Archive for Of Mice and Men

Angles and Dirty Phases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2020 by dcairns
A striking inverted angle from CASTLE ON THE HUDSON

Lesser Litvaks —

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON is a remake of Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING, which I’ve never seen, though the title fascinated me as a kid. I ought to do a compare-and-contrast. I found this one a bit by-the-numbers with John Garfield as a Cagney clone. (He’s better as a complete swine in OUT OF THE FOG, his other role for this director.) It’s got a lot of punch, but lacks Litvak’s usual fluidity: too many close-ups.

It really comes alive, though, during the few minutes when Burgess Meredith comes in takes it by the throat. I’m guessing Litvak admired OF MICE AND MEN since he snapped up Burgess here and Betty Field for BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

CITY FOR CONQUEST —

“That was a book by Aben Kandel that was quite successful at the time, a book very difficult to adapt into a motion picture, because it dealt with
as enormous a city as New York is I was fascinated by the book, and had a terrible feeling, a kind of horrible ambition, about doing a picture about the city of New York that I was so terribly· impressed with from the moment I came here. It was a challenge to me, because basically I still was quite a foreigner at that time. I spent quite a while in New York, just for my basic acquaintance with the city, and the people of the city, before I started on the story.”

Writer Aben Kandel came to my attention for his involvement as screenwriter in the rather drole SING AND LIKE IT (1934) but later was mixed up in TROG and CRAZE, two ghastly low-budget horror affairs made in Britain. How he descended from being an acclaimed novelist to that dreck is an unknown but no doubt depressing story.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars the actual Cagney, along with Ann Sheridan again, and a young and unusually appealing Arthur Kennedy. Plus Elia frickin’ Kazan, during his brief stint as a Warners character player. Both his big roles were for Litvak (BLUES IN THE NIGHT is the other) and he tears up the screen. But all the characters are from stock, and typecast accordingly. One is happy to see Frank McHugh as a sidekick, but not exactly surprised. Warners specialised in cramming the screen with yammering cut-outs, but somehow in this case thing feel thin.

Cagney & Kazan!

Cagney threw himself into training to play a boxer and really felt they were adapting a great book, but he was bitterly disappointed by the end result. “I worked like a dog on City for Conquest,” he wrote, or dictated, in Cagney By Cagney, “There were some excellent passages in Kandel’s novel, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction. Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise. The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel’s skeleton. What remained was a trite melodrama.”

He’s not wrong. Worse, you can see the trailing stumps of scenes and characters that clearly needed further development for the thing to make structural sense. Frank Craven as “the old timer” is set up as a Greek chorus, an old hobo who talks to the camera, but he only appears a couple of times. I think a lot of it might still have been corny, but it could have hung together.

Litvak: “I was crazy about Jimmy Cagney, and Warner Bros. was crazy about him because he was a big star. This is for the first time when Jimmy Cagney played the part of a weak man. As you know, Jimmy Cagney mostly played — particularly at that time — tough guys, dominating tough guys. I thought — I always felt– that Jimmy was a great actor, and didn’t have to do this stereotyped kind of a fellow, this gangster he had played for years. I came with this proposition to Warners and finally they accepted it. I found that Jimmy Cagney was a bit scared of this picture. I would say that in all my career this was one of the few times when I had trouble with an actor. I explain it to myself as a strange feeling Jimmy had about the part. He was not quite sure what he was doing. But I must say that I feel (and I think the public agreed with me too, and the critics) that it was probably one of the
best things Jimmy Cagney did on the screen.”

Maybe Cagney just didn’t have the weakness in him? What co-star could convincingly intimidate him?

Cagney did ruefully note the picture’s box office success, but strongly implies that the public was wrong. I am unable to find an original source for the star’s description of Litvak as “a natural born asshole,” but going by both men’s recollections it does seem quite possible that he said it at some time. Cagney always admitted to being difficult, but only when he was trying to give a good performance and felt he was being hampered.

Interesting that Litvak doesn’t mention the film’s truncation, which he SHOULD have been unhappy about, since the mutilation is hardly invisible.

Cagney as the blinded boxer redeems it a little with his convincing physicality both as prize-fighter (his dancing background pays off) and blinded newsie — he really tries to look properly, unphotogenically disabled. And Kazan is a knockout. He’s obviously intended to form the fourth corner of a structure that interleaves Cagney, Sheridan and Kennedy’s struggles, and the reduction of his role is really frustrating because he’s so bloody good, damn him.

“I coulda been a contender, Tola…”

I’m not sure if anyone ever asked Kazan about working for Litvak. He must have learned SOMETHING about screen acting from the experience.

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON stars Porfirio Diaz; Nora Prentiss; Hildy Johnson; The Penguin; Miles Archer; Kewpie Blain; Carson Drew; Lady Macduff; Danny Leggett; Pete Daggett; Michael Axford; Bim; Detective Bates; Egeus – Father to Hermia; Louie the Lug; Dr. Leonardo; Noah Joad; and Cueball.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars George M. Cohan; Nora Prentiss; Jackson Bentley; Battling Burrows; Asa Timberlake; ‘Spud’ Connors; ‘Pusher’ Ross; Nickie Haroyen; Alexis Zorba; Effie Perine; Madame Therese De Farge; Dixie Belle Lee; Inspector Crane; Detective Bates; El Gringo; Bim; The Obtrusive Gentleman; Max Jacobs; and Cueball.

