Archive for Peter Lawford

Zero Displacement

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2017 by dcairns

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Two more Esther Williams movies, but they don’t make much of a splash.

ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU is supposed to be about a besotted air force pilot abducting a movie star to a tropical island so he can have a dance with her. The pilot is played by Peter Lawford, who I don’t think is a terrible actor, but he lacks chemistry — with anyone. Chemically, he is inert. Most straight guys, placed in a scene with Es, would be able to muster some excitement, but Lawford remains flat and petulant.

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To overcome this considerable problem, the movie tries deferring its plot indefinitely, spending a full 45 minutes mooning around a hotel before the romantic kidnapping gets started. Fortunately, Xavier Cugat is on hand. If you want to stop a storyline from ever getting underway, Xavier Cugat is just the man you need. He assails us with Latin swing music, and keeps pressing chihuahuas onto Jimmy Durante. This business was apparently judged to be a suitable delaying tactic by the suits at MGM, and it does pass the time in a desultory sort of way that is yet not as desultory as watching Peter Lawford drily articulate his yearning.

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The main entertainment is actually provided by little Kathryn Beaumont as an English child actor. She was the voice of Alice and Wendy for Disney. She’s supposed to play the young Esther in a movie, but Durante declares she’s too English. “But mother,” asks Kathryn, “How is it possible to be too English?”

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If ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU never gets started, the clumsily titled THRILL OF A ROMANCE gets started immediately, then smashes to a halt and expires in Yosemite Park. Esther is wooed and wed by the oddly creepy Carleton G. Young, who is not the same guy who says “Print the legend” in LIBERTY VALANCE. Something has been added — the letter G. Admittedly, this character is a sort of schnook set up to make Van Johnson look more marriagable (the plot ends in bigamy, a surprising recurring feature of Esther vehicles). And admittedly this is wartime, so all the proper leading men are in the army. Some casting director must have cried, “Get me a young Carleton Young!”

This 4F weirdball picks Esther up after seeing her dive, and gets her address from a naked Mexican boy he romances. But when the boy, still undressed, turns up at the wedding, Carleton is displeased. I was seriously expecting this to go in some kind of weird NAKED KISS direction.

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Without any narrative momentum among the redwoods, the film reaches not for Xavier Cugat but for opera singer Lauritz Melchior, who satisfies Louis B. Mayer’s demand for classical music to lend class to his pictures, while also allowing a lot of fat guy jokes. I wondered allowed if the Danish tenor was related to Ib Melchior of REPTILICUS! and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES fame. “Not everyone in Denmark is related,” admonished Fiona. “Everyone called Melchior is related,” I admonished back.

And it turns out the ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS guys is indeed the son of the fat singer.

“This opera singer has some comedy chops,” says Fiona, part way through. And then, “Ib Melchior’s dad was really the whole show in that film.”

Yes, I agree, it was all Melchior all the time. It couldn’t BE any Melchior.

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A Lawford Unto Himself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2016 by dcairns

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IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU is pretty damn good fun. If you watch it right after BORN YESTERDAY you might get slightly annoyed by the repeated trope of a smart male trying to educate Judy Holliday out of her false values, which is effective once but starts to seem a bit retrograde second time round. But watch them a few months apart and I think that won’t be a problem. And anyway it helps that William Holden plays it so well in the earlier film, without a hint of patronizing patriarchy, and Jack Lemmon is too light to come across like some kind of hectoring Glenn Ford figure also.

But my favourite bit in ISHTY (good acronym!) is when love rat Peter Lawford is pressing his luck with Judy. Several of her films make comedy out of the dubious situation of a guy refusing to take the hint — PHFFFT has an unpleasant moment when Jack Carson is coming on very strong and one feels that his agreeably oafish presence could swiftly become intolerable and downright sinister if they take this one hair further — but Judy is the great enabler for sexist comedy because she makes everything funny, and therefore inoffensive. If you’re laughing you are by definition not offended.

