Archive for Preston Sturges

A murder is announced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 19, 2023 by dcairns

Last couple of days I’ve felt a bit better, so even though the GP didn’t think what I’d got would respond to antibiotics, maybe he was wrong. Or else maybe it’s just getting better on its own.

One good thing: since New Year when I first got sick, I’ve written most of my next book. I won’t publish it right away, probably, don’t want to “flood the market”, heh. Meantime, if anyone can suggest ways to publicise the current one, or can review it on Amazon, or can bit it up on social media, that’s something I’d greatly appreciate. And if you know any famous authors who might be tempted to provide a blurb for Vol.3, that would also be amazing. I’m very pleased at having had Anne Billson and David Quantick and Mark Millar and Sean French (film writer and one half of Nicci French) contribute blurbage for the first two vols.

I’ve had a few Canadian sales so here’s a link to encourage further Canuck customers.

Back to MONSIEUR VERDOUX, as promised. After his opening preamble, Chaplin introduces the Couvais family, with an unusually complex camera movement. From a caged songbird he tilts and pans, a little raggedly, down to a snoring Couvais male, and from him to a smarter, more studious, altogether more CONSCIOUS Couvais, who shushes him; he moves his chair to evade the distracting noise, and camera tracks back to keep him view, which gives us a better view of a couple of the Couvais ladies. One of these is the great Almira Sessions from the Preston Sturges stock company. Sturges employed Conklin, Chaplin borrows Sessions, but he would let Sturges use a clip from one of his silents in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. The doorbell jingles and this causes the camera to pan, in a slightly mysterious but natural-looking way, onto a third Couvais female, who is knitting. She is also Jimmy Dean’s grandmother in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

Bickering ensues. The Couvais family is no happier than the later groupings in Nick Ray’s masterwork. Because they are noisy and spiteful and querulous, we are being set up to not pity them when tragedy strikes. It’s a frequent device in black comedy, but I like it better in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, where most of the victims are amiable and blameless, and sympathy (of any meaningful kind) is withheld merely by comic distance, irony.

There is some slapstick here with a tray getting banged by someone’s head and then tipped so soup pours into the snoring man’s mouth, but it’s not really funny. The people are too obnoxious — there’s nobody to be concerned for, which seems to me a usually-necessary element of slapstick. But it sets up that this is a comedy and some fairly broad business is going to get put across.

One of the women — Eula Morgan, I think — is giving a performance even louder than the others, with a lot of silent-movie Italianate hand gestures, almost getting us into the perfidious realm of the Keystone Explicatory Pantomime. She makes me long for the scene to end.

The gist of it is that the absent sister Thelma — not the most French name, French people can’t even SAY Thelma — has run off with a man, drawing out all her savings. A photograph of this potential Bluebeard is produced. Everyone crowds into a theatrical grouping to admire it:

And then, having introduced Chaplin in photographic effigy, we dissolve to an establishing shot and another intertitle — which I;m inclined to save for Sunday.

Overall impression of this scene is that Chaplin isn’t half the dialogue director Capra or Sturges or Hawks were at this time. And he’s a little overeager to get laughs out of a straight exposition scene, which might have been better played as a slightly flat melodrama. As Sydney Pollack put it — and these are words to live by — “Let the boring crap be boring crap.”


Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2023 by dcairns

Watching the young, talented and beautiful Vanessa Redgrave doing her best in CAMELOT made Fiona want to see her in ISADORA, whose ending shocked her as a child. It’s still a well-staged grisly finale. “Is Vanessa the first actress to win an Oscar for something where she gets her tits out?” she asked. Could be, But Karel Reisz’s film didn’t quite satisfy, so we then watched Ken Russell’s TV version of the life, Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World, already written about here.

ISADORA kind of vanished for a long time after its release, though clearly it showed up on telly where young Fiona caught it at a tender age. We could see why it had slipped out of view — Ken’s film manages to pack more cinematic punch, more insight, more lurid details, and, perhaps surprisingly, more character sympathy, into 65 minutes (feels more like 45) than Reisz’s can achieve in two hours and change. Weirdly, the pieces were made just two years apart, based in part on the same source (friend Sewell Stoke’s bio), and Reisz used Melvyn Bragg as scenarist — who also worked on Ken’s THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN and THE MUSIC LOVERS.

Russell’s film has Stokes himself narrating with queenly elegance, and his sympathetic tones help make Isadora, seemingly a narcissistic megalomaniac, come across appealingly, as at least a dedicated artist who was willing to put up with hardships. Reisz’s takes the coward’s way out by having Isadora narrate her past TO a fictional biographer, “Roger,” played by John Fraser in long-suffering gay best friend mode. This is not my favourite device: it’s awful in CHAPLIN and it’s pretty bad here, but at least they move about as they exposit.

ISADORA feels like Ken Russell Lite — it lacks the insane energy and tonal peculiarity (Russell depicts the death of the Duncan-Singer children with a single, static shot that looks like a Buster Keaton composition). When Vanessa first started talking, I said “This is going to take some getting used to,” but five minutes later I was accustomed to her American twang — she commits to it and it’s totally consistent. The nudity is both surprisingly full-on and very tasteful.

Jason Robards Jr had failed as a prospective movie star by the time he’d learned to be a commanding screen presence, so here he’s consigned to a supporting role as a husband, along with James Fox and one Zvonimir Crnko in a Boris Johnson fright wig.

“I don’t know why I should care,” I complained, midway. Sometimes, with movies, you know why you should care, but just don’t, can’t. This movie was so devoted to cataloging its heroine’s awfulnesses that it never found a reason for her to get interested. You CAN be attracted to characters who are not conventionally sympathetic, clearly, but Isadora’s various artistic quests never became things I could invest in, maybe because her terrible personality was standing in the way, maybe because the dances didn’t convince me I was in the presence of greatness. The classical music helped. The Maurice Jarre didn’t. Reisz shoots the dancing a little uncertainly, unable to decide between a Ken Russell handheld savagery or a Fred Astaire elegant wide. Admittedly, it’s a difficult job, there’s hardly any footage of ID dancing, and what exists is brief and uninspiring.

It’s a GREAT ending, except that a car crash as ending always seems arbitrary, however impressively horrific. Bragg and Reisz try to get out of that by folding it into a mystic vision of doom, which kind of works, whereas Ken incorporates his own version of Russian montage to bring all the life together in one fatal moment. Both good approaches, actually.

Preston Sturges’ mom, Mary d’Este, is a supporting character, so that’s good. Her bio might be better material — you’d get to have Aleister Crowley squaring off against young Preston, a kind of Dennis the Menace figure (US version).

ISADORA stars Guinevere; Lord Alfred Douglas; Chas; Howard Hughes; Billy Forner; Mrs. Wallis Simpson; Babe ODay; Officer on Carpathia (uncredited); Right Door Knocker(voice); Merlin; Burpelson AFB Defense Team Member; Poole’s Father; Second Officer of Shona; and Man with Flowers in Hospital (uncredited)

Isadora, The Biggest Dancer in the World stars Mrs Chasen; Brian Pern’s Father; Rev. Samuel Runt; Imre Toth; Olive Rudge; Sister Judith; Nosher; Gory the Gorilla; and Rex Ingram.

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.