Archive for Roy del Ruth

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2017-02-25-11h48m50s911

You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

vlcsnap-2017-02-25-11h56m45s630

Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

vlcsnap-2017-02-25-00h57m11s146

Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

vlcsnap-2017-02-25-11h46m29s922

S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

vlcsnap-2017-02-25-11h47m28s027

Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?

Advertisements

Red All Over

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2017 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2017-01-13-12h01m35s836

I had never seen a Red Skelton movie. In the clips I saw he looked kind of awful, but on the other hand, Buster Keaton liked him. A friend said, “There was talent there, but the volume switch was faulty.”

So, we got on an Esther Williams kick — there’s talent there too — which led us to run ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, which has a nice little water ballet directed by Vincente Minnelli — interesting to see how he handles it, as opposed to Busby Berkeley or Charles Walters or George Sidney. It also has Red Skelton hamming it up in one sketch (like KING OF JAZZ, it intersperses songs and sketches). The sketch is pretty unfunny, and Fiona’s immediate reaction to the mugging was revulsion. But then he actually got a few laughs, overcoming our resistance to his overkill with more overkill. Overandoverkill. And he certainly had some chops as a visual comedian.

vlcsnap-2017-01-13-12h05m22s475

A gag from THE HIGH SIGN! Was Buster working as gag man at MGM in 1943? It seems likely.

So then my same friend mentions DU BARRY WAS A LADY, and that seems like a suitable medium for further investigation. If Skelton gets too much for us, we have his fellow redhead Lucille Ball, and third-billed Gene Kelly, and Tommy Dorsey and his band, and a practically juvenile Zero Mostel doing a really good Charles Boyer impersonation — not just the voice — he kinda morphs his face so as to actually resemble Boyer, albeit a pudgy, ugly Boyer.

vlcsnap-2017-01-13-12h02m57s258

Too bad Zero doesn’t get to sing a note, except as part of the chorus. But maybe best of all, the film has Virginia O’Brien, singing a song not in the Cole Porter show ~

Like KISS ME KATE, this play has had considerable damage done by rewriting, moving of songs, substitution of songs. It’s verging on a revue, like ZIEGFELD GIRLS, but with just enough connective tissue to be able to call itself an actual movie. And Skelton has it dialled down slightly — he’s playing an awful obnoxious dope, though, and Skelton’s particular comic instrument does not reduce the less appealing qualities.

But — in a Twitter conversation I was just defending the musical, but saying that even the worst MGM musical will still tend to have a few jaw-dropping moments. This one has QUITE a few.

Best gag: Red wins the sweepstake, and as he passes out in shock we get the traditional newspaper montage, only each headline carries only a fragment of the story —

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-21h30m15s814

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-21h30m17s822

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-21h30m19s918

vlcsnap-2017-01-11-21h30m23s004

The Sunday Intertitle: Hot Air

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-01-18-11h00m05s130

Roy Del Ruth was one of very few Keystone directors to graduate to anything resembling the big time — Capra was the exception, attaining far loftier status. While many small-time silent boys fell by the wayside when sound came in, RDR surprisingly was at the forefront of the talker boom at Warners, where his old dark house spookshow THE TERROR was apparently quite innovative, and he churned a host of fast-talking comedies with the likes of James Cagney.

SKYLARKING (1923) is one of those early slapstick shorts, starring a fellow called Harry Gribbon who has a funny name and lots of technique but just isn’t very funny. The movi also features Billy Armstrong as a recklessly destructive blind man who anticipates W.C. Fields’ sightless nemesis Mr. Muckle, and cameos by Scotsman Andy Clyde and Teddy the Dog. None of these made me laugh, but my eyebrows levitated as if painted with Cavorite at the sight of the sightless proto-Muckle. Had Fields already used a version of this character on stage?

I like the special effects, as Gribbon takes to the air, which benefit from incorporating camera movement along with double exposure for a dynamic and halfway convincing effect. And I like this intertitle, which could easily have been converted into dialogue for one of the peppy pre-codes RDR made later. Sennett films frequently recycled catchphrases and gags heard in bars in just the way Warner scenarists would do in the thirties.

vlcsnap-2015-01-18-10h59m15s152

Oddly, the visual gags of the Sennett era didn’t generally make it into those films, even the comedies, apart from that riotous sequence with monkeys and custard pies in LADY KILLER — for zany imagery, you really have to look to Del Ruth’s later HORROR MOVIES (here and here).