Archive for Robert Benchley

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

Spangles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2012 by dcairns

Watched TRADE WINDS and CHINA SEAS this week, two movies using rear projection footage director Tay Garnett gathered on a round-the-world cruise in his boat. One way to make the trip pay for itself.

CHINA SEAS, watched after a meal of buffalo and marmalade sausages, in the company of Fiona and our guest Marvelous Mary. I saw this as a kid on TV, when I guess I was twelve or something. Watched it with my granny, and I *think* I had Halliwell’s Film Guide so I could look it up. It’s probably the earliest example I can recall of what became a weekend afternoon film viewing ritual, back when BBC2 could be relied upon to run an old movie on a Sunday afternoon. Robert Benchley’s drunken writer character seemed a lot funnier then, but I still like his last line ~

“These streets are in deplorable condition.”

Hilarious to see Clark Gable playing an Englishman, an ex-navy officer — this is the kind of casting that really should necessitate a swift (and not too tricky) rewrite. Ros Russell, as his old flame, lays on the accent real thick, so it’s bizarre to see them together, him with his Ohio tough guy persona, her with her phony cut glass. I guess her character was so dull she had to do something. Fortunately, Jean Harlow is authentic enough for everybody — we get more of her braying than we’d expect in an MGM show. We also get her falling out of her dress (and she has competition from the lustrous Lillian Bond).

Co-written by Jules Furthman (with seven other guys), this is pretty close to a rehash of his SHANGHAI EXPRESS in story, though of course Garnett’s robust style is a mile from Sternberg’s elegant filigree. Thinking about it, maybe Clive Brook would have played the lead if they’d made it a few years earlier. It might’ve been more credible, but it wouldn’t have been better. Wallace Beery has a grand role and a grand time — interesting how the film can make him loathsome and kind of admirable in alternating instants — it’s really kind of an amoral, man’s-man view of the world, where horrible people can be admired if they’re good at what they do.

Sadistic, too — an ankle-breaking is maybe more suggested than shown, but it’s wince-inducing nonetheless. Clark is tortured in a hideous hand-cranked metal boot (much talk about how he’ll never walk again, but he’s hopping about a scene later, quite chipper), and worst of all, a typhoon breaks loose a steamroller being conveyed to Singapore, which slides about the rain-slicked deck, graphically squashing “coolies.” Garnett recalls in his fine autobio that he refused to have anything to do with such a dangerous scene, but was assured that Cedric Gibbons was building a fake steamroller to replace the five ton original. He did, and his replacement weighed a mere two tons.

“I’m so glad this thing is three tons lighter than it could have been.”

Garnett continues with the long, fluid camera moves he enjoyed so much in HER MAN and PRESTIGE, only somebody at the studio sabotages them at every turn by cutting in inserts.

It’s one of those films where the pre-code spirit survives a little, and the MGM spirit (glamour, “class,” sentiment, sanctimony) is made palatable by an infusion of added weirdness — violence, exoticism, wit, a shipment of contraband ladyboys, Akim Tamiroff at the piano, Hattie McDaniel, Soo Yong as a Chinese snob (a welcome anti-stereotype), berserk plotting and nonsensical character reversals, and a happy ending that makes no sense but is accepted in the desperate spirit in which it’s trumped up out of nowhere.

China Seas

The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to the good people at Grapevine Video for digging up YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a silent romp which stars Shadowplay favourite Raymond Griffith as comedy coroner in a vigorous deconstruction of the whodunnit genre. Jules Furthman, later collaborator with both Hawks and Sternberg (he and Ben Hecht account for the odd congruence between the two otherwise contrasting filmmakers), wrote the story, displaying the genre-busting contempt for formula and cheerfully black sense of humour later displayed in THUNDERBOLT’s death row skits. Intertitles are by Ralph Spence (“highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word”) and Robert Benchley.

Ray utilizes the famous EXTERMINATING ANGEL maneuver.

Weirdly, in a generally sympathetic section about Raymond Griffith in his The Great Movie Comedians, Leonard Maltin complains that the film’s titles aren’t funny enough. On the contrary, I find them hilarious, my only complaint being that they perhaps carry too much of the film’s humour, although as ever, Griffith’s reactions are hysterical.

Griffith plays the coroner, Mr Green, in a Tarantino-like colour-coded dramatis personae featuring Mr White, Mr Black, Inspector Brown — confirming his tendency to play cheerful ciphers in fine clothes. And he plays him like an easy-going, simple fellow who’s just been handed the job, for no reason, and is trying whatever he can think of to make a go of it.

“Which of you spoiled the gentleman’s evening?”

“Won’t he stay murdered until after the theatre?”

“Well, which of you murdered him first?”

A Columbo-like finish shows this to have been, perhaps, all an act, but I was reminded of Benchley’s essay about being suddenly saddled with the job of building the Hoover Dam. Only in a dream could such an ill-prepared character suddenly find himself in charge of a murder inquiry.

Picking up my battered copy of Benchley’s One Moment Please I found a couple of pieces under the heading Fascinating Crimes, continuing his oneiric approach to tales of detection. The Missing Floor begins with the immortal lines “It has often been pointed out that murderers are given to revisiting the scene of their crimes. The case of Edny Pastelle is the only one on record where the scene of the crime revisited the murderer.” The Strange Case of the Vermont Judiciary caused me to make startling and involuntary noises, with its deceptively gentle opening: “Residents of Water Street, Bellows Falls (Vt.), are not naturally sound sleepers, owing to the proximity of the Bellows Falls Light and Power Co. and its attendant thumpings, but fifteen years before the erection of the light-and-power plant there was nothing to disturb the slumbers of Water Streetites, with the possible exception of the bestial activities of Roscoe Erkle.”

I’ll leave you to rush out and buy a copy so you can find out what happens after those opening lines.

At any rate, I’d say Benchley’s surreal vein is much more congenial to me than his observational comedy, and this feeling of strangeness informs the action of YOU’D BE SURPRISED in a persistent way.

There’s only one Griffith in the movies, and his initials ain’t D.W.

UK: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection

US: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of his Favorites (See all Satire Books)