Archive for Michael Powell

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.

Tom Lim

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 6, 2019 by dcairns

From Hilary Barta at Limerwrecks — OK, we know PEEPING TOM didn’t literally end Michael Powell’s career, but it’s still late Powell.

Here.