Archive for Robert Flaherty

03 Giovedi

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Yeah, I haven’t finished trawling through Bologna yet, have I?

One thing about Il Cinema Ritrovato — unlike a lot of good experiences, it isn’t over quickly. Once you hit the wall (which happened to me before I was really halfway through), time slurs to a near-halt like Wendell Corey on a steep slope, accelerating or dissolving away during screenings and conversations — the minutes flit, but the days stretch on, impersonators of infinity. It’s nice!

I had now adopted a policy of seeing things loud enough to keep me awake — other anti-sleep qualities were strong narratives, speed, and familiar faces. This made the early Japanese talkies and the Polish widescreens a bad risk, but I still hoped to catch some (I failed with the ‘scopes).

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Chaplin’s WORK was supposed to begin the day at 9, but I was too sleepy. I think the first thing I made it to was THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK at 10.45. In the intro it was explained that despite valiant efforts by restorers, legal wrangles prevented the movie from being repaired, so the print we saw was somewhat pinked, badly spliced, and missing at least one whole scene. I think it may have been missing more, because although I’ve seen it before I didn’t remember it making QUITE so little sense. But it’s an Italian horror movie so anything’s possible. I wished they’d screened THE GHOST instead.

And then it was lunchtime already — after which (I’m sure it was a good one, but I didn’t take notes) I finally saw one of the Italian compendium episodes that had been getting such raves throughout the fest (Alexander Payne declared one to be the best thing he saw, but nobody could tell me WHICH one). I’d been a touch resistant, since in the compendia I’d seen, only the Fellini episodes tended to be any good. Shows what I know. This one was from Alessandro Blasetti’s TEMPI NOSTRI, the follow-up to his ALTRO TEMPI, which inaugurated the who anthology-film craze in Italy.

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It was introduced by Blasetti’s daughter, a voluble nonagenarian, and I realized why these screenings were all overrunning by half an hour. But the background she provided was ESSENTIAL — the episode starred Vittorio De Sica and was SUPPOSED to re-team him with Gina Lollobrigida, with whom he’d formed a popular couple in the previous movie. But Lollobrigida balked at playing a deceived wife, arguing that it was not plausible that a man married to her would ever stray. Blasetti was forced to recast so Elisa Cignani is on jiggling duties instead (literally, she vibrates her body in every scene, sometimes by bouncing one crossed leg, sending tremors through her torso which assume Vesuvian proportions beneath her blouse), but director and co-writer also rewrote the script, I can’t think why. We can see that Cignani was supposed to be De Sica’s wife, but now she’s his parents’ ward, raised as his sister, and the narrative turns not on her jealousy and his infidelity but on her silent love for him and his blindness, until he realizes he shouldn’t think of her as a sister anymore… It doesn’t quite work, but what’s left is the comedy of De Sica as an ebullient Neopolitan bus driver, with a sour-faced supervisor who wants to sack him. It’s just like On the Buses, in other words, if that 70s sitcom were charming and sexy instead of ugly and repulsive.

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My vim somewhat restored, I stayed for TOBY DAMMIT, though the print turned out to have subtitles only for the English bits. I’ve seen it often enough that I could follow it. It was better than the old DVD that dubbed it into French — Fellini’s mulit-lingual melange is essential to the hallucinatory experience.

A spirit of randomness kept me in my seat for OIDHCHE SHEANCHAIS, which looks like I just collapsed on my keyboard but is in fact Irish Gaelic for NIGHT OF THE STORYTELLER. Robert Flaherty’s long-lost movie was the first film in that language, and its apparent loss left a puzzling hole in the tragic record. To everyone’s amazement, a print has turned up in America (it was assumed the film, of only local interest, was never exported) and can now be seen. It’s terrible, but at least it can be seen. A kind of footnote to MAN OF ARAN, it has clear historical interest, but nothing else. My objection is that Flaherty films the whole twenty-minute piece with five locked-off set-ups. Wide shot, storyteller, listener, listener, listener. Utterly inexpressive. Somewhat typical of the approach to early talkers seen elsewhere at the fest (Japan, Wellman) but applied here with a rigorous lack of creativity. Then there’s the storyteller himself: some said they could have closed their eyes and enjoyed the music of his voice without the need for translation (and certainly without the need for pictures) — I found his a snore. Admittedly, I was now permanently sleepy from insomnia and the heat.

