Archive for Roy del Ruth

Screwball Yoga

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Elisha Cook Jnr, disturbingly buff, demonstrates Hollywood’s idea of the lotus position in HE MARRIED HIS WIFE.

This is a fun 1940 screwball comedy from Roy Del Ruth, with a Wodehousian country house setting and the deliriously dithering Mary Boland as hostess. Good support from Cesar Romero as a Latin Lothario. Joel McCrea has plenty experience of this kind of thing, and Nancy Kelly shows herself more than capable of joining in the fun — if her career had taken off she could have made some classics.

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I’m a little concerned with the film’s treatment of its shnook character, played by Lyle Talbot. Firstly, I think you can assess a film’s goodheartedness by how it treats its schnook. If the schnook is obnoxious, all bets are off. But if he’s basically blameless, and guilty of no more than not being the hero, then I want him to have some kind of happy ending, like Ralph Bellamy in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, or Rudy Vallee in THE PALM BEACH STORY. An exception to this is HIS GIRL FRIDAY, where Ralph Bellamy (schnook again) is shamefully mistreated, but then that film doesn’t have a very good heart, and it wants you to know it.

Secondly, Talbot doesn’t have form as a schnook. He’s a faded thirties star, going soft, but nothing in his persona tells us that we should find him funny. He’s unhappily in love with Joel McCrea’s ex-wife, and woos her with McCrea’s enthusiastic encouragement (Joel just wants to be able to stop paying alimony so he can spend his money on horses). Nothing about this scenario inclines me to want to see the guy mistreated.

But that’s the only cloud in the sky, here. The script, by six different scribes including John O’Hara (!), is pretty funny, and the playing of the likes of Boland, with her oblivious fluting dither, amplifies that. Asides from the strange yogic practices of Mr Cook, Jnr, the movie also has one other enduringly odd moment. William Edmunds, looking rather like the High Lama, plays a nightclub waiter who takes a tip from Joel McCrea on his horse, and loses his rent money. There’s a bitter confrontation between the two as McCrea is hauled of for non-payment of alimony, after which Edmunds very visibly mouths the words “Fuck you!”

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At least, that’s what *I* think he’s saying. My lip-reading may be defective — I would welcome second, and third opinions.

Primate Suspect

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2012 by dcairns

So, back to my demented quest to see every film depicted in Denis Gifford’s monster bible, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, and this time it was Roy Del Ruth’s Poe adaptation PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE which passed before my eyeballs, albeit flat rather than in its original 3D. As long as we’re talking about re-releasing Hitchcock’s DIAL M and De Toth’s HOUSE OF WAX in 3D versions, I’d put a vote in for this baby. The 3D gags looked amusing flat, but there were a few things like a shower of gaily-hued Warnercolor balloons that suggested a little more than the usual “poke-em-in-the-eye-with-a-sharp-stick” approach to immersive entertainment.

We begin with some smudgy Parisian rooftops, a perfect match for the gorgeous 2-strip settings of Warners’ 30s horrors DR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. Throughout, the colour schemes of this film alternate giddily between such subdued, marshy tones, and eye-popping bubble-gum effects more consistent with a musical.

While the aging Del Ruth has lost his handle on a particular kind of gutsy performance style that saw him through the pre-code era (though we can see that misfire spectacularly on his attempt at THE MALTESE FALCON/DANGEROUS FEMALE), he has a comic book sensibility that’s always fun. The zanier moments of this flick, which defy plausibility quite openly and plummet into an inter-stool area of conflicted response (creepy/perverse/amusing/embarrassing) harken back to the director’s days as a gagman at Keystone, particularly this revealing clue –

For a thoroughly daft film (pair it with RDR’s ALLIGATOR PEOPLE but don’t blame me if you laugh yourself through the floor) this boasts some distinguished writing talent — Harold Medford helped script THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and THE KILLER IS LOOSE, and James R. Webb did even better with CAPE FEAR, CHEYENNE AUTUMN and VERA CRUZ. Neither seems to have had a particular affinity for horror films, but they reconfigure Dupin’s detective feats into a new-ish plot which eschews Universal’s Dr Mirakle bestiality shenanigans but gets into some surprising areas — physiognomy and Lombroso, behaviourism and Pavlov, primate communication and psychopathology. Much of this stuff was fairly new to movies, and certainly pretty exotic: research has clearly been done, even if it’s all filtered through the Hollywood screenwriters’ patented bullshittifier.

At the root of it all, as is obvious from the start, is Karl Malden (a man with a face built for 3D) and his pet gorilla, Sultan, the two best actors in the film. Malden suavely walks a tightrope between fanatical, method-y commitment and unavoidable contempt for the material, and Charles Gemora as Sultan turns in a compelling physical performance (reprising his role from the original Universal MURDERS IN THE RM.

The gorilla suit is obviously just that, even if it’s well made, but this ape does have a few more character nuances than most men in suits. There’s also Claude Dauphin, the only Frenchman with a French accent in the film, who’s pretty enjoyable as the worst detective you’ll ever see, and the lovely Patricia Medina (who just died in May) who doesn’t have enough of a part to properly register, alas. Fat credit, thin character.

In the words of Godard, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” Literally, in this case.

I thought this was going to be terrible but we had a blast with it. “I *loved* that!” declared Fiona.

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

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