Archive for Philip Dunne

Don’t tell Chuck (again)

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2021 by dcairns

(Or, Creative Differences Two)

Having enjoyed LUST FOR LIFE no end, I popped THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY on, because that’s the other film based on one of Irving Stone’s popular art biographies. MGM had optioned LFL and sat on it for ten years, concluding “There’s no story there.” Then Minnelli came along and disagreed, and we got the film. TAATE definitely has a clearer kind of story, it’s based around a single goal (the Cistine Chapel ceiling) and it has a central conflict (Michelangelo vs. Pope Julius II). But it differs from most mainstream movies in that the conflict results in creation, not destruction.

This movie has not much of a reputation. Carol Reed was considered past his best in 1965, and so was the historical epic. It’s a white elephant picture par excellence. But I rather liked it. Shot by Leon M. Shamroy, designed by John DeCuir, two men with spectacular lists of credits, it’s a visual feast, and mostly the splendor avoids vulgarity.

Oh, except when Michelangelo gets his inspiration from a matte painting, that’s awful.

Chuck Heston in his memoir talks about the difficulty of playing Michelangelo is that the man didn’t seem to be interested in anything but his work. Really, Chuck? Diane Cilento has been pasted into this picture as a beard to heterosexualise the hero. Since Heston is always stiff in the wrong way around women, not much passion is suggested, but Chuckles is devoid of any trace of ambiguity so the effort could probably have been spared. Still, screenwriter Philip Dunne has included an archly amusing scene where the Pope has soldiers hunting for his painter, who’s gone on the lam. They;re seen searching a brothel, where a half-naked woman in bed is in hysterics: “You’re looking for Michelangelo in THIS HOUSE?”

So we have the amusing situation of Heston playing, for the second time (after BEN-HUR) a character whose sexuality he’s not allowed to know about. He isn’t terrible in the part — it’s not like his demented Moses — but had Rex Harrison a nimbler, more vulnerable and expressive co-star, it could have been pretty great. The agony doesn’t really come across. Michelangelo gets sick, but I missed much sense of backbreaking toil, and of course we never see anything really get painted, just the odd stroke.

The Reed film this most resembles is probably TRAPEZE, if you think about it.

But — Reed found to his surprise that the Vatican was willing to let them film in the real Cistine. But he turned them down. And he was right. DeCuir’s team built an identical replica at Cinecitta, ceilinged it with photographs of the real thing, with the colours brightened to make it look like new. And when Pope Julius leads his reluctant artist into the chapel for the first time, Reed can tilt up to reveal — a BLANK Cistine Chapel ceiling. Having a duplicate to shoot in obviously also freed the filmmakers from all kinds of restraints. But that’s an expensive solution!

Like everyone else who crossed Sey Rexy’s path, Heston found him tricky, though he has the appealing habit of trying to like everyone. He notes that Harrison objected strongly to carrying a papal pointer in a scene which was supposed to end with him breaking the pointer over Michelangelo’s back, an incident which really happened, was the climax of the scene, and was even referred to in dialogue later.

The script is by Philip Dunne, writer of Fox movies for thirty-plus years, some of which (THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) are great. This one’s literate, and doesn’t suffer too much from Epic Dialogue Syndrome.

Rex Harrison’s memoir is hilarious on this one. Harrison’s huge ego demands that he be the star in a film about Michelangelo even though he’s not Michelangelo. “I don’t think Carol was himself. I think Charlton Heston was absolutely himself, and by the end I didn’t know who I was. Pope I knew I was, though the real star was Michelangelo, and Heston very politely and very nicely made me feel that it was extremely kind of me to be supporting him. Carol did little to disabuse him of this notion, so I did everything I could to make myself believe that the picture was about Pope Julius rather than about Michelangelo. In this I was not too successful.”

They wanted Olivier, Rexy.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY stars Moses; Professor Henry Higgins; Molly Seagrim; 13th Earl of Gurney; Prof. Alberto Levin; Prof. Henry Wassermann; Largo; Pat Garrett; Julia Martineau; Manuel ‘Cuchillo’ Sanchez; and Chief Inspector Tim Oxford.

Recalliery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2021 by dcairns

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.

Captain X

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2019 by dcairns

It was DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN that gave me the idea of re-watching THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Kautner steals the image of the painting seen in a dark room which looks like a person — his swipe is a nicely done variation, though: the room is all dark, but the painting has its own illumination, which comes on a second before the rest of the lights.

But Mankiewicz did it first in this, perhaps his most visually beautiful and imaginative film.

JLM is sometimes criticised for prioritising words, and there are places in each film where this maybe becomes a slight issue. THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, an underrated film I think, makes a big thing of Peggy Cummins’ wedding dress — but then never lets you see it properly. And here, Natalie Wood is delighted as her name is carved in a marker at the beach, with the man telling her he’s made the lettering big so the ships can see it. But it’s facing the land! Yes, I’m a pendantic swine, but I always hold that kids are pedantic too.

It’s a very funny film too, but it always brings a tear to my eye. First time it happens is Gene Tierney saying “It’s hard to imagine you as an ordinary anything,” to Rex Harrison’s ghost and the LOOK he gives her — an indefinable mixture of pride, complacency, tenderness and adoration. And Bernard Herrmann’s score is part of it, and all the rest.

Tierney was supposed to be Katharine Hepburn, who would have brought more eccentricity — from the outside, it’s the story of a crazy lady — but Tierney makes it sexier, I think. She’s not the actress Hepburn was, but she really grows into it — her old-age acting is very understated and effective. Harrison is playing a character where he has to put on a voice for the whole film — and he can do it. He’s one of the two greatest light comedians the screen has known (Cary Grant’s the other) and so if you make things hard for him, he just gets better — or that’s the impression he gives here.

Also, BLITHE SPIRIT has given him invaluable experience of spiritism cross-talk.

“What we’ve missed… what we’ve both missed,” is the second teary moment. The climax of a Grand Speech (do we suppose Mank rewrote Philip Dunne’s script a fair bit?)

It’s also an interesting test case of Bernard Herrmann’s scoring — how he can do stuff that is, in theory and by any logic, too heavy and overpowering for the material, and make it absolutely right. So that I don’t know that I believe Elmer Bernstein’s thing about how Herrmann would have overwhelmed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by treating it as “a Train of Death” rather than as a cosy and nostalgic romance of steam. Herrmann seems to demonstrate consistently that he can make stuff work in better and less expected ways by taking it much, much too seriously. It would be awful if he wasn’t so brilliant.

“With Captain Gregg? With the ghost of Captain Gregg?” That one caught me off-guard. The ghost has been an imaginary friend to Mrs. Muir’s daughter, who still remembers him now she’s grown up. (Wipes away manly tear.)

The film does something really lovely with fantasy — the idea that we may have fantastical characters in our lives, only we’re not allowed to remember them, or entirely believe in them.

And then the ending.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR stars Laura Hunt; Professor Henry Higgins; Addison DeWitt; Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe; and Daisy Clover.