Archive for Nigel Bruce

Victory Thru Ty Power

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2020 by dcairns

THIS ABOVE ALL turns up, unnamed, as a reference in Anthony Burgess’s novel of Excalibur, Any Old Iron, which is what got me thinking about it. And then the idea of doing something on Anatole Litvak came up, and the two things dovetailed.

(The novel also features a US serviceman turned novelist called Irwin Roth, who seems to be a nasty joint portrait of Irwin Shaw and Philip Roth. Oddly, Shaw was a writer for Litvak: he authored the source play OUT OF THE FOG derives from, and later co-scripted ACT OF LOVE. This started me wondering if Burgess, who did a lot of writing on unfilmed movies, ever brushed up against Litvak. Actually, this story is a bit like ACT OF LOVE, pitting love against war, but without any of the bite.)

THIS ABOVE ALL features, asides from the elaborate studio recreations of the blitz which Burgess remarks upon, some good atmospheric blackout stuff at the start. The romance seems interesting, but then the film goes on, and on… Ty Power, of course, is playing it American, despite his character being English. He has PTSD and is a deserter, an interesting set-up for a propaganda film. I’m assuming it was conceived and shot before Pearl Harbour, so it’s allowed to be pro-Britain but a bit anti-war. Power’s problems have potential, but only come up intermittently: everything kind of drags on. Wartime movies usually bring a tear to my eye: I’m easy. This felt like watching Paul Muni shove a piano up a hill.

Joan Fontaine has good moments, bad moments, and truly awful moments which seem more like aeons while they’re happening. At her worst, that woman could simper for England: here, she does.

Litvak is seemingly at sea in this increasingly turgid morass. He tries a few zip pans, but they seem unmotivated, forced. Like trying to get a conga line going at a funeral reception. The action is far from zippy. Incredibly, the source novel is by Eric Knight, whose fast-paced hardboiled thriller You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up would have made a far better subject for this director. Knight also write Lassie Come Home. This one is tonally stranded in no man’s land between the two, a strange place to be. R.C. Sherriff, the poet laureate of Hollywood England, doesn’t seem to have found a workable cinematic structure in his adaptation.

Actors keep turning up, people we like. Thomas Mitchell, speaking truth to Power, essays a gratuitous Scottish accent, which is not disgraceful. It’s identifiably East coast, though it wanders up and down the shoreline a bit. Nigel Bruce does something rustic. You need these guys around because the central couple aren’t doing it. Whenever they were alone together after the half-hour mark, we prayed for an interloper to interlope them.

Very handsome photography by Arthur C. Miller, though

THIS ABOVE ALL stars Leonard Vole; Mrs. de Winter; Uncle Billy; Lord Willoughby; Doctor Watson; Mrs. Higgins; Professor Sorel; Mrs. Midget; Woodrow Wilson; Ethel Rogers; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Claire Lennartz; Dr. John Lanyon; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Inspector Lestrade; Old Tom; Leuwen Grayle; Uncle Arn; California Carlson; and Dai Bando.

The Final Shot

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2017 by dcairns

Thanks to Matthew Wilder for alerting me to W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke’s final film. I’m a fan of the THIN MAN films and have delved lightly into his other ’30s work, particularly the first two TARZANs and SAN FRANCISCO, but I haven’t been systematic and I didn’t even know JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942). It’s basically the film that properly gave us Margaret O’Brien, phenomenon.

The movie is MGM’s first “children in war” drama of WWII, predating Zinnemann’s emotional THE SEARCH, but giving the subject a soupier, more Hollywood approach. It’s really good, though. The great Franz Waxman’s score is really the most problematic part, suffering from a literalism that didn’t usually afflict this composer — the little boy with the toy lamb is accompanied by lachrymose variations on Baah Baah Black Sheep wherever he goes. Awful.

Woody, credited as MAJOR Van Dyke here, handles the action with his trademark efficiency, though the fast cutting of disparate talking heads which predominates each THIN MAN denouement has now spread to most of the film. Considering the director was, apparently, in constant pain at this time, he does great.

Robert Young and Laraine Day are an attractive couple of Americans in London during the Blitz. He’s a journalist. They’re smart and witty and she’s even called Nora, so there’s a strong tie to Woody’s earlier (in fact, ongoing) work. However, there’s no Asta here — Day is expecting a baby, but she loses it in a bombing, and loses also the ability to have more kids. As she’s passing out under sedation, she intuits everything that’s happened to her even though Young has been told (appallingly) to keep it from her ~

 

“They’ve killed our baby. All our babies. Tomorrow’s baby. The day after tomorrow’s. All our babies. Forever dead.”

“Who told you such nonsense?”

“No one told me. It’s true.”

“Please, darling, go to sleep now.”

“What did I want babies for? I’ve been a bad wife. Trying to hang on when there wasn’t any use trying. Making snug little homes in the midst of hell. I’ve been a bad wife because I’ve been a good one.”

“[…] Think about going home to Connecticut. The leaves will be turning, and snow on the ground… Think about that, and -“

“OH NO! That’s not my life! […] I’ll be a ghost. You’ll be a ghost. The whole world, crawling with ghosts…”

David Hertz & William Ludwig scripted this from William L. White’s novel, and Day puts it over powerfully. It’s a remarkable transformation for a typically bright, light, starry performer.

Now the pair embark on a months-long bender, going about their lives merrily squiffled, a tragic version of Nick & Nora (though he’s called John). Best friend Nigel Bruce tries to give Nora a wake-up call, a pep talk on the subject of pain.

“I have known soldiers after they’ve left hospital with a bad wound, they’re so dazed they can’t even sign their names the way the used to. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of escaping pain. They think some other fellow got hit. Not them.”

The cure arrives in the form of the little lamb boy (William Severn) and O’Brien, Hollywood’s best weeper. The bereaved couple’s best course of treatment is to get involved in the lives of other people whose need is greater, and so they adopt this waifs and must now get them to America somehow. Surprisingly, the structuring principle of the film is not the kids’ trauma (MO’B doesn’t appear until midway), but the parents’.

The ending has the kids arriving in New York just as a blackout is tested, and the Manhattan skyline goes dim. Cue inspiring speech about turning the lights back on for the next generation. It’s sentimental and manipulative but effective. I seem to be hardwired to respond emotionally to the Blitz. I have a queasy love of Hollywood effects shots of searchlights panning dark skies.

Van Dyke became seriously ill — cancer and heart disease. And, as a good Christian Scientist, he forbade himself pain relief. In 1943, he put his sidearm in his mouth and shot himself through the head.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke, 1889-1943.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.