Archive for North by Northwest

The Sunday Intertitle: the thrill of the Chase

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2018 by dcairns

From Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd’s work for Hal Roach, it seems natural to move on to Charley Chase, whose silent work in particular includes some of the greatest little farces ever put on screen. Leo McCarey, who directed most of them (though he credited Chase as the real creative mind), compared the films to The Dick Van Dyke Show — domestic comedies using farcical plotting. (And when DVD found Stan Laurel in the phone book and called him up to see if it was really him, he remarked, “I stole a lot from you,” to which Stan, a regular reviewer, replied, “Yes, I know.”)

I had a conversation with an eminent farceur recently in which we agreed that feature-length farces rarely work — “very hard to find a comic motor to sustain the plot,” was his diagnosis. So shorts in the twenties and thirties did it repeatedly, sitcoms can do it endlessly, but features usually sputter. In this light I’m fascinated that THE AWFUL TRUTH works so well. Part of its success is due to director McCarey having learned so many lessons from his work with Chase (plus Stan & Ollie and I guess Max Davidson). But part of it I think is the way it drops little emotional scenes in along the way to keep the stakes clear — we should feel that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are an ideal couple and it’s a tragedy they’ve broken up, and then we can go back to laughing as they sabotage one another’s attempts to find a replacement mate.

Chase, working on two-reelers, doesn’t require any of that weight, but the films do want you to like and root for his character. Though a kind of cruelty is required, surely, to dream up such exquisite comic embarrassments, the audience is expected to wince in sympathy even as it laughs, and the ending is required to resolve the situation with a kind of poetic justice.

In INNOCENT HUSBANDS he’s married to the great Katherine Grant, in Mrs. Hardy termagant mode. She’s obsessively suspicious of her blameless spouse. Fate contrives to heap incriminating circumstances on the poor fish, really putting him through a lot of hell he doesn’t deserve, but the ending restores happiness and trust in a very McCarey way…

The film’s big idea is to combine two situations of compelling interest, the “Oh no! My wife!” bedroom farce and the mediumistic séance. Chase has to smuggles three people out of his bedroom while a spiritualist meeting sits in his living room, by disguising them as spooks. The contrivances involved to get us to this point are considerable, and almost too much — the key to this success is to make the contrivances themselves funny (as they never are in Ray Cooney type farces), playing up their absurdity or using them to point up character.

At the end of the story, Chase catches Katherine in an innocent compromising position with a man, forcing a very McCareyesque compromise: she promises not to be suspicious of him if he won’t be suspicious of her. As in THE AWFUL TRUTH, a successful marriage is like a conjuror’s trick: undeniably marvelous, but don’t inspect it too closely.

 

Then, just as peace reigns, one of the forgotten “guests” Charley has been trying to get rid off, comes tiptoeing through the back of frame. Charley sees her and cringes. Katherine, embracing him, does not. And then the character, on the way to the door, gets caught on a piece of cloth and starts pulling an ornament off its tabletop… Charley sees this too, and cringes some more…

But Charley has a revolver (established earlier) and so fires a shot at random in perfect sync with the smashing of the ornament — and the house detective (established earlier) pops out of a chest, rubbing his wounded posterior.

Amazing stuff — the condensed plotting is on a par with the final minute of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It boggles the mind that such tightly-plotted, inventive and funny stuff was put together, at speed, by serious alcoholics (McCarey, Chase, Grant too). But maybe working alcoholics need to have more discipline than the rest of us, just to be able to pull of their (farce-like) double lives. Maybe so.

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Ed Sullivan’s Travels

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by dcairns

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I don’t know if George Sidney needs to be elevated up a few notches among the cognoscenti, but he definitely deserves to be better known in general. his problem may be that his good bits — brazen, stunning musical cinema — are often contained in the same flawed films as his bad bits, but his good bits are transcendent.

