Archive for Orson Welles

Red Har-Fest

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2017 by dcairns

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On Shadowplayer GSPegger’s recommendation we ran WHISTLING IN THE DARK, and that led us to watch the sequels, WHISTLING IN DIXIE and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN.

We’re fans of the original WITD, which stars the superb Ernest Truex, a fleeting attempt to make a movie star out of the Kick the Can/HIS GIRL FRIDAY actor, so we weren’t sure how we’d take to Red doing the same material. Also, the casting of Conrad Veidt as villain gave us pause — would this be tragic and mortifying like John Barrymore playing stooge to Kay Kyser? In the end, no — the movie isn’t too heavily indebted to its source, swapping gangsters for a sinister cult, and Veidt gets to retain his dignity by playing it straight, while still suggesting that he might just possibly be having some fun. “We part in radiant harmony.”

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We overcame our animosity to Skelton — OK, he still mugs a lot and projects an over-eager “Like me! Like me!” vibe, but the writing MAKES him likable, and he is given a warm relationship with co-star Ann Rutherford.

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How to characterise these things? Well, they are a lot like Bob Hope’s comedy-thrillers. Films two and three are mainly written by Nat Perrin, of Bilko fame. In fact, many of the wisecracks are only so-so, with Skelton’s devotion sometimes putting over weak-ish material and sometimes trampling it. But the comic situations are good, and Rags Ragland is an effective, if gruesome foil.

All the films have spectacular brawls, which get more and more protracted as the series goes on. Rutherford gamely throws herself into these Donnybrooks — literally. A fight involving both Ragland and guest heavy Mike “the murderizer” Mazurki in BROOKLYN threatens to burst the screen with sheer plug-ugliness. Director S. Sylvan Simon isn’t too subtle with the slapstick, but gets laughter building by piling on energetic knockabout stuff until it reaches the ceiling. Similar to the excess of Preston Sturges or the furious chases at the end of some W.C. Fields flicks. 30s and 40s visual comedy just isn’t as elegant as the silent kind, but works by a kind of aggressive overegging.

Also, Simon is very good at the light-hearted spookshow stuff, aided by very good sets and lighting, so there’s plenty of the requisite old dark house atmosphere. He’s a director I’ll have to look into some more.

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If Veidt emerges with dignity intact in DARK, the same can’t be said for George Bancroft in DIXIE. It’s kind of pitiful — the big hambone, who’s been impossible to work with during his “glory” years, is actually trying to give a performance in this nonsense, complete with southern accent. For his pains, he gets stripped to his long johns in a flooded chamber and repeatedly punched unconscious. All of which is pretty funny, and it’s George Bancroft it’s happening to, so it’s, you know, acceptable.

What beats the wisecracking and even the punch-ups is the terrifying situations Red and Ann keep getting into — the flooding chamber is just one. An elevator threatens to crush them against an iron grid in BROOKLYN, and then they’re bound with chains and threatened with disposal down a dark chute into the sea. Quips are funnier when there’s an edge of hysterical panic to them.

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The bit that got Fiona in hysterics was Red having trouble with a set of joke shop false teeth while trying to pass incognito through a police station while wanted for murder. Best falsers gag since MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. But there are several hilarious and kind of nerve-racking bits in each picture. Later in BROOKLYN, Red has his head compressed in a vice, and his dramatic rendition of the sensation — talking in a deep, slurred voice like a brain-damaged boxer — is funny yet horrific.

Also, an addendum to my observations on HULLABALOO, in which MGM spoofed Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Skelton here is playing a radio sleuth perhaps modeled loosely on Welles’ turn as The Shadow, and at the end of the first film he manages to broadcast to the nation while held prisoner by Veidt’s cult. But the local police don’t believe anything they hear on the radio, having made fools of themselves the previous year…

(Fake news is not new.)

The chances of anything coming from MGM are a million to one, he says

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2017 by dcairns


HULLABALOO (1940) is an odd thing. To be clear, we were only watching it for Virginia O’Brien’s debut.

