Archive for Robert Greig

(Horse) Without Feathers

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2017 by dcairns

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As regular Shadowplayers may recall, I’ve been reviewing the films of the Marx Bros and writing about those aspects of them which do not involve the Marx Bros. Picture a Richard J. Anobile book that’s been mutilated by some scissor-wielding schoolboy.

I already wrote about HORSE FEATHERS once, before starting on this scheme. Here we go again. We haven’t watched this one as often as, say, DUCK SOUP — of course, the reason is plain: no Margaret Dumont. Or maybe the reason is related to what Fiona said at the end: “That was really shambolic!” “Even by their standards!” I added.

Perhaps it’s the unusual spliciness of the print, the lack of any real romantic subplot, the slenderness of the main plot… but the wear and tear is not unique to this movie, the minimal love interest should be a boon, and the best Marx films are not known for labouring over narrative. Anyhow, the film is composed mainly of classic scenes — the ending is a bit rocky, but Groucho has a signature song, the “Swordfish” routine is classic Chico-Groucho crosstalk, there’s a great farce bit, and the canoe sequence is a joy. No more of that.

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We begin with a scary cartoon horse which rides out of a college building and then vanishes, a laughing wraith. The rest of the movie is less frightening. Fiona commented on the crudeness of the caricatures that follow, but they’re both simple and highly identifiable. I like ’em.

First up is Reginald Barlow as the retiring college president, a testosterone-free pillar of patrician dignity, about to be destroyed by the incoming Quincy Addams Wagstaff. Surprising to learn that this embodiment of effete academicism was a hero of three wars. A perennial bit player, his career does boast a few characters with names, one of them quite Marxian: Otto K. Bullwinkle in IF I HAD A MILLION. Fiona was much more wide awake than I during this screening, and spotted that, after being apparently annihilated by Groucho’s opening salvo, the unflappable ex-prez retires to his seat and quietly reads a book all through Groucho’s big number.

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Barlow is the only beardless professor at Huxley College, it seems. Nice the way the staff all get mesmerised by Groucho’s song into playing the role of a minstrel chorus. Similar to the way Bugs Bunny, leaping onto Elmer Fudd’s back, convinces him instantly that he’s a donkey (and Bugs was in large part modelled on Groucho).

Zeppo appears, to no particular effect this time, though we note his strong singing voice. But I’d rather hear Groucho’s quavering warble. Casting Zeppo as Groucho’s son (“Hello, old-timer!”) is an amusing idea, and using Z. as a sort of romantic interest substitute (sex pablum) is economical. Young Z. also delivers the expositional info-dump about football that sets the “narrative” in motion. We’re off!

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Oh, before we leave — the Marxes’ career sometimes looks like one long, successful attempt to prove wrong that thing Rosalind Russell supposedly said — “You can’t do comedy on big sets.” Here, there are no grand art deco constructs, except the opening scene, which is no more impressive than it needs to be. Cost-cutting at Paramount?

Director/traffic cop Norman Z. McLeod begins each sequence with a sign so we know where we are. Probably Pauline Kael would attribute this rigorous visual storytelling to the uncredited script contribution by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Next up is the Elm Street speakeasy where villain David Landau is recruiting two professional ball players for the rival college’s team. Since I started thinking about this stuff I’ve noticed how grating and uncharismatic the bad guys in Marx films tend to be. I’m now ready to launch my Unified Theory: since the Marx Bros’ characters are themselves larcenous, lustful and conniving, it’s necessary for the baddies to distinguish themselves by adding to those qualities a positive charmlessness. The overall message of every Marx Bros film can be taken to be that villainy is fine if accomplished with wit and panache.

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The field of Marxian antagonists is crowded with displeasing performers. Why, Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern stands out in such company as uniquely compelling and gracious. Still, among this throng of snarling plug-uglies and decaying louts who lack even a moustache to twirl, David Landau as Jennings stands out as uniquely unpleasant. His signature role, completed the same year as H.F., is the brutal warden in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. What a face. I’d say it’s the kind of face you’d like to hit, only I think we’d all be afraid of losing our fist in its putty-like recesses.

