Archive for Noel Coward

Page Seventeen III: The Search for Spock

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2021 by dcairns

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books purchased from Edinburgh’s second-hand bookshops, most of them from the all-you-can-eat bookshop on Ferry Road. For the best effect, I suggest reading them all in Noel Coward’s voice.

Some Little Girls lived nearby, and I forced them to act in a tragedy I that I had written, but they were very silly and during the performance forgot their lines and sniggered, so I hit the eldest one on the head with a wooden spade, the whole affair thus ending in tears and a furious quarrel between the mothers involved.

As a result of this unusual posture of my legs, I seemed shorter and my gait was quite changed. For some reason my whole body was slightly inclined to the right side. All I needed was a cane. One was lying near-by so I picked it up although it did not exactly fit the picture of what I had in my mind. Now all I lacked was a quill pen to stick behind my ear or hold in my teeth. I sent a call boy for one and while waiting for his return paced up and down the room, feeling how all the parts of my body, features, facial lines, fell into their proper places and established themselves. After walking around the room two or three times, with an uncertain, uneven gait I glanced in the mirror and did not recognize myself. Since I had looked in it the last time a fresh transformation had taken place in me.

‘I’m pleased to hear it.’ Jerry’s voice was sardonic as he entered the room rather theatrically and closed the door behind him.

‘That is what we call Forced Acting,’ defined the Director.

‘And how would you know,’ inquired the actress, ‘ with false teeth?’

The Archbishop then enters, and in a speech of paradoxical and somewhat abstract imagery, makes a difficult pronouncement about the human will and its place in the divine pattern of being, what it must suffer and how act ‘that the pattern may subsist’: what Becket says to the Chorus, as their instructor, is said to Becket at the end of the Act by the Fourth Tempter, with a fine dramatic irony; for Becket is to act and suffer, willing both, that the pattern may subsist, yet cannot see (until later when light breaks upon his understanding) how he can do either ‘without perdition’; the advice he has given is turned against him, and both paths before him–acting and suffering–seem to ‘lead to damnation and pride.’ Because the speech is difficult, it seems to need explanation, word by word; and yet, as Dr. Johnson has said, ‘ the easiest word, whatever it be, can never be translated into one more easy.’ It is a difficult thought:

“Well in film you play the theme, and then you play the theme again and then you play the theme and then you play a variation of the theme and then you play the theme . . . “

…said the Actress to the Archbishop.

Present Imperfect by Noel Coward; Building a Character by Constantin Stanislavski; The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock; An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski; Acid Drops by Kenneth Williams; by Nevill Coghill’s introduction to Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot; Michael Kamen quoting Carl Prager in Knowing the Score by David Morgan.

The Sunday Intertitle: Quite Wrong

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 5, 2021 by dcairns

I always misremember the start of BLITHE SPIRIT — I always imagine that the opening preamble is delivered as title cards, or as VO. In fact, it’s both. Which is a great idea. The title cards are replied to by the author himself, Noel Coward, who had one of the most distinctive voices in Britain. It’s like Cocteau’s handwriting, perfect for introducing one of his works.

“We are quite, QUITE wrong.”

Coward’s father was an unsuccessful piano salesman, so his fantastic posh voice, coming from somewhere behind his nose, was a concoction of his own.

I must find an excuse to introduce my students to him. The younger generation don’t generally know about him, and I’m pretty sure my nine Chinese students won’t have come across the works, let alone the persona.

Impressive that CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? managed to build a plot around his correspondence without having to shoehorn in unnecessary explanations of who he was, exactly. The Americans are good at smooth exposition, a lost art in Britain.

I wonder how Brits processed the Coward persona back in his day. He seems “obviously gay,” and I think this was probably recognized, but we just didn’t speak of it. You could be flamboyant yet discreet and it was sort of accepted. The acceptance was conditional on nobody being forced to acknowledge what they all knew. You can’t quite call it “tolerance.” Well, maybe tolerance of the unstated. As Wilde discovered to his cost — though he already knew it, too — if the love that dared not speak its name were forced to account for itself, the lover quickly found himself beyond the pale. “The don’t ask don’t tell” brigade demand to live in a state of low-key cognitive dissonance, and if their compartments break down they get very irate.

Noel’s skill at navigating these murky depths is evident in BLITHE SPIRIT’s script, which constantly escapes truly facing the scandalous implications of its concept. If there’s an afterlife, then widowers remarrying becomes bigamy. Sure, this movie is a fantasy, but pick at it and Heaven comes crashing down under the weight of its own contradictions. Or at any rate, we’re forced to revise our expectations of it to include the menage-a-trois and more. Or, I suppose, taking into account the “till death us do part” escape clause, we assume all vows are null up there, and a twice-widowed spouse could choose which, if any, of their former partners to remarry. Design for dying.

