Archive for Porter Hall

Rated “Arr”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2021 by dcairns

Screenplay by Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg

LONG JOHN SILVER, AKA RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, directed by Byron Haskin, isn’t any good, but it does have Robert Newton in the title role, and Rod Taylor in a showy supporting part. E.A. Dupont’s RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, a different film, doesn’t have either of them and REALLY isn’t any good. It’s one of those late-career travesties like Tay Garnett’s CHALLENGE TO BE FREE which is so incompetent and uninspired on every level that it baffles and infuriates, is hard to shake off.

Nevertheless, I did not fail you, reader, I watched the whole damn thing.

The early scenes rewrite Stevenson by showing that Captain Flint secretly survived, and, you know, RETURNED TO TREASURE ISLAND, re-hiding his treasure and killing Long John Silver. Difficult, I suppose, to engage first-class talent for a short prologue sequence like this in a low-budget film, but Dupont, who may have been ill or just very very tired, or disgusted with the whole business, gets a guy from New Jersey called Dayton Lummis to do a Groundskeeper Willie Scottish accent for Flint, and a guy from Indiana called Robert Long to play Long John Silver. His name may be what clinched him the part. He seems… really ashamed to be in a film.

This part of the story is narrated by Tab Hunter, who is not one of nature’s born narrators. The cutting is fantastically terrible. Dupont at his best does have a kind of titanic, granite quality to his images, that seem to fall into their places onscreen with thumps, like stone blocks slotting into place. But now everything’s ill-fitting and higglety-pigglety.

I suppose the parrot acquits itself fairly well, but frankly I have seen better parrots.

Fastforward to the present day, and we are to believe that the Admiral Benbow Inn is a real place, where a burglar is trying to steal a map of Treasure Island. Another guy bursts into shot, they duke it out, leave frame, and a lampshade falls down. That lampshade is showing more initiative than the rest of the film’s cast. Both thugs leave, and the people who belong to the inn enter shot and have a boring discussion. Dupont is very much about flat two-shots in this movie, and here he props his actors against a mantel for even greater stasis and stiltedness.

Still, one of the thesps is Dawn Addams, in vibrant p.j.s. She and Tab will bring an inappropriate porny horniness to the proceedings, though this is not convincingly projected at each other, but outward at us. It’s this softcore flirtation with the lens that makes the movie seem so much like an animated smut mag, with less skin.

The old codger speculates that the burglar was after the map, and Dawn says, magnificently: “Willie! Superstition. Probably tramps.” One of the great lines. No cut-up or fold-in method could produce such eloquent word salad — only the combined typewriters of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, who scripted a couple of other late Dupont’s: THE NEANDERTHAL MAN and THE STEEL LADY.

Now the crumbly remains of Porter Hall come shimmering into view — a terrific character man, member of the Preston Sturges stock company, you’ve seen him in everything from THE THIN MAN to ACE IN THE HOLE. This is his last movie too, and it looks it. He classes the joint up, but he’s still required to stand in flat two-shots, sharing the non-space with non-actors. He announces that it’s night-time, which we would not, frankly, have known from the photography. He also tells us that Dawn’s character, Jamie Hawkins, is the direct descendant of Jim-Lad.

From the hat and coat he carries, I’m assuming he was one of the bad guys earlier, but clearly a stuntman was carrying out the action.

Turns out the clues to locating the treasure are encoded within Captain Flint’s personal Bible — proof that you can make the good book say anything you like. This plot turn is not too bad, but we’ll have to subsist on it for seventy-five minutes.

Soon, poor old Willie has been shot by one of the hoods. This is one of those movies where normal people stand around calmly conversing over corpses. “Poor Willie,” says Dawn Hawkins. “He was a best friend.” She doesn’t even stoop to examine him. (What’s maddening is that the film’s poor director was a very good writer and could have fixed all of this if he’d been allowed, or bothered.)

The shadowy baddie behind all this — although we don’t for a moment trust Porter Hall — is a blind guy called Newman, a sort of Blind Pugh Junior, which I think I’m going to call him.

Everybody’s off to Treasure Island! Dawn dons a sexy low-cut number and declares her love of adventure. “Well, it’s nice to be young,” says the grizzled Captain Cardigan, nonsensically.

She’s going for an evening swim when she overhears the crew talking mutiny — like her forebear in his apple barrel, only she’s on a rope ladder by a porthole in her swimsuit. I don’t mean the porthole is in her swimsuit. Though it would enhance the entertainment prospects if it were. Dawn Hawkins listens impassively as the men plan to cut cards for her favours. Again, stuff that doesn’t belong in a family film, but there it is. She tells Porter Hall about it and he says he has everything under control.

“For almost a year I had lived on Treasure Island alone,” narrates Tab Hunter as Tab Hunter in a fluffy beard rises into view amid the palm trees, “the involuntary master of my domain,” getting a snigger from the Seinfeld fans.

Tab is going to spend the film shirtless. As shirtless as the day is long. And this is June, so that’s very shirtless indeed. He will, however, I predict, get a shave and a haircut.

