Archive for Robert Stephenson

Quartermain and the Pit

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2017 by dcairns

Maybe the 1937 KING SOLOMON’S MINES is the best?

I do have a story from the 1950 version, though, courtesy of my late friend and spy in the pages of film history, Lawrie Knight. He reports that one morning, Stewart Granger was nowhere to be found on the African location. He had heard lions roaring in the night, from his tent, and jumped on the first flight back to Merrie and Lion-Free England. That is all.

The ’37 one is in part a vehicle for Paul Robeson, which means its inherent colonial racism gets softened somewhat. Also, it has more singing than any other version — no bad thing. It’s also, just as significantly, a vehicle for Roland Young, whose comedy mutterings deflate a lot of the would-be grandeur and again soften any hint of white supremacy. You just can’t make a case for that kind of beastliness if one of your prime exhibits of pallid masculinity is the daffy, tight-lipped Young.

   

The charm offensive is enhanced by the director’s lovely wife Anna Lee, doing what she fondly imagines is an Irish accent, and then there’s John Loder who’s inoffensive here, acting as a kind of foam wadding between the more charismatic players, and then there’s Cedric Hardwicke as Allan Quartermain, a surprising choice when you compare him to Granger or Richard Chamberlain or even Sean Connery, but quite an effective one — he has more authority than all of them, and manages to ACT the necessary ruggedness. You believe he could be a great white hunter, or possibly a gray-white hunter.

It’s interesting that director Robert Stevenson, at the far end of his long career, would wind up tackling similar boy’s-own nonsense in Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. And there’s a trick to this one — the impressive African locales were all shot with stand-ins by co-director Geoffrey Barkas, with the expensive cast nowhere to be seen. The only bush they went near was Shepherd’s Bush. The footage is nimbly cut together with Stevenson’s English material (studio and exterior, usually low-angles to conceal the lack of dark continent vistas) and the illusion is almost perfect — the fact that you CAN see through it just provides an amusing tickle of subconscious entertainment running parallel to the plot and character business.

The later Disney film is similarly discombobulated, but much worse, for there the two kinds of footage try to join hands through the medium of rear-screen photography, so we have poor Donald Sinden jogging on the spot in front of process shots of Norwegian lava. (I can’t recall for sure, not having seen this film since I was ten, but I strongly suspect the lava was of the miniature variety, too.)

We saw the movie on Talking Pictures TV and were glad of it. Regrettably, great fuzzy blobs of genital fogging descended upon it, despite the lack of genitals involved. Their targets were the bazooms of the native girls, proudly displayed during ritual dances or just standing around, “to swell a scene” as T.S. Eliot would put it. Gone are the days, it seems, when the National Geographic double standard held illimitable dominion over all — native girls in their native attire on their native land were deemed not obscene, by the BBFC it seems as well as by estimable ethnographic magazines consumed avidly in private by schoolboys.

Transplant those same girls to UK or US soil, and you’d have pornography. It struck me that in the original TV roots, there was nudity on the slave ship crossing the Atlantic, a rarity for TV but one considered justified by drama and historical and ethnographic concerns and political seriousness. But the breasts stopped at Plymouth Rock, or wherever it is slave ships dock. The abducted women were now Americans, and could not therefore be seen topless.

(Is it coincidence that the first female nude in mainstream American cinema is African-American, in Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER? Was there a mental connection to National Geographic that made Thelma Oliver’s dusky chest easier to swallow? Of course the extreme seriousness of the film’s theme must have helped too, as the nudity of Oliver connects directly via the main character’s mental association to his memories of the Holocaust. Very un-sexy tragedies seem to be key to be overcoming prudish censorship.)

Things mumbled by Roland Young in KING SOLOMON’S MINES ~

“No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa.”

“Mn, ah, mm, steady, mm, naaah…”

“My only toothbrush is in that wagon.”

“And what’s left of my trousers.”

“Mnyep.”

“Owh. Owwwhh.”

“Mnm.”

“I suppose we’re going to have melons today? Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”

“Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country.”

“So unlike the home life of our dear queen.”

“Funny to think it’s Derby Day back home.”

Of a hundred-year-old witch doctor: “Would you say that she was… well-preserved?

Also: “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.”

“It is too bad that just when we get to a fortune in diamonds, the mountain should decide to sit down on it.”

Also, on espying vultures circling, Young asks of Robeson, “What are those birds?”

“Aasvogel.”

“Must be, to live in a place like this.”

