Archive for Michael Curtiz

Young Men with Horns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY from a charity shop on a whim, not knowing anything about it. The DVD didn’t say who the director was, though I kind of doubted it was going to turn out to be Luchino Visconti.

In fact, it was a person called Valentine Davies, who never directed anything else. He did originate the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, though, as well as working on scripts for SYNCOPATION, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and others. Well, what the hell, I got lucky with BOY SLAVES, also from a one-off feature helmer (PJ Wolfe). Thus, while the Blu-ray of ROME, OPEN CITY languishes unviewed in a drawer, I popped this second-rate biopic into the Panasonic so I could enjoy Steve Allen pretending to play clarinet.

It turned out that Valentine Davies was labouring under twin disadvantages. Firstly, nothing interesting ever happened to Benny Goodman, or at least nothing Davies could put in a film. He didn’t even fly off in a thick fog: worse, he was still around as the film was made, the last thing you want for a biopic. (Note: this is pronounced “bio-pic.” Don’t say it to rhyme with “topic” — it’s evil.)

From Wikipedia: According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

I’d really like to have seen Steve Allen say that line. He does actually have reasonably good tough-guy delivery in the few moments he’s called upon to be firm. But obviously Universal didn’t want to go there, so we have some nice examples of Goodman interacting with black musicians in a positive way, but no instance of him making an actual stand.

Valentine Davies’ second handicap was, he had no talent. Not as director, anyway. Right at the start of the film he gives us a bonafide camera angle, but that must have made him nervous because he never tries it again. Nor does he move the camera. Anyone who can leave the thing sitting rigid on sticks while Sing, Sing, Sing plays at Carnegie Hall has no cinematic feeling whatever.

Whatever filmic virtues the piece might conceivably have are hampered by the DVD being in the wrong aspect ratio. All the compositions looked, cramped, choppy and ugly, and I eventually realised it had been framed for 1:1.85 but my disc was 1:1.33. Universal generally masked off their 35mm frame to create a cheap widescreen effect, but protected themselves for TV by making sure their shots still worked with the extra space at top and bottom. I tried resetting my TV to 1:1.66, thinking this might give me a better sense of the Valentine Davies cinematic experience.

It didn’t really help much.

For all I know, I was watching a 1:1.66 chopped-down framing of a 1.1.33 chopped down framing of a 1:1.85 chopped down framing of the original 1:1.33 negative, but if so the original must have been like watching Goodman from the back row at Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, I reckon Goodman’s celebrated 1937 concert at that venue must have inspired the fictitious protagonist’s climactic gig in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, released the following year. Clearly, if only Donna Reed had had John Carradine to drive her, she wouldn’t have been late for the gig.

Best thing I can say for this one is that Allen makes a very good Goodman lookalike, and Barry Truex, son of Ernest, playing Goodman as a boy, makes a very very good Goodman lookalike lookalike.

I turned to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, no doubt unconsciously looking for a more cinema-savvy version of the same kind of thing. Of course, Michael Curtiz provided what I sought. Though the film, based on a novel based in turn on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (with whom Goodman played), doesn’t quite have a real story as such, and the happy ending feels very artificial — you can practically see the tacks holding it on — it’s bursting with meaty scenes and star perfs, the framing is beautiful, and Curtiz glides his camera to the music to evoke jazz rapture.

Damn good role for Juano Hernandez, too.

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.

Sweet Charlotte

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is how it began —

I posted something on narrative structure here, and regular Shadowplayer and honorable copy-editor (thanks!) Chris Schneider asked on Facebook for my thoughts on NOW, VOYAGER, going so far as to wonder if I’d seen it. I hadn’t! Why not? Answer to follow…

For the record, the film is based, fairly faithfully, I suspect, on a novel (by Stella Dallas scribe Olive Higgins Prouty [I know — that NAME!]), and novels seem to attempt, and often get away, with far baggier and more varied structures than plays and films, probably because they’re not designed to be consumed at one sitting. So NV, while certainly divisible into a set-up, development and resolution, but these in turn are composed of a lot of overlapping movements, with different themes progressing at different rates. This is, in many ways, a better way of doing structure than the Syd Field paint-by-numbers method.

NOW, VOYAGER has one overarching issue — Charlotte Vale’s quest for happiness. But happiness is a complex thing.

