Archive for Samuel Goldwyn

The Sunday Intertitle: The Curse of “What Drink Did”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by dcairns

IF YOU WATCH THIS FILM, YOU WILL DIE!

“A thoughtful moral lesson.”

A lot of nonsense is talked about “The Curse of THE EXORCIST” or “The Curse of SUPERMAN”, proving generally that you can make any series of unfortunate coincidences look sinister. But here’s a movie tale surely no skeptic can gainsay. Of all those who worked on D.W. Griffith’s 1909 morality play, WHAT DRINK DID, not a single one survives…

Griffith himself died in 1948, a mere 39 years after helming this film, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just seventy-three years old. Star Florence Lawrence committed suicide in 1938, no longer buoyed up by her amusing stage name. The film’s lead drunkard, David Miles was dead just six years after completing his role, under mysterious circumstances which even the internet Movie Database has been unable to uncover. Some might find this suspicious. I do.

Child star Gladys Egan, AKA “Little Gladys,” perished in 1997, her career long over — nobody thought to offer adorable moppet roles to a ninety-one-year-old. Way down the cast, we find Mary Pickford, who went on to become “America’s Sweetheart,” one of the greatest box-office sensations of the age and a founding member of United Artists, but even that could not save her — she died in 1979, aged 87, eerily enough, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Her body was buried and her house was demolished.

Another bit player, Mack Sennett, became a famed producer of slapstick comedies at the Keystone company and received an honorary Oscar, only to die at the comparatively youthful age of eighty.

More sinisterly still, bartender John R Cumpson was slain by diabetes and pneumonia in 1914, just five years after his role in this blighted picture, and another of the movie’s bartenders, Arthur V. Johnson, succumbed to tuberculosis just two years later. extra Flora Finch fell prey to a streptococcus infection in 1940, and “workman” Owen Moore had a fatal heart attack the previous year.

Coincidence? I think not.

You may smile (“I think they’re smiling, Gary”), but do you have the courage to watch the film? I tell you, this curse is attached not just to the poor doomed cast and crew, but also to the audience. Everyone who watches this film will die.

Eventually.

“Mr Goldwyn, I hate to tell you, but of all the people who ever lived on this earth, not one of them ever had a happy ending.” Dorothy Parker.

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Congruence #1

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2009 by dcairns

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Congruence — what an ugly word! The above images conclude Buster Keaton’s COLLEGE (credited to James W Horne, but we know better). Not the first time Keaton ended a comedy with a gravestone — the marker inscribed “Buster” at the end of COPS is the best-known example, and inspired my own CRY FOR BOBO’s clown funeral scene.

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The ending of John Boorman’s much-maligned dystopian wankathon ZARDOZ. Note ~

1) The first child, posture, expression and position in frame = comedy gold.

2) Framing, in its formality and flatness, is even more Keaton-like than the Keaton.

3) Extremely funny bad OAP makeup, especially on la Rampling.

4) Friendly skeletons. “The grave’s a fine and noble place / But none I think do there embrace.”

Both the Boorman jockstrap-and-bandolier epic, and Buster Keaton’s minor-league but still-spectacular flap shoe romance, are the only two films I can think of, off the top of my head (the only part of it I can access without cranial surgery) that end quite this way, on a cheery fast-forward to senescence and death. Seeming to give the lie to the concept of the happy ending. As Dorothy Parker told Sam Goldwyn ~

“Sam, I hate to tell you this, but of all the people who have ever lived in the history of the human race, not one of them ever had a happy ending.”

Great exit line.

Goldwyn: “What the hell did she mean by that?”

Turning it on its head, maybe we could retrieve the happy ending by endorsing Val Lewton’s note to the front office, when they had warned him against “message movies” as he prepared to make ISLE OF THE DEAD ~

“I’m sorry to say that our picture does have a message, and that message is: Death is Good.”

Anyhow, I don’t think influence is at work here. I’ve never heard Boorman talk about Keaton. And the fact that, incredibly, both men made films called THE GENERAL seems more to indicate a lack of appreciation by Boorman rather than a desire to pay homage.

