Archive for Sam Wood

A Battleship In Il Trovatore

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-04-22-18h07m13s244

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA — the first Thalberg reinvention of the Marx Bros. It lives on its excellent Groucho introduction, the contract scene, and the stateroom scene, and it has plenty of other nice one-liners and moments to sustain it. But I’m carrying on looking at the non-Marx Bros bits in Marx Bros movies.

Andrew Sarris is probably accurate when he writes, of the Bros, “They were a welcome relief not only from the badness of their own movies but also from the badness of most of the movies around them.” (But he’s dead wrong when he cites “Groucho’s bad habit of doing double and triple takes after every bon mot to give his audience a chance to laugh.” Groucho’s reactions to Chico’s inanities are simply part of the performance of the scenes, and are funny in themselves. Groucho is crtainly never surprised by his own jokes.)

So, on to the badness. Zeppo is gone, to be replaced by Allan Jones, whose singing has, I suppose, some plot significance but which I can take or leave alone, with a preference for the latter. He does have the admirable ability of seeming to disappear entirely during the comedy scenes, despite occupying equal screen space to, say, Harpo. Where Harpo has presence, Jones has absence, his finest quality. He doesn’t get in the way except when required to hold up a scene. And when he holds up a scene, boy does he hold it up. “Can we please get on?” is the cry.

vlcsnap-2016-04-22-18h07m54s160

Jones is paired with Kitty Carlisle, who sang about marijuana in MURDER AT THE VANITIES the year before, but always insisted she thought it was a girl’s name. The harshest thing I can say about her is that’s probably the truth. She is fetching, but unfortunately the one she usually fetches is Allan Jones.

The fact that both of these leaden leads are credited above Margaret Dumont is tantamount to a war crime, but Dumont’s treatment is otherwise flawed anyway. After scene one, she is never charmed by Groucho. To have Margaret realize once and for all that Groucho is a moth-eaten scam artist is to deprive us of the central joke of Margaret Dumont in Marx Bros movies, her very foundation. So although she’s great in her first scene, and great throughout, after the opening she has a lot less to work with.

vlcsnap-2016-04-22-18h08m46s169

There’s always Sig Rumann, that great schnook, here playing a Groucho love rival, so he’s a stooge who thinks he’s a smart guy — ripe for destruction. I could probably have used more mistreatment of the bearded one, though maybe less of him jiggling about in his undergarments. (When I was a child and saw drawings of men in their long johns in Disney comics, I always thought they were naked and just abnormally pallid and strangely genderless, like Action Man figurines. But Rumann has junk moving about, visibly. If the fledgling Hays Office can’t protect us from the outline of Sig Rumann’s swaying scrotum, what is the point of having them?)

vlcsnap-2016-04-22-18h07m45s78

Speaking of beards, other figures falling prey to the Bros are the World’s Greatest Aviators, described by Groucho as either “three men with beards or one man with three beards.” They are treated unkindly. “World’s greatest aviators but you notice they’re traveling by sea,” remarks Groucho, before they are bound, gagged, shaved, and their beards absconded with, never to be returned.

The World’s Greatest Aviators who, like Harpo, never speak, sadly did not go on to their own film series. A pity, since the actors are Jay Eaton, Leon White and Rolph Sedan, and “comedy team Eaton-White-Sedan”” has a nice ring to it.

I was on the point of taking the scene where the Bros go all Black Lodge and speak a gibberish language which is actually English in reverse, and re-reversing it to find out what they’re really saying, when I realised of course that somebody would already have done this, and of course they have —

Good bit with Robert Emmett O’Connor, the cop — the Bros (and Allan Jones, I think) keep moving from room to room and back again to escape him unseen, and each time they move some furniture with them. The not preternaturally bright policeman struggles to understand what’s going on. Like David Bowie during his Berlin period, living on red peppers and cocaine and imagining the furniture moving about the room when he’s not looking, or like the hero of Guy de Maupassant’s paranoiac comedy horror story Who Knows?, O’Connor is driven to distraction by this to-him-inexplicable phenomenon. While the film has its fair share of MGM-imposed moralism, it’s reassuring to see that making a cop think he’s coming down with dementia praecox is still viewed as an inarguable social virtue.

vlcsnap-2016-04-14-00h01m29s57

Sam Wood directs, pinned between Thalberg on one side and the Marxs on the other, which must be like playing superego to HAL 9000 and the Tasmanian Devil. His work here and in A DAY AT THE RACES has none of the fluidity he could bring to a film under less fraught conditions, and with William Cameron Menzies helping out. Horrific wingnut, yes, “But what a genius!”