In what we can take to be Act I, we meet Charlotte at her lowest ebb, dominated by her vicious old bat of a mother, and suffering under eye-glasses and out of control eyebrows that look like two friendly caterpillars roosting on her brow. I’m only going to show one image of her in this section because it’s not a good look, even as a bad look. The character is also supposed to be overweight but absolutely no effort seems to have been made to suggest this.

This introductory section also features a moderately long flashback, eminently cuttable, one would think, depicting Charlotte’s first romance, with a radio operator on an ocean voyage, savagely quashed by mom. This first movement/act is over within twenty minutes.

One very unusual thing about the movie is that, from here on, things start getting better — there are dips in Charlotte’s fortune, but she never again seems to be in danger of relapsing into her original mousey nightmare. Her eyebrows remain shapely. Rather than this resulting in an intolerable dramatic slackening, it makes us feel good. We’re relieved that bit’s over with, and we’re interested to see what will happen next.

Charlotte goes into therapy, gets a makeover, goes on another ocean voyage, and meets another man, Paul Henreid (typecast as “another man”). He’s unavailable, but this doesn’t stop them enjoying a pretty definitely sexual relationship — and neither of them has to die as a result. Warners definitely took a more progressive approach to the woman’s picture than MGM or any other studio.

Her holiday over, Charlotte returns to mother — this is around the halfway point — and kills her by telling the truth. The nasty old thing has such a conceit of herself that a single grain of truth is absolutely, instantly fatal. This takes us to the ninety minute mark in this two-hour movie. Believing herself to be headed for another breakdown (but we don’t really think it’ll be that bad) she heads back to her shrink (I forget to say, he’s Claude Rains) but instead she basically adopts Paul Henreid’s neglected daughter, who reminds her of herself at that age. This will form a connection back to him, though the movie tries to convince us that the relationship will be all very proper (the stars) rather than sexual (the moon). Actually, the famous last line is about happiness, which should be embraced even if it’s incomplete.

So, the problem of happiness is introduced, wrestled with, and semi-resolved. Along the way, two antagonists are introduced, the wire mother, and Henreid’s awful wife, never glimpsed, but described vividly by Lee Patrick, who was Sam Spade’s secretary and so can be trusted. (There must be a MALTESE FALCON-related thematic reason for her tiny cameo in that other San Francisco detective drama, VERTIGO.) Mom gets offed at the act two curtain, whereas the invisible Mrs Henreid cannot be bested as she has no corporeal form in the movie, but that means she can be more or less ignored. She’s a sort of implacable barrier to full happiness, but with the help of Claude (who knows all about invisibility) there’s a satisfactory workaround.

BUT

This is also how it all began —

 

I picked up Michael Curtiz’ THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX for £1 in a charity shop (how we know Blu-Rays are fully ascendant: you can get DVDs second-hand for 25p) and Fiona was enthusiastic about seeing Errol & Bette, or, as she put it, “a Bette Davis Misbehaves Double Bill.” But we couldn’t make it through TPLOEAE. The Technicolor was nice (but I prefer Curtiz in b&w) and the Anton Grot sets. But there were not ENOUGH sets. Being a play, the damn thing hangs about in one room for ages, and though the crazy perspective on the painted ceiling is SICK, one gets tired of it after twenty minutes. Or forty minutes. You can’t stare at a ceiling forever, as Bette could tell you.

Smoking is sex intercourse.

So we switched to NOW, VOYAGER (also shot by Sol Polito, see yesterday’s post for more) and had a rare old time. Fiona declared it to be tosh, but brilliantly enjoyable tosh. Why hadn’t we seen it before? Fiona had no explanation, and mine would be sheer auteurist snobbery. Curtiz is kind of an auteur, though one who dispenses with “recurring thematic concerns” and settles for beautiful visuals. Irving Rapper isn’t much praised as an auteur, but he directs the hell out of this thing, and proves a very clear channel for the Warners house style (the BEST house style). For whatever reason, the whole “genius of the system” thing works best when Warners is used as example.

Also — a Max Steiner score I can really get behind. I especially liked how the love theme really WAS a love theme, unheard until Henreid appears (with Franklin Pangborn playing Cupid) and  only tentatively and after a decent delay then. It’s a very tentative theme, in fact, all hesitation, moving forward in little shivering surges. Which is what makes it so damned romantic, and so right for this film and these characters.