This sequence particularly illustrates George Cukor’s skill, which is generally an art which conceals its art — you know he’s good because the films FEEL good, but it’s hard to put your finger on his exact technique. But this one is a very artful use of the frame, creating a surprise out of repeated action — the performances enhance it immeasurably, not just Judy who can ring infinite changes on a recurring gag, but Lawford who is a pretty underrated light comedian, only lacking the authentic charm that would have pushed him into the major league. He’s ideally cast here, in other words.

Judy has bought a billboard to advertise her mere existence so she can be a celebrity (it’s a very modern, relevent story about being famous for no reason) and Peter Lawford needs the sign for his business so he’s going to wine and dine Judy and even romance her to get her to give up her sign.

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CLOSE ANALYSIS TIME!

Lawford drives Holliday back from their date. Cukor delivers a standard-issue establishing shot.

He cuts in closer as Judy exits the car, and Lawford disembarks offscreen (“Shoot the money!” as Cukor would say) and circles the vehicle to, apparently, say goodnight. Judy smiles and says “Well, good night,” and he goodnights her back, but then simply follows her as she turns to her apartment.

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Same shot: Judy turns to wave goodbye but is surprised to find him right there, not back at the car where she assumed she’d left him. Priceless expression from JH. And the comedy of finding yourself waving at someone who’s about six inches from your face.

Same shot: Judy has to say something, so she says “Thank you very much,” obviously feeling this has an appropriate ring of finality to it. “Not at all,” replies Lawford earnestly, and then, as Judy starts up the stairs to her brownstone, he joins right alongside her. Second hilarious reaction from Judy as she glances over at him with a slight sense of one in a dream.

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Same shot: she’s now at the front door. Nervous laugh. “I had a real good time.” The conversation seems to be extending itself like a ramp.

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Same shot: up to the front door (the camera follows weightlessly). Judy opens one door, Peter opens the other. She nods to him slightly: it’s meant to mean GOODNIGHT but, fatally, she doesn’t actually say it. Or GOODBYE might be better.

They go in the first door. Cukor now cuts to inside and Judy comes in the second door and turns to head Peter off before he can follow. “Well… good night.” “Good night,” he replies, amiably. Judy turns, now confident that the correct message has now been delivered and understood.

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But (same shot) she’s only climbed one step when her spider sense starts tingling, warning her of danger. Back hair rising. Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread / Because he knows that Peter Lawford doth close behind him tread.

Same shot: Judy turns and says “WELL” again, quite emphatically, and then “good night” as a whisper because they’re in the communal stair, and she wants him to realize that. Judy’s indefinable comic genius: she knows that the audience will laugh at the awkwardly repeated line anyway, but she can get two more distinct laughs out of it by saying the first bit surprisingly loud and the second bit surprisingly quiet. Comedy being this strange mix of anticipation and surprise.

Same shot: Peter whispers “Good night” back and Judy mounts the stairs, growing in confidence as she gets further up: halfway to the next landing her neck distinctly straightens up, with a sense of being home free and no longer under observation and feeling in might even be safe to make a sprint for it, possibly. Cukor is ascending right along with her by crane, not to be Ophulsian and elaborate — he’s planning to cut pretty soon anyway — but because this comic movement demands it.

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Whoops! Same shot. Lawford accelerates into frame right on her ass. Judy immediately detects him (spider sense going like the clappers) and spins around as soon as she gains the landing. This should keep Lawford on the stairs, at a slight psychological disadvantage, but he just keeps on coming — the Sperminator — causing her to back away and get on an even footing with her. He’s playing it very louche — like the City Wolf in Tex Avery’s LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, made some years before. Judy gives him a smile which gives every appearance of sincerity except when she drops it like a mask, and then gives him a brisk wave, practically semaphore for GO AWAY PETER LAWFORD.