Pygmy Ignorant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2015 by dcairns

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My delightful French box set of Tex Avery films is, in some ways, all the more delightful for excluding a couple of controversial titles, UNCLE TOM’S CABANA, and HALF-PINT PYGMY. These films are likely to remain problematic for as long as there are animation fans, ethnicities, and sense.

HALF-PINT PYGMY actually plays like a parody of a racist cartoon, and a parody of a Tex Avery cartoon, confusing us by trying to do both at once. The title is atypically lame, since it’s a pleonasm, lacking the built-in surprise of KING-SIZED CANARY, a brilliant cartoon and a strong title, carrying within it a contradiction which intrigues. KING-SIZED PYGMY might have made a better title and a more interesting cartoon.

Avery’s two bear characters, George and Junior, read an ad in the paper and immediately head for Darkest Cartoon Africa —

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George and Junior, being ursine parodies of George and Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN, ought by rights to be controversial too, since Avery is lampooning the learning-disabled, but nobody seems to mind, and saying cartoons can’t use dim-witted characters may be a step too far — political correctness gone mentally ill. Anyway, the idea that pygmies can be hunted and captured for display in zoos is an immediate signal that something is very wrong with this cartoon — something which just gets worse when you ponder the logic that makes bears volunteer for pygmy-hunting. This is a cartoon in which the animals are anthropomorphized and the human characters — the pygmies — are treated like animals.

It only gets worse when we meet the pygmies. The village is a nice touch –let’s say for argument’s sake we’re not too worried about the film being unfair to actual pygmies, whose legendary short stature is exaggerated to Lilliputian proportions. But then the little fellows show up. The difference in scale forces Avery to cut to closer angles on them, and most of us will wince whenever he does.

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Chasing the pygmy, the bears ask directions from a goofy squid, who points in all directions. Again, logic seems lacking. Usually, abandonment of all sense takes a little longer in an Avery toon, and we arrive at lunacy via gentle stages — remind me to analyse the gradual disintegration of reason in BAD LUCK BLACKIE sometime. Maybe the whacked-out octopus is a reference to something we don’t understand anymore, but his presence in the jungle troubles me. He’s also making fun of people with psychiatric problems but Tex gets a free pass on that because there’s a limit to how many things I can be worried about in a single six minute and thirty-two second cartoon.

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OH GOD NO — Junior tempts the pygmy — who is hiding in a knothole like Screwy Squirrel, because this is just a Screwy Squirrel film in blackface — with a slice of watermelon. The squirrel pygmy drools, and eats the watermelon and also Junior’s arms. Getting angry about the racist assumptions also causes me to notice how oddly OFF everything is — more bad stuff is happening to the hapless Junior, whereas these films usually work on the principle that George, the organizer, gets it in the neck because Junior isn’t good at following his instructions. While it’s a small mercy that the pygmy is defeating his would-be enslavers at every turn, Junior isn’t a very satisfying character to mistreat.

The characters each jump into one kangaroo’s pouch and emerge from another. OK, the dumbness of the octopus appearance is now beginning to form a pattern that kind of works — I never objected to the kangaroo in SLAP-HAPPY LION (who dives into his own pouch and vanishes into a point, an ourbouros-singularity on the wrong continent).

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The pygmy is also cunning — he inflates a huge balloon with his tiny yet powerful lungs, then uses that to inflate himself to giant size, so that the pursuers don’t recognize him. He’s now an even creepier looking racial stereotype than before. I will admit that the in-between drawings when he allows himself to deflate are interesting and disturbing in a comparatively innocent way.

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Then there’s a huge number of gags about decapitation and displacement of heads — a giraffe with two bodies and no head, just a conjoined, mile-long neck — a lollobrigidian array of camel-humps with a camel head at either end — an alligator handbag emerging from itself… Freudian analysis of Avery toons is both unavoidable — those flaccid shotgun barrels! — and pointless, because all the work is done for you — your role is to laugh — but I start to wonder what the hell is going on with the filmmaker’s own head, The movie does seem pretty desperate and last-gasp, but it occurs in the middle of Avery’s most productive, inventive and hilarious period.

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Junior gets hit on the head with an outsize claw hammer and his face falls off, feature by feature. Very strangely, this action is preceded by a line-cross, in which Junior flips from left-facing to right-facing (to no-facing). If Avery films always feel like nervous breakdowns in cel form, this one seems to be disintegrating formally as well as conceptually.

OK — the punchline made me laugh. The bears think they’ve finally caught “the world’s smallest pygmy,” but no — in a deep and guttural voice, he says, “Uh-uh, sorry boys — Uncle Louis!” and an even tinier pygmy emerges from a hut, so small the bone knotted in his hair dwarfs him, making him seem like an ant carrying a leaf.

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I guess the conflating of offensive stereotypes about African-Americans with offensive stereotypes about Africans makes everything slightly worse, though the technique of folding together two things which don’t really belong together is central to Avery’s gag-making, and is essentially morally neutral. The problem is with what he’s actually folding together. Avery was, by all accounts, a sweet man, but “product of his time” is a useful phrase here and he came by his first name honestly, so there’s “place” too. It should be admitted that the repulsive yet indomitable little pygmy is not really worse than the cutesy stereotyping of Chuck Jones’ pickaninny character, the lamentable Inki. And that Walter Lantz’s SCRUB ME MAMA WITH A BOOGIE BEAT makes HALF-PINT PYGMY, deeply regrettable though it is, look like LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.

 

 

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.