Archive for Peter Ustinov

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.

Film is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Enjoyed very much the TV play We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, in which the origins of the beloved sitcom Dad’s Army are explored. John Sessions absolutely CHANNELS the spirit of the late Arthur Lowe, with sterling lookalike and soundalike work from Ralph Riach as dour Scotsman John Laurie, a Shadowplay favourite, Shane Ritchie as Bill Pertwee, and Roy Hudd as Ray Flanagan, the thirties comedy star who sang the theme tune.

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NOT so successful, though fascinating as a piece of casting, is Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier. Le Mez was almost a special effect as much as an actor, a persona so unique and indefinable as to possibly defy impersonation. Sands’ best work in my view was THE KILLING FIELDS, where the man he was playing stuck around on set out of sheer vanity to see himself played by an actor, providing a handy reference point for the star into the bargain. Here, he doesn’t have the real man to refer to, and who among us can imagine Le Mez NOT acting? I’d like to think he was exactly the same in civilian life, but I have no idea.

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Another Dad’s Army star is Arnold Ridley, author of The Ghost Train, the theatrical comedy warhorse filmed multiple times, as silent, talkie, British, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Japanese. “I’d like to have your royalties,” someone says to him in We’re All Doomed! “So would I,” says Arnold, ruefully.

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This led me to look at THE WAY AHEAD, Carol Reed’s celebrated propaganda flick, written by Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov (who also appears, along with most of British equity). The movie formed the basis for satirical treatments in HOW I WON THE WAR, CARRY ON SERGEANT and Dad’s Army itself, and in fact William Hartnell plays the sergeant-major in this and in the CARRY ON, with Laurie as a dour Scotsman in this and Dad’s Army. The Dad’s Army end credits, showing the aged cast trooping across a battlefield in a series of tracking shots, seems to deliberately reprise the climax of Reed’s film.

When Powell & Pressburger made propaganda, their essential eccentricity always led them madly off-message and resulted in art rather than message-mongering. Reed’s film is more disciplined, therefore less artistic, and even though Ustinov hated the idiocy he was surrounded with in the armed forces, his script does an excellent job of celebrating the way the bickering, petty civilian raw material is shaped into a disciplined fighting unit by loveable David Niven and gruff-but-also-loveable Hartnell.

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Sudden Trevor Howard!

There are only a few actual SHOTS in the first half, with a good deal of effective but perfunctory coverage, but at sea there’s a dramatic sequence, all staged full-scale, in which Reed finds that a sinking ship provides the ideal justification for his patented Deutsch tilts.

Raymond Durgnat, our most imaginative critic, proposed that the true meaning of the climax, in which the heroes advance through concealing swathes of smoke, was this: “It can be read as saying, They’re all dead. Reed’s brief was to warn us, This is going to be worse than we can imagine.” The final shot, showing the old guard smiling at news in the papers, seems to quash this gloomy notion and compel us to presume the attack was a success, but those moments in the billowing whiteness do have an eerie uncertainty to them which defies the triumphal music.

 

Nile Bodgers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2015 by dcairns

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Marvelous Mary came to tea and she had just seen THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD on the big screen and enjoyed it apart from Errol’s wig (which he designed himself) and expressed an interest in Michael Curtiz. Unfortunately for her, I had recently acquired some late Curtiz which I was curious about but also somewhat afraid of, and took this opportunity to plonk THE EGYPTIAN in the Panasonic. My intention had been merely to sample it, assess how boring, stiff and laboured it was, and then move onto something fun, but it was SO life-sappingly dull and devoid of humanity that we found ourselves subjugated to it. It crept by like an anamorphic Sunday afternoon, and we were pinned to the couch, helpless to escape the hieroglyphic onslaught.

Afterwards, to inject some vim back into the Shadowplayhouse, I ran THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, a 1935 Perry Mason romp helmed by Curtiz in happier days, but by then both MM and Fiona were exhausted, and become probably the only audience in history to sit through THE EGYPTIAN, wide awake, and then fall asleep during the peppy post-code, which stars Warren William and Allen Jenkins and is a lot of fun. Perry Mason never actually makes it into a courtroom in any of the Warner Bros. films, doing all his lawyering on the hoof. This is maybe the snappiest and silliest of them all, with a particularly cheerful coroner and even a helpful man in a condemned cell (put there by Mason but philosophical about it) who doesn’t let his impending execution stop him adding to the general high spirits.

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Levity is in short supply in THE EGYPTIAN, a movie Brando busted out of, which gives you some idea. He was happy to play Napoleon, happy to don yellowface (as “Sakini”), but he couldn’t see himself as an ancient Egyptian doctor, breaking his contract and hightailing it and forcing them to recast. But was Edmund Purdom really necessary? To say that Purdom is no Brando is not to say much. But he’s barely even Edmund Purdom. Where other actors have presence, he offers only absence. His infallible technique for raising the dramatic interest in a scene is to exit it.

But in fairness, nobody else is particularly good. Jean Simmons can make no impression as a saintly tavern wench, a combination of personality and job description which may possible be playable but is no fun to play. Peter Ustinov has the only good lines, giving a dozen different explanations of how he lost his eye, and gives a masterclass in gruesome ham when he has to remove a ruby concealed in his empty socket. Gene Tierney is glamorous but glacial. Only John Carradine — weirdly — suggests a human being, even as his appearance suggests an articulated scarecrow on wires. Did he look at what everyone else was doing and decide that his usual declamatory mode wouldn’t cut it, and a conversational tone would allow him to stand out, a breath of fresh air in the Cinemascope desert? Did Curtiz terrorize him into new-found naturalism (unlikely: Ustinov thought his director was pretty out of it, not only linguistically challenged but mentally, after too many years of unquestioned, murderous tyranny). Or did Purdom’s suffusing tedium simply rob him of the bluster and gusto that powered his thespian excesses and leave him no option but simply to talk, like a person?

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John Carradine holding a shovel is better than Edmund Purdom holding anything.

Photography by Leon Shamroy, the Queen of Technicolor, was gorgeous — much better than his work on ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA which is curiously pallid. His usual complimentary colour schemes (gold and cobalt blue, the orange and teal of their day) are perhaps more muted than in the lusciously lurid LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, but still saturated enough to provide some relief from the soporific Nile-based  shenanigans.

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In a sense, Curtiz was coming full circle with his late epics — this and FRANCIS OF ASSISSI, which I haven’t steeled myself to — echo silent works from his German period like SODOM UND GOMORRHA and DIE SKLAVENKONEGIN, which likewise brought out his more turgid side but which are a walk in the park compared to THE EGYPTIAN. At least he still had good work to do — he followed this with two Christmas flicks (he was born on Christmas Eve), the boring WHITE CHRISTMAS and the snappy, black-hearted WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is maybe his best colour film after DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM… oh, and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.