Archive for Sid James

“I was walking in the woods near my home and… I found an ear.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2018 by dcairns

When Jim Dale shows up at the local police station with a stray finger, we felt that maybe CARRY ON SCREAMING! had influenced BLUE VELVET. When Harry H. Corbett discovers an ear in the woods, we were MORALLY CERTAIN. (Lynch always portrays himself as someone not particularly influenced by other moviemakers, but LOOK!)We watched SCREAMING! and CLEO as a double feature with our friend Marvelous Mary to see if we could decide which is best. I don’t think there are any other realistic candidates in the series. CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER is disqualified not so much for racism as for having Roy Castle in it. The early, more solid films (SERGEANT and NURSE) aren’t typical enough to count — they’re still trying to be proper films. But SCREAMING and CLEO are very enjoyable IMproper films.

SCREAMING! might just have the edge. All the main actors are favourites, and they’re all well cast and very good. But maybe a comparison of casts would be productive –Harry H. Corbett VS Sid James. Corbett plays police sergeant Sidney Bung in SCREAMING!, a role clearly intended for series regular Sid James, who plays Marc Antony in CLEO. Both are real actors, more than capable of strong dramatic work, but who got typecast in low comedy. This is Corbett’s only Carry On and he’s magnificent. I couldn’t grab frames of him without cracking up all over again. Maybe it’s the residual tragi-comic aura of Steptoe and Son, but I feel he’s more sympathetic than James would have been. James was no underdog. Corbett is trapped in a hellish marriage with shrew Joan Sims, and though they’re fairly evenly matched at making one another miserable, Corbett has more of a hangdog, loser air, which helps with a character who’s pretty obnoxious in many ways.Double-bill this with DEATH LINE, because both Corbett and Donald Pleasence nail an aspect of the British copper in a really bang-to-rights way: the sarcasm, the one-upmanship, the desire to infuriate and humiliate the suspect/witness/have-a-go-hero. I’m not saying this is what all Brit cops do. But doing a job in which you have to deal with criminal idiots much of the time clearly takes a toll.James in CLEO plays one of his rare out-and-out villains, though the movie regards him warmly and gives him an ahistorical happy ending, splashing into a milk bath with Cleo. It’s also a relatively rare case of him not playing a character called Sid, perhaps a legacy of his Hancock TV fame, where the leads used their own names and cemented their comic personae. So that Sid is always a loveable cockney (from South Africa) even when he’s playing a scheming, murderous traitor. (The funniest thing about that is the way Williams, whenever he hears Marc Antony is coming, cries, “Oh, my friend!”) Plus, Sid in Roman attire is just an amusing sight. I don’t think the real Marc A. would have been much like Sid, but there must have been plenty of Roman soldiers who were.

Joan Sims in CLEO plays a nagging wife to Caesar exactly like the one she plays in SCREAMING!, and for good measure the film has Sheila Hancock playing an identical henpecker to Kenneth Connor.I really like this rodental snarl Joan fleetingly produces, almost like she’s going to make a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sucking noise. The extremely small, cheap set — we see two walls with oppressive wallpaper, no window, and a corner of stair through the door — adds to the sense of an inescapable domestic hell. Nearly all Joan’s scenes prior to the ending show her in bed, so the claustrophobia becomes part of her characterisation.Jim Dale plays a well-meaning berk in SCREAMING! with some good physical comedy, but is something of a swashbuckling hero in CLEO. At one point he slays four or five Roman assassins in true Errol Flynn manner and manages to make us forget he’s dressed a a vestal virgin. So SCREAMING! is a more rewarding part for his skills, but CLEO shows some more range. He’s the only actor who appears in both films and is still alive, though as he says, “At my age, don’t buy any green bananas.”

In SCREAMING!, both Corbett and Dale get slipped a Mr. Hyde potion mickey, causing them to mutate and rampage. Their performances under the influence are amusingly similar: both go through many weird reactions, as if rendered hyper-alert: they cycle between horny, winsome, confused, ashamed, and they overreact to every stimulus. They basically, in fact, delivered amped-up versions of the typical Carry On performance. My friend Colin describes the essence of the series as being mostly very poor material being performed with wildly inappropriate enthusiasm. These guys can’t cross a room without at least trying to get a laugh.The late Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt in SCREAMING! is pretty evenly matched with Amanda Barrie as Cleo in CLEO. Each made only one other CARRY ON. Fiona covets Fenella’s red velvet dress, which she had to be sewn into. Barrie is funnier, perhaps, playing Cleo with the manner of a suburban hairdresser, and acting dumb to disguise a brain as functional as any are ever allowed to be in one of these movies. There’s a great bit where she’s reciting dialogue we’ve already heard in a prophetic vision, and she does it kind of by rote, as if she knows she’s already said it. That’s an AMAZING choice.Barrie is also much, much sexier than Liz Taylor.

