Archive for Sabu

Queen of Technicolor!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 28, 2009 by dcairns

COBRA WOMAN. This is genius. Really kicks in at 3:53.

And Siodmak directed it the same year he made the excellent pulp-paranoid noir PHANTOM LADY. Maria Montez performs her sacrificial dance with utter conviction. That conviction may be misplaced, but it’s important that it’s there.

Much to enjoy here: two Maria Montezes, one good, one evil. See if you can tell which is which.

I also like the cunning way she disguises her intention of grabbing a spear, and the lightning reflexes with which her doppelganger responds to the threat. And the pointing! Almost as good as the pointing in the dance. Maria Montez may not have been the greatest actress, but she was surely the screen’s best pointer. If she’d been around for Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake, Earth wouldn’t have stood a chance.

COBRA WOMAN obviously belongs on a double bill with Siodmak’s THE DARK MIRROR, for its cunning exploration of the theme of duality. Seriously, the topic comes up again in THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN. But if you have Olivia DeHavilland or Barbara Stanwyck embodying it, or if you have Maria Montez embodying it, makes a difference to the kind of results you’re going to get.

In case anybody’s not sold yet, COBRA WOMAN also features:

Sabu.

Lon Chaney Jnr.

An arthritic chimpanzee.

A volcano.

Possibly the greatest movie in the world if you’re a gay 8-year-old. Which I’m not, but sometimes a straight 41-year-old is close enough.

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It’s Official —

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by dcairns

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— Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.

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There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.

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And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:

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Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…

Sabu invents an entirely new kind of acting.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2008 by dcairns

From the Korda production ELEPHANT BOY.

Directed by Robert Flaherty, then RE-directed by Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan, after Flaherty’s more purist documentary style was rejected as uncommercial (a similar problem had resulted in Flaherty’s removal from WHITE SHADOWS ON THE SOUTH SEAS, where he was replaced by “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke. How did Hollywood turn the dry documentary into boffo B.O.? “Boys, I’ve an idea — let’s fill the screen with tits!”). Much of E-BOY’s elephant stampede footage was staged in England with circus animals (it looks phoney as heck). Flaherty was certainly not above staging things (it was normal practice in ’30s documentary) but he had his own code of standards that would never have permitted geographic fraudulence of this kind.

Editor Charles Crichton, later director of comedies like THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and A FISH CALLED WANDA, used to tell a story about the production that may well be untrue (one hopes it is). When Flaherty went out to India, he telegrammed the studio:

ARRIVED INDIA FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT AND BOY

A week or two passed, then the studio received another message.

FOUND BOY FILMING WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY WE FIND ELEPHANT

Two more weeks, then:

FOUND ELEPHANT FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY

Then, the next day:

ELEPHANT SAT ON BOY FILMING BEGINS IMMEDIATELY WE FIND NEW BOY

As I say, hopefully a humorous anecdote rather than a real-life tragedy. Now to Sabu!

What’s he doing in the clip? I don’t know, but it’s clearly VERY GREAT. While his lines emerge very much as if imperfectly memorized, his enthusiasm in delivering them is so overwhelming that the whole thing is just a delight. I challenge you not to grin. In addition, his eyeline is all over the place, as if he’s looking from one crewmember to the other, or as if they wanted to give the impression he’s looking around the cinema at first one patron, then another. Most of the time he’s looking straight ahead at the circle seats, the cheap seats, rather than down at the front rows, which seems appropriate for a working class lad. He’s talking to the elephant boys of England.

It’s quite amazing to me that there was an Indian juvenile star in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. There hasn’t been one since. “Invented” for this one film (he had been working in the elephant stables of the Maharajah of Mysore), Sabu was so obviously captivating that producers didn’t hesitate to come up with new projects he could appear in. You might think he would be considered “hard to cast”, but projects like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and BLACK NARCISSUS, while not constructed around him, were able to make use of his vigour, beauty, and unique acting style.

My late friend Lawrie Knight worked on BLACK NARCISSUS as an A.D. He reported that the young star had a disconcerting habit of welcoming messengers into his dressing room while he was on the toilet. I don’t think this is Indian S.O.P., so maybe it was movie star contempt for underlings, or some kind of exhibitionism. John Ford used to do the same thing with journalists (“Send him in — I can deal with two shits at the same time,”), a scene recreated in CATCH 22 with an enthroned Martin Balsam greeting padre Anthony Perkins with a glimpse of Hades. Funny scene. Ford was also fond of greeting guests naked, having emerged from the shower, so I do suspect a bit of exhibitionism there, especially what with Maureen O’Hara’s revelations about Ford’s same-sex-loving side.

Sabu again! Lawrie also said that Sabu was very interested in co-star Jean Simmons, but that the young starlet’s mother discouraged any co-mingling. This seems less like simple motherly protection than prejudice, since Lawrie was able to wash the brown body makeup off Jean in the bath every evening, and THAT was fine. Sabu contented himself with Jean’s stand-in, according to Lawrie (Billy Wilder always suggested sleeping with stand-ins rather than movie stars — all the benefits, none of the stress), and soon had her pregnant.

Now, I don’t know for a fact this is true, but all of Lawrie’s stories that I’ve been able to check out, have checked out. And at the time of his tragically early death, aged 39, Sabu had been plagued by paternity suits, so either Lawrie was being completely factual, or he incorporated the news stories into his anecdote. But as I say, I’ve never found any of Lawrie’s stories to be inaccurate, unless they were stories told to him by somebody else (like the one about Jayne Mansfield’s head rolling down the street).

Sabu’s Hollywood career took in the outrageous COBRA WOMAN: highly recommended B-movie madness with Maria Montez as twins (one Good! One evil!), Lon Chaney Jnr and an aging chimp. See it! While this material lacks the class and budgetary level of his Korda productions in Britain, Sabu was able to spin out his career as a juvenile lead far beyond his actual puberty, thanks to his diminutive height and natural exuberance.

I’ve heard that Sabu’s youthful looks faded with his career, but in the latest footage I’ve seen of him, an appearance on somebody’s This Is Your Life, he’s still a very handsome guy, although now obviously no longer a boy. Strange that western cinema could find roles for a beautiful Indian boy, but not a beautiful Indian man…

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD even inspired a SABU ACTION FIGURE, of sorts. I found it at www.dollreference.com.

*Lawrie’s other pet peeve: Laurence Harvey urinating out the window of a moving car.