Walter King as Lasspari the singer is another of the Marxes’ more charmless opponents, introdued flogging Harpo, Playing Harpo as a cute disabled waif is just wrong (see LOVE HAPPY for sentiment run amuck), and the weirdness is amplified when Kitty Carlisle’s objections to this brutality are supposed to establish her as sympathetic. But then Harpo is summoned back into Lasspari’s dressing room and the sounds of whipping continue, and Kitty can’t be bothered making any objection. She’s set up as self-centered and cowardly instead of righteous and noble. I have a good idea for improving her boring first scene with Jones — keep playing the sound of Harpo getting his hide flayed off in the background. It definitely improves things.

vlcsnap-2016-04-22-18h10m12s236

 

Everything But the Boys

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h32m26s227

The five Marx Bros: Dicko, Flappo, Groucho, Bono and Beardo.

Continuing what may be a series looking at the non-Marx Bros elements in Marx Bros films. A project which may be on a par with the “definitive cinematic study of Gummo Marx” spoken of in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES.

If ANIMAL CRACKERS shows some potentially strong collaborators not quite at their best (Lillian Roth at sea, Margaret Dumont slightly too amused), by the time of A DAY AT THE RACES everything is a lot more polished — maybe too polished. Thalberg threw quality trimmings at the Bros, as if to submerge them, and the results are somtimes jarring. Harpo and Chico (and formerly Zeppo) supplied their own musical interludes, which vary the pace more than I’d like already — the addition of big song and dance numbers not featuring any of the main characters (I refuse to consider Allan Jones a main character) has a serious drag effect.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h37m19s35

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h37m23s88

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h39m02s43

Still, Margaret Dumont is by now in her pomp. In ANIMAL CRACKERS she was my age, and was starting to seem worryingly sexy to me. Here, she’s a bit older and again appears a genderless dowager cutout. She’s standing on her dignity more, when not swept off her feet, and more plausibly suggests Groucho’s characterisation of her an an innocent who didn’t understand his jokes. That’s the character, mind you — we have to accept by now that Groucho was greatly exaggerating. The woman had been in comedy for years.

Mrs. Upjohn is an essentially decent person, only a hypochondriac and apt to throw her weight around. Her most unsympathetic qualities are (a) she likes the water ballet and (b) she offers money to support Maureen O’Sullivan’s sanitorium but does not immediately dosh it out. This is one reason we dislike rich people, isn’t it? They COULD give us lots of money, but choose not to.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h49m39s32

O’Sullivan scores points by sulking through the water ballet. Audience identification is complete.

As a cause to strive for, this sanitorium is a dim proposition, mind you. We never see any of the good work it presumably does, and O’Sullivan hires a horse doctor as chief of staff without checking his credentials. I think we’re supposed to care just because Maureen is so damned attractive, and also because she’s being bullied by businessman Douglas Dumbrille and her own business manager, Leonard Ceeley. Both actors are instantly hateful — did they ever play nice guys? Ceeley seems charmless even for a heavy, but comes into his own wonderfully when tormented by Groucho over the telephone. This man does apoplexy on an international level.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h36m43s207

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h35m54s201

Who else? Ah, Sig Rrrrumann, rrrolling his rrrrs and eyes, pointing his beard with deadly pinpoint accuracy. With Dumont and Rumann sharing the screen, the movie packs more stoogepower than a Republican debate. If the MGM patina of moralism and sentiment deceives us into worrying about who’s in the right, we’d be forced to conclude that Rumann is the film’s hero, campaigning for medical standards like Will Smith in CONCUSSION. No such thing. He is a legitimate target for Groucho, since (a) he’s a stuffed shirt and (b) what his shirt is stuffed with is finest-grade Sig Rumann. I think it’s genetic.