Considerable wits were involved in the screenplay — Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and humorist Roland Pertwee.

The South African locations and Alfred Junge sets are augmented by nifty model shots — this scene looks very LORD OF THE RINGS, and minutes later we will realise that Tolkein’s Mount Doom has a lot in common with Rider Haggard’s subterranean realm, at least as visualised here — a secret tunnel opens out onto an underground lake of lava, complete with your basic Dramatic Overhanging Precipice. Throw in an ancient treasure and The Hobbit is prefigured also… This movie came out the same year as Tolkein’s first book, so it’s unlikely to have been a direct influence, but if young John Ronald Reuel had decided to celebrate publication by taking his best girl on a hot date to see the latest Cedric Hardwicke flick, he would certainly have looked upon these scenes and said, “This is just the sort of shit I like!”

 

Fallen Angel Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2008 by dcairns

Face Front 

Dual authorship — leaving aside the screenwriters, Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (Otto Preminger would — later on, he more or less originated the “A film by” credit for directors in Hollywood) the RKO production ANGEL FACE can be attributed partly to Howard Hughes, who owned the studio at the time.

An obsessive control freak, Hughes acted as auteur or co-auteur on virtually all the studio’s releases. When he took over he sent out a memo: “From now on our films will all be about two things: fucking and fighting.” Sensing the writing was on the wall, ace producer Joan Harrison immediately quit.

True to his word, Hughes proceeded to make films that pandered to his own obsessions: firey women with large bosoms, and ultra-masculine men engaged in ultra-masculine activities. Viewed as auteur, HH has all the distinguishing characteristics — recurring themes and subjects, types of character, and even a visual style of sorts, although with the exception of THE OUTLAW (co-helmed with the other Howard, Hawks) he relied on underlings to actually call the shots.

The Lusty Man

SON OF SINBAD, to me, is Hughes’ greatest triumph, a blithering farrago of action, crummy jokes and endless belly dances, all spangled up and silly as hell, but a stone cold masterpieceif you’re a ten-year-old boy. I remember identifying deeply with Vincent Price as Omar Khayam (later, VP would play Thomas DeQuincey too — quite the poet).

THE LUSTY MEN escaped the full HH treatment by virtue of not having a completed script when it began. Director Nicholas Ray and Robert Mitchum (a star doubling as writer) were able to shape it themselves, and although it has the staples of manly activity (the rodeo) and fierce women competing over hulking men, it’s a considerable film in its own right and very much a personal Nicholas Ray film. Hughes protected Ray from the blacklisters, earning Ray’s respect and admiration. Ray later pronounced “a curse on anybody else who tries to make a movie about Howard Hughes.” Uh oh.

JET PILOT and MACAO brought Josef Von Sternberg out of retirement and seclusion in his modern-art masterpiece house with the symbolic moat surrounding it. But the experience was not a happy one for anybody. Bob Mitchum smeared limburger cheese on the engine of Sternberg’s custom-built limo (so it would stink when it heated up) and, as Von S ruefully recalled, “instead of fingers in the pie, a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomy in it.” One of the clowns was Nick Ray again…

Robert Stephenson was a gentle Brit who’d left England when war broke out, and this conscientous objector found himself working first for Hughes, and later for Walt Disney, two of the most militaristic, right-wing producers Ho’wood had to offer. He even made I MARRIED A COMMUNIST for Hughes, which Nick Ray and just about everybody else turned down.

The wildest film made under Hughes stewardship was probably THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, a weird anti-war parable directed by Joseph Losey. Hughes hated it, but somehow the production scraped through with it’s somewhat leaden message undiluted. Child star Dean “In Dreams” Stockwell was called in to see Hughes, and politely refused to deliver a new speech explaining how America could ensure universal peace so long as it had the biggest army, navy and air force in the world.

Slap Her, She's French

Otto Preminger tells us in his memoir, Preminger, that ANGEL FACE came about because Hughes wanted to punish Jean Simmons. She was contracted to him and had cut her hair short after a row with HH. The aviator hated short hair on women, and resolved to make Simmons complete one more feature in the eleven filming days left on her contract, and do it wearing a long black wig. Preminger was borrowed from 20th Century Fox as a director who could be trusted to get Simmons’ scenes in the can in the allotted time. Preminger doesn’t say so, but the implication is there that he was chosen for the job to make things as unpleasant as possible for Simmons. But he recalls enjoying working with her. (Whether the experience was mutual I’m not sure. Simmons won’t even discussWilliam Wyler, who directed her in THE BIG COUNTRY.)

