Archive for Pierre Batcheff

Gingergangers

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2017 by dcairns

SHALL WE DANCE is perhaps not quite as good as THE GAY DIVORCEE or TOP HAT but then nothing is. It has Fred and Ginger and Gershwin tunes and Mark Sandrich directing a script by a whole gang including series regulars Adrian Scott and Ernest Pagano.

Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore (as Cecil Flintidge: clearly a role he was born for) are back as support for Fred and Ginger, but there’s no Erik Rhodes this time — Fred has taken the funny foreigner part for himself. He plays Peter P. Peters, whose stage name, Petrov, causes Ginger to expect him to be a sombre, pompous Russian ballet star before she’s met him. Overhearing her remarks, Fred resolves to BE a stage Russian (for some reason, Fred always sets out to annoy Ginger when they first meet).

His goofy Russian is hilarious, though, part Erik Rhodes, part Lugosi. He prances about the room, striking Slavic attitudes, he says “Ochi Chernye” as if it were a greeting, and ends with “I mos’ go. I mos’ go to Mos-go!” Very silly indeed.

Fred also dances with the art deco engine room of the Queen Anne, a film first. RKO’s idea of an ocean liner is probably somewhat credible — I bet 1930s liners really were built in the streamlined style. But I doubt their engine rooms were white, moderne palaces of engineering with mirrored floors and a spare double bass to slap.

The movie is so entertaining it can delay the appearance of Blore for almost half its length, and wait even longer for Fred and Ginger to dance together. We get They All Laughed and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (on rollerskates!), and lots of crazy farce plotting, including an uncanny development where Jerome Cowan tries to substantiate the fake news that Astaire & Rogers are married by smuggling a sort of fembot duplicate of Miss R. into Fred’s bedchamber.

Later, Fred finds the automaton stashed in a cupboard. His reaction reminded me of someone ~

Pierre Batcheff in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Also, Ginger has a very cute little dog.

This little nameless trouper is a natural! He burns up the screen! Fiona thought he was the cutest dog ever — he draws the eye throughout Fred’s rendition of They Can’t Take That Away from Me by being adorably sleepy. But I had to remind her of the puppy in THE YOUNG IN HEART with the one big dark eyebrow. It’s a close run thing. You can vote on it if you like.

Did he grow up to be the dog from YOJIMBO?

“Jane of Aylesbury” in THE YOUNG IN HEART. Pretty stiff competition.

Film climaxes with the eeriest number of all Fred & Ginger extravaganzas, featuring as it does a chorus of girls in detachable Ginger masks (reminding Fiona of Sheryl Lee removing her face in Twin Peaks: The Return) and also the alarming Harriet Hoctor, a diabolical creature from an alternate dimension, or else a freak born, by a cruel caprice of Mother Nature, with half her body upside down. The feather gown adds to her unreality by making her seem weightless. It’s all a bit much. She never caught on.

GOD PLEASE NO TAKE IT AWAY TAKE IT AWAY KILL IT

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“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I have nothing to say.” Pierre Batcheff sulks in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Dorothy McGuire gives us the silent treatment in Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

I was very intrigued by this piece by Glenn Kenny, pointing out links between UN CHIEN ANDALOU and Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, shots of the moon), so it hit me with some force when I suddenly recognized the connection between the above movies, which should have been obvious to me years ago since I know them both well… Siodmak and Bunuel were indeed near-contemporaries, with the German filmmaker establishing his career in Paris just after Bunuel had left. I think they just missed each other in Hollywood as well. But the two striking connections are enough to make the case for a definite influence of the Spanish surrealist upon the German noir master.