Andrew Sarris lobs more backhanded compliments at Sidney in The American Cinema than you can shake Ann-Margret at, from the heading “lightly likable” to the specific putdowns (“has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” and “There is a point at which brassiness, vulgarity, and downright badness become virtues”) which are very funny, but don’t do justice to the creativity and dynamism Sidney brings to his work.

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BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), adapted from a Broadway show and reaching the screen rather too late to be topical about Elvis entering the army (five years previously), isn’t particularly clued up about the rock ‘n’ roll it attempts to satirize, but its gigantic parodies of pop culture still left us gaping at the screen like the first night audience of Springtime for Hitler.

The film stars Dick Van Dyke (his first movie), Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, with Paul Lynde as secret weapon. Jesse Pearson plays Conrad Birdie, the Elvisalike, with roughly the same appeal Alberto Sordi brought to THE WHITE SHEIK — hard to spoof sex appeal when you’re mainly repulsive, but credit is deserved for courage and shamelessness.

First jaw-dropper: Pearson causes all the girls in a small Ohio town to faint, and Sidney cranes up a mile high, blasphemously parodying the giant pull-back of Confederate wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Second jaw-dropper: Lynde, who overplays like a starving actor seeing scenery for the first time in a year, is transfixed by the thought of appearing on television with Ed Sullivan (“My favourite human!”) and has a Grouchoesque Strange Interlude, wandering into the foreground and provoking a ripple-dissolve by sheer overintensity, leading to a musical dream sequence in which he and his family, attired as a heavenly choir, sing “Ed Sullivan” ad nauseam and Lynde’s face becomes progressively more purple, like Luca Brasi getting strangled in THE GODFATHER.

Third jaw-dropper: when Lynde refuses to let his daughter kiss the rock star, Mrs. Lynde worries about the kid losing face. “If he stays here, that won’t be all she -” begins Lynde, before choking off in an excess of emotion. The censorship of the word “loses” actually makes this mildly smutty joke seem about six times more obscene.

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Fourth jaw-dropper: Janet Leigh, frustrated by her mother-obsessed fiancé’s failure to propose, crashes a meeting of some random fraternal society (dressed like The Sons of the Desert) and basically rapes most of them under a table. Or so it would seem: hard to know how else we’re meant to interpret it, as one shriner after another is yanked out of frame below the furniture as if beset by Bruce the Shark.

I think Van Dyke basically inventing super-powered Benzedrine and giving it to a tortoise who then jet-propels from the room probably counts too.

Elsewhere, there are less startling pleasures: “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do” are the most recognizable numbers. Maureen Stapleton plays Dick’s domineering mom, improbably enough — she was exactly his age, joining a select club with Jesse Royce Landis, whose character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST must have given birth to Cary Grant just as she was leaving the womb herself, like a kind of Russian doll, or a variant on that cartoon of three fish swallowing one another.

Sidney loses out on the chance to be a less sexist Frank Tashlin by staging a long, not-too-funny sequence where the conductor of the Russian ballet is slipped a capsule of Van Dyke’s speed, and proceeds to lead the production at 400% velocity. The anti-Americanism is funny, but this stuff is neither a sufficiently robust response to Kruschev, nor a questioning of the Cold War. It just dilutes the acerbic gusto (that word again) of the rest — but the prolonged, Hitchcockian build-up to the slapstick IS pretty funny, so outrageously does Sidney extend the wait.

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Oh, and there’s Ed Sullivan himself, who always looked to me like a version of Richard Nixon with third-degree burns, and it turns out the low-resolution TV picture was flattering him.

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Janet Leigh reprises her bra routine from PSYCHO, and Ann-Margret is alternately cute and terrifying (when her lips retract, yikes!), ending the picture by rattling her tits right at the camera. I think female viewers, or gay male viewers (at a musical?? surely not!) are slightly short-changed in the pulchritude department, since DVD is one of those hetero actors who projects no particular sexuality — he’s straight without ever seeming to want to do anything about it. I guess that’s a useful quality, since he has to be able to share screen time with “teenage” Ann-Margret without looking like he’s going to rip his shirt off and run amongst her.

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillermin group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.