Then there were three shorts with Peter Sellers, two of them freshly discovered and the third part of the set. That one ran first. It had a couple of laughs — Sellers attempts to cure his cold by wearing a sock full of mustard round his neck, which ruptures in a disgusting welter — b&w film so it’s like a magma flow of porridge slow-oozing into Sellers’ VERY HAIRY CHEST. Disgusting but sort of funny. But the film wasn’t good, and I only stayed for a few minutes of the first redisocvery, DEARTH OF A SALESMAN (mis-spelled in the program, presumably leading some to expect a proper Arthur Miller piece). When the shorts’ rescue hit the news, I discussed them with Richard Lester, who said “I hope they show more artistic ambition than THE CASE OF THE MUKKINESE BATTLEHORN.” They show less. Though not quite at Flaherty’s level of soporific inertia, what I saw of DEARTH was enjoyable only for the hilariously mismatched angles, with Sellers’ position transmuting instantly between every shot.

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Then there were some Soviet films about Hitler, (“Good evening, Hitler fans”) screened in the Il Cinema in guerra contro Hitler season. Some nice zany shorts — Hitler, for some reason, was always a comedy figure to the Russians — maybe if you’re working for Stalin, you just can’t help laugh at Hitler. The main feature was THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SCHWEIK, a follow-up to the popular WWI comedy, with Schweik (a really irksome clown, kind of a Soviet El Brendel) getting drafted by the Nazis but defecting to aid the partisans in Yugoslavia. Weirdly, the ending, in which Hitler is captured and exhibited in a cage, and somehow mutates into werewolf form (as inexplicable as Cleopatra the Chicken Lady — “Maybe it as the storm?”), directly echoes a passage in the previous evening’s Hitler entertainment, Pabst’s DER LETZTE AKTE, where Adolf has an infernal monologue about how he’ll never surrender because the allies would show him off as a caged freak…

More synchronicity — Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber had just explained to me their theory about the donkey — that ever-golden cinematic axiom which adds lustre to every opus — and SCHWEIK was well supplied with asinine entertainment, including an animatronic donkey hind legs– an ass’s ass — which kicks various characters. This had Olaf swooning with the possibilities. Has the apparatus been preserved in some Russian film museum, fur flaking off to expose the cybernetic fetlocks beneath? If so, Olaf will gladly drop a kopeck in its slot to make it buck again.

Exhaustion was setting in — I had a good dinner, and didn’t feel able to face another movie, but LADY FROM SHANGHAI was showing in the Piazza Maggiore and it was on my way home, so I thought I’d just look in and see how it was looking. It’s not a reconstruction — no missing footage was found — but it is a very attractive digital presentation — and as it turned out, it was just about to start (everything starts late in Bologna) as I appeared. So I sat on the curb, all seats being occupied, and surrendered to the inevitable…

 

Blind Tuesday: Guide-dog Friday

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2011 by dcairns

MGM racism: waiting to see which one will make a remark about watermelons first.

I’ve only managed to see one of Fred Zinnemann’s short subjects made at MGM, which is frustrating: surely his CRIME DOES NOT PAY episodes will reveal something of the noir skills displayed later in ACT OF VIOLENCE. The short I did see is THE OLD SOUTH, a very peculiar piece of work indeed. Seemingly made to pave the way for GONE WITH THE WIND, educating audiences who might not know their history, it’s highly unusual for a Hollywood product of the day, since it’s rather hard to get a sense from it of what we’re supposed to think and how we’re supposed to feel. This is because the movie is terribly afraid of offending anybody, although it seems far more afraid of offending southerners than, say, black people.

Zinnemann, who I guess was only doing his job, eventually atoned by making the splendid MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, but first there was his B-movie phase. KID GLOVE KILLER is a forensic procedural that plays like a kind of 1940s CSI. Of course, it’s warmer, with a sweetly banal boss-assistant relationship between Van Heflin and Marsha Hunt. Zinnemann was pretty pleased with the results, considering, and returned to the procedural format with DAY OF THE JACKAL and, sort of, THE NUN’S STORY.