Peter smiles indulgently: “Foolish child!” Judy bolts, and George cranes straight up, letting Judy leave shot screen left, her movement somehow driving the camera’s ascent even though she’s no longer even in view, then he reaches the next landing ahead of her and she, having rounded the corner, arrives from screen left and looks over the banister to make sure he’s not following her —

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Puzzled expression, telling us that, like Michael Myers after going out the window at the end of HALLOWEEN, Lawford is not there where he should be.

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“Whoops!” Peter glides into view right behind her. Judy bolts off, screen right.

Cut. Judy is now advancing at speed, sort of pretending he’s not there anymore in the hopes that he’ll get the message and start playing the role of a man that’s not there anymore. Maybe even method-acting the part. The other day upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there…

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The apartment door is reached. A new strategy: “Well [slight laugh] this is it.” Regal, fluttering gesture at door. Awkward pause at realization that sentence with subtext “We have reached the end, beyond which nothing further can be expected,” might in fact be misread as “Here it is, big boy.”

Fanatical density being Peter’s main weapon, he replies “What?” “Where I live,” explains Judy, advancing to ever-higher levels of discomfiture (most actors probably only have about three, but Judy has one for every step of the way here). “Oh…good…” replies the wolf, sidling closer. “So… I guess I’d better go in.” “Very well,” he breathes. “Eh… because it’s pretty late?” says Judy, here enhancing a line by delivering it as a hopeful question rather than a statement.

“Yes it is,” murmurs Lawford, now pressing close as if in a rush hour subway. In a sexy scene, the camera would be equally intimate. By staying wide, Cukor maintains Judy’s interpretation of the scene: the absurd, unwanted closeness of this man in a spacious hallway.

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Judy breaks free, which means leaving her doorway, and tries another strategy: “Besides, I don’t think your car’s safe down there.” “Oh?” breathes Lawford, attempting to be seductive about his parking. “You don’t know this neighbourhood!” exclaims Judy, in a thrill of panic, trying to imbue the neighbourhood with an outrageous amount of automotive peril, and holding her hat at pelvis level like a kind of tabard against the unwelcome waves of Lawford’s penile radiation.

Peter dangles his little car key smugly. “Locked.” The subtext reads: “I think of everything. Always prepared. Ever ready. you know what I mean, baby?” Judy laughs this off: it wouldn’t stop the really determined car thieves in HER neighbourhood. “I’m scared you’ll lose your car.” “I have another one,” he says, matter-of-factly, which makes the boast even worse, but he’s also paying a compliment by letting her know that the loss of an expensive sports car would be a small price to pay for a night of passion with Judy.

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Judy has left her key in her front door so the masterful Peter now opens the door, inviting her into her own apartment — Cukor cutting to the view from inside. “Shall we?” Meanwhile, in the far background, neighbour and unofficial boyfriend Jack Lemmon bursts floundering from his own apartment to see what is up. Seeing what is up, and having no actual claim here, he beats a noisy retreat, but Judy uses the distraction to get inside and yelps “See that? Better go!” and Lawford finally gets the message but, departing, plants a big oily kiss on Judy. He is evidently a powerful kisser, for Judy goes into a swoony daze as if Christopher Lee’s Dracula were putting his mesmeric ‘fluence on her with both contact lenses.

But Judy, in this movie anyway, is no dope. She whispers, “But I don’t think I want to give up my sign.” Proving that, nice as the evening has been and nice as the loverboy power kiss felt, she is under no illusions about what it’s all about.

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Defeated — for now — Lawford slopes off, already planning the next stage of his battle plan, while Judy closes the door backhanded with a huge erotic sigh. And CUT.

 

I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by dcairns

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After the special screening of CLUNY BROWN at Filmhouse, there was much discussion among the appreciative audience about why the film wasn’t better known. Various theories were mooted —

1) Vagaries of TV scheduling — none of us could remember catching CLUNY on TV. While IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a flop on first release, became a Christmas classic because it had lapsed into the public domain and therefore could be screened free of charge, and therefore was screened A LOT, and while CASABLANCA was already a firm favourite but was given a boost by the fact that Curtiz’s unusual use of closeups makes the film play very well on a small screen, CLUNY BROWN may have just missed out on finding a place on the small screen. And TV is what has kept film history somewhat in the public mind — the dropping of old movies from the schedules has brought about mass amnesia in the young, the loss of a whole language composed of once-iconic faces. Not only are there now western adults who don’t know Jimmy Cagney, they may be in the majority.

