Archive for Robert Young

Magic Man.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by dcairns

I’m delighted to present The Late Show’s first guest blogger this year — my wife, Fiona Watson.

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Did someone say Jonathan Creek? No they didn’t. They said,  Miracles For Sale (1939, MGM), Tod Browning’s last feature, a zippy little number that bears more than a passing resemblance to the BBC TV series. A magician gets involved with crime. Who wants to watch something like that? Now don’t tell me. Even though my eyes are covered by a silk scarf,  the ether is buzzing with telepathic impressions. Give me a moment… EVERYONE is the answer! Thank you ladies and gentlemen. (They do watch, every year, for the past twenty years.) It’s got magic and crime. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the similarity doesn’t end there, Morgan is a magician who designs tricks for other magicians, just like Creek. He also has a sidekick just like Creek, but in Morgan’s case it isn’t a series of ladies ending in a wife, it’s his endearingly, curmudgeonly dad (Frank Craven) who’s just dropped into the big city to visit his thaumaturgically dexterous son. A bit like The Rockford Files, if The Rockford Files had more seances, card tricks and mind reading. Dad Morgan doesn’t like New York at all,  (“New York is the only town I’ve ever been in that you could learn to hate in a day”) but is prepared to put up with it to have family time with the smoooooth Robert Young.

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Where Alan Davies brings an insouciant, quirky charm to Creek — sort of lumpy if we’re getting synesthetic –MGM leading man Robert Young is as glossy as a pane of glass wiped down with vinegar. It’s not that he’s featureless, he just plays it so fast and with such ease that he whizzes past without scratching the retinas. I almost thought that this film, and his character, could easily have been strung out into a Thin Man type series, and perhaps that was the original intent, but I’d have re-cast it with someone you could get a good hold of with your eyeballs.

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Just to make things even more Creek-like, this is a locked room mystery.  And just like Creek, we have oodles of enticing celebrity guests. Here’s Gloria (Daughter Of Dracula) Holden as medium Madame Rapport. Henry (Werewolf Of London) Hull as Dave Duvallo, an escapologist and customer of Morgan. (On seeing his name in the cast list, I mused, “Henry Hull. The sign of quality. Well… not really. It’s just the sign of Henry Hull.”) To make this even more alluring, Hull emerges, Jacqueline Bisset-like from a tank of water in a wet vest, creating an erotic frisson that no-one in the world, anywhere, has ever experienced. Except hardcore Henry Hull fans who like their men prematurely aged and dripping.  (He always seemed late-middle-aged even when he was young and again when he was old. Now that’s magic!)

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Joining the merry band is the ever-reliable William Demarest as a confused cop (Quinn) –  “Not even a half-grown microbe could’ve got out of this joint without using a crow bar and a grand jury.” Florence Rice is our imperiled (and bizarrely costumed by Dolly Tree) heroine (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately  have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses and freak shows. And finally and wonderfully, an uncredited performance by E. Alyn Warren as Dr Hendricks, a comedy coroner. “Maybe you can examine a corpse in the dark but I’m no bat.” Also uncredited in the stock music department, Franz (Bride Of Frankenstein) Waxman.

The screenplay is by Harry Ruskin, James Edward Grant and Marion Parsonnet, writer of Gilda and Cover Girl and in a strange coincidence, screenwriter in 1937 of a remake of Browning’s first sound film, 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, another heavily seance-related tale. Miracles For Sale is based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat  by Clayton Rawson. There were four Merlini books in total. In a poll conducted by 17 mystery and crime writers, Death From a Top Hat was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time.

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Brilliant prologue. We think we’re watching a very bad B War Movie, but things start to quickly fragment when we see the awful, oriental makeup on the soldiers and a woman gets machine-gunned in half in a box. “Stop the war!” barks someone off-screen at the end of the performance, and the distant shelling is switched off. We’re introduced to the world of Merlini, here renamed Michael Morgan. It’s the cut-throat world of the professional stage trickster.

Miracles For Sale is the name of the store run by Son Morgan, much to the chagrin of Dad Morgan. “Well, if you wanted to go into business, why didn’t you open a butcher shop? Now, selling meat’s a business, but, selling miracles – that’s monkey business.”

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But before you can say “Hey Presto!”  or even “Robert Houdin!” we have damsel in distress Judy Barclay charging through the front door, begging him to stop a fake medium taking part in an experiment for a cash prize if she’s authentic. And only a magician whose sideline is debunking fake mediums will do. In this regard he’s very Houdiniesque. In fact Morgan even mentions a case in which a father was being put in touch with the son he lost during World War 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, much? Judy seems disinclined to give up the whys and wherefores, but she’s so cute and her sleeves, like voluminous bellows on a concertina, are so impressive, that he just can’t help being sucked in (probably osmosis created by the shoulder bellows). Later, she’ll show up with sleeves like giant, bacofoil croissants and Morgan becomes even more besotted. Or possibly hungry.

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Before we know where we are, and in amidst a welter of card tricks, mind reading, attempts on Judy’s life because she may have inside knowledge, and spooky chicanery, there’s a dead man, master of legerdemain Tauro (Harold Minjir) then another dead man, occultist Dr. Cesare Sabbatt (Cesare was of course The Somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt who slept in a coffin in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and in his early, pre-director years, Browning performed a live burial act in which he was billed as ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’). Dr Sabbatt is played by a man called Frederick Worlock, if you can believe that on top of everything else! Both corpses are laid out in esoteric circles lined by candles in locked rooms. Not only that but Sabbatt is a post-mortem ventriloquist. Apparently. Who the dickens is the murderer or murderers? How did they get in and out? And what is their motive? There are plenty of suspects to choose from, all of them involved in the murky world of Magic and Magick.