David Ehrenstein reminds me:

“On The RKO Storythere’s a teriffic anecdote from Robert Mitchum about the shooting of the film. There was a scene where He was required to slap Jean Simmons. Otto kept asking for take after take, and Mitchum quickly surmised that Otto liked to watch Jean getting slapped. So he turned the tables and slapped Otto.

There were no further retakes.”

So, given this history, does ANGEL FACE read like an Otto or a Howard? I would argue that it has elements of both. As Blake Lucas argues in The Little Black Book: Movies, Preminger –

“- seems not so intent on highly elaborate camera movement, beautiful for it’s own sake, as in, say, FALLEN ANGEL (1945), but as the film draws near to its close, a remarkable four minute sequence occurs… Diane [Simmons] is now all alone in the house where she has lived. She wanders from room to room, then into the quarters where her ex-lover Frank (Robert Mitchum) has stayed. A repeated camera movement, following her from a hall into a room, or out of one, becomes a motif of the sequence, which is entirely without dialogue, sustained by the superb performance of Simmons, the haunting music of Dimitri Tiomkin, and brought to a plaintive final note as she awakes in the morning, huddled in a chair, wrapped in Frank’s coat … In finding the space for a character to become something more than what she has been defined as, Preminger affords a rare vision of what aesthetic and moral nuance can attain together.”

Ah Jean!

This passage hints at an odd schism in the film’s style. Watching it with this in mind, I noted that the murder scene halfway through is a stylistic marker, after which the style becomes more elaborate and obviously Premingerian. The first repeated camera moves appear in the trial scene, where the prosecution and defence attorneys’ speeches are shot in exactly the same way. The whole movie becomes more stylish and fluid from then on. The first half is more choppy, blocky, and inclined to simple static set-ups with many medium close-ups, much more like a typical Highes production.

Here are some typically Hughesian things I detected in the film:

Manliness: Robert Mitchum plays an ambulance driver, and he wants to run a garage, but we also learn that he drove a tank in the war, and was a drag racer before that. Simmons keeps talking about getting him to compete in a car race, but this plot strand goes nowhere: the race never happens, or if it does, Mitchum isn’t in it. The race serves no clear plot function, seems only to be there for the thrill of having men and women talk about racing cars, something HH would have gotten a kick out of.

Lust in the Dust

The vacillating male. Parallel with their macho activities, Hughes’ RKO heroes often seem unable to make up their minds, unwilling to act directly in their own interests, self-destructive rather than self-actualizing. Mitchum  here follows the same weak-kneed course as both male leads in THE LUSTY MEN, and even John Wayne in JET PILOT.

Tough women fighting over a weak man. Here Mona Freeman and Jean Simmons conspire to win the weak-willed Mitchum. “I got a strong back and a weak mind,” as he remarks in THE LUSTY MEN.

Red Line 7000

Fast cars. A Hughes obsession. Jean Simmons proves adept in a masculine world, expert in the workings of her sports car, making a mockery of the suggestion that her car could have been sabotaged by anyone, “even a woman”. ESPECIALLY a woman!

Crashing cars. The film features not one but two lovingly photographed, apocalyptic smash-ups. Producer Hughes was responsible for Howard Hawks augmenting SCARFACE with a bunch of superfluous but juddersomely impressive auto wrecks. No stranger to life-threatening vehicle crashes himself, Hughes evidently enjoyed seeing them on the screen even more than he enjoyed being half-crippled in them for real.

Aimless characters. This goes beyond the vacilating male figure. In JET PILOT, it’s imposssible to figure what anybody is up to from moment to moment. John Wayne and Janet Leigh alternately love and hate each other, protect and humiliate each other, behave in a generally weird and opaque fashion. By contrast, Simmons gets quite a lot of psychoanalyzing, but remains kind of an enigma. Mitchum’s behaviour makes very little sense generally, but he’s exactly the kind of actor who can make that compelling.

There’s not much fighting in the film — but it’s all about Hughes’ other F Word, though of course that’s kept offscreen. The movie would make a great Fever Dream Double Feature with Cronenberg’s CRASH, both films which conflate coition with death and high-speed automobile mayhem.

None of this is intended to belittle Otto P’s great work on the film, nor that of his collaborators. But either Hughes played a greater role in developing the project than Otto admitted, or else the film was deliberately designed to pander to its producer’s tastes.

Or both.

The End of the Affair