He was much less happy with EYES IN THE NIGHT, but looking at it now, it’s a very enjoyable picture. Edward Arnold plays Duncan McLean, blind detective, who,  aided by his intrepid German shepherd, Friday, and by Allen Jenkins and Mantan Moreland, investigates a spy ring storyline that somehow carries elements of MILDRED PIERCE and THE RECKLESS MOMENT. The taboo of filial ingratitude is softened by making the offending offspring a stepdaughter (Donna Reed!) and a happy ending is of course provided.

Zinnemann complains in his autobio that his blind man couldn’t remember his lines and blew take after take, while his dog was good for one take and would afterwards get nervous and hide (he faced a similar performance discrepancy with Sinatra and Clift in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which weirdly also features a character named Friday). In spite of this, the team were successful enough to appear in one more picture, THE HIDDEN EYE, directed by Richard Whorf.

The blind detective was created by Baynard Kendrick, and unless I’m misremembering, his other senses were so acute, he could read ordinary writing by running his fingertips over the print. The movie version isn’t so superpowered, but he’s a master of judo (somewhat unconvincing, when he’s played by the portly E.A.) as well as smart and quick-witted. So’s the script — it throws in a quote from Milton, a gaggle of plot twists, family melodrama, and lots of good business for the dog. The other sidekicks are somewhat underused.

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain! Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age!

“Where are you?”

“In the dark. In the dark, Hanson — in MY kingdom!”

Guns blaze in the dark! ANd when I try to get a good frame of the muzzle flare, I find this surreal image — the gun arm thrust through some canvas screen, NOT part of the movie scene, presumably an attempt to get complete blackout for the effect.

Despite what Zinnemann saw as its corniness, the movie did well enough to land him an A picture, THE SEVENTH CROSS, about which much more later. Yet that triumph was followed by two unsuitable kiddie comedies, MY BROTHER TALKS TO HORSES and the other one, starring six-year-old “Butch” Jenkins — “a perfectly, normal, charming little boy, who had no talent, could not remember his lines and hated being in movies, but was made to carry on by his mother, whom he feared and adored.” Maybe this negative experience partly explains why Zinnemann became such an expert director of children. But that’s also down to his experience in documentary with Flaherty, working with non-actors but trying to capture authentic behaviour.

Zinnemann’s book is very good, though he tends to ruin his funny stories with exclamation marks and the like. By his own admission, he wasn’t the most lighthearted of filmmakers. But I like his anecdote about what happened at MGM after he started turning down scripts —

“There was a long, long corridor in the executive building — known as the ‘Iron Lung’. Entering it at one end I would see the tiny figures of associate producers in the distance, coming toward me, spotting me, turning around and disappearing into offices, stairways or toilets. […]

“A third script arrived. It was lousy. When I turned it down, Eddie Mannix, the General Manager, sent for me.

“He did not look amiable. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked. ‘You have no right to turn down assignments.’ I said it was a bad script and I didn’t know what to do with it. Mannix looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You know damn well that MGM never makes a bad picture.’ Pause. ‘We preview it; if there’s something wrong with it we fix it.’ To this day, I don’t know if he was serious, but I doubt it. Then he said, ‘You could do very well in this company, you could be a good man for us, but you’ve got to learn to do what the boss tells you.’ He mentioned the two least good directors on the lot and said, ‘Look at them, they are the two best men I’ve got; they never give us any trouble.’ I could only shake my head.”

Zinnemann was suspended, which meant his pay stopped and he couldn’t work anywhere else and the time spent on suspension would be added to the end of his contract. Suspension would last until the picture he had turned down was ready for release.

“Three weeks later Mannix called me again. He seemed embarrassed. ‘I’ve been looking for an excuse to put you back on the payroll,’ he said, ‘but I can’t find one, so I’m putting you back anyway. After all, Fleming and Brown turn down scripts too.”

Not all stories about Mannix, the ruthless studio fixer, are so heartwarming… But this is a classic Zinnemann story: it comes on like entertainment, it turns out to be full of perfidy and injustice, and ultimately it’s about human decency and dignity.

Ann Harding (left) and Donna Reed, who is the other connection to FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2008 by dcairns

From the Korda production ELEPHANT BOY.