I used to be convinced this was Martin Landau’s dad. I think I just assumed there couldn’t be two Landaus. It only just struck me to check. I say it for the record: they are no relation. So shaken am I by this revelation, I had to look up Osgood Perkins to make sure of him. It’s OK: he was indeed Anthony’s poppa.

With Landau are Nat Pendleton, another charmer, and James Pierce, the most handsome of the bunch but equally lacking in the mystery quality known as Appeal. He was married to the daughter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it seems, but despite this never got to insinuate his hulking frame into the role of Tarzan (see comments). His best role, going by the name alone, is Griswell Henchman in something called THE LIGHTNING EXPRESS. I like to think this is not a mere description, but the actual character’s birth name.

Pendleton (OK, I checked: not the father of Austin Pendleton) was a wrestling champ, but his uncle was an actor for Griffith. He also co-wrote one movie, DECEPTION, made this same year, and also co-starring Thelma Todd, who we’re about to meet. Inexplicably, he failed to write himself the lead role. Nat, of course, got second helpings of the Marx treatment as the strongman in AT THE CIRCUS. His swan song was opposite Abbot & Costello, cementing his stooge status, and twenty years later he was fatally attacked by his own heart two days after I was born, so I can say with confidence that I am not his reincarnation.

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Also among those gathered: Vince Barnett, a very funny man with nothing to do. Harpo is about to appear, baffling a series of characters who all look like the same actor, but aren’t. This clone effect is enhanced when director McLeod incompetently cuts around a payphone customer, making it seem like he’s two different guys. The payphone man is regular bit-player Sid Saylor, the hobo harpo hands a cup of coffee to is an authentic Forgotten Man — history, and the IMDb, do not record his identity.

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Theresa Harris sighting! Playing a maid, as usual, although this time she has a name, Laura. Of her ninety listed roles on the IMDb, thirty-four are explicitly identified as maids, but I imagine characters with names like “Clementine” and “Bessie Mae” MIGHT also be maids. Still, my heart is always brightened by a Theresa Harris appearance.

Then we finally get La Todd. Thelma wears a series of racy costumes in this, starting with the negligee in which she entertains Zeppo for the unavoidable crooning display. He feeds her lomticks of toast while literally singing “I Love You” — this HKalmar/Ruby tune is the film’s endlessly reprised bit, performed by each brother in turn. Is it OK to discuss Zeppo here? I sometimes consider him an honorary non-Marx Brother, so it should be fair play to talk about him in these Marxless articles.

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Fiona suggests that Thelma’s beauty spot vanishes from scene to scene, like the cartoon horse at the beginning. Let’s see if she’s right.

Thelma had memorably gone hotcha! with Groucho in MONKEY BUSINESS and it’s a pleasure to have her back. An interesting career, alternating between low comedy with the Marxes and Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase and a short-lived comedy pairing of her own with Patsy Kelly, and substantial roles in “straight” films. Thelma was tragically short-lived herself, her carbon monoxide death a subject of wild speculation to this day. Husband Roland West, director of THE BAT WHISPERS, is one named suspect. How she found time to get married and run “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café” is a mystery too: 119 films in ten years.

Harpo, as a dog-catcher with a horse, is surrounded by animals, regularly producing cute specimens as mute punchlines to some remark by Chico. His horse has no name and the IMDb is uninformative on the subject. McLeod and his editor are almost in too much of a hurry to let us register the parrot and monkey on Harpo’s cart. Ben Taggart, a Central casting traffic cop, plays a traffic cop bamboozled by Harpo. McLeod should have considered making a Hitchcockian cameo in the role.

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Harpo also eats flowers, like Leos Carax’s recurring character, Merde. There may be a connection. Also: oatmeal from the horse’s feedbag (sprinkled with salt) and a zip-up banana.

Groucho’s desk is covered with walnuts, and I belatedly realize this may actually be the influence for the walnut-bedecked office in Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST. After all, both are 1930s tales of academia and corruption with a surrealistic edge. Flanking Groucho are E.H. Calvert (also a prolific director) and Edward LeSaint, swiftly disposed of, then we get Harpo burning books and then bringing in a seal, whose barking, wiggling presence immediately turns Groucho, Harpo and Chico into seals too. Suggestible fellows.

