Archive for Ross Hunter

The Sunday Intertitle: The Whoring Twenties

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by dcairns

As far as I know, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE is the only roadshow musical about the white slave trade, but I could be wrong.

We watched it partly in honour of the late Carol Channing and André Previn, both of whom make excellent contributions to whatever this film is, and partly just because I’d picked up the DVD for cheap and had never watched the film properly. An odd DVD, whose Greek subtitles seemed to switch on automatically whenever there was an intertitle.GOOD use of intertitles, though — the movie is a twenties pastiche, fine, but they’ve worked out a specific way of using intertitles in a talkie — they use them as thought bubbles. So Millie (Julie Andrews) will look to the camera at a key moment and the intertitle will pop up, giving us her take on whatever’s just happened. And they don’t overuse the gimmick.

The Hallelujah Chorus, wrote editor Ralph Rosenbaum, is “always a sure sign of a film in trouble,” and so are wipes, and this film liberally uses both. Iris in and outs are fine, period-appropriately, and I wish people would use them for no reason in non-period movies, but wipes are the devil’s own transition devices. They should be shunned. And those flip-flop things, where one image blurringly spins like a revolving door and another replaces it, make me want to take an axe to the next optical printer I see.

(DEEP BREATH) Everyone in this is perfectly good, OK, and it’s terrific to see Beatrice Lillie in a rare movie perf (but in a problematic role) but James Fox is the stand-out. The glasses are clearly aiming at Harold Lloyd (I overcomplicated things by wondering if Creighton Hale was also an influence), confirmed when he gives the matte lines a work-out by scaling Millie’s place of work, human fly fashion. It’s a shame his big number, the Tapioca, is quite poorly filmed (they over-edit and cut off the feet). George Roy Hill is not a musicals guy, I fear.

Oh, and Fiona was impressed by how sexy Julie Andrews managed to get during her vamp scene. Apart from THE AMERICANISATION OF EMILY, where James Garner seems to animate some hitherto iced-over aspect of the Andrews persona, she’s not really known for her blistering eroticism, is she? And yet, here it is, however briefly.

Being a long, sprawling roadshow affair, the movie by rights ought to offer a PANOPLY OF TWENTIES AMERICANA, but this it has no interest in doing. Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s putative stage career leads to absolutely no Broadway business, and the settings specifically evocative of the period are limited to a vaudeville show, a country house (with biplanes), a Chinatown knocking shop. Most of the action seems to take place in a nondescript hotel (it’s written as eccentric but the art department keep things TV-movie-looking) and an office.

Oh, the movie does come up with one of the great actor/drug combos of all time. You know how Dennis Hopper performing a sense memory of nitrous oxide became an iconic image in BLUE VELVET? The combination of John Gavin and curare proves similarly apt. The filmmakers must have known they were onto a good thing with this business, because they blowpipe the poor bastard twice.

Gavin is GOOD in this. He gets the joke, he knows he’s the butt, and he goes at it. Admirable.

The sex trafficking angle (no, we don’t see Calvin Coolidge as a customer: it was a different era) is handled… weirdly. The movie opens with a choloroforming/abduction scene shot like a giallo, lit and designed like a TV movie of the week. In Chinatown, the whorehouse-warehouse is a Man’s Adventure magazine style bdsm fantasia. And, when James Fox, looking rather fetching in flapper drag, is kidnapped and his captors go “Ugh!”, thinking him less than glamorous, Beatrice Lillie shrugs, “I know she’s not much, but in a dark corner on the late, late shift…” which puts the whole thing into a really horribly clear picture and any amusement kind of does a death rattle. We’re openly being invited to imagine a line of sweaty customers doing a train on a drugged-up, cross-dressed James Fox. I know it’s A Ross Hunter Production, but I can’t imagine they really wanted to do that to their audience.

The racism is another spectre haunting the story. Jack Soo & Pat Morita get a sinister gong on first appearance, as if we’re meant to be scared of them purely because they’re Chinese (in fairness, one can imagine a movie pastiche portraying any pair of spying henchmen of whatever race in a similar way: but here, it has a particular ethnic flavour). Philip Ahn as a sympathetic servant can’t do enough to remove the yellow peril undertones, as he enters too late and does too little, and that in a subservient capacity. The otherwise pointless Jewish wedding scene is presumably meant to make things feel inclusive, which is a pretty clueless idea. Seeing four white protags beat up a couple of stage Chinamen and stand triumphantly over their crumpled bodies has an uncomfortable feel to it, nowadays. The period pastiche patina should help alibi this, but it’s a strain.

