Archive for Private Worlds

In a jam, alright

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2017 by dcairns

All I knew about LADY IN A JAM is that it was a late one from Gregory La Cava — at the Edinburgh Film Fest retrospective, Chris Fujiwara declined to show it but said it had elements which were defensible, unlike its follow-up, LIVING IN A BIG WAY. I feel bad for La Cava, finishing his career, more or less, with Gene Kelly. A great talent, Kelly, but a vulnerable alcoholic shouldn’t have to work with a man like that.

I guess elements of LIAJ are defensible. I expected, based on the vague description, that it would start strongly and go off the boil — a number of La Cava’s great films have slightly shaky endings — but in fact it only simmers throughout, with an occasional gleeful bubble. The movie never seems to know what it’s about, and it’s a very strange case of casting Irene Dunne as a ditzy heiress but making her bitchy too — she’s a horrible person. The idea that she has no sense of money, and therapist Patric Knowles is trying to cure her of this irresponsibility, is a potentially appealing one. But she has no sense of people either, and basically tried to trample all over anyone in her path. She’s like Katherine Hepburn in the early scenes of BRINGING UP BABY but removed the comedy.

Knowles as therapist is a kind of machine-man, so the idea should be that he’s humanized by Dunne and maybe she gains a bit of orderliness from him, but La Cava can’t seem to get anywhere with this, so they’re still the same half-persons at the end that they were at the beginning, and we can never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, repressed aspects of the character.

Ralph Bellamy comes along as a cowboy doofus, a grating exaggeration of his Okie dope from THE AWFUL TRUTH. Mainly you feel embarrassed for the actor. Eugene Pallette is his reliable self, but hasn’t been given any comedy to play. Queenie Vassar is pretty great and there’s an unconventional little blob of a child actor, Jane Garland, who’s a nice presence. But it’s all predicated on nothing.

It reminds me of IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, an early screwball in which millionaire Herbert Marshall, if I’m recalling this correctly, takes a job as kitchen staff. We were about half an hour into it when we asked, “Wait a minute, WHY is he doing this?” Similarly, why does Knowles abandon his research work to masquerade as Dunne’s chauffeur (a plot thread which goes nowhere as she immediately loses her car) and then head out to a desert ghost town and help Dunne strike gold? He complains often enough about having to do it, but we couldn’t see why he has to do it at all. That kind of thing certainly matters.

Still, the bossy heiress recalls FEEL MY PULSE, the earliest La Cava shown at Edinburgh, which had Bebe Daniels in the role. The interest in psychotherapy reminds me of PRIVATE WORLDS — La Cava had spent time in at least one sanatorium and I think his interest is genuine — he just doesn’t understand anything about it. Still, Knowles here communicates in psychobabble and stuff about represssed feelings, which is a bit better than Joel McCrea’s Horatio Alger homilies in PW. The earlier film is still far superior, though.

Maybe what kept La Cava from resolving this one (apart from the hooch) is that it’s not MY MAN GODFREY. A butler reforming the family he works for is an amusing conceit. A therapist reforming anyone isn’t, because that’s his job, after all. FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was able to use the reform plot, because Ginger Rogers was a low-status character who turned out to have more smarts than the millionaires she moved in with. SHE MARRIED HER BOSS did it with Claudette Colbert marrying into the family, which was less amusing on the face of it, but the clue is in the title — she’s still kind of an underling. But she can win too easily, and there’s nothing absurd about it, so the film starts relying on broad drunken knockabout towards the end to distract from a certain flatness which up until then we haven’t felt, thanks to La Cava and his cast’s skill.

So La Cava does all he can with Knowles, which is drive him to distraction. Which makes his half of the picture fairly amusing, but you never saw a less agreeable Irene Dunne. Her talent is working overtime, but it’s been aimed in the wrong direction.

After this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING IN A BIG WAY…

Hot Dogs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2014 by dcairns

fretfulfrog

Publicity snap for Gregory La Cava’s psychiatric hospital melo PRIVATE WORLDS.

I could cull a whole series of blog posts from Lee Server’s fine interview book Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures. So I’m going to.

I mainly know Allan Scott as one of the Hollywood Ten/Unfriendly Ten — and as a producer for Dmytryk rather than as a screenwriter, but he was a significant writer. He worked several times with Gregory La Cava, allowing him to explain La Cava’s unique working methods in more detail than Ginger Rogers in The RKO Story. I asked Edinburgh International Film Festival artistic director Chris Fujiwara, at the time of his La Cava retrospective, about Ginger’s extraordinary account of La Cava’s handing out lines to his cast and getting them to explain how they would react to a scene.

“I think, in this case, Ginger can be believed,” he said.

