Archive for Olivia DeHavilland

The Sunday Intertitle: Fictionized

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2021 by dcairns

Errol Flynn movies are highly intertitular. After enjoying THE DAWN PATROL so much, and particularly the Flynn-Niven byplay in biplanes, we ran THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Fiona wasn’t sure she’d ever seen the whole thing, shock horror), THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Nothing came up to the satisfaction of Goulding’s flying saga, but ROBIN HOOD is of course huge fun.

Scattered impressions: Eugene Pallette really can’t swordfight. He just waves his longsword about, but struggles to do that at anything like an impressive speed. I think his problem is he’s trying to mimic the anachronistic rapier-work displayed by Flynn et al. The film is full of undercranking but he’s the one who needs it. Also: Flynn and Rathbone had a fight arranger for their fantastic duel. Pallette just seems to have been shovelled into a cassock and left to fend for himself.

The music! The sets! The film is only half Curtiz (William Keighley had it taken away from him for being too slow and not dramatic enough — Curtiz came on and was even slower but much more dramatic). The closeup of Rathbone dead! The Curtiz sadism always finds an outlet.

CHARGE is described in an opening title as “fictionized” and the same curious word is used by Hal Wallis in memos (Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), Rudy Behlmer) so I guess maybe he coined it. It actual makes more sense than “fictionalised” maybe. Anyway what he means is it’s a ludicrous farrago, but Curtiz is still prowl-tracking through sets with lots of intervening props and characters that glide past between us and the action, a 3D filmmaker avant la lettre.

The “British fort” is wonderfully hilarious. Utter phallocracy. It was clearly felt that a British fort in India should have an Indian aspect, a sense of minaret to it, despite the fact that colonialism is rendered visual in the way the coloniser builds in his own style structures in the land of the colonised. So this Flash Gordon fairytale palace is based on nothing, it’s as unreal as the light sources from below designed only to cast dramatic shadows on walls, a real Curtiz trope visible in both these Flynn movies he directed.

The fictionized end battle is unbelievably massive. Lots of horses, both full and empty. In some wide shots they seem to be tripping the horses with pits (the Italian method, more humane) but mostly they’re using the crueller Running W tripwire approach and lots of horses were maimed and killed. Niven and other cast members complained. It’s all right up there on the screen. The BBFC has a history of censoring such scenes but if they started on this one I don’t know what’d be left, the Valley of Death as a shredded string of blipverts and ellisions.

Incredible decision to cast Flynn and De Havilland and have her in love with his brother, the nonexistent Patric Knowles. And with Niven standing around with nothing to do! There’s a memo about casting proper posh Brits in the posh roles, and beware because naturally Curtiz can’t tell cockney from Received Pronunciation, and then we have E.E. Clive (“‘E’s invisibule, that’s wot’s the matter with ‘im!”) as a diplomat. He’s talking respectably, but diplomats are about nine shades posher than mere respectable, they’re so posh you can barely understand them.

I wish I’d seen this and BOOTS when I was younger and more into silly fun. But BOOTS would probably still have outraged me because its mangling of history is more pernicious (though one wonders at Hollywood’s man-crush on the British Empire. I guess we were an important market). Yet, despite its glorifying Custer, not a good man, the movie is quite sympathetic to the Indians for a work of that time.

Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse!

Plenty of forthright rambunctiousness for director Raoul Walsh to get his teeth into. The crazy disregard for fact resolves into a much more coherent story than CHARGE, even though they’re stringing things out across Custer’s entire career from West Point to Little Bighorn. As with CHARGE, the trick is to disguise a strategic blunder as a cunning plan, and remould horrific defeat as stunning victory. Using Tennyson but altering the entire significance of the battle is a striking bit of Hollywood chicanery, besides which BOOTS’ repurposing of Custer’s Last Stand as a diversionary move to save another unit pales, seems almost respectable.

This one has a proper and really good romantic relationship (marriage!) for Errol and Olivia. And really good use of Arthur Kennedy, the Anti-Flynn.

