Archive for Of Mice and Men

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.

 

 

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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.

Ronald Colman, Smut Peddlar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Ginger Roger and Ronald Colman enjoy a bit of chaste phone sex.

LUCKY PARTNERS, one of Lewis Milestone’s comedies, strikes me as seriously underrated. The IMDb reviews seem sniffy, so even the classic movie crowd seemingly haven’t warmed to this one. And Milestone isn’t particularly thought of as a director with a light touch, probably because his best known films are very heavy indeed — ALL QUIET, RAIN, MARTHA IVERS, MICE & MEN — they’re not exactly laugh-a-minute material.

But in fact there’s a strong thread of comedy running throughout the man’s career, which ended (ignoring a few TV shows) with OCEAN’S 11, which is basically a romp, and includes comic work in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. These movies are less familiar and acclaimed, and maybe they’re more minor — or maybe just more modest. NO MINOR VICES doesn’t come on like it wants to change the world, THE FRONT PAGE is overshadowed by Hawks’ superior remake, and it’s hard to assess his uncredited contribution to Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER, the one renowned classic comedy on his CV, because it seems to have been directed by anybody who chanced by — but I might guess at the spectacular crane shot where Harold climbs a tree to indefinitely prolong his farewell to the girl (his increased elevation makes the horizon recede so she stays in view longer) or the dark, horror-noir chase on the boat could betray his elegant and dynamic touch.

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In LUCKY PARTNERS, Ginger Rogers (perhaps America’s best ever actress) works in a bookshop in Greenwich Village with her ditzy aunt Spring Byington (yay!) and is planning to marry prize schnook Jack Carson when the impossibly romantic Ronald Colman walks into her life. With screwball comedy plotting so archetypal as to be almost unacceptable, he wishes her good luck at random and she immediately gets good luck. So she has the idea that they should buy a sweepstake ticket together, since he’s lucky for her. Colman, an eccentric artist, agrees on condition that if they should win, he ought to take her on a cross-country trip, which he calls a honeymoon, before her marriage to Carson. Ginger is outraged at this lewd suggestion and immediately enlists Carson to beat up the bad man.

What follows is a brilliant scene of nonsense comic suspense. played to the hilt by Milestone, his actors, and his editor ~

Of course, a scene like that can only end in comic anti-climax, and as you can see, it does.

Milestone repeats himself, first as tragedy, then as farce. For you see, this is a reworking of the shooting-the-dog scene in his big classic OF MICE AND MEN, made just a couple years earlier. Nobody who has seen that movie can have forgotten, surely, the way Milestone draws out the drama as the boys in the bunkhouse for the sound of Ralph Morgan’s Roman Bohnen’s old, sick dog being shot. The exact same technique is employed here for an almost opposite emotion.

I got very interested to know who Milestone’s editor was here. I thought I detected a faint RKO house style, uniting the Robert Wise of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, CITIZEN KANE and CAT PEOPLE with the exquisite cutting on George Stevens’ films at the same time and studio. In fact, Henry Berman was the brother of studio boss Pandro S. Berman and he *did* cut several of those Stevens pictures, with their very musical rhythms (and not just the musicals). He also did a lot of TV and — get this! — he cut John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. That knowledge makes me giddy!

Anyhow, Ginger and Ronald do go on their trip, and it becomes clear that we’re in the quasi-fantasy world of John Van Druten, who wrote BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (Milestone, Van Druten and Colman also got together on MY LIFE WITH CAROLINE, which I found a lot less appealing, perhaps because Anna Lee is no Ginger Rogers — but it does have a great comedy butler, played by Hugh O’Connell). There are no witches in this one, but there’s a kind of enchanted bridge, coming from left field and leading to Wonderland.

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And there’s also an eleventh-hour plot twist relating to Colman’s mysterious backstory, and here I’m afraid my title is something of a spoiler. Colman is a disenchanted artist with a criminal record, but we don’t find out the facts until a comic trial at the end (Harry Davenport as one of those flustered justices screwballs abound in). It’s quite an eye-opener. Colman painted a series of illustrations of a mythological or folkloric nature for a book on myth, and they were deemed indecent and he was briefly jailed. This all comes out in a testimony by Ginger, who tells us that the book is now studied in universities and considered perfectly respectable. It’s quite exciting to see her impassioned defense of Ronald’s dirty doodles. For although the words of the dialogue are stressing the essential wholesome, healthy nature of Colman’s smutty daubings, we all know that even in the ‘forties an artist couldn’t be jailed merely for doing nudes. We have to imagine Aubrey Beardsley style fauns running about with massive hard-ons. And so the meaning of the scene is that Ginger Rogers is all in favour of massive hard-ons. Which we’ve always suspected anyway — one only has to look at her — and it’s one of the reasons we love her so (along with her being America’s greatest actress). A girl with a healthy appetite for the good things in life.

Lewis Milestone Week *ought* to end today — but I have more! Gimme a few more days.