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At this point we welcome the input of the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine McIntyre on the IMDb, for once reviewing a movie that actually exists, and not a wondrous creation of his imagination – ‘This film violates the most basic rule of magic: never do the same trick twice for the same audience, unless you do it two different ways. In one scene, sitting at a breakfast table, Robert Young casually waves his hand and makes a sugar bowl vanish into thin air. We didn’t expect it, so we don’t see how he did it. He orders another sugar bowl from the waiter, played by the annoying bit-part actor Chester Clute. When it arrives, Young waves his hand again and makes the second sugar bowl vanish too, by the same method. This time we’re expecting it, so we see how he does it … and you’ll be as disappointed as I was.’

Yes, this is an effect shot. Or to be precise, a series of effects shots. But we can’t expect Robert Young to do real, close-up magic. He’s an actor, not a prestidigitator. I see where Froggy is coming from, but I wasn’t offended by this, and indeed, its sloppiness (although David found it charming) may be one of the few signs that Browning is thoroughly fed up with the whole venture. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As Dad Morgan says, “I was a little confused before but now I’m just bewildered.” You see Morgan, although he enthusiastically unveils fake mediums who make money from other people’s grief, hasn’t entirely given up belief in the supernatural. (Unlike Houdini, who one school of thought says was murdered by angry Spiritualists.) There’s still a tiny spark of belief in him, which is kind of fascinating and suggests he’s come up against forces he hasn’t been able to explain away with the pure logic he excels in.

Addendum – Morgan’s tiny spark of belief is more to do with the studio system than anything else. I’m reliably informed (by David) that it would have been quite impossible at the time to have an atheist hero.

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You would never tell from watching it that this would be the great Tod Browning’s last film. It’s made with assurance, energy and invention. What happened? Well, as many directors do, he found himself trapped as a ‘horror’ director, when in fact he wanted to step away and do something with more social significance. His greatest dream was to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, something eventually realized by Sydney Pollack in 1969. But the studios would not relent. In the early forties he’s quoted as saying, “When I quit. I quit. I wouldn’t cross the street now to see a movie.”

I’d cross the street to see this one, not just because it’s the swan song by a unique Hollywood figure whose name still lives on with genre fans all over the world, but because it’s a slick, fun entertainment. There’s no sign of the real disillusionment Browning must have been feeling, and that’s something miraculous in itself.

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The ending presents us with a mystery. Someone rings the doorbell at Miracles For Sale, setting off a chain of silly, magical events in which Dad Morgan will get trapped in a trick, but we never get to see who the visitor is and they seem to have gone away by the time Morgan, his dad and Judy show up. Could the doorbell have been pressed by The Grim Reaper, (Time Person Of The Year 2016, NOT Donald Trump as has just been announced, although the difference may be academic) sounding the death knell for Browning’s career? We will never know.

The 2016 Jonathan Creek Christmas Special is on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 28th December, but try to give yourselves a glimpse of the original. Unfortunately this little gem doesn’t seem to be available anywhere commercially. Maybe you could do that hoodoo that you do so well, and it will appear mysteriously in a locked room.

To play us out, here is the late, great David Bowie’s homage to Browning and Chaney in Diamond Dogs.

With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump.
Dressed like a priest you was.
Tod Browning’s freak you was.

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.

Things to Come That Went

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2012 by dcairns

MEN MUST FIGHT (1933) is a truly interesting oddity. Along with GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE it forms part of MGM’s pre-code pacifist argument, and like the La Cava madness it’s also riven with internal contradictions.

We begin in WWI with Diana Wynyard indulging in illicit sex with young flyer Robert Y0ung who, being not yet a big star, is promptly slain. Wynyard, in the family way, accepts older gent Lewis Stone’s marriage proposal even though she doesn’t really love him.

But now we flash forward to the far future year of 1940, as distinguished by it’s even more streamlined art deco sets and videophones. The world stands once more on the brink of war — a Second World War! — and Stone and Wynyard are respected campaigners for peace, hoping their/her son, Phillips Holmes, will never have to fight.

But when some ambassador gets assassinated, the nation prepares for conflict — with the Eurasians. “Eurasian” obviously sounded vague enough to avoid offending anybody and costing MGM overseas box office. The only Eurasian we meet is the cook, played by Luis Alberni (whose culinary skills have not yet seen him promoted to hotelier — Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in 1937’s EASY LIVING). So, war is coming, and Stone does what a lot of people do — says, effectively, “I hate war, but this is different.” The family starts falling apart and the question of whether peace can ever be a possibility is much to the fore.

The movie being from MGM, the most conservative of studios, I didn’t expect it to stick to its pacifist guns, if you’ll pardon the unfortunate expression, right through to the end, but I was still surprised by some of the turns the argument takes. Ultimately we’re encouraged to accept the inevitability of wars with a kind of amused shrug, but in the meantime we get a montage of the world’s nations, seemingly representing the varied people who just want peace — and the montage includes a parade of swastika-wielding Nazis. It’s really not certain whether any irony is intended here at all: the image is juxtaposed with a shot of Japan, but it’s of Japanese kids in school, so just what point is being made?

Poor New York gets almost as tough a time in movies as Tokyo — that same year it got hit by KING KONG and DELUGE. Enthusiasts of old-school special effects will dig this bombing, much of which looks extremely convincing — stay tuned for the 1930s Skype call, inaccurate mainly in the sense that they don’t get cut off or go out of synch —

Because I know Glenn Erickson will dig it.

Granny (May Robson) sums things up in a speech which is genuinely surprising, from this studio and era —

“The more I see of this world the more convinced I am that it ought to be run by women. LET the men crow and strut and fight and be ornamental. Like roosters. That’s the function of the male.”