And you don’t want strain in a musical.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE stars Maria Von Trapp; Chas; Mary Richards; Flo; Sam Loomis; Sammy Fong; Mr. Miyagi; Dr. Fong; Mrs. Lorelei Dodge-Blodgett; and Molly Molloy.

Advertisements

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.

What? Ah! Way to go!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2008 by dcairns

Pretty in Pink

So, WHAT A WAY TO GO! is available on DVD and SOME CAME RUNNING isn’t. That makes sense.

I’m hoping David Ehrenstein can tell me more about the history of this film, because the question of how it came to be is a vexing one. This piece is not so much a critique of the film as a cry for enlightenment. The film itself is a glorious horrible accident, like a twelve-car pile-up with multiple fatalities that’s somehow arranged itself into a pleasing composition on the motorway, just before bursting into flames.

The facts: Shirley MacLaine stars as a fabulously wealthy widow telling the story of how all her husbands became rich, successful and dead.

Big Night

The TRUE facts: Shirley MacLaine wears seventy-two insane Edith Head creations (including about four in the course of a single spoken sentence — honest, I’m not making this up!) and a half million bucks in jewellery, also Bob Mitchum, Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Cummings, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly…

The background facts: Arthur P Jacobs, soon to be responsible for the overweight turkey DR DOLITTLE, somehow was given the run of Fox, where he got gorgeous lifelike color by Deluxe and cameraman Leon Shamroy to shoot it. Comden & Green scripted, creating something like a musical without songs. And then very strangely somebody (though not Comden & Green) thought it would be a great idea to get J. Lee Thompson to direct it.

(Say goodbye to facts, we’re into the woozily subjective now.)

Phone Call

He was a good director in his day (there is an ignominious decline into Charles Bronson pictures — BAD ones) but I don’t recall anybody ever accusing him of having a light touch. Which I would guess is what’s needed here. Thompson is used to shooting Dutch tilts of Diana Dors looking homicidal, so he does the same with Dick Van Dyke. The effect is undeniably arresting.

His approach to comedy is to undercrank and have people run around — I guess he’s been looking at ZAZIE DANS LE METRO or something. It’s all very positively unfunny — the desire to laugh leaches away as soon as Van Dyke widens his mouth and juts his chin, or MacLaine squints or shrieks (she does a lot of shrill stuff in this one).

There ARE a few laughs, and a few surprises, though. A chimpanzee is dressed in mourning. Mitchum grabs a bull by the pizzle and gurns, “Forgive me, Melrose!” before being kicked fifty feet in the air. Gene Kelly plays a horrifically self-important movie star — “Ah, the little people — how I love them!” And there are those dance numbers:

Did you spot Terri Garr in the chorus? Me neither.

Meanwhile, surrounded by all-pink sets and chorus lines in sailor suits, the man who helmed THE GUNS OF NAVARONE asserts his heterosexuality as forcefully as he can:

Ben Dover

Backless

The Tit and the Moon

It’s the kind of film where, as Billy Wilder put it, the director spends half his time devising shots where the leading lady leans forward to pick up a pepperpot.

The ’50s-’60s studio taste for gigantism is everywhere to be seen. There are jokes at the expense of LB Mayer, Ross Hunter and CLEOPATRA, as if this movie were any different. Only expensive things are beautiful here. MacLaine and Newman are the most beautiful and among the most expensive. Newman, as artist Larry Flint (!) is actually kind of funny, and certainly enjoyable. He seems to be having fun, and Newman having fun can be infectious. Mitchum also gives one of his unique performances – -you think you know this guy and then he’ll pull a random variant on his style that knocks you for a loop.

During the major “what-will-she-wear-next?” number, there’s a swell slomo shot of MacLaine burling around in a yellow cape, and as Fiona says, you don’t notice her because the spectacle of Mitchum just WALKING in slow motion is so beautiful:

(This clip strobes a bit — sorry, not my doing — but you sort of get the effect.)

Because everybody involved has some kind of (mis-matched, out-of-control) talent, the effect is never less than watchable, and never actually unalloyed pleasure. In fact, it may be the most heavily alloyed light entertainment ever bolted together.

But, you know, worth a look.

The Couch Trip

How did it happen, David?