Dawn rises and puts on a cute sailor cap and a sexy halter top in case the mutineers cut cards for her favours. And sure enough, they’ve taken over the ship. Captain Cardigan is tied up in knots. Porter Hall turns out to be leader of the mutineers. Gentlemen, I am shocked.

The original Treasure Island is a virtually all male show, with Jim-Lad’s mum, Mrs. Jim-Lad, given nothing to do and dropped from the story as soon as decently possible. So Treasure Island, as conceived by RL Stevenson, is lacking in bondage scenes. Pollexfen & Wisburg have fixed that. A good director for this would have been Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Anyhow, Dawn Hawkins escapes but Captain Cardigan gets a hole in him. All this is narrated by Tab with a disinterested, dreamy quality more suitable, I would have thought, for Brideshead Revisited, not HORNY TREASURE ISLAND.

I’m not kidding about Tay Garnett’s last film, by the way. The sound of “loveable” wilderness person Mike Mazurki humourlessly intoning “HA. HA. HA,” will follow me to my mausoleum. Compared to that, this is a delightful romp. Still, every single movement the actors make is self-conscious, awkward and weird. I’ve heard of director’s shooting rehearsals for spontaneity, but this looks like Dupont was aiming more for uncertainty. And he’s achieved it, masterfully.

Dawn and Tab shack up in an abandoned fort and Dawn naturally has to take a bath, gawped at by the lecherous parrot, who is no doubt a direct linear descendant of Captain Flint’s parrot. He doesn’t quite caw “Pieces of ass!” but his squawks have a lubricious flavour. And yes, Tab has a shave. Evidently he could have done this at any time, but he didn’t have anyone to look his best for.

Porter Hall in Decent Line Shock: “Ever see a cat at a mouse hole? We’ll emulate that patient creature, gentlemen.”

Now Dawn swims out to the ship wearing short jeans and a knotted shirt. Bouncing on deck, she manages to avoid the anticipated display of clingy charms. The distractingly sexy films are always the ones that don’t deliver.

Incidentally, I’ve started wondering — this movie is set in the same fictional world as Stevenson’s novel. Which means Treasure Island, the novel, doesn’t exist in this movie. So it’s not clear how everybody seems to know the story.

It turns out Porter is responsible for Blind Pugh Junior’s signature disability, having blown him up with careless dynamite, but the scene in which we find this out is very ineffectively staged, a flat two with the actors facing forward. Hard for one guy to menace the other without being pointed at him. I presume they had no time to make this film. Otherwise it could’ve been a lovely fun picture to make, if the weather was good.

As the story goes on, sadism rears its ugly-beautiful head. Blind Pugh Junior whips Jim-Lass as she’s bound to a tree, while Tab, shirtless, bound and perspiring (which sounds like a law firm for perverts) writhes on the ground at everyone’s feet, getting kicked. My.

As if that isn’t enough, the Blind Pugh Junior, who lost his sight in a dynamite accident arranged by Porter Hall’s character, Maxie, gets blow up twice more. And survives, though we last see him pinned under rubble in a sealed-off cavern, taking potshots at Porter. He must be cinema’s most exploded man.

“We met Maxie. He was reduced to a harmless cipher with fear,” drones Tab.

Some of the cave scenes seem to be shot in a real cave, some against a cliff face in broad daylight, and some with some kind of day-for-cave gimmick that has turned the colours psychedelic. The entire film could have been improved by that treatment.

Our heroes get the treasure, since they’ve blown everyone else up. That’s how civilisation works.

I say, Tab!

RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND stars Todd Tomorrow; Zeta One; Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole; Lost Motorist (uncredited); and Bit Part (uncredited).

Wild West Warren William

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2020 by dcairns

Warren William made two westerns, both times playing the bad guy. He specialised in suavity and fatuity — two qualities seldom found in close conjunction — and was able to apply these traits to a “sweet dude” of the old west just as readily as to a dazzling cosmopolitan. Have any of you seen WILD BILL HICKOK RIDES (1942) with Constance Bennett (!) and Bruce Cabot? Is it any good, at all?

We did sit down en famille and watch ARIZONA (1940), which comes from that period immediately following the success of STAGECOACH when studios rushed to produce westerns for grown-ups. WW plays sweet dude Jefferson Carteret, a preposterously enjoyable name for a smooth western baddie. He gets to push Porter Hall around for most of the movie, which is close to the dynamic they “enjoy” in SATAN MET A LADY, too.

This one is a little unusual since Jean Arthur is the hero, with a young William Holden very much in support. When the final duel occurs, the camera stays with Arthur, the store, picking out the things she’ll need IF her newly married man survives. This approach works nicely, as an Ophulsian approach to duelling, as a way of keeping the focus where it belongs, and as an encapsulation of the film’s big theme — the West got colonized because a bunch of white folks went there and trusted that civilisation would eventually catch them up. Buy supplies for the ranch is an act of faith and a way to will Holden’s character to survive.

(Guillermo del Toro got very excited about this scene on Twitter recently.)