Interesting to see David Lean when he apparently had no interest in landscape. Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, sublime) stands at the window and rhapsodises about the evening, but our director isn’t tempted to provide even a single illustrative cutaway.


Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2021 by dcairns

Purely by accident we wound up rewatching BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING last night. Which was well worth it — I’d forgotten just how excitingly Otto Preminger melds his two main stylistic tropes here: long takes (enhanced by the ultra-widescreen) and location filming. He somehow manages to cram some kind of a crane inside a tight staircase, he rushes from room to room (but tends to use the passage from indoors to out and vice versa to motivate the few cuts in his sequences).

Poor Carol Lynley has to work very hard to not seem to SEE this busy, nosy intruder with its heap of crew — she’s constantly required to look into, past and THROUGH the lens, giving her an unsettling blind quality. But on the other hand, the long takes and domineering camera eye seem to calm both Laurence Olivier in a major role, and Martita Hunt in a smaller one, and they give perhaps the most restrained and naturalistic performances of their careers. And this was done, we’re told, without Otto’s usual beetroot-faced temper tantrums: Larry let it be known that he didn’t want any shouting, and as long as he was around, there was none.

In the extras, Lynley recalls that Otto found it amusing, when an actor was struggling with nerves, to sidle up behind and scream “RELAAAAX!” in the player’s ear. John Huston recounts this happening to Tom Tryon on the set of THE CARDINAL, but Huston gives no clue that Otto was being humorous. Carol L was in THE CARDINAL too, but I bet Otto gave poor Keir Dullea the same treatment.

BLIM is preposterously crammed with familiar faces from the previous thirty years of British cinema. Finlay Currie turns up for one scene, Megs Jenkins is practically an extra (maybe her nurse is the same character from GREEN FOR DANGER?) and Lucie Mannheim, from THE 39 STEPS (Fiona excitingly noting that she was Conrad Veidt’s first girlfriend) gets a bit.

There’s also the Zombies. Otto had a weird sense of showmanship — turning up in his own trailers, Hitchcock-style, is understandable (although the one for IN HARM’S WAY is inadvertently hilarious, with Otto standing talking to us in the middle of war scenes, apparently invisible to those around him, like Christopher Walken appearing in his own visions in THE DEAD ZONE). He promoted BUNNY with orders that nobody be admitted late, and requests not to reveal the ending, a la PSYCHO. But he does other things that are stranger: here, a pub TV is tuned to a performance by posh sixties beat combo the Zombies, and the film stops for a bit to enjoy the show. And the same song turns up whenever a radio is turned on. Otto and songs is a whole essay in itself: the sung end credits of SKIDOO and strolling troubadour Pete Seeger wandering through TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON… Otto is an artist but also a huckster, but his sales techniques would make Stan Freberg wince. It’s comparable to Jerry Lewis’ use of product placement, which was always so unembarrassed — it was like Jer was PROUD that he could get Colonel Sanders to associate with his movies (the only other filmmaker to woo the Colonel was Jer’s namesake, Herschell Gordon of that ilk).

Paul Glass’s score is very attractive, but behaves oddly too: Lynley’s exploration of a doll repair shop’s spooky basement, lit by oil lamp, should be terrifying, but Glass treats the place as enchanting, a delicate wonderland.

It’s an odd movie, all in all, but effective enough as thriller and mystery, until the last act, which is a tad unconvincing. A character who’s seemed acceptably normal throughout is revealed as the crazed baddie, and is suddenly completely deranged, a dissociated manchild who can be tempted into children’s games at the drop of a hat. Fiona rightly wondered how he’d held down a responsible job previously.

Impossible to know whether screenwriters John & Penelope Mortimer are to blame for this, or Ira Levin who did some uncredited work on it. Haven’t read Evelyn Piper’s source novel. But I think I recognise the Mortimers’ style in the quirkier details, as when Olivier notes that bus drivers are notoriously unobservant: “They’re philosophers and poets, mostly. Probably out of self-protection.”

While everyone else is mostly underplaying, Noel Coward as a sleazy landlord and BBC personality, seems to be having the time of his life, showing off his chihuahua, his African masks, and his collection of whips.

Well worth seeing — Preminger is almost anti-Hitchcockian in every aspect (despite Hitch’s dalliance with the long take) so it’s fascinating to see him waddling about in the master’s disguise.

BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING stars Heathcliff; Mona and Regina Fermoyle; Dave Bowman; Lady ; Miss Prism; McWhirter and Sheik Abu Tahir; Magwitch; Annabella Smith; The Witch of Capri; Mrs. Alexander; Mrs. Grose; Nervous Man; Ancious O’Toole; Grogan; Antoinette de Montfaucon; ‘Bluebeard’,- Gilles de Rais; Sir Nules Thudd; and the Zombies as themselves.