scotland worthy of ingesting. It’s even more flattering in something like BRAVE where they made sure to get the accents right — or, if not right, at least Scottish [there are a score of distinct regional variations within this one tiny country]. BRAVE is pure BRIGADOON, but get the right voices and nobody here is embarrassed — I saw the film introduced by Alex Salmond.)

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What has to be admitted is the grandeur of the fakery — not the vocal stuff, but the scenery and photography. Every exterior is backed with heather-covered miniature hills. I prayed for Cyd, just once, to take the wrong turning and run up the mountain path so that the forced perspective would make a giantess of her within steps, before she smacked into the louring sky. It’s all really impressive, false in just the right way — except the two wide shots of the village, which for some reason look cheap and crappy. You’d think they’d be really important shots to get right, but because they don’t feature actors and dancing they seem to have been handed to the trainee.

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Shot in Anscocolor! I thought that was only used as a cheap alternative to Technicolor, but I think Minnelli must have liked the earth tones. It has a rich but sort of muted quality compared to most MGM musicals, and is probably the best preserved-example of the short-lived process.

The whole premise makes precious little sense — and the idea of the minister praying his village into a time-warp brings the church into it in a way that feels unnecessary. There ARE Scottish myths about lost time and waking up a hundred years later, but they’re decidedly not Christian — they concern the fairy folk, and have a lot in common with the “lost time” reported by UFO abductees.

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Subtextually, the story deals with a man petrified of marriage who is offered a magical alternative (not involving priests) in a subculture off the map — I can sort of see how Minnelli might have been intrigued. As with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE there could be a gay subtext here. (At the Freed Unit? Surely not!)

What stops the film consistently reaching the heights of the best of Minnelli (or Lerner & Lowe) is the religiose solemnity permeating the Highland scenes — that’s why the most impressive stuff breaks free of this. When Hugh Laing, who hates everybody in his village, entirely justifiably seeing it as a hellish prison (all that weaving!) seeks to leave, thereby bringing out a local apocalypse, things get really exciting. It’s hard not to sympathise with the man hunted by a Frankensteinian mob with flaming firebrands. It also calls to mind similar torchlight parades in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and TEA AND SYMPATHY. Minnelli’s idyllic little communities sometimes have something scary lurking underneath.

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Van Johnson: “I just shot a guy, and now I seem to have GUNS ON MY MIND.”

And then the best stuff of all is New York, envisioned as an overcrowded inferno (OK, maybe not a concept requiring vast resources of imagination), the background gabble turned up to 11 to the point where you really start to get a headache trying to hear the foreground dialogue. Minnelli became a huge success due to his ability to deliver musical uplift with high style and inhuman cinematic elegance, but his left-handed technique, which would have doomed him to minor cult status if it were all he had, is a mastery of acute discomfort, putting the audience through several different kinds of ringer, pulling in several different directions at once, (See THE LONG, LONG TRAILER if you don’t believe me!) This extra string to his bow makes me admire him even more, if that were possible.

Everything But the Boys

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2016 by dcairns

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The five Marx Bros: Dicko, Flappo, Groucho, Bono and Beardo.

Continuing what may be a series looking at the non-Marx Bros elements in Marx Bros films. A project which may be on a par with the “definitive cinematic study of Gummo Marx” spoken of in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES.

If ANIMAL CRACKERS shows some potentially strong collaborators not quite at their best (Lillian Roth at sea, Margaret Dumont slightly too amused), by the time of A DAY AT THE RACES everything is a lot more polished — maybe too polished. Thalberg threw quality trimmings at the Bros, as if to submerge them, and the results are somtimes jarring. Harpo and Chico (and formerly Zeppo) supplied their own musical interludes, which vary the pace more than I’d like already — the addition of big song and dance numbers not featuring any of the main characters (I refuse to consider Allan Jones a main character) has a serious drag effect.

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Still, Margaret Dumont is by now in her pomp. In ANIMAL CRACKERS she was my age, and was starting to seem worryingly sexy to me. Here, she’s a bit older and again appears a genderless dowager cutout. She’s standing on her dignity more, when not swept off her feet, and more plausibly suggests Groucho’s characterisation of her an an innocent who didn’t understand his jokes. That’s the character, mind you — we have to accept by now that Groucho was greatly exaggerating. The woman had been in comedy for years.

Mrs. Upjohn is an essentially decent person, only a hypochondriac and apt to throw her weight around. Her most unsympathetic qualities are (a) she likes the water ballet and (b) she offers money to support Maureen O’Sullivan’s sanitorium but does not immediately dosh it out. This is one reason we dislike rich people, isn’t it? They COULD give us lots of money, but choose not to.

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O’Sullivan scores points by sulking through the water ballet. Audience identification is complete.

As a cause to strive for, this sanitorium is a dim proposition, mind you. We never see any of the good work it presumably does, and O’Sullivan hires a horse doctor as chief of staff without checking his credentials. I think we’re supposed to care just because Maureen is so damned attractive, and also because she’s being bullied by businessman Douglas Dumbrille and her own business manager, Leonard Ceeley. Both actors are instantly hateful — did they ever play nice guys? Ceeley seems charmless even for a heavy, but comes into his own wonderfully when tormented by Groucho over the telephone. This man does apoplexy on an international level.

