Archive for Porter Hall

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by dcairns

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.

Advertisements

Here’s Howe

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h46m20s5

William Powell accompanies Rob Loy, The Highland Rogue.

Fiona asked if I could recommend a good book and I thrust Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at her. She plodded through it, not quite convinced — “I’m mainly enjoying his descriptions of different shapes of mens’ heads,” — but then expressed greater interest in The Thin Man, which she consumed with the same alacrity Nick and Nora devote to booze. So then she wanted to watch the film. Weirdly, I always seem to be watching the second film in MGM’s series, AFTER THE THIN MAN, the one with Jimmy Stewart in, and never any of the others. I’m not sure I’d seen any of them all the way through. So now we’re doing the whole set.

Note: easy to forget that the first two films are set and Christmas and New Year respectively, and follow straight on, one from one the other. Recommended light seasonal viewing if you want to avoid sentiment and saccharine.

MGM had a habit of starting movies too early in the plot, it seems to me, but there are, I suppose, solid reasons for doing so with Hammett’s book. A good deal of set-up is needed, backloaded in the novel by having characters talking about what happened before Nick the Greek came on the scene. The movie introduces us to this business firsthand, which is good for audience comprehension but very bad for interest — waiting for Nick and Nora is like waiting for Groucho, and the movie only starts once they appear.

The pleasures of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s interplay are well-attested. Powell in particular seizes any chance for a bit of interaction, and works his eyebrows like a slavemaster in his dealings with the supporting cast. Rather than Hammett’s somewhat hardboiled fellow who can drain oceans of liquor without visible effect, Powell relishes the chance to play drunk scenes. Loy isn’t that kind of show-off, so she comes across as the more efficient alcoholic, although Nora does get a hangover, something Nick somehow avoids.

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h42m01s237

Cedric Gibbons and his team conjure gorgeous art deco interiors, not the world I picture in reading Hammett but very much a movie world I love to hang out in. (I’m an invisible spectre when I hang out in these movies, so the fact that I’m not in my tuxedo isn’t a problem.) Better yet, the first film is shot by the great James Wong Howe — it has wonderful compositions of people and rooms, and a certain added distance imparts a trace of bleakness. The lighting is source lighting in a noir vein, but since the rooms tend to be creamy white, the shadows get bleached out and the whole thing resembles a faintly sinister Heaven.

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h44m55s207

Porter Hall’s glassy stare here clinches the odd mood.

As late as the second sequel, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett are still recycling the odd bit of leftover dialogue from Hammett’s original book, but the visual interest largely departs with Howe, although Dolly Tree keeps her end up with the splendid gowns. Van Dyke gets pretty sloppy, teleporting his cast about via the miracle of bad continuity, and the whole series is an odd mixture of “A” picture production values (with casts bristling with familiar faces) and “B” level ambitions, which I guess set in with any movie series. But throughout, the stars create perhaps the most enviable marriage in screen history.

I just wish the movies all looked like this —

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h43m23s12— perfect little pale boxes of people!

Meet the Fleagles; or, Luminous Gravy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2010 by dcairns

Sorry, I forgot who recommended MURDER, HE SAYS — it was a good call, though, this was very enjoyable.

Never had a real handle on George Marshall as a director, his looong career having taken in just about every kind of entertainment, including another spooky house comedy, THE GHOST BREAKERS, which he explicitly, and I mean EXPLICITLY, references in this one (Fred MacMurray: “Did you ever see that movie, The Ghost Breakers?”) But he was clearly a guy with plenty of chops: apart from all the bizarre material crammed into this flick, which would have been entertaining in an eye-popping kind of way no matter who’d been in charge, there’s a farce sequence in a dark cellar with characters near-missing and mistaking each other which is really superb — on the page I bet it looked impossible.

Fred MacMurray (a little over-the-top but still likable — admits to being a sax player, too) is another Marshall, Pete Marshall, a census-taker who hasn’t heard the likely fate of such persons when they meet serial killers… Running into the psychotic redneck Fleagle family (a name I had previously only encountered by way of television’s The Banana Splits)  he becomes involved in a search for buried loot in an environment that seems to anticipate certain aspects of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. There’s also polonium-like poison being splashed about, causing various characters to glow in the dark, resulting in some striking visuals. Thanks to a good script and Marshall’s deft control, a movie that could have been as irksome as SHIT! THE OCTOPUS becomes a minor gem.

But why CAN’T I have a glow-in-the-dark Mabel Paige of my own?

Also worthy of note — Porter Hall, the man who can do anything, playing a weaselly bogus intellectual who has “dabbled in phrenology, psychology and the science of hyper-physical manifestation”;  Mabel Paige as the rootin’ tootin’ grandma (and it’s hard for me to believe that mere months ago I was unaware that there WAS a Mabel Paige — today I am scarcely aware there’s anyone else); Jean Heather (Lola from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) as the sweetly simple Elany (somebody get her a date with Boo Radley); and leading lady Helen Walker, who we always call “The Honorable Betty Cream.” She takes a while to show up, though, causing Fiona to protest, “Oh, when is The Honorable Betty Cream going to appear? It’s like waiting for Groucho!”

Worth it.