Archive for Peter Sellers

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

The Sunday Intertitle: Choccy Moloch

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2021 by dcairns

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK holds up better than the other Boulting Bros’ satires, I think. It’s unusual in that it’s a right-wing satire that’s actually funny. There is a slight attempt at even-handedness: when a worker explains that by having two unions, they can continually pressure the bosses to raise salaries, he adds that without this crafty approach, they wouldn’t get any raises at all. That’s a pretty minuscule sop.

So if the film, firing in all directions, is FOR anything, it’s for “compassionate capitalism.” If the workers are treated fairly by the employers, we can do away with unions altogether and peace will reign. Kind of weird that they use that title, shorthand for “Sod you, Jack, I’m all right” — intended to convey individual selfishness. Here, the different classes are united in opposition to one another, but there’s real group unity within each. They stick together.

Still, with the bosses played by Terry-Thomas (idiot) and Richard Attenborough (cad) and in bed with sleazy politico Dennis Price (crook) and sleazy foreigner Marne Maitland (seen stealing the cutlery), it’s fair to say nobody comes out of it well. But if you unpick where the film is heading with its argument, you find near-fascism at the end of the ellipsis.

My late friend Lawrie Knight found himself trapped between doors with Roy Boulting: the “filming” light was on so they couldn’t go forward and there was no point going back outside. So they waited. RB noticed Lawrie’s public school tie, and immediately became friendlier than he had been previously. Lawrie was a mere third assistant director. And he was appalled at RB’s sudden change of manner. “I mean, I’m a terrible snob, but this was too much!”

Peter Sellers’ magisterial performance as Fred Kite, union man, makes the film, though it’s crammed to the rafters with superb players in meaty comic roles. Dennis Price raises his game: sure, he’s always good, but he’s always THE SAME. He could have played this role with his eyes closed, but he wakes up for it and knocks it out of the park.

There’s a modest attempt to portray the women as the sensible parties, but this involves showing Mrs. Kite (Irene Handl, fabulous as always) cozying up to our hero’s posh Aunt Dolly with a forelock-tugging obsequiousness that’s portrayed as somehow instinctive and proper. Uncomfortable. Though seeing those two share a scene is a joy.

But I mainly want to talk about the chocolate factory. Our hero (Ian Carmichael, mousy drip to perfection) is taken on a tour of this joint, and if Willie Wonka’s plant is a gaudy death-trap, and that of Lord Scrumptious an expressionistic panopticon, then the Num-Yum factory’s METROPOLIS-inspired imagery, with the rhythmic soundtrack of burping and farting machinery (no doubt inspired by the jazzy chemistry sounds of THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, a subtler, more compassionate and genuinely curious film than this) takes the film into a nauseating nightmare realm, just for this one scene. It’s a film full of disgust, moral or aesthetic, but it only assumes visceral form here. The boultings may have had the wrong slant on politics and society, but they got one thing right about satire: it’s motivated by nausea.

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK stars Bertie Wooster; Sir Hiss – A Snake; Chance; Kris Kringle; Jeeves; Madame Arcati; Mrs Gimble; Glad Trimble; Canon Chasuble; The Malay; Sgt. Wilson; Mr. Hoylake; Anxious O’Toole; Lenny the Dip; Archbishop Gilday; Orlando O’Connor; Lily Swann; and Sgt. Potty Chambers.

Teddy Kiss Atom

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2021 by dcairns

Caught a little of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on the telly over Christmas, and then on Hogmanay we ran my new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Suddenly realized that one of the Six Tumbling Piccolos, the acrobatic midgets who turn up (minus two of their number, unfortunately gassed) in an Inverness graveyard in TPLOSH, is also seen in Gert Frobe’s Vulgarian court in CCBB.

And in fact those seem to be the guy’s only credits. And his name was Teddy Kiss Atom. His brother, Charlie Young Atom, is also a Piccolo. Or I assume they’re brothers. Pretty wild coincidence if two midgets called Atom wound up in the same film by sheer chance.

And I know “midgets” is not the preferred term, but it’s what they call them in the film. I think it used to be sort of useful to distinguish people who are small all over, like these Atom chaps, from people with short arms and legs, like the TIME BANDITS, who were called dwarfs.

Other observations, since this is proving so illuminating —

“That little wizard Mr. Trauner”, Billy Wilder’s favourite production designer, provides a Swan Lake fake swan with a built-in fake reflection, complete with sculpted ripples. But my DVD isn’t working and I can’t framegrab from the Blu-Ray (a technical issue that may be fixed in 2021) so you’ll have to check it out yourselves.

I always assumed the Diogenes Club was some suitably grand location hired for the day, but the maniacs built it, for ONE SHOT. Wilder really burned up his studio clout with this one. A producer friend has told me that his job entails assessing “the appetite” of a film — this one, from the production notes by Trevor Willsmer supplied in the disc booklet, was apparently insaciable.

I love this out-of-time film. But when Fiona asked why it flopped so badly, the answer seemed simple: “It was old-fashioned, it had no stars, and it promised to be naughty but wasn’t.” Some slightly smuttier stuff hit the cutting room floor (whole storylines), but the stars thing is strange. Apart from Christopher Lee, cast in a role that wouldn’t particularly appeal to his fanbase (Mycroft, not Moriarty) although he’s fab here, we have Robert Stephens, a Wildean Holmes, who has picked up a lot of his then-wife (but not for long) wife Maggie Smith’s cadences (well, she got them from Kenneth Williams) and Colin Blakeley (I guess A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is what got him the part), neither of them a box-office draw, but magically correct. Wilder had offered it to Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers… Sellers hadn’t forgiven him for the heart attack on KISS ME STUPID… The female lead being described as German made me wonder if Audrey Hepburn was ever considered. Instead, Genevieve Page was cast and is great. Like everyone else, she didn’t have the most terrific time (Stephens attempted suicide)… there was a plan for more nudity, a test was prepared, and Page being a redhead it was decided she was too pale and her nipples needed circling with lipstick, “which gave me the feeling that my nipples had failed, somehow.”

I rented this several times on VHS back in the day and showed it to two friends, BOTH of whom insisted on stopping and rewinding to watch the comedy constable react to the street sweeper… he’s so wonderfully crap. He’s doing all the appropriate silent comedy moves, but just somehow off. And it turns out that shooting went on so long (that appetite) that the appointed actor, Bob Todd, became unavailable, and Stephens’ chauffeur took the part. (Had Sellers been playing Watson, they’d have been covered, since his driver did visual comedy quite ably in THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM.

Another thing TPLOSH perhaps has against is an unhappy ending… but then, it’s a tragedy from which Holmes & Watson will recover and we last see Watson… writing. Which can’t be an unhappy ending, from Wilder’s viewpoint.