Archive for Samuel Hoffenstein

The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2013 by dcairns

No sooner had I finished turning one of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary intertitles into an actual graphic, than I stumble upon another story with an intertitle in it, this time PG Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings (a Blandings novel). The relevant bit goes —

If she had appeared, looking as she was looking now, in one of the old silent films, there would have flashed on the screen some such caption as:

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The missing comma that makes the second sentence read very awkwardly, is of course deliberate satire. It’s 1952 and he’s making fun of silent movie title writers. One of the remarkable things about Wodehouse is that his failure, or refusal, to move with the times does not harm his work, or hardly at all. No doubt facilitated by the fact that he never returned to England after WWII, he went on writing a world that never advanced socially from the 1930s, and indeed has much of the early 1900s about it. But because his particular comic universe simply had to be insulated from the darker things in life anyway (other comics thrive on darkness: Wodehouse can only use the tiniest grain of it), this time-capsule effect isn’t a problem at all, except when some glancing reference to modern events creeps in. When Roderick Spode, Wodehouse’s devastating parody of fascist Oswald Mosely, returns in the very last Jeeves & Wooster book, there’s some mental confusion created in the reader about when this is all happening — it can’t be 1974, when the book was published, but when is it? Spode has given up on fascism some time back, it seems, but WWII is not mentioned — it simply couldn’t be (WWII was a painful subject for poor Plum).

Wodehouse engaged with the cinema quite a bit, or tried to, but apart from the excellent A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, co-scripted by him from one of his own books, little of his work has really succeeded on the screen. This is odd, since filmmakers have been trying since 1915. Wodehouse had success on the stage; his dialogue is exquisite, if protracted (Hollywood tried to get him to cut it down, which rather ruins the effect, since circumlocution and repetition are such major tools in his comic armoury); his plots are ingenious; and he had a handy sideline as lyricist, though the movies didn’t exploit that much either, apart from the sublime song Bill appearing in all three versions of SHOWBOAT.

Piccadilly Jim, Wodehouse’s first big bestseller, was first adapted in 1919, and again in 2005. I had a look at the 1936 version. It keeps the characters and throws out the whole story. Well, arguably the story is a bit too convoluted, and has some tricky backstory coming in from a previous novel. Charles Brackett had a hand in the new plot, and dialogue is courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein (of the very mildly Wodehouseian country house comedy CLUNY BROWN) and Lynn Starling (ditto HE MARRIED HIS WIFE). Robert Montgomery and Frank Morgan are well cast.

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So why does it seem so strained and unfunny? Precisely the quality that a Wodehouse piece has got to not have. I think it’s because they’re trying to write funny dialogue for the characters. Witty dialogue. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of Wodehouse, whose characters are rarely witty on purpose. Like the best comic characters, they’re funny in spite of themselves, just by being so openly and helplessly themselves. When the Jim of the novel asks for a job, he doesn’t get laughs intentionally, but by stressing how he really doesn’t mind what he does as long as it isn’t work. Work would be a waste of his talents. But he’s sunnily certain he’ll be a great success in any position which doesn’t require him to exert himself.

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Glancing through Between Flops, James Curtis’s biography of Preston Sturges, I was pleased to find Sturges, in a letter, expressing supreme admiration for Wodehouse. And it occurred to me that THE PALM BEACH STORY is a Wodehouse type of story, filtered through the brasher Sturges sensibility. It’s a comedy about the deserving poor trying to get into the pockets of the frivolous rich, by various impostures and lies.

Then I read Wodehouse’s Uncle Dynamite (Uncle Fred may be mu favourite Wodehouse character: too bad he’s in so few stories), and it seemed to me that the influence worked both ways. The novel, written in 1948, opens with a young man on a train being embarrassed by an impromptu welcoming committee waiting for him at the platform — a situation Sturges introduced in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And the young man is just back from a trip up the Amazon, like Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE.

Did Wodehouse borrow lightly from Sturges on this occasion? It would be nice to think so, and certainly Sturges would have been flattered.