2) Vagaries of contemporary reviewing — coming after a string of successes, the somewhat uncategorizable and utterly relaxed CLUNY BROWN probably didn’t get the love it deserved. If you’d just given five-star reviews to NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and HEAVEN CAN WAIT, you might be inclined to nit-pick just for variety. And you could probably find a few things to criticise —

3) The first act takes place in a London flat and deals with Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) preparing a cocktail party and in need of a plumber. It feels like the whole film is going to be a series of people arriving at the door and either mistaken for plumbers or being plumbers and mistaken for ordinary civilians. But then the film takes off for the countryside and we never see Hilary Ames again. There’s also a coda in New York. So the film is extremely casual about structure, and some people seem to mistake this for sloppiness. Certainly the film has a lightness and a country house setting in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but eschews the tightly-plotted farce form which is one of Wodehouse’s defining merits.

But in fact, all subplots are nicely rounded off and despite the need for comedy characters to resist change, I think we get about four-to-six full character acts, all of which are affecting and delightful. The movie appears to take its time, yet packs in lots of funny supporting players and explores the themes of class and inhibitions and “knowing your place” in a thorough and intelligent manner. It was suggested that the modern Downton Abbey audience might find it very amenable.

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4) Charles Boyer is today mainly known for GASLIGHT and Jennifer Jones I guess for DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. This film shows them in very different modes. They’re both brilliant. He’s just generally excellent, implying Adam Belinski’s romantic yearnings and heartbreak with only the tiniest hints. Jones, with her preposterous attempt at an English accent (inconsistent in itself and about three social classes too high), and her rather full-on approach to every emotion, is less obviously a skilled player, but in fact everything she does is PERFECT. Even the accent works in a weird way, suggesting Cluny’s fish-out-of-water quality. You’ll notice that nobody criticizes Boyer for failing to do a convincing Czech accent, so why should we object to her wandering vowel sounds?

5) The only major cult figure in the supporting class is Una O’Connor, who does sterling work (restrained by her standards). But there ought to be a cult around Richard Haydn, a real cult that worships him as a god. And Peter Lawford’s callow young man roles in this and the criminally unappreciated Christmas film SOMEONE TO REMEMBER (Robert Siodmak) ought to be enough to redeem him from the Rat Pack pigeonhole he got himself jammed into later. Everybody’s good in this — Canadian Margaret Bannerman makes a splendid English lady of the manor, initially a silly goose, but revealing almost mystic levels of grace and understanding. “We must have a talk about the garden, because everything’s planned three years in advance,” becomes, in her reading, a rather eerie and beautiful encapsulation of Britishness.

Helen Walker’s career was tragically derailed but she’s wonderful and lovely (and believably English) as the Honourable Betty Cream (she doesn’t go everywhere, but she does sit a horse well, hang it) — she has this and NIGHTMARE ALLEY as twin claims to immortality.

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Sarah Allgood and Ernest Cossart — the head servants are far more snobbish and unsympathetic than their masters, which points to the fact that this is a film poking fun at class but still from a slightly conservative viewpoint. Lubitsch is not out to overthrow the system, although in the context of the stultified society presented, Boyer’s cri de coeur of “Your place is wherever you are happy” (paraphrased as “Squirrels to the nuts!”) is somewhat revolutionary.

I’ve just discovered via the IMDb that Cossart was the actual brother of Gustav Holst. Now I have an image of him cavorting in a toga to the theme of Jupiter from The Planets Suite. It’s quite a nice image, really.

***

But really those are all the reasons I can think of why this isn’t a gigantic renowned classic, and I don’t really believe any of them are good reasons.

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