A lot of outrage has been expended over the big musical number with the black folks, which is indeed somewhat patronizing, but only becomes downright insulting when the boys smear axle grease on their faces to merge with the crowd (apart from Harpo, who disguises himself as an inhabitant of Cheron, the Frank Gorshin planet in Star Trek). On a more positive note, the sequence features some great singing and dancing talent, and there’s a teenage Dorothy Dandridge as an extra, somewhere in the throng of happy ethnic stereotypes.

vlcsnap-2016-03-11-08h10m59s123

Wingnut Sam Wood directs, probably the most skilled filmmaker to get his hands on a Marx Bros film since Leo McCarey, and he produces much slicker results. It’s kind of startling to see Groucho look, and then get a cut to what he’s looking at. Unlike ANIMAL CRACKERS, where we peer into a proscenium arch throughout, here the action is photographed from the inside, as Hitchcock would say. Whether the Marxes need or even benefit from this cinematic value is questionable.

The most tiresome aspect of MGM’s high-gloss approach, apart from the diversionary set-pieces, is the need to tie the boys to some noble cause. Groucho has to enlist out of some kind of innate nobility, and his relations with O’Sullivan have to be portrayed as chivalrous. This is all wrong, terribly wrong. ANIMAL CRACKERS had the sense to keep Groucho from interacting with the sympathetic characters at all, because all he could do in character would be abuse them. By surrounding him with stuffed shirts and stooges, the Paramount films gave him free rein to be himself. Buster Keaton departed MGM telling Louis B. Mayer, “You warped my character.” Though the damage is less, the charge is true here also.

 

William Cameron Menzies is out of his mind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2010 by dcairns

…in a nice way, of course.

It’s easy to see why, in the face of all the evidence, people always assumed INVADERS FROM MARS was shot in 3D. Menzies’ particular way with deep focus and forced-perspective sets, coupled with extreme angles and discombobulating editing, make his films seem like 3D extravaganzas even when they’re not. Or rather, like 3D extravaganzas viewed under the influence of certain psychoactive  mushrooms.

(WCM did make a proper 3D film, the Scottish-set monsterpiece THE MAZE, whose plot synopsis, were I to attempt writing one, would surely melt your minds and cause them to flow down the backs of your necks. So I won’t do it, OK?)

ADDRESS UNKNOWN is a striking bit of wartime agit-prop, with an epistolary narrative that seems designed to defeat dramatization. But Menzies, unperturbed, just spews deep, off-kilter compositions all over the screen and makes us like it. Every minute or so there’s another “WOW” moment, and sometimes they follow directly on top of each other until you feel like tiny bombs are detonating in your frontal lobes.

It’s PVE!

Against all this, Paul Lukas and Peter Van Eyck both do pretty well at holding the eye where it belongs, when our natural response is often to go skittering off around the edges of the frame, looking for rational angles. Lukas, a really terrific actor, is especially fine, humanizing a monstrous character without asking for sympathy. His is a bad guy activated by weakness rather than malice, but weakness is next door to wickedness in the dyslexic dictionary of vice.

A real 3D moment, as Nazis come bursting through the screen at us!

I’m thinking that I’ve overestimated Sam Wood as director, because his terrific IVY, produced and designed by Menzies, bears all the visual hallmarks of this film, and none of Wood’s other work (apart from those Menzies designed). Still, Wood did have good taste in scripts, and maybe more interest in performance than WCM.

This piece might have been longer, but as I was taking my time with it, David Bordwell posted an awesome essay/history/appreciation of The Great Man. I’m thrilled to be a footnote in it, referencing my review of IVY. I’d urge you all to read it, and of course bookmark DB’s astounding blog if you somehow haven’t already.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 721 other followers