Archive for MGM

Scaramouche / Scaramouche

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by dcairns

Can you do the fandango?

output_st3rn1

All the fops love me. I am down with the fops.

I watched both versions of SCARAMOUCHE, the Metro silent and the MGM talkie. Fiona bailed on both after ten minutes apiece. You have to be in the right mood for fencing and foppery.

vlcsnap-2016-11-13-12h11m51s581

Rex Ingram helmed the 1923 version, starring his discovery Ramon Novarro and his wife Ellen Terry. It’s apparently more faithful to Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which one senses while watching because the plot makes sense and doesn’t depend on outlandish coincidence. Not so the remake.

Lewis Stone (below, left) is in both versions. I like when that happens. He’s the big baddie in the Ingram but is demoted to a lesser Frenchman in George Sidney’s 1952 swashbuckler. (It was seeing and enjoying Sidney’s KISS ME KATE that got me onto this SCARAMOUCHE kick.)

vlcsnap-2016-11-13-12h07m58s482

In the remake, the title character is actually a drunken, disfigured actor who wears a mask to perform. Stewart Granger steals his identity and we never see him again. The makeup, we are told, is created by William Tuttle. “Created,” you note. Not just slapped on. CREATED. Tuttle does that weird thing he does (his brushwork is very recognizable) where the lines of the face seem like whorls, layers of liquid solidified in the act of pouring on like thick cream.

The role is played by Henry Corden, and he’s uncredited. In the title role! Poor bastard. He actually IS Scaramouche. Granger just takes his name and costume, the cheeky sod.

vlcsnap-2016-11-17-21h59m09s825

The leads: in the silent, the cast are all equally decent and equally a bit miscast. Novarro reminds himself to laugh cynically upon occasion to remind us he was born with a sense the world was mad. In the Technicolor talkie, Stewart Granger is required to play the hero as a total dick for quite a lot of screen time. He does it with aplomb. Mel Ferrer is his opponent, and the plot has been rejigged to make their backstory suitable for contemporaries. Now, Ferrer’s character is also a dick, and one notices that he’s more than usually appealing in the role. In fact, either of these guys could have played the baddie, but neither is right for the hero. They have a kind of charisma but not a likability. I never really noticed Ferrer’s charisma anywhere else because the prevailing feeling was that I didn’t like him. Being a villain liberates him.

vlcsnap-2016-11-17-22h00m16s847

Kudos to those two lugs also for committing to the really terrific duels, which Sidney shoots like musical numbers, sweeping crane shots broken up with a few static compositions that pop in contrast. The business looks physically exhausting and a little risky. The final sword fight is supposed to be the longest ever, but doesn’t feel protracted, just satisfyingly thorough. PRINCESS BRIDE fans may notice a bit of business.

vlcsnap-2016-11-17-22h02m43s817

Much of the deforming of the storyline seems to be intended to favour Eleanor Parker as “Lenore,” a role seemingly created especially for her (note the name). The equivalent role in the silent is a fairly small bit by comparison. But the real female lead is Janet Leigh (above), the only American cast who doesn’t bother trying to change her natural accent, and as a result the most natural player in the film (Nina Foch does wonders, though, as Marie Antoinette). Best scene is probably Granger hitting on Leigh and then discovering she’s his long-lost sister. Well-played, Jimmy! (Granger’s birth name was Jimmy Stewart, which for obvious reasons he had to change, but everyone still called him Jimmy. Why didn’t he choose Jimmy Granger?)

vlcsnap-2016-11-17-22h04m04s961

Both movies showcase dramatic glass shots.

As mentioned in comments earlier, the MGM movie surprisingly omits the French Revolution, which is built up to and then dropped as an apparently still-hot potato. Structurally, this is acceptable because it allows the movie to climax with the splendid duel, but it does seem to imply that the (off-screen) King’s democratic compromises were successful in appeasing the people. The Metro version takes the more mature line that the Revolution was good but the Rein of terror bad, but this means that it kind of lacks a strong ending, fizzling out with the hero and his new-found family simply running away. But it finds a more satisfying fate for its bad guy (whereas Mel Ferrer simply evaporates, an odd result in a film driven entirely by the hero’s thirst for revenge).

A new version could be interesting. Neither movie quite joins the dots between the hero’s politics, his revenge quest and his career as a clown, whereas the first sentence of Sabatini’s book already gives me confidence that he’s working on a Unified Theory of Revolutionary Swashbuckling.

vlcsnap-2016-11-17-22h03m43s592

In the 70s, when Richard Lester was having a lot of success with, broadly speaking, this kind of material, Dustin Hoffman, of all people, approached him with the idea of a remake. Part of his obsession with playing superannuated students, I guess. Lester met him and they got on well, but politely declined the job, feeling that Hoffman’s perfectionism and we might call his own kick-scramble-bollocks approach were ill-matched and bound to end in heartache or nervous breakdowns.

 

Send in the Clans

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

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h51m40s700

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h42m22s144

(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.)

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h47m07s685

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h43m21s631

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h46m11s181

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-13-08h50m59s047

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

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h32m26s227

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h37m19s35

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h37m23s88

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h39m02s43

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h49m39s32

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h36m43s207

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h35m54s201

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.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h10m59s123

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.