Archive for PG Wodehouse

Structure

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-10-29-11h04m21s308

Humbug alert!

The two best treatments for unhappiness, media-wise, might be PG Wodehouse and Community. Assuming you’re well enough to enjoy anything, these two fictional universes seem to offer pleasure within tightly-structured packages, full of dazzling invention. Though Community, as the characters admit, sometimes gets a little dark.

“TV is getting scary-good!” exclaims the Dean in one episode, and he’s right. Impressed as hell by the way Dan Harmon’s show interweaves its plotlines, I wondered if the writer had put down any thoughts on plotting. He has.

But this week David Bordwell linked to a far more inspirational piece, an edition of Archie comics from 1965 which sets out the principles of storytelling in a way that illuminates Community better than its creator. Note the way the collision of plotlines (last page) is always surprising and delightful.

vlcsnap-2016-10-29-11h53m18s121

Where’s Britta?

I first became aware of subplots watching the TV show M*A*S*H as a kid. There, the device seemed formulaic and didn’t provide anything other than variety within an episode, something to cut to. Shows like Fawlty Towers and Father Ted would set up several strands of action and entwine them together to produce surprising developments within a tightly wrought farce structure. Father Ted even makes a great joke out of how contrived and implausible this process is, making set-ups (a perfectly square piece of dirt on a window) into obvious, ludicrous, sign-posted things that are obviously going to pay off later — but how?

But Community amuses partly by (most weeks) setting in motion two unrelated stories (most weeks) involving different subsets of its main cast and then having them intersect (most weeks) towards the climax (most weeks). It’s given me an idea for something I’m working on.

Based on an idea by Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2016 by dcairns

witnessfortheprosecution

Billy Wilder dismissed the drama FOURTEEN HOURS, in which a suicidal man perches on a window ledge, as uninteresting, and said that in his version the man would be a philanderer escaping a jealous husband, fleeing onto the window ledge and being mistaken for a suicide. He then has to play along.

It feels like Billy Wilder couldn’t open his mouth without somebody making off with his words, because the late Gene Wilder’s THE WOMAN IN RED and the film which inspired it, Yves Robert’s UN ÉLÉPHANT ÇA TROMPE ÉNORMÉMENT took that idea and spun a whole movie around it. (Love the prophetic seagull cries: when you hear them in the Wilder, you know they came from the French original. Not an American idea.)

Maurice Zolotow’s biography of Wilder features a couple of ideas which Wilder never got around to finishing. In one, a gangster is tormented by inexplicable crying jags and must seek therapy. This of course is the starting point of both ANALYSE THIS! and The Sopranos. Those both came along at around the same time, and could be interpreted as not so much cases of parallel development as parallel swiping from Billy Wilder.

The bio also tells us of a story Wilder pitched to Charles Laughton, after they had enjoyed working together on WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. In this one, set in post-war Britain, the gentry are being hit with property taxes, and finding they have to tighten their belts. But one stately lord (Laughton), seems to still be living high on the hog, and none of his blue-blooded friends can figure out how he’s doing it. The truth eventually is revealed to the audience: he’s been earning a fortune with his secret identity as a masked wrestler.

This pitch had Laughton rolling on the floor in hysterics, begging for mercy, But Wilder could never work out an ending for it.

Nobody, so far as I know, has adapted this idea, perhaps because its social moment has passed, but I may have just discovered where Wilder got the idea from.

In P.G. Wodehouse’s Ring for Jeeves, aristocrat Bill Rowcester (pronounced “Roaster”) is able to employ servants, including the mighty Jeeves, even as fellow aristos are having to get actual jobs for the first time in their lives. In this story, the secret is that Bill has been earning money on the sly as a bookie, wearing a preposterous false beard and eye-patch, in what turns out to be one of Jeeves’ less inspired ideas.

(Bill “Roaster” is very much like Bertie Wooster, but for this plot Wodehouse wanted to work with a hero who was financially embarrassed and romantically involved, neither of which would work for Bertie. An excuse is found for Jeeves to briefly come to work for another master.)

Did Wilder borrow the idea and adapt it? The timing seems right: Wodehouse’s book was published in America in 1954, and Wilder worked with Laughton in 1957. (He planned to cast Laughton in a supporting role in IRMA LA DOUCE in 1963, but Laughton fell ill with the cancer that would kill him. Zolotow tells us that Wilder carried on the pretense that they would make the film together, visiting the ailing actor for regular story updates.)

I like the idea of Wilder being influenced by Wodehouse. Everyone should be.

Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-00h57m36s22

Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-00h58m46s198

Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-01h01m50s254

It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-01h00m58s236

Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-00h56m09s161

It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

vlcsnap-2014-01-25-00h52m35s79

With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

vlcsnap-2014-01-19-12h41m30s170

Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too —

vlcsnap-2014-01-19-12h45m35s33

Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.