Archive for Robert Stevenson

Flight of Fancy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2021 by dcairns

We’d enjoyed THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK so much, on re-viewing it in our weekend watch party, I went looking for other films with its cast members. Frank Cellier, who plays the evil Mr. Wright — part property speculator, part actual Satan — had a patchy film career, but apart from his crooked Scottish Sheriff in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS, he seemed to have a big role in NON-STOP NEW YORK, which starred Anna Lee, so that one seemed worth a punt. We double-billed it with FIRST A GIRL, which also features Lee.

After a glossy moderne title sequence, we’re into a thriller narrative in which unemployed chorine Lee is witness to a mob hit in New York. She’s the only one who can save an unoffending hobo from the gallows, so (after considerable comic footering and subplottery) she hops the “mail plane” back to NYC on a desperate mission to save the poor blighter. But also aboard are —

John Loder, amiable London detective

Frank Cellier, blackmailer and all-round schemer (lots of good blustering)

Francis L. Sullivan, the real murderer, disguised as a Paraguayan general (!)

Various other comic relief parts.

The stratosphere is so bracing!

The whole film is very entertaining, but once we’re on the fanciful plane — every passenger has their own stateroom, and there’s a kind of balcony or sky-veranda where you can go outside and ENJOY THE FRESH AIR — things get really endearingly silly. The plane is basically designed like an ocean liner. It takes off from the water but it doesn’t have those ski-things boatplanes have. The story, scripted by Roland Pertwee (of THOSE Pertwees), with an uncredited assist from Curt Siodmak, who had form in this kind of civic engineering sub-sf, is based on a novel called Sky Steward. The steward does appear in the film, played by Jerry Verno, the stage door man from THE RED SHOES, but he’s a very minor character.

Very nicely directed: Cellier & Lee are surprised by a BIG REVEAL of Francis Sullivan

The ensemble thriller format probably owes something to ROME EXPRESS and would soon yield THE LADY VANISHES. This weird variation is directed by Robert Stevenson, who would skip across the ocean himself as a conscientious objector and wind up working for the biggest wingnuts in Hollywood — Howard Hughes and Walt Disney, giving us everything from THE LAS VEGAS STORY to MARY POPPINS, or if you want to be cynical about it, THE WOMAN ON PIER 13 to THE GNOME-MOBILE. Around this time he was making fun stuff like KING SOLOMON’S MINES, repurposed as a Roland Young comedy: by the time he’s at Disney, the matte painters are making the movies.

Anna Lee is very smiley, which she isn’t in the films I know her best from — BEDLAM and PASSING OF 3FB (it is, I acknowledge, appalling that I have yet to view HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY). She’s very smiley in FIRST A GIRL also.

Although the airplane stuff is joyous, I regret the fact that Lee’s old mum, a cockney comic relief type played by Drusilla Wills, drops out of the story early on. First, it’s great to see that Lee’s character comes from this earthy stock, and the idea of a chorus girl playing detective aided by her unglamorous mum is a very winning one. I would happily accept sequels starring the pair — perhaps they could solve a murder on an iron mole heading for the earth’s core, or catch a fifth columnist on a time bus taking a sight-seeing tour of the Morlock mines…

NON-STOP NEW YORK stars Ianto; Bronwyn; Mr. Bumble; Capt. Jeremy Stickles; Marcel Escargot; Mrs. Karswell; The Professor; Mrs. Grudden; Arthur Bleeby; Thwackum; and One-Round.

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.

Ellenshaw on Frisco Bay

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2019 by dcairns

I’m hopeful that a bunch of you won’t be able to identify the images here, thus creating INTRIGUE.

Which I will then SHATTER by telling you they’re from Disney’s THE LOVE BUG. Matte artist/ genius Harrison Ellenshaw was responsible.

His art adds a whole layer of melancholic, nostalgic beauty to MARY POPPINS and it kind of does the same, or tries to. The plotline doesn’t really sustain such emotions, especially in the final third, which is just one big car race, with gags more notable for their difficulty/expensiveness that for being particularly clever or funny.

But the first two-thirds… a lot of peculiar stuff in this movie (spiritual ancestor to CHRISTINE).

As a movie-besotted child, Fiona fantasised that Herbie, the sentient Volkswagon, must be possessed by a poltergeist, or else the reincarnation of a human in machine form. (Weird kid.) In the movie, there is actually an explanation offered, though it’s more in the form of speculation/bullshit than actual canonical backstory (kind of like how various characters in Romero’s zombie films suggest their own theories of zombie apocalypse causation). Buddy Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz, who has studied in Tibet, puts forth an animist view, proposing that man has invested so much emotion into his mechanical creations that they have become alive.

Amazingly, Buddy manages to put this theory over with some conviction. The ultimate version of HERBIE would be like A.I., with the machines reigning supreme after humanity’s extinction. HERBIE INHERITS THE EARTH, anyone?

As David Wingrove pointed out to me, there’s a weird irony/perversity to the fact that director Robert Stevenson was a conchie who went to America to get away from the war, and ended up working almost exclusively for the two biggest right-wingers in Hollywood, Uncle Walt and Howard Hughes.

Also watched: HERBIE RIDES AGAIN, which is the one I remember seeing on first release (not really any cool new paintings), and THE BLACK HOLE, for which Ellenshaw came out of retirement and created some amazing imagery.

Chim-chim-cheree.

THE LOVE BUG stars Zeke Kelso; Rosemary Pilkington; Lord Fellamar; the singing bone; Mr. Snoops; Tommy Chan; Officer Gunther Toody.

HERBIE RIDES AGAIN stars Madelon Claudet; April Dancer; Sheriff Al Chambers; Col ‘Bat’ Guano; Horace Debussy “Sach” Jones; Mr. Hilltop; Captain Flash; and Baron Samedi.

THE BLACK HOLE stars Hauptmann (Capt.) Stransky; Norman Bates; Max Cherry; Robin Lee Graham; Weena; Dirty Lyle; and the voices of Cornelius and Maj. ‘King’ Kong.