Archive for Norman Krasna

The Sunday Intertitle: Snubbed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by dcairns

Snub Pollard (and unidentified frail) in YOUNG MR. JAZZ, a Harold Lloyd-Bebe Daniels comedy from 1919. Very nice, slightly disposable sort of film. To be really memorable, Harold needs more at stake, and he needs to suffer more. In this one he’s beset by an entire bar-room full of plug-uglies, and it just isn’t enough.

But Snub turning up like this reminded me of his surprise appearance in 1960’s WHO WAS THAT LADY?, playing a terrifying illustrated man. He has the job of tattooing the sole of Tony Curtis’ foot for plot reasons, which he sets about with grim relish.

Wasn’t going to write about WWTL? because we really couldn’t get on with it. It’s full of the sexism of that era, courtesy of scribe Norman Krasna. George Sidney directs with appropriate vulgarity, but the whole thing is too sinister, Snub’s alarming appearance being an early symptom.

New York chemistry professor Tony Curtis (!) is caught kissing or, as he argues it, being kissed by, a foreign exchange student. The one who catches him is Mrs. Curtis, AKA Janet Leigh. Curtis turns to TV scenarist friend Dean Martin to invent an alibi. Dino proposes that Tony is in reality and FBI agent and that he was kissing the girl as part of a mission. Of course, this pretense leads to real spy stuff (eventually) and lots of stress for the real FBI, who are all presented as chronically dyspeptic and long-suffering schmoes.

The main interests, in the absence of laughs, are the strange inverted resemblance to TRUE LIES (in which Arnie really IS a secret agent but his wife thinks he’s cheating on him, if memory serves, and she’s played by Janet & Tony’s daughter) and the deeply unpleasant nature of Dino’s character, which of course he plays to the hilt while apparently thinking he’s being charming. Having invented the foolproof cover story for infidelity, he then blackmails Tony into joining him on a double date (with the pneumatic Joi Lansing and her wobbleganger). Dino’s unseemly interest in forcing his best friend to have extramarital sex leads Tony to denounce him, quite accurately so far as we can see, as a psychopath. Superficial charm, pathological lying, complete lack of moral compass… yep, that’s Dino, or at any rate his screen persona in so many films one starts to wonder.

The whole thing ends with a kind of mushroom cloud hovering over the Empire State Building — just as the comedy terrorists in TRUE LIES are probably part of the reason that movie seems to have been written out of James Cameron’s CV, this lively yet ugly entry from George Sidney seems unfortunate whenever it’s interesting, and boring whenever it’s on track. Need to watch his SHOWBOAT or something as a palate cleanser.

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Seventeen Hours of Something or Other

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2013 by dcairns

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On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.

The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.

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Also: gayness!

Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.

Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.

Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.

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But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.

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That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.

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Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.

David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~

“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”

Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.

Meet the Smiths

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 24, 2009 by dcairns

MR AND MRS SMITH — dispel all thoughts of Brangelina, that two-headed monster, for this is Hitchcock’s first American comedy, made at RKO on loan-out from Selznick, as a favour to Carole Lombard, with whom he’d wanted to work for some time. She’s one of the Hollywood star Hitch wrote about while still in England, and when he move to LA she became, essentially, his landlady for a while.

Where did I read this?

Hitchcock bumps into Carole Lombard outside the screening room, where he’s just viewed the rushes. She’s come to see them, but she’s late. Hitch assures her that the rushes are fine and she’s good in them.

“Fuck that, how do my new tits look?”

And who, commenting here, pointed out the fascinating deliberate continuity error where Robert Montgomery’s socks change their pattern according to his and Lombard’s emotions?

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I always thought that the little guy who brings the bad news, was played by Warner Brothers voice artist Mel Blanc. Maybe when I saw it as a kid, my Dad looked at the guy and said “Elmer Fudd!” It’s not, though, it’s a fellow called Charles Halton. Why did nobody put Blanc in a major movie role?

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It’s subtle, but it’s there.

First time I saw the film I liked it fine. Second time I disliked it quite a bit. This time it seemed pretty good to me. I will say that, thanks to our auteurist appreciation of Hitchcock, and his fame, the movie gets a little more attention than it deserves. HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is a ten-times-better screwball comedy, I’d say, also written by Norman Krasna and starring Lombard, but directed by the less-celebrated Mitchell Leisen, and very few people have seen that compared to SMITHS.

The Smiths, lawyer husband and sexpot wife, who have a tempestuous but successful three-year marriage, learn that the partnership is not strictly legal, due to some convoluted zoning problem, and break up. He (Robert Montgomery) tries to win her back, mainly by acting like a dick. His buddy Jack Carson is useful for audience sympathy purposes, because Carson’s character is an even bigger lout than Montgomery.

Then Montgomery’s other pal, Gene Raymond, starts wooing Carole, which at least gives Montgomery something to be aggrieved about. But instead of making Raymond the heavy, screenwriter Norman Krasna types him as a classic romcom schnook. I always like schnooks. I often like them better than the hero.

Raymond gets the funniest scene, when he’s drunk. Very fine physical work, lurching and sort of bobbing in the air, and a refrain of “Thank you,” which gets more absurd with each repetition. This comes after a disastrous date where the couple get caught in a broken fun-fair ride. This reminds me of the story of Hitch sending his daughter up on a Ferris wheel and tipping the operator to kill the engine and strand her aloft. I wonder what Hitch would have done with a really black comedy, where he could let his sadistic side have free reign?

There are quite a few moments in this film when I had trouble understanding the character motivation. Is Lombard really through with Montgomery, or is she just testing him? At the end, she rejects Gene Raymond because he won’t beat up her “husband,” then allows herself to be trapped in her skis by the guy she wanted beaten, and the movie ends in a rather peculiar bit of play-rape. I could never figure that out.

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The movie is extremely elegantly shot, though, with a gliding camera and flying furniture which escapes the path of the dolly with invisible sideways movements. I’d like to say more about this film, but the Edinburgh Film Festival is eating up too much of my time — so over to you!