Archive for Robert Flaherty

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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