Flynn’s historical, or historized, films, are crowded with intertitles. It’s as if Warners felt the use of this old-timey narrative technique would bestow a suitably archaic feeling to the action.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD stars George Armstrong Custer; Melanie Hamilton – Their Cousin; Sherlock Holmes; Dr. Jack Griffin; Dr. Frank Mannering; Alexander Bullock; Mr. Pike; Gerald; Theseus – Duke of Athens; Minnie; Albert Miggles; Colonel Weed; Mr. LeBrand; Greystoke’s Nephew; King Charles II; Man in 1780 Sequence (uncredited); The Burgomaster; Crunch; Dr. John Lanyon; Loana; Old Tramp; Louise Finch; and Trigger.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Will Scarlett; Lord Willoughby; Dr. Watson; Battling Burrows; Sir Charles Lytton the notorious Phantom; Dr. Cream; Lt. ‘Queen’s Own’ Butler; Chingachgook; Bertha Van Cleve; Constable Jaffers; Chief Sitting Bull; Princess Baba; Monsieur Taffy; and Dr. John Lanyon.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Jackson Bentley; Grandpa Joad; Sheriff Hartwell; Paul Gauguin; Professor Siletsky; Carson Drew; Oliver Larrabee; Kasper Gurman; Arvide Abernathy; Queenie; Augustus Brandon; Alan Winters in Photo (uncredited); Babe Dooley; Wolf Larsen; Mrs Stark – Jim’s Grandmother; Mr. Cope in Fantasy Sequence; Porthos; Detective Dickens; Inez Laranetta; Duffy; and Cueball.

Bette Noir

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2018 by dcairns

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.

Hatchet Job

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2015 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s TV play, Noon Wine, based on the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, occupies a legendary position in his oeuvre, because it turned his career around when he was at a low ebb, making everything afterwards possible (although it’s THE WILD BUNCH which created his unstoppable momentum in the next decade), and also because it’s been almost impossible to see.

After being shut out of the editing room on the troubled MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston wondered why Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, so charming to their actors when they wanted to be, could not turn that charm on the moneymen; Peckinpah wrote to his producer, “You are a well-poisoner, Jerry, and I damn you for it”), and after being fired from THE CINCINATTI KID after allegations that he tried to shoot hardcore pornography on the MGM lot (screenwriter Terry Southern claimed, plausibly, that it was his idea of adding an interracial love scene that freaked out the suits; but see also Susan George’s allegations about Peckinpah’s initial plans for the rape scene in STRAW DOGS, which tends to support suspicions about the director’s enthusiasm for what might be termed “sexual realism”) — anyhow, after all that, nobody was willing to touch Peckinpah.

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This low-budget TV play demonstrated that Peckinpah could be trusted to turn up, shoot to schedule, and get great reviews. What’s weird is how shonky Noon Wine is. Admittedly, the source material screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival, supplied by UCLA, may not have shown the film at it’s best — though this may be the best surviving material. It looks to have been shot on tape, filmed off a TV screen, and then dumped back onto digital, but it’s hard to be sure. The colour is streaky, the image sometimes displaying a tubular edge distortion, and the resolution is low, and there’s also the unpleasantly smooth, HOBBIT-like video movement, though one soon gets used to that.

The piece is obviously cheap as chips, with laughable production design in the courtroom scene — blank stage flats painted in streaks to try to add a spurious sense of detail. But much low-budget TV still impresses, due to story and acting and framing. Noon Wine is erratic in all of these aspects.

Technically, the piece is below the standard of most TV of the period, with music unconvincingly papering over gaps in the soundtrack where Peckinpah seems to have shot mute. The only visual sequences which don’t look flatly televisual are the frequent montages, layerings of lap dissolves to show time passing. Generally, whenever Peckinpah mucks about with lap dissolves, wipes, freeze frames, ripple dissolves or accelerated motion, I cringe. These examples aren’t outright offensive, but they get a little embarrassing sometimes.

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Olivia DeHavilland is good, naturally. Jason Robards SHOUTS all the time, just like Steve Martin in THE JERK. Per Oscarsson is outstanding. Whenever I see him, I always think, Who is this strange man, where did he come from and what’s he doing here? I even saw him in a Swedish film, DR GLAS, and thought the same thing. So he’s perfect to play what the script calls “a stranger in a strange land.” Theodore Bikel essays a range of characterful tics including a Magoo chortle, and seems to have strayed in from another, more amusing but far worse film.

The story seems predicated upon an ambiguous event (an unseen axe murder) like the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, but Peckinpah struggles to make the unclear clear. His use of monologues, internal monologues, expository dialogue and more montages is frequently awkward. I realized that Peckinpah’s movies are almost never solo writing jobs, though his work on The Rifleman and The Westerner on TV showed he could get the job done OK when he had to. But he never had to solve all the narrative problems of a feature script without help.

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It feels almost ungrateful to get a rare chance to see something like this projected, and not like it better. But that leaves the enduring mystery of how Peckinpah’s career got rebooted by a tiny TV play that isn’t very good. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was that the film, so little seen but so significant in its repercussions for Peckinpah, is like the offscreen murder itself — it is responsible for everything that happens afterwards, but in itself it is unknowable, unseeable and impossible to understand.

I was just thinking, “Now all we need is Nick Ray’s The High Green Wall” — and then I thought to check YouTube and here it is! Hope it’s good.