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The Oblong Box Set

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN,  and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

Frank’s Wilderness Years

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by dcairns

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In a fit of perversity I reached for my old, unwatched VHS tape of HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, which is ironically one of the very few Frank Borzage films you can buy in the U.K. on DVD (blame the Deanna Durbin Box Set for this one’s availability). I thought I might like to try a very minor F.B. film since I was in danger of overdosing on masterpieces. LIVING ON VELVET and THE MORTAL STORM and MAN’S CASTLE and A FAREWELL TO ARMS are quite rich, quite emotional, and to some extent aim for the same kinds of sublimity and ecstasy, and the last thing I wanted was to burn out. This one seemed like a total change of pace.

I also wanted to see something from the years before MOONRISE but after Borzage’s peak period (usually given as late ’20s to very early ’40s), when he was also supposed to be combatting a drinking problem, and when he seems to have been assigned a few atypical projects that may not have been perfectly suited to his talents. This light musical comedy might be one of them.

It also has a weirdly duff title, a phrase that makes my head throb dully as I scan it for any implied drama or humour or promise of entertainment. Why would you call a film HIS BUTLER’S SISTER? If you would, then why not follow it with HER PODIATRIST’S COUSIN or THEIR MILKMAN’S FATHER-IN-LAW? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking something that isn’t interesting, and then placing it at two removes so you can’t quite get it in focus. I mean, Deanna Durbin actually plays a singer: that’s quite interesting, or at least lots of people in the ’40s thought it was. But we pass over that in this wretched title, focussing instead on her status as a sibling. OK, so she has a brother. And he’s a butler, you say? Well, I don’t see what business that is of mine, but I’m willing to accept your word for it. And then the addition of HIS, adding to the whole rigmarole a third character about whom we are to know nothing except that he has a butler who has a sister. WHY???

The only way I can think of to further disimprove this title would be either to add a third layer of character filtration, as in HIS BUTLER’S SISTER’S SCHNAUSER, or to just give up and call it HIS BUTLER’S QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

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But, as the credits role, hope springs! Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein (Google his credits and goggle in awe) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (far fewer amazing titles, but she collaborated with the Hoff on CLUNY BROWN, a favourite here at the Shadowplayhouse). Then we get an amusing novelty number, sung and danced at Franchot Tone in a train corridor. Franchot is a songwriter who’s sick of amateurs pitching their numbers at him. He’s also a broadway producer or something, on his way to Cleveland (?), and Deanna Durbin is a young hopeful bound for New York and HERE SHE COMES —

Borzage follows her back through two entire carriages, preparatory to the big reveal of her face, and WOW she’s at her absolute peak of beauty. I’m not, despite my celebration of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, a special Durbinite (my maternal grandmother loved her films though), finding her usual stuff a bit maybe saccharine, but she has enormous charm and this movie seems to be the one that captures her beauty just as she had left childhood behind. Oh boy, now I’m going to Google her and learn she was 14 and I’ll look like a pervert. No, we’re OK, she’s 22.

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Anyway the film is light and nice, although the writers perhaps need the Lubitsch touch to hit the heights, and the plot depends heavily on coincidence. Then there’s the menfolk. Pat O’Brien? Why not just fill a burlap sack with gravel and point a camera at that? And Franchot Tone? I have a sort of affection for him based on his playing a daffy psycho in PHANTOM LADY, which is a gloriously comic-book noir that captures some of the unreality of Cornell Wollrich’s novel. But Tone is a strange choice to pair with Durbin: don’t we want somebody a little more innocuous? Still, it’s a relief he makes it through the movie without having his head kicked in (this was always happening to Tone in real life: one episode of The Twilight Zone that he stars in shows him perpetually in profile, like Dick Tracy, because the more distant side of his face looked like the Somme). 

But Deanna’s introductory shot, which smacks of THE NARROW MARGIN only nine years earlier, is enough to convince me that Borzage’s rumoured drinking problem didn’t stop him coming up with bold and beautiful visual stratagems. I’m now inclined to believe that absolutely everything he’s made deserves full investigation. STAGE DOOR CANTEEN beckons…