Interested parties can do me some good by buying these products here, if you’re UK:

Zardoz [DVD] [1974]

Buster Keaton – College / Steamboat Bill Jr. / Three Ages [DVD] [1927]

And here, if you’re USA:

Zardoz

The Art of Buster Keaton (The General / Sherlock, Jr. / Our Hospitality / The Navigator / Steamboat Bill Jr. / College / Three Ages / Battling Butler / Go West / The Saphead / Seven Chances / 21 Short Films)

I came, I saw, I got it

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2009 by dcairns

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COME AND GET IT, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler, begins with a dinner-bell ringing over the main title. I admired its obviousness. When, as the second line of the film, a kitchen boy cries, “Come and get it!”, my admiration increased. A couple of scenes later, espousing his philosophy of TAKE-TAKE-TAKE, aspiring oligarch Edward Arnold says, “Who’s going to pass up a million bucks just lying on the ground saying ‘Come and get it!'” I knew I was in the company of a film that would spare no effort to ram its points home. This extended to the way the world of the film sometimes seems to contain just the one song, “Alma Lee”, which is sung automatically whenever anybody suggests a bit of music, or whenever Frances Farmer shows up, or whenever Edward Arnold thinks about Frances Farmer.

For the third auteur of COME AND GET IT (maybe the second, since Wyler took the job under protest, and concentrated on following orders in a workmanlike manner) is Sam Goldwyn, and for some reason when a producer takes creative charge of a project, the obviousometer rises until the needle is in the red, swinging back and forth and bludgeoning the viewer with every plot point.

The story goes that Hawks departed from the script prepared, a faithful rendition of Edna Ferber’s tale of rampant capitalism, concealing this from producer Goldwyn, who was ill abed with an infected gall bladder. When the boss was well enough to view rushes, he flipped, firing Hawks, and calling in Wyler. Wyler refused the job and Golwyn flipped further, becoming so hysterical that his wife rushed into the room and set about his legs with a fly-swatter, hoping to calm him. (This gives us a charming insight into life with the Goldwyns, I feel.) Deciding that if he valued his career he’d better show willing for once, Wyler agreed to take the job. Nobody seems to know how much of the finished film is Hawks and how much Wyler.

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THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE II.

Certainly the opening half-hour feels like Wyler, with Arnold as Barney Glasgow, a macho tough guy like Victor McLaglan in A GIRL IN EVERY PORT, only more driven and ambitious, like John Wayne in RED RIVER. To Hawks, this kind of ruthless go-getter is essentially positive, although he may need to have his egocentrism tempered by calmer friends. Arnold’s best pal, Walter Brennan, is the same Walter Brennan you always get in a Hawks film, only here he has a yumping Yimminy Swedish accent (he actually does say “Yumping Yimminy” at one point).

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, the infamous Snowflake actually turns up as a train porter, and is referred to as “Snowflake” by Arnold. Well, if you can’t have any lines, at least getting referred to by name by the star is something, I guess. It’s weird because I was just discussing Snowflake with Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, and he’s kindly passed on some Snowflake research he’d done, which will form the basis of an upcoming post.

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Snowflake (far right) does his thing.

The early scenes of logging feel very Hawksian — manly men and tough women, engaging in dangerous work without complaint, drinking and fighting and singing and loving. In fact, the spectacular logging scenes are the work of the second unit, and constitute the best stuff in the picture. While the score is playing sweeping romance and adventure, we get image after image of death-defying lumberjacks dynamiting colossal frozen stacks of logs into the river — Wisconsin is being massively despoiled before our eyes, but Goldwyn’s composer doesn’t seem aware of it, even though one of the things Goldwyn was mad at Hawks for was his neglect of the novel’s environmental theme.

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Once Arnold is rich, and we jump forward twenty years so that the first Frances Farmer (saloon-singing floozy with a heart of gold) is dead, and her daughter (sweet but scheming) is grown up, the film enters a more civilized phase, and Hawksian echoes become harder to detect. This oddly-inflected shot of Frances Jnr ironing seems more like the work of Wyler, but a Wyler who is struggling to engage with the material. His habit of cutting straight down the line from master shot to medium shot is in evidence, so it does seem like the first 40 minutes are mainly Hawks and the last hour mainly Wyler/Goldwyn.