Here’s the story with Virginia: when she first sang on stage she got stage fright, but carried on singing. The audience was comvulsed in hysterics at the sight of this frozen rigid, erect young girl with her eyes wide in panic, belting out her song like a song-belting machine. She liked the laughter, and incorporated the big eyes and stiff stance into her act.

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(In DUBARRY WAS A LADY, Red Skelton asks “Are you sure?” and Gene Kelly says “As sure as she’s alive!” and Red retorts “Aw, you’ll have to give me better proof than THAT!” and all the while Ginny is standing right there, and walks off mechanically as if she hasn’t registered any of it.)

But the plot in this one, though thin and constantly supplanted by random novelty acts, is interesting — it’s MGM’s response to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Here, a radio novice performs a play about invaders from Jupiter and panics America. This film followed pretty swiftly on the heels of the real incident, and came out a year before the first product of the Hollywood contract Welles won with his little stunt.

How does MGM re-imagine, or de-imagine the story? Well, the whole thing must be an innocent misunderstanding. The radio performer is a talented but innocent, lovable fellow who certainly didn’t mean to start a rumpus, and certainly wasn’t attempting to prove anything. He should be played by someone cuddly, muddleheaded and appealing. Someone like… Frank Morgan!

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Interesting to see Frank Morgan co-starring here with Dan Dailey before THE MORTAL STORM and with Billie Burke after THE WIZARD OF OZ. And Morgan is pretty enjoyable  doing his schtick. It’s just pretty weird to think this was somebody’s idea of Orson Welles.

One conceit of the plot is that F.M. radio relies on F.M. being a man of a thousand voices, which the actor wasn’t. So they dub him a lot whenever he does his impressions, except occasionally — he seems to be doing Charles Boyer without the aid of a man hidden behind a curtain (EVERY film we see lately seems to have a Charles Boyer impression, and we haven’t even been looking at Pepe le Pew cartoons… YET). Since all the celebrities — Gable, Lamar, Rooney — are from the MGM stable, I assumed they were providing their own vocals, but NO — impersonators, apart from an audio clip from BOOM TOWN that allows Morgan to lip-sync to Gable, Colbert and Tracy in a clip from BOOM TOWN, thus forcing the paying audience of HULLABALOO to sit through an ad for another MGM release.

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Mad genius costume designer Dolly Tree outfits Ann Morriss as Dan Dailey’s castrating fiancee with a set of scissors hanging from her throat.

You can tell it’s an MGM film also because the comedy punches down — we’re meant to laugh at a carny who has to give away all his prizes, and a love-starved widow, and a butler who doesn’t get paid, etc. Tenor Charles Holland gets to sing two songs, but the first is Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny, because he’s black, and the second, though it’s Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci, he has to sing dressed as a bellhop, in case we forgot he’s black.

Some kind of a puppet

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , on December 3, 2016 by dcairns

life backwards from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’ve been looking for this sketch since forever. Easily, for me, the most memorable thing the satirical puppet show Spitting Image ever did.

The modus operandi of the show was snark, but this posthumous piece on Orson Welles can be processed in other ways. At the time, I remember finding it not so much funny as thought-provoking.

The year was 1986. Welles died in October the previous year. It was kind of odd for a topical show to pick up on something not really in the news. “Don’t you think right after his death -?” as a guy named Thompson once attempted to ask. This little scene riffs on some of the commonplace bits of snark about Welles — “from CITIZEN KANE to sherry commercials” but offers a different spin.

American satires of Welles come with a not-so-hidden subtext: he started big and ended small. He made the greatest film ever, and look what happened to him. Beware, all of you, of artistic ambition. Hubris! No good can come of it. Very reassuring to those with regular work making run-of-the-mill multiplex fodder.

The authors of this piece are still prone to underrating later Welles achievements, as far as we can tell in its rather incomplete summary of his career. But by flipping Welles’ biography around, this little spoof raises two points ~

  1. Does it matter what order Welles made things in? The fact is, he made CITIZEN KANE. A career with that in it is a triumphant career. Nothing that comes after it can invalidate it, any more than anything before it could invalidate it.
  2. What does it matter what you say about people?