Archive for Powell & Pressburger

You Just Can’t Get the Distaff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2021 by dcairns

GIRLS WILL BE BOYS (1934) is thematically much like FIRST A GIRL, but instead of Jessie Matthews disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, we have Dolly Haas dressed as a boy, then as a girl (causing certain parties to think she’s a boy dressed as a girl).

Dolly is delightful. As a boy she’s like a prancing monkey, and her German accent runs wild, drawing out single syllables into low whoops. A strong-willed tyke, she signed with Columbia after this but declined to change her name to Lilli Marlowe, and so that went nowhere. She was chums with Hitchcock — I guess from around this time — and he put her in I CONFESS, but that role doesn’t find a use for her simian high spirits.

The script — co-credited to Curt Siodmak (!) — keeps Dolly in sexy jeopardy, much of it caused by male lead Esmond Knight. It’s always a surprise to see him in a leading role if you know him as a character man in post-war Powell & Pressburger films, heroically covering up his lost eyesight (blinded at sea). But here it makes sense: by the standard of 30s Brit leading men, he’s fairly handsome (no Leslie Banks scarring) and even has a physique.

Speaking of physique — the script’s main method of unmasking Dolly’s disguises is to undress her. While FIRST A GIRL contrived a swimming accident, at least Jessie had a cossie. Dolly, entangled in weeds in the estate’s pond (it’s a country house escapade, vaguely Wodehousian in spirit) is bare buff, save for a chaste weed bikini top.

Director Marcel Varnel hasn’t much of a rep — his IMDb bio says “his films were for the most part undistinguished” — he did go on to make too many George Formby vehicles (picture a clown car with a massive front grill) — two moments deserve special mention. One is a scene change, where a character exits through a heavy door — with a jolt the whole wall is hoisted into the air and at once we’re in a theatre. Later, in boy drag, Dolly must listen to a smutty story after dinner with the old duffers — Varnel tactfully swoops out of the room in a thrill-cam glide, then, after the shortest possible pause, swoops back in on Dolly, having missed the one about the commercial traveller and the lady with the glass eye.

Though there are fewer hints of male-male attraction, and no obviously queer-coded character like Sonnie Hale in FIRST A GIRL, the film feels more transgressive because Dolly is a more convincing boy than Jessie could ever be. So gender certainties are throw into doubt, before being happily resolved — or are they? In fancy dress for a fete, the lovers clinch for some hey-hey in the hay loft, and Esmond’s frilly sleeves rhyme elegantly with Dolly’s bloomers.

Lip Flap Revisited

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 5, 2021 by dcairns

As previously recorded here, the most famous line in Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, “One is starved of Technicolor up there,” was actually an improv, according to my late friend, third assistant director Lawrie Knight — the line as written was “colour,” and actor Marius Goring, bored of retakes, decided to goof things up. Powell decided to use the quip and was pleased to hear audiences laugh, thus proving to him that “there’s no such thing as realism.”

The line has always (?) been drastically out of sync, a radical case of “lip flap,” and my assumption was that Powell ended up using the picture from a take where Goring said the line as written, along with the soundtrack from the one where he said “Technicolor.” This caused some synchronization problems since there were two extra syllables to fit in somehow, and editor Reggie Mills’ solution always looked rather unconvincing to me.

Anyhow, I bought the Blu-ray at last and Goring is now acceptably synchronized. How was this done? The fact that there’s continuous music under the dialogue should have made it impossible to shift part of the line without throwing the rest out of whack, unless the restorers had access to the original unmixed audio recordings (the restoration note tells us they had access to the original soundtrack, but says nothing about separate voice and music tracks).

Possibly the line was thrown out of whack by a bad splice somewhere in the film’s post-release history, nothing to do with Goring’s improvisation, and the restoration has simply righted this? But if the line was always glaringly off, fixing it is a rather naughty bit of restoration, even if the result is a clear improvement. (The new synch isn’t perfect by any means, but is a heck of a lot better: Goring’s lips are always moving when he talks, and never moving when he doesn’t talk. They may not be mouthing the exact words we hear, but the divergence is now brief and subtle.)

I’d love to know more about this if anyone has the answer…

Butter Armageddon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2020 by dcairns

I was moved to write a complaint to Film4 the other day. yes, I’m becoming one of those people. My previous complaint was to the BBC, and was at least about something serious, a piece by their science editor that began by questioning the seriousness of the Coronavirus threat (this was before 50,000 Brits had died, so I feel history has borne me out here) and ended by suggesting we’d soon have to make some tough decisions balancing the health of the populace with the health of the economy — calculating, as Harry Lime would put it, how many of those little dots we could afford to spare.

Well, the BBC has been guilty of crimes against humanity, perhaps, but The Telegraph has our mass graves already dug.

So maybe it’s a relief to get on to something trivial. My complaint to Film4 mainly spoke about the way the film was screened in the wrong aspect ratio, so that everyone was very long and thin — OK, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are long and thin normally, but that doesn’t explain why the moon was an oblong. Everybody knows movie moons are always full, unless they’re crescent.

This might well have been my cable provider’s fault, but have you ever tried explaining an aspect ratio problem to somebody in a call centre? If you’re very lucky they’ll understand you well enough to suggest adjusting the settings on your TV.

But the transmission in question had another problem, one that was certainly not Virgin Media’s fault. Somebody had stuck English subtitles on the first exchanges, in German, between Veidt and Hobson.

This might seem like a natural thing to do. There are several lines, and it starts to get a bit frustrating that we (the presumed non-German-speaking viewers) can’t understand the dialogue. But this is absolutely deliberate, part of the Powell-Pressburger plan. As the scene progresses, our incomprehension increases the tension, which is finally broken by a joke, and even Hobson looks relieved.

Crass as the subtitler’s unwelcome intervention was, it made me realise something about the scene. At the end of the exchange, Veidt suddenly gets a rapt look in his eye and advances upon Hobson in a Stroheimesque manner… then picks up the true object of his desire, a dish of butter, which he smells deeply, before declaring, “Butter!”

“You had me worried there for a moment,” smiles Hobson.

True, Powell hasn’t quite worked out a way of tricking the eyelines so we BELIEVE that Connie’s gaze is fixed on Val, but you can’t have everything.

The gag is part of a quaint idea that the Germans would be suffering more from food shortages than the island-bound Brits in 1917, which I’m not sure is accurate. But maybe. It’s quite late in the war.

Anyway, what I realised was that P&P were pulling the same stunt performed more showily by John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart and David Shaber in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: making a transition from a foreign language, then one which the characters would in reality be speaking (Hobson in fact spoke German fluently), to English, for the benefit of the audience, the switch being performed by use of a single word which is the same in each language. “Butter” is “butter” in German and English, and “Armageddon” is “Armageddon” in Russian and English.

McTiernan’s version works with subtitles. The Archers’ version is clearly better without.

Also, Veidt’s German is better than Sean Connery’s Russian.

THE SPY IN BLACK stars Cesare the Somnambulist; Edith D’Ascoyne; Anakin Skywalker; Conductor 71; Julia Trimble-Pomfret; Uncle Pumblechook; Halima; Sokurah the Magician; Finn – the Mute; Dr. Petrie; Joe Gargery; and Professor Auguste Balls.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER stars James Bond; Donald Trump; Alan Shephard; Damien Thorn; Darth Vader; De Nomolos; Duncan Idaho; Joseph Andrews; Dr. Frank-N-Furter – A Scientist; Ron Carver; Moominpapa; Ed Rooney; and Dr. Beverly Crusher.