It’s an ambitious film — what I call an epic — stampedes, gunfights, wagon chases — everything but a saloon brawl and a dive off a high cliff. Some actual history like the Civil War gets incorporated into its sweeping tale. There are characters who look to the future when Arizona will be “a great state” or whatever. Edgar Buchanan plays his first drunken judge.

A barely recognizable Holden meets the origin of the great yak fur shortage of 1940.

It’s not excellent — they’ve created an epic backdrop — they seem to have built early Tucson from scratch — everyone is filthy except Warren — it’s a bit too episodic and bits of Arthur’s Calamity Jean act defeat her — William Holden is a little too enthusiastic at this stage — when he became more subdued he became COOL — the more concentrated, less self-consciously important STAGECOACH is MUCH better at chewing what it bites off. But of course, STAGECOACH is John Ford with Dudley Nichols & Ben Hecht adapting a short story, and this is Charles Ruggles’ brother Wesley with his pal Claude “boy meets girl” Binyon adapting a sprawling novel.

 

Cast of Characters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2020 by dcairns

I don’t go in for lists much — I think they’re a bit lazy — but I’m feeling a bit lazy, so I thought I’d list Preston Sturges’ major stock company players and pick my fave role for each one.

William Demarest certainly got his share of major roles. I love him as Sgt. Heffelfinger in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and he has a kind of magnificence as the stubborn Mr. Bildocker in CHRISTMAS IN JULY, the Juror 8 of coffee slogan selection committees, and THE LADY EVE gives him the line he was born to say, “Positively the same dame!” But it’s THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK in which he breaks my heart, as well as his own coccyx (you really shouldn’t try to kick your own daughter, Constable Kockenlocker). “Daughters, phooey!” is nearly as good a signature line for him.

Robert Greig, most butling of all butlers, is staunchly reliable but of course it’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS which gifts him with Sturges’ most serious speech, beautifully intoned and then Eric Blore (the Lorre to his Greenstreet) takes the curse off it.

Al Bridge is a man who doesn’t get enough credit. Sturges clearly loved his saggy sourpuss face and world-weary delivery. Though his terrifying “Mister” in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is a revelation, to see him doing what he does best, MORGAN’S CREEK (“I practice the law and as such I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody, anytime, for anything…”) and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set o’ dishes…”) are tops. Do I have to choose one? I’m not going to.

With Luis Alberni I’m going to cheat and take a film Sturges wrote but didn’t direct, Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, because I love Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis and his garbled English (“Gymnasalum!”)

Jimmy Conlin’s biggest role is as Wormy in DIDDLEBOCK, but his most important is as the Trusty in SULLIVAN’S, where he supplies the only tonal connection between the deadly serious scenes he’s in and the broad comedy elsewhere. His warm reminiscences about his friend the Blowtorch Killer are hilarious.

Julius “This is a talking picture” Tannen is funny in MORGAN’S CREEK as a Russian-accented storekeeper inexplicably named Rafferty, but he’s a real human being in THE GREAT MOMENT, Professor Charles T. Jackson, and it’s startling to see the depths of bile in him. Like Conlin, he was a vaudeville actor, in fact a monologist rather than a player of scenes. But Sturges saw the potential.

Torben Meyer, another dialect wiz, as Mr. Klink in THE LADY EVE has a whole character arc in two little scenes. A Dane, he seems able to vary his accent so that odd bits of colloquial American cut through.

Porter Hall: SULLIVAN’S. Little man talking fast thru a cigar.

Robert Warwick, same film, tall man talking fast without cigar. “Why should I suffer alone?” He was a leading man in silents, you know.

I don’t remember much about Franklin Pangborn’s role in DIDDLEBOCK, but his character name is “Formfit Franklin” and that’s good enough for me.

Frank Moran, MORGAN’S CREEK, “Psycholology.”

Rudy Vallee counts, I guess, he’s in three of them, but the first, PALM BEACH, is the best. “A pathetic creature in the final stages of futility,” wrote Manny Farber of John D. Hackensacker III. “It is one of the tragedies of this life that the men most in need of a beating-up are always enormous.”

Raymond Walburn, who has buttons for eyes, is terrific as the slimy mayor in HAIL THe CONQUERING HERO but his Dr. Maxford in CHRISTMAS IN JULY is aces.

Robert Dudley, the Weenie King, is in more Sturges films than I thought — the IMDb has him down as “man” in MORGAN’S, but of course it’s as the sausage tycoon that he’ll be remembered. “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!”

There were a few women who appeared in more than one Sturges film, but Esther Howard (right) was the only one who got showstopping comedy scenes. The randy window Miz Zeffie in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partnered by the sour Almira Sessions, is her finest achievement.

Lots more actors did a couple of Sturges films, and of course Joel McCrea starred in three, which is a different matter. And he obviously liked Victor Potel and Harry Rosenthal and Jimmie Dundee and Georgia Caine and mild-mannered Harry Hayden, who gets another of his great speeches as Mr. Waterbury in CHRISTMAS IN JULY: “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”

Sturges wrote, “My bosses could never understand why I kept using practically the same small-salaried players in picture after picture. They said, ‘Why don’t you get some new faces?’ I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures. I guess Paramount was very glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there understood a word I said.”