Directed by Robert Flaherty, then RE-directed by Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan, after Flaherty’s more purist documentary style was rejected as uncommercial (a similar problem had resulted in Flaherty’s removal from WHITE SHADOWS ON THE SOUTH SEAS, where he was replaced by “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke. How did Hollywood turn the dry documentary into boffo B.O.? “Boys, I’ve an idea — let’s fill the screen with tits!”). Much of E-BOY’s elephant stampede footage was staged in England with circus animals (it looks phoney as heck). Flaherty was certainly not above staging things (it was normal practice in ’30s documentary) but he had his own code of standards that would never have permitted geographic fraudulence of this kind.

Editor Charles Crichton, later director of comedies like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and A FISH CALLED WANDA, used to tell a story about the production that may well be untrue (one hopes it is). When Flaherty went out to India, he telegrammed the studio:

ARRIVED INDIA FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT AND BOY

A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.

FOUND BOY FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT

Two more weeks, then:

FOUND ELEPHANT FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY

Then, the next day:

ELEPHANT SAT ON BOY FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY WE FIND NEW BOY

As I say, hopefully a humorous anecdote rather than a real-life tragedy. Now to Sabu!

What’s he doing in the clip? I don’t know, but it’s clearly VERY GREAT. While his lines emerge very much as if imperfectly memorized, his enthusiasm in delivering them is so overwhelming that the whole thing is just a delight. I challenge you not to grin. In addition, his eyeline is all over the place, as if he’s looking from one crewmember to the other, or as if they wanted to give the impression he’s looking around the cinema at first one patron, then another. Most of the time he’s looking straight ahead at the circle seats, the cheap seats, rather than down at the front rows, which seems appropriate for a working class lad. He’s talking to the elephant boys of England.

It’s quite amazing to me that there was an Indian juvenile star in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. There hasn’t been one since. “Invented” for this one film (he had been working in the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore), Sabu was so obviously captivating that producers didn’t hesitate to come up with new projects he could appear in. You might think he would be considered “hard to cast”, but projects like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and BLACK NARCISSUS, while not constructed around him, were able to make use of his vigour, beauty, and unique acting style.

My late friend Lawrie Knight worked on BLACK NARCISSUS as an A.D. He reported that the young star had a disconcerting habit of welcoming messengers into his dressing room while he was on the toilet. I don’t think this is Indian S.O.P., so maybe it was movie star contempt for underlings, or some kind of exhibitionism. John Ford used to do the same thing with journalists (“Send him in — I can deal with two shits at the same time,”), a scene recreated in CATCH 22 with an enthroned Martin Balsam greeting padre Anthony Perkins with a glimpse of Hades. Funny scene. Ford was also fond of greeting guests naked, having emerged from the shower, so I do suspect a bit of exhibitionism there, especially what with Maureen O’Hara’s revelations about Ford’s same-sex-loving side.

Sabu again! Lawrie also said that Sabu was very interested in co-star Jean Simmons, but that the young starlet’s mother discouraged any co-mingling. This seems less like simple motherly protection than prejudice, since Lawrie was able to wash the brown body makeup off Jean in the bath every evening, and THAT was fine. Sabu contented himself with Jean’s stand-in, according to Lawrie (Billy Wilder always suggested sleeping with stand-ins rather than movie stars — all the benefits, none of the stress), and soon had her pregnant.

Now, I don’t know for a fact this is true, but all of Lawrie’s stories that I’ve been able to check out, have checked out. And at the time of his tragically early death, aged 39, Sabu had been plagued by paternity suits, so either Lawrie was being completely factual, or he incorporated the news stories into his anecdote. But as I say, I’ve never found any of Lawrie’s stories to be inaccurate, unless they were stories told to him by somebody else (like the one about Jayne Mansfield’s head rolling down the street).

Sabu’s Hollywood career took in the outrageous COBRA WOMAN: highly recommended B-movie madness with Maria Montez as twins (one Good! One evil!), Lon Chaney Jnr and an aging chimp. See it! While this material lacks the class and budgetary level of his Korda productions in Britain, Sabu was able to spin out his career as a juvenile lead far beyond his actual puberty, thanks to his diminutive height and natural exuberance.

I’ve heard that Sabu’s youthful looks faded with his career, but in the latest footage I’ve seen of him, an appearance on somebody’s This Is Your Life, he’s still a very handsome guy, although now obviously no longer a boy. Strange that western cinema could find roles for a beautiful Indian boy, but not a beautiful Indian man…

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD even inspired a SABU ACTION FIGURE, of sorts. I found it at www.dollreference.com.

*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.

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