(Goldwyn’s “perfectionism” has strange, arbitrary limits — when Brennan’s niece, a waitress, serves Arnold in a hotel, we cut to a shot excluding her, and Arnold remarks, “She’s a nice girl.” Since as far as the audience knows, she’s still standing right in front of him, this seems weird behaviour. In fact, she’s left. I can’t imagine a blunder like this in either a Hawks or a Wyler movie.)

“Come and get it!” cries Arnold, inviting his friends to lunch in the dining car. He’s taking his old logging chum Brennan back to Chicago, mainly so he can keep the young Farmer around. Smitten with the first Farmer, whom he passed up in favour of a rich society wife, he’s equally smitten with the younger, and she’s prepared to exploit the married older man’s affection in order to get ahead. It’s not certain if Hawks could have found sympathy for Farmer’s character here, and he was notoriously loathe to deal with characters he didn’t like, so this may have been the part where he started messing with the plot.

In fact, the key to her character is that while she realises at once that Arnold finds her attractive, she does NOT realise that it’s because of his suppressed love for her late mother. Not knowing of the earlier affair, she has no way of suspecting this, so she doesn’t realise how emotionally vulnerable the old fellow is.

“You have a paper cup and my daughter wants to marry you.”

In Chicago, where Arnold has an opulent office that throbs with the ERASERHEAD-like thrum of industry, sounding like Arnold’s heart trying to explode, there is Arnold’s family, including his son, Joel McCrea. In another irony (this film is choked with them), the more environmentally-minded son’s big idea for the family business is, wait for it, paper cups. McCrea has a thankless role, though not as embarrassing as his part in BARBARY COAST, the other Wyler-Hawks-Goldwyn mash-up. (BARBARY COAST is a near-classic, though, thanks to Miriam Hopkins, Edward G Robinson and Walter Brennan — as a portrait of a wild and lawless land, it’s like the film GANGS OF NEW YORK could have been if it had a plot worth caring about. SATYRICON is the film GANGS could have been if Scorsese had been allowed to dispense with plot altogether.)

“You know, the more I think about that paper cup of yours, the better I like it!”

McCrea is soon smitten with Farmer, leading to the undignified sight of father and son sparring for the girl’s affections. It’s pretty obvious that Hollywood morality will prevail, with the soap opera resolved happily for the youngsters, perhaps less so for Arnold, and any pro-environment or anti-capitalist message swept discretely under the rug. THERE WILL BE BLOOD this ain’t.

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Arnold’s daughter (the lovely Andrea Leeds from STAGE DOOR), with whom he also has an oddly flirtatious relationship, come to think of it, gets a subplot of her own, adding to the film’s sense of fragmentation, although at least her story reflects on Arnold’s — like him, she has to choose between a socially advantageous marriage and true love. And impressively, she tells Arnold that if she’s forced to marry the rich schnook, she’ll cheat on him. (it’s 1936 and the Production Code rules supreme, so this is a surprising statement.)

What seems likely is that Hawks realised that the first part of the story made excellent material for him, but the later developments had no appeal, either for him or the audience — since Hawks had what moguls like Goldwyn always liked to imagine they had, a genuine visceral sense of what the public wanted. And since Hawks, like a few of those moguls, notably Zanuck, had a writer’s appreciation of story and character, that sense was actually grounded in craft.

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Wyler, who had just made a great film (DODSWORTH) about the emotional travails of a successful capitalist, was now forced to participate in a mostly mediocre one. I don’t blame him for any of the film’s weakness. All he can do, without having been involved in casting or choosing of costumes or setting up the script, and evidently feeling no affinity for the material, is work on the visual values, so the film becomes more pictorial, and Frances Farmer gets some beautiful closeups with her lace hat shading her face. Although moments later, there’s a nicely dramatic composition as Arnold catches his son with his prospective mistress.

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This is followed by another, and then another, as if Wyler was putting all he could into at least making the ending play like something you might want to see. It’s vintage W.W., big, emphatic and architectural shots that express oceans of dramatic tension and barely-suppressed violence. Then Arnold’s wife (the same one from EASY LIVING) talks sense into him, and we get A SHOT TOO FAR, this rather amusing fake deep-focus effect, where a gigantic triangle vibrates in the foreground as Arnold pretends to strike it from four feet away.

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“Come and get it!”