Adrian Scott: La Cava was great fun. You know, he would never show a studio a script. They would buy something, a play or a story, to be on the safe side, but that was the last they saw of it. For example, he did the Kaufman play, STAGE DOOR, and he didn’t use one word of the play. And he never showed a word of a script to the front office.

He admired my dialogue, but I learned from him something very important. He told m. e how to stalk a scene. He said, “You don’t write it. You’re a very good writer, and I’ve read your plays and seen your stuff in New York. But in movies you don’t say the line, you stalk the scene.” We would do six or seven versions of each scene. If the front office had seen the script they would have fainted — it was about 190 pages, whereas most scripts were about 130.

Then, with all these versions, we would get to the studio about 8.30 in the morning. There was no script for the actors yet, nothing for them to study. And La Cava would take all the papers scattered around, and he would say, “OK, fade in.” And he’d start dictating different things from the material. And I would be there reminding him of this line and that. He had a girl he called Winnie — her real name was Kay, but he called her Winnie — and she would take it down and then make four or five copies.

The people on the set knew what the scene was in general, and he would give them the pages and a half-hour later he would start shooting. And it worked. The actors were so full of trepidation that they played it off the top of their heads, and it was wonderful. It worked for La Cava and it could have worked for a lot of people. If you ever get a copy of a La Cava script, they’ll say “as shot.”

It sounds like La Cava preserved some of the looseness of shooting silent pictures, where the actors had a scene to play but weren’t tethered to many specific lines of dialogue…

Lee Server: Did you have any trouble working this way?

Scott: Well, it was new to me, but I saw it work in front of me. The performers had a sprightliness about them, because they weren’t all set and comfortable in what they were doing. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing, in fact. As a result, it gave the films a kind of spontaneity that La Cava was noted for.

vlcsnap-2014-05-24-10h10m29s55

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL was an original script, and it was interesting for me because we got to pull a reverse on the sort of story that might normally be made. Here was this kid in the Depression, didn’t know where her next meal is coming from, and by chance she sits next to this millionaire. He admires her spunkiness and says, “Tell you what, you have dinner with me at my house,” It isn’t a come-on, and she doesn’t take it as a come-on, but everyone in the house, the wife, daughter, the son, thinks the worst. Now, instead of the old story of “Bunky Pulls the String,” where the character sort of takes on everyone’s problems and solves them, [already done by La Cava in MY MAN GODFREY] this girl doesn’t do anything. She’s just there. And they solve their own problems around her. That was the way Greg could think, reversing what you were used to.

This accounts for Ginger’s low-energy, low-affect performance, which surprised, delighted and slightly puzzled me. She’s a passive catalyst.

Server: Putting the script together so close to the deadline, were there any mistakes? Anything that had to be done over?

Scott: Yes. On FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, when everything was over and settled, Greg had Ginger just walking off by herself down Park Avenue. At the preview, a man in the audience got up and shouted, “No! No!” It was plainly an unsatisfactory ending. They wanted her to get together with the boy at the end. So we had to go back and reshoot the ending. The boys appears in the doorway this time and says–whatever her name was–“Come back!” And then everyone was happy with that.

I think maybe I would prefer La Cava’s less traditional original ending, but he gets away with the one suggested by his anonymous co-author at the sneak preview. Tim Holt as the son has been such a lout, they have to work pretty hard to redeem him, but it’s OK.

La Cava, in fact, got contrasting performances from Ginger in STAGE DOOR, FIFTH AVENUE GIRL and THE PRIMROSE PATH…

vlcsnap-2014-05-24-09h57m55s167

Fiona admired Ginger’s handbag greatly. So cute! It’s a little car! Vroom!

Server: PRIMROSE PATH dealt with prostitution. Were there any problems with the censors?

Scott: The censors may have worried a bit, but since Greg didn’t have a script they couldn’t read it. It was a tastefully done movie, though. We made it in Monterey. You know, I told him that kind of strand doesn’t exist there, and he said, “Oh, the hell with it.” And in the middle of that picture, he just disappeared. And we found him, finally, selling hot dogs.

Server: La Cava? What do you mean, selling hot dogs?

Scott: Yes! At a hot dog stand! For four days he disappeared and nobody knew where he was. We were living up there. It was a lot of fun up there.

Server: You were on location and the director just disappeared to go sell hot dogs?

Adrian Scott: Yeah. And two days later the whole front office was up, searching for him. And they found him, wearing a white hat and an apron.

Server: What was his explanation?

Scott: He didn’t explain it.

Server: With his way of working, I guess it would’ve been impossible to fire him.

Scott: He was a guy they had to have. But they didn’t have to like him.

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-05-24-00h34m37s111

Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

vlcsnap-2013-05-24-00h36m48s168

The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

vlcsnap-2013-05-24-00h37m14s195

Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

vlcsnap-2013-05-24-00h35m15s9

Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)