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Also worthy of remark: Wagstaff’s secretary, played woodenly by Sheila Bromley, delivering possibly the worst line readings of anyone in a Marxian film (“He’s waxing wrath”). And it doesn’t matter at all. Sheila turned into a perfectly good character actor. Her last role is Alan Rudolph’s disgraceful early exploitation film, BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD, in which they spell her name wrong. A shame.

Robert Greig turns up as a bearded tutor. The butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, he’s also the butler in ANIMAL CRACKERS. That was a proper role, whereas Greig is more suited to playing archetypes — butlers who embody their profession. He doesn’t suit his beard, that’s for sure. And I don’t like the pseudo-medical gibberish he’s spouting — if Groucho is going to denounce it as gibberish, it should feel like it actually has some abstruse meaning. We most recently saw Greig in John Cromwell’s SON OF FURY, playing a judge, and while a judge is not a butler, it proved to be within his range.

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Harpo produces a drawing of a horse. We’ve already seen him kiss his own horse, so the theme of Harpo as horselover, which climaxes in DUCK SOUP, is clearly established. Harpo later produces a piece of pin-up art showing a hefty vaudevillian lady, and there’s a suggestion that horses and women are interchangeable for Harpo, especially as he keeps sitting on women in class.

Harpo’s candle burning at both ends is, I think, my favourite Harpo prop. It fulfills all the requirements — it is funny in itself, it’s a punchline to someone else’s remark, it’s impossible that it could be stored in his raincoat (which is inexplicably tattered throughout), and for good measure it is in itself almost impossible.

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Thelma is back, minus her beauty spot. Fiona was right! “I keep thinking her tits are going to fall out of that dress,” she says, and again, she is right, though it doesn’t seem to quite happen on camera.

Through the miracle of bad continuity, Groucho’s chin is suddenly on Thelma’s shoulder, something the Red Queen does to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

At other times, the continuity is perfect, pretty much proving that Mcleod is using multiple cameras, common during early sound pictures and a sensible idea when dealing with the disruptive Marxes — “It was a miracle if you could get all of them on a set at the same time,” recalled Buster Keaton.

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Chico’s grabbiness here is a LITTLE disturbing. On the whole, the Bros’ skirt-chasing hasn’t dated too badly — we don’t worry about what Harpo would do if he caught a girl. But Thelma’s decolletage is so exposing, and her performance relatively convincing by the standards of these things, so all the lunging feels a little unpleasant. Easier to pull off with Margaret Dumont.

Chico’s rendition of “Everyone Says I Love You” hits on the theme of insect life and exploits it thoroughly, before moving on to the adventures of “Christopher Columbo.” Good lyrics. Thelma’s reactions turn this into probably Chico’s most welcome, least interruptive musical number.

Mcleod’s “blocking” is functional, letting us see the Marxes, which is all that really matters, but it’s neither elegant nor convincing. He’s rather fond of the “washing line” composition, and sets things up so that Landau suddenly gets suspicious of Chico’s behaviour despite being positioned so he can’t see any of it.

Harpo’s harp solo is, as usual, a full stop, a grinding gear change the film struggles to survive.

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As a hormonal teen I was fascinated (yet frustrated) by the second appearance of Thelma’s negligee (the film IS cheap — customarily, the leading lady is entitled to a fresh outfit for every scene). Anyway, the lower half seems to be translucent, with no hint of underwear. But no hint of anything else, either. However, her mole has returned to her face, like a tiny black homing pigeon.

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Slightly stilted performance by a duck. I wasn’t immediately convinced. But this makes this not only the only Paramount film to justify its title with actual appearances by the title animal, but one that looks forward to a later title too. At the end of this brilliant sequence (in which Groucho refers to Paramount’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY while canoeing through probably the same body of water featured in Sternberg’s drama), the duck is somehow inside the canoe, but I bet only Fiona spotted it, so rushed is the fade-out. Theory: the Marxes probably broke character the second a scene was finished, leaving the editor no spare footage for optical transitions. Or else Thelma couldn’t swim…

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In the water, Thelma seems to be wearing lacy sleeves, which she was NOT wearing before falling in. Continuity in the Marx Bros universe is not only outrageously poor, it is often INEXPLICABLY poor.

Has her mole washed off?

