Archive for Reginald Gardiner

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

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I shall never forget the day she dusted the right eye out of Lord Henry’s moose

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by dcairns

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After the special screening of CLUNY BROWN at Filmhouse, there was much discussion among the appreciative audience about why the film wasn’t better known. Various theories were mooted —

1) Vagaries of TV scheduling — none of us could remember catching CLUNY on TV. While IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a flop on first release, became a Christmas classic because it had lapsed into the public domain and therefore could be screened free of charge, and therefore was screened A LOT, and while CASABLANCA was already a firm favourite but was given a boost by the fact that Curtiz’s unusual use of closeups makes the film play very well on a small screen, CLUNY BROWN may have just missed out on finding a place on the small screen. And TV is what has kept film history somewhat in the public mind — the dropping of old movies from the schedules has brought about mass amnesia in the young, the loss of a whole language composed of once-iconic faces. Not only are there now western adults who don’t know Jimmy Cagney, they may be in the majority.

2) Vagaries of contemporary reviewing — coming after a string of successes, the somewhat uncategorizable and utterly relaxed CLUNY BROWN probably didn’t get the love it deserved. If you’d just given five-star reviews to NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and HEAVEN CAN WAIT, you might be inclined to nit-pick just for variety. And you could probably find a few things to criticise —

3) The first act takes place in a London flat and deals with Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) preparing a cocktail party and in need of a plumber. It feels like the whole film is going to be a series of people arriving at the door and either mistaken for plumbers or being plumbers and mistaken for ordinary civilians. But then the film takes off for the countryside and we never see Hilary Ames again. There’s also a coda in New York. So the film is extremely casual about structure, and some people seem to mistake this for sloppiness. Certainly the film has a lightness and a country house setting in common with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but eschews the tightly-plotted farce form which is one of Wodehouse’s defining merits.

But in fact, all subplots are nicely rounded off and despite the need for comedy characters to resist change, I think we get about four-to-six full character acts, all of which are affecting and delightful. The movie appears to take its time, yet packs in lots of funny supporting players and explores the themes of class and inhibitions and “knowing your place” in a thorough and intelligent manner. It was suggested that the modern Downton Abbey audience might find it very amenable.

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4) Charles Boyer is today mainly known for GASLIGHT and Jennifer Jones I guess for DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. This film shows them in very different modes. They’re both brilliant. He’s just generally excellent, implying Adam Belinski’s romantic yearnings and heartbreak with only the tiniest hints. Jones, with her preposterous attempt at an English accent (inconsistent in itself and about three social classes too high), and her rather full-on approach to every emotion, is less obviously a skilled player, but in fact everything she does is PERFECT. Even the accent works in a weird way, suggesting Cluny’s fish-out-of-water quality. You’ll notice that nobody criticizes Boyer for failing to do a convincing Czech accent, so why should we object to her wandering vowel sounds?

5) The only major cult figure in the supporting class is Una O’Connor, who does sterling work (restrained by her standards). But there ought to be a cult around Richard Haydn, a real cult that worships him as a god. And Peter Lawford’s callow young man roles in this and the criminally unappreciated Christmas film SOMEONE TO REMEMBER (Robert Siodmak) ought to be enough to redeem him from the Rat Pack pigeonhole he got himself jammed into later. Everybody’s good in this — Canadian Margaret Bannerman makes a splendid English lady of the manor, initially a silly goose, but revealing almost mystic levels of grace and understanding. “We must have a talk about the garden, because everything’s planned three years in advance,” becomes, in her reading, a rather eerie and beautiful encapsulation of Britishness.

Helen Walker’s career was tragically derailed but she’s wonderful and lovely (and believably English) as the Honourable Betty Cream (she doesn’t go everywhere, but she does sit a horse well, hang it) — she has this and NIGHTMARE ALLEY as twin claims to immortality.

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Sarah Allgood and Ernest Cossart — the head servants are far more snobbish and unsympathetic than their masters, which points to the fact that this is a film poking fun at class but still from a slightly conservative viewpoint. Lubitsch is not out to overthrow the system, although in the context of the stultified society presented, Boyer’s cri de coeur of “Your place is wherever you are happy” (paraphrased as “Squirrels to the nuts!”) is somewhat revolutionary.

I’ve just discovered via the IMDb that Cossart was the actual brother of Gustav Holst. Now I have an image of him cavorting in a toga to the theme of Jupiter from The Planets Suite. It’s quite a nice image, really.

***

But really those are all the reasons I can think of why this isn’t a gigantic renowned classic, and I don’t really believe any of them are good reasons.

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The Taking of Pelham

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by dcairns

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Why had he always been haunted by those underground caverns, by the drip of water in dim light, by the musty air of tunnels, the tortuous entrails of the earth which led down to black pools full of sleeping precious stones?

~ D’entre les morts, by Boileau and Narcejac.

This post, which was left over from my week of VERTIGO posts, reminds me of another stray thought. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Banquo’s Chair has an amazing cast, including Hitch fave John Williams, Kenneth “early clue to the new direction” Haigh, the Great Max Adrian, and Reginald Gardiner (as a character called Cock-Finch). It also has a supernatural gimmick, making it one of only two Hitchcock-directed works to meddle with the ineffable in a direct way — MARY ROSE, if he had been allowed to make it, would have been the greatest expression of this impulse. And I suppose THE BIRDS is pretty far along the road to the supernatural.

Anyhow, in Banquo’s Chair we have a retired detective undertaking a case, we have a character called Ferguson, we have one woman impersonating another, we have the murder for money of a family member, we have a faked return from the dead… all of which makes the piece sound like a close relative to VERTIGO. And if I were a less honest fellow, I might allow you to believe that the movie was a practice-run for the masterpiece that is V. Or, if I were slightly less crooked, I might admit that the TV show was made in 1959, after VERTIGO, and then allow you to think that it was a slight reprise of the themes which obviously haunted Hitch.

In fact, the similarities cited above count for absolutely nothing, except amusement. When you see the episode, it’s so utterly unlike VERTIGO in plot, theme, character, and perhaps above all, presentation, that such thoughts are unsustainable. File under “amusing coincidence.”

A closer similarity, in a way, occurs in The Case of Mr Pelham, adapted, like Banquo’s Chair, by Francis M Cockrill. This is the other supernatural Hitchcock. Tom Ewell, for no good reason, is persecuted and replaced by a doppelgänger. Ewell, whose comedy always inclines towards the hangdog (in Richard Corliss’s memorable phrase, he possesses “a certain vegetable magnetism” — when I praised this description and a friend challenged me to name the vegetable, I replied “turnip” without hesitation), does a superb job of conveying Mr Pelham’s slide into paranoia and ineffable horror. He doesn’t have to do much to suggest disintegration — he’s kind of pre-disintegrated, isn’t he?

The tone of inexplicable threat is closer to VERTIGO, and THE BIRDS, than anything in Banquo’s Chair.

We also get an amusing intro and outro, in which our host is hauled away by the authorities and replaced by an even more lugubrious lookalike. A wobblegänger, if you will.

“But I am the real Alfred Hitchcock, I am!”