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Who else? Ah, Sig Rrrrumann, rrrolling his rrrrs and eyes, pointing his beard with deadly pinpoint accuracy. With Dumont and Rumann sharing the screen, the movie packs more stoogepower than a Republican debate. If the MGM patina of moralism and sentiment deceives us into worrying about who’s in the right, we’d be forced to conclude that Rumann is the film’s hero, campaigning for medical standards like Will Smith in CONCUSSION. No such thing. He is a legitimate target for Groucho, since (a) he’s a stuffed shirt and (b) what his shirt is stuffed with is finest-grade Sig Rumann. I think it’s genetic.

A lot of outrage has been expended over the big musical number with the black folks, which is indeed somewhat patronizing, but only becomes downright insulting when the boys smear axle grease on their faces to merge with the crowd (apart from Harpo, who disguises himself as an inhabitant of Cheron, the Frank Gorshin planet in Star Trek). On a more positive note, the sequence features some great singing and dancing talent, and there’s a teenage Dorothy Dandridge as an extra, somewhere in the throng of happy ethnic stereotypes.

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Wingnut Sam Wood directs, probably the most skilled filmmaker to get his hands on a Marx Bros film since Leo McCarey, and he produces much slicker results. It’s kind of startling to see Groucho look, and then get a cut to what he’s looking at. Unlike ANIMAL CRACKERS, where we peer into a proscenium arch throughout, here the action is photographed from the inside, as Hitchcock would say. Whether the Marxes need or even benefit from this cinematic value is questionable.

The most tiresome aspect of MGM’s high-gloss approach, apart from the diversionary set-pieces, is the need to tie the boys to some noble cause. Groucho has to enlist out of some kind of innate nobility, and his relations with O’Sullivan have to be portrayed as chivalrous. This is all wrong, terribly wrong. ANIMAL CRACKERS had the sense to keep Groucho from interacting with the sympathetic characters at all, because all he could do in character would be abuse them. By surrounding him with stuffed shirts and stooges, the Paramount films gave him free rein to be himself. Buster Keaton departed MGM telling Louis B. Mayer, “You warped my character.” Though the damage is less, the charge is true here also.

 

Robert R. Service with a Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by dcairns

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Start as you mean to go on — the opening shot of THE SHOOTING OF DAN MCGOO.

I got out my French Tex Avery box set — the gift that keeps on giving — and we ran two toons, both based on the same Robert W. Service — DANGEROUS DAN MCFOO (Warner Bros, 1939) and THE SHOOTING OF DAN MCGOO (MGM, 1945). The former features a Droopy prototype voiced by Mel Blanc to sound almost exactly like Elmer Fudd. The latter features Droopy himself, along with the wolf and the ubiquitous Red Hot Riding Hood figure, here recast as “the lady known as Lou.” Lou in the first film is a little dog styled after Bette Davis (though I still say the voice sounds more like Katherine Hepburn, a hound of a different pedigree). In the second film, Lou has a Mae West purr and a fuller figure. Plus, she’s a human, which I find helps make her attractive, though it does raise uncomfortable questions about her exact relationship with Droopy.

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In a few years, Avery’s comic style had advanced markedly, with more absurd jokes and violations of filmic reality, and also much better character design. The WB films are still trying to be cute, even though Avery’s cartoon universe has only limited, and very subversive, uses for cuteness.

Both films rely heavily on puns to take the mickey out of the serious V.O. (the exact same extracts from the poem are read in both films), but the imagery this results in is far more bizarre in the MGM film. Oddly, for a wolfie movie this is fairly restrained — his reactions to Lou’s showgirl routine, apart from the initial eye-pop (“Go ‘way, boys, you bother me,” Lou tells the hovering orbs), are just about physically possible, or anyhow they’re versions of things that are physically possible. The wolf kicks himself in the head, howls, bays like a donkey, and bites chunks out of a wooden beam. The gags in RURAL RED RIDING HOOD reach far loftier heights of insanity. My favourite here is the wolf seizing his own neck and bashing his head off the tabletop — his head and neck become a long, flapping, fapping length of semi-tumescent gristle — Freudian readings are, as ever, quite redundant with Avery.

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Though a lesser work on every level, the earlier film, viewed as a sort of preliminary sketch, is fascinating, and there are some good, bizarre gags. When the referee of the impromptu boxing match between the proto-wolf and proto-Droopy investigates an allegation that the bad guy has something in his glove, he shakes lose a horseshoe, then another, then another, then an entire horse. Sort of predictable, but it does yield the delightful image of a horse emerging from a glove. Freeze frame it!

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You see — nothing impossible about that at all.

The boxing match (pretty sure there isn’t one in the Service poem) naturally requires a bell to signal the rounds, so Avery naturally has a trolley-car rocket into the saloon for that purpose.

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On the other hand, the remake-thing has a barroom piano player say, in Jimmy Durante voice, “What a repulsive way to make a living!” which is inexplicably the best thing ever. And it has this ~

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And this ~

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And this ~

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