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Another animal: Harpo’s surprise piglet. Harpo’s hat, which formerly said DOG-CATCHER on the front, has now been reversed and his new job title, KIDNAPPER, is listed.

Pendleton and Pierce’s bijou apartment seems all wrong. I couldn’t work out why. It’s an astonishingly shoddy-looking set, and maybe the in-character presence of sporting trophies is contributing to the air of it being assembled from whatever was lying loose in the property store. But I think the truly bum note is struck by the presence of SIX BOOKS on a shelf. I find it easier to believe in Harpo carrying as lit candle and a steaming cup of coffee inside his coat than in these thugs reading.

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Big football finish, about which I have nothing to say. We disbar all sporting activity here at Shadowplay. But I do like Thelma’s vamp outfit. MONKEY BUSINESS forgets she exists, and HORSE FEATHERS nearly does too, but at least she’s part of the crowd, and then gets to appear in the coda, which comes out of left field, to use what I believe is an old footballing expression.

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This coda, one realises only later (thanks to Shadowplayer Matthew Hahn) is supposed to fool us into thinking Thelma is marrying Zeppo, until the other brothers/father/strangers barge in. But McLeod, that genius, stages the action with the groom completely eclipsed, so the gag looks like G, H and C are marrying T right from the start. It’s possible Zeppo was occupied elsewhere that day, as we are told the brothers frequently were. But his presence for the film’s closing shot would seem to be essential…

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Three men piling on top of Thelma SHOULD be a bit disturbing as a final fade-out, but through the miracle of Marxian anarchy, somehow it’s fine.

 

 

 

 

The Rittenhouse Affair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Otto Preminger: “Everything I know about camera blocking, I learned from ANIMAL CRACKERS. How to get the actors through a door, how to make them stand still so we can see them. How to make them go away again (yelling works for this).”

It had been an age since we’d watched ANIMAL CRACKERS, which is the most primitive Marx Bros film apart from of course THE COCONUTS, which is positively primordial. My love of Lillian Roth made me want to see this again — I became a fan back in the early days of Shadowplay, when this blog was in short trousers, so to speak, but I haven’t looked at her turn in this film in detail — my memory told me she wasn’t a very strong actress, though, and her musical number, like all the romantic numbers in Marx Bros films, was kind of a drag.

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In short, I may be the first person in eighty years to watch ANIMAL CRACKERS for Lillian Roth.

She’s not a very good actress, but she’s a very cute actress, It’s like watching a tiny child doing a school play. They say acting is reacting, in which case she does a lot of acting here, but she’s not really responding to the other actors, she’s responding, I somehow feel, to the lines in the script. It makes sense that she was a child actor — she uses a kind of artifice which would be acceptable in a kid, since we’re always a little impressed by kids acting at all, and a kid has a kind of built-in authenticity, like a dog or a very old person. We believe them, unless absolutely forced not to by the worst kind of ineptitude. We can tell they really are a child, a dog or an old person, actually performing for us.

She’s also the most improbably society girl outside of Jean Harlow in PLATINUM BLONDE, her astonishing Boston-by-way-of-everywhere vowels creating a funhouse mirror with the English language.

Her song is a dull one, and of course we don’t need relief from the comedy in a Marx Bros film, and we get plenty of it anyway, via the plot scenes. The fancy art deco set also functions as a kind of relief, since manoeuvering from one corner of it to another eats up a certain amount of screen time during which we can admire the woodwork.

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The other actors aren’t seen quite at their best. Margaret Dumont smiles too much, like she actually gets the jokes. She found more dignified ways to react later. Robert Greig, the archetypal, platonic ideal of the butler, is required to be a bit more nimble and excitable than his constitution can bear. Louis Sorin as the art expert is probably the best foil, although one appreciates Zeppo — pretty much his entire role is to be abused by Groucho, and anybody who comes in for plenty of Groucho abuse is worth having around.

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Censored lyrics —

(Mrs. Rittenhouse) You are the only white man to cover every acre.

(Spaulding) I think I’ll try and make her.

I see Hollywood is obliging us with a new film called ANIMAL CRACKERS, with Sylvester Stallone. Based on his appearance at the Oscars, he ought to make a superb Mrs. Rittenhouse.

The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by dcairns

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:

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and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.

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At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.

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An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.

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There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.

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Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.

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I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.