Archive for Norman Wisdom

Norman Invasion

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by dcairns

I was thrilled to find THE GIRL ON THE BOAT in a charity shop, since it looked like being an all-time low for PG Wodehouse adaptations, and I snapped it up even at the excessive price of two quid. Well, it’s charity, isn’t it?

The casting of Norman Wisdom in a Wodehouse story is just so diabolically WRONG — I mean, maybe he could make a passable Ukridge or something, but he’s hopelessly unsuitable to playing a Young Man in Spats type. While he shows a measure of versatility by dispensing with his familiar “gump” mannerisms (readers unfamiliar with this hugely successful British entertainer — he did vaguely Jerry Lewis-like knockabout comedies where he played a childlike idiot in the fifties and early sixties), what’s left is a startlingly aggressive quality that’s totally unsuitable. Discovering that his pal, Richard Briers (very right for Wodehouse) has mal de mer, Wisdom says “Try to eat something!” as a malicious joke, and laughs for about a minute when Briers looks ill. Absolutely nobody ever written by Wodehouse would behave like that, not even a villain like Roderick Spode.

Not that there’s no comic cruelty in Wodehouse: it’s very hard to be funny without somebody being a victim. But it’s generally very mild and never gratuitous: Jeeves can inflict suffering on Bertie in order to keep him in line (for his own good). Bertie’s domineering aunts will force him to perform tasks he’d sooner avoid, but they simply don’t understand his reluctance. Bertie himself, like most Wodehouse heroes, is so sweet he could never break an engagement for fear of causing distress, no matter what a pill the girl in question has proven to be.

I think it was critic Penelope Gilliat who complained of the sadism in Wisdom’s supposedly kiddie-friendly comedies, and though that’s probably too strong a word for the above instance of nastiness, it does point out a harshness that can’t exist in the Wodehouse universe without blighting its surroundings.

The movie also undercuts itself in an extraordinary way by making the titular girl an awful drip. She’s skillfully played by Millicent Martin (and Sheila Hancock also has a good time — women seem to seize their chance to be funny in Wodehouse adaptations, no matter how misguided) but it’s impossible to root for any of the men to end up with her, as she’s what Bertie Wooster would call a Gawd-help-us, obsessed with poetry and her nasty little dog.

Norman still has his fans, and not just in Albania, where his stardom lasted decades longer than anywhere else as he was the one western filmmaker whose work wasn’t banned. Nick Park of Aardman has spoken of the influence of Wisdom’s absurd, involved slapstick sequences on his work. But I find that I love Park’s claymation in a way I could never love Wisdom’s flesh and blood performances.

The DVD also comes with a commentary by Sir Norman with interviewer Robert Ross. I assumed this must have been recorded before Wisdom’s Altzheimer’s set in, but I fear not — he needs reminded what he’s here for. It’s not as awkward as Mickey Rooney’s strange, surly and disoriented interview on the Twilight Zone episode Last Night of a Jockey, which I recommend to all students of discomfort — Sir Norm is always affability itself. But it’s not brilliantly recorded and the sound of the film fights it, so I’m afraid I gave up.

A curious thing, though. Despite the allegations of sadism in Wisdom’s comedy, and the unsuitably aggressive tone here, when the comedian became ill, the result, portrayed in a moving BBC documentary, was that the octogenarian star turned into the innocent, child-like character he’d played so often. A sweet gump. At the end of that documentary, he waves goodbye to the camera crew: “Thanks ever so much for looking at me.”

You’re welcome.

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Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

The Empty Space

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2014 by dcairns

tevye

This is the empty space where this week’s edition of The ’68 Comeback Special should be — a critical look at the films that should have screened in Cannes ’68 but couldn’t because there were film directors literally hanging from the curtains. Scout Tafoya and I aim to cover all the entries. Well, what with New Year and all, I’ve fallen a bit behind, so I thought I’d write about the one Cannes film we haven’t been able to track down. Much easier to review a film without the tiresome effort of watching it, as I’m sure some professionals in the business could attest (check out Andrew Pulver on CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING for The Guardian. Does it sound like he watched more than half an hour?)

The vanished film from Cannes is — and you should prepare yourselves for a mild shock — TUVIA VESHEVA BENOTAV / TEVYE AND HIS SEVEN DAUGHTERS, which I take to derive from the same story as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, a West German/Israeli co-production directed by none other than Menahem Golan. When no copy of the film materialized from any of the usual sources, Scout actually got in touch with the director himself, but he didn’t know where we could find it either.

Of all the filmmakers whose careers were, arguably, harmed or derailed or curtailed by the non-occurrence of Cannes ’68, Golan’s could be the most extreme — he certainly never had a shot at that kind of critical acclaim again. His very next film was WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GANDER, a mid-life crisis sex comedy starring Norman Wisdom, featuring Judy Geeson (a fellow Cannes 68 veteran fresh from HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH) and summed up by a friend in the pithy phrase “Makes NOT NOW DARLING look like the fuckin’ MAHABHARATA.”

Then Golan, truly became the man Billy Wilder called “Menahem Golem,” directing THE DELTA FORCE and becoming a real movie mogul, heading Cannon Productions and briefly giving the Hollywood majors a run for their money, capitalizing on the boom in video pre-sales as a way to make films that were in profit before they even opened. At Cannes, Golan could work the marketplace like Ricky Jay works a pack of playing cards. To bolster his fledgling studio’s artistic reputation, he signed a deal on a napkin for Jean-Luc Godard (one of the ringleaders who shut down Cannes in ’68) to make KING LEAR with Orson Welles, which didn’t quite work out but the movie was made, with Godard reputedly insisting on flying the Atlantic on Concorde every week to collect his cheque (but that CAN’T be true, right?). We also got TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE and OTELLO, showing that Golan’s idea of class was wide-ranging and eccentric.

Now, by writing about this before we’re done, I run the risk of the film actually turning up, but I figure that’ll be all the more exciting for this build-up. And if it never shows up, we avoid ending with a sense of let-down by talking about it now. And in any case, I haven’t done my homework and watched Marcello Fondato’s I PROTAGONISTI, which I just obtained a nice copy of. Look forward to that in a fortnight. And look forward — maybe — to TEVYE AND HIS SEVEN DAUGHTERS… someday.

(Obviously, if you have a copy, let us know!)