But Fielding is like a kind of special effect, which is what a true Carry On star needs to be. Vampira figure, sexy skull face, big hair, and THAT VOICE, honeyed smoke.Kenneth Williams is one of the genuinely uncanny elements in SCREAMING! Chalk-white face and nostrils dilated like nacelles, vowels equally dilated. He was never required to exercise his natural ghoulishness elsewhere, except maybe the unpleasant surgical stuff in DOCTOR. In CLEO he’s just his usual twerp, maybe more benign than usual. He does get the greatest line (there aren’t many GOOD ones…) in a CARRY ON, the endlessly quoted “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got in fa me!” I tell you what’s less funny: his last words in the film are, “Oh what’s the use?” which were also the last words in his diary before he committed suicide.

(There’s been a whole TV subgenre, mainly on BBC4, of plays about beloved British comics who led troubled or miserable lives. The Carry Ons are largely to blame, because almost everyone in them had what seems like an unusually bleak life. But Williams is the sun from which all that misery radiates.)Peter Butterworth as Slobottom, the Watson to Bung’s Holmes, is magnificent. He nearly always played background types, and stole what moments he could (Richard Lester used him similarly: check out his textbook faffing as he struggles to removed an arrow from Richard Harris in ROBIN AND MARIAN). The only similar subordinate in CLEO is Victor Maddern, a believable and useful type, but not someone I ever feel like laughing in the presence of.Kenneth Connor in CLEO gets one of his better roles. Writer Talbot Rothwell appears to have appropriated his story arc not from any telling of the Cleopatra story, but from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, with Connor acquiring a heroic reputation based on another man’s accomplishment. I’m wondering if somebody had the idea that Connor could be a second Dudley Moore. But that job was taken. Connor is never less cute than when he thinks he’s cute, but he is certainly an enthusiastic farceur.Bernard Bresslaw makes a great zombie butler in SCREAMING! but is unaccountably absent from CLEO. Worth mentioning again that he was up for the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Would that have led to him playing Dracula, then Fu Manchu, then Scaramanga, then Saruman?

The burly henchman Sosages in that film, Tom Clegg, is great value as Australopithecine abductor Oddbod in SCREAMING! When I was a kid, the movie was not only hilarious, but also gave me everything I could want from a monster movie.Jon Pertwee gets two showy roles in these films, as a daffy Scottish police scientist and an Egyptian soothsayer. I’ll leave you to decide which film each character turns up in. He does a lot of face-pulling, tongue-protruding and random whistling and is very enjoyable, but somehow never seems quite in the same genre as the other actors.The only actor in the regrettable CARRY ON COLUMBUS who seemed to get it was Rick Mayall, who said that director Gerald Thomas told him to be the most exaggerated version of who he was as a comedian. And that’s exactly what you want from a Carry On performer. Pertwee was a man of many voices from the radio, and he’s in that mode here, but when he had to play a role that was his own persona, it turned out to be in Doctor Who as a Victorian space fop.

Still, the above image is one of many from this film that crack me up even as I edit it into this post.Charles Hawtrey, like Kenneth Williams, is a total special effect, a freak of cinema. He attempts to make Dan Dann, the lavatory man quite a dashing figure. It’s a one-scene cameo with no real jokes except TOILETS. Which is a good half the humour of Carry On. His more substantial part as Caesar’s smutty father-in–law Senecca (!) in CLEO lets him do more and be more strange (the classic Carry On panto of gay men playing dirty-minded straight men while still furiously signalling their queerness).

The stuff with Slobottom trying to, ahem, make contact with Dann in the gents is relatively near-the-knuckle for a Carry On. Because usually the panto fantasia they present is one in which gayness doesn’t really exist, but heterosexuality is lampooned by flamboyantly queer actors. (But this movie also has two dress shop managers who seem like they’re meant to be a couple.)

I keep forgetting how many Carry Ons Angela Douglas was in. She plays Doris Mann in SCREAMING! but spends most of the movie as a mannequin. But she’s able to make more of an impression than Julie Stevens in her underwritten role in CLEO.

Both films include bits for Michael Ward (camp), Norman Mitchell (fat) and Sally Douglas (girl).

Between them they also feature Captain Peacock, Alf Garnett, Vivian Darkbloom and Woodrow Wilson.

And some weird, choppy editing. They’re cut by different hands, but share a pacey style where scenes are chopped off the instant the last line is finished, and in the case of fades and dissolves, these often happen while someone’s still trying to get their last line out. They’re really “stepping on the laugh,” in some cases, as Jerry Lewis would say. My theory is that Gerald Thomas was a bit quick to say “cut.” Or else that he knew the films would collapse if we ever got a moment’s time to reflect on whether any given joke was worth laughing at.

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Own Ghoul

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2018 by dcairns

Starring Hengist Pod, the Rumpo Kid, Jill Masterson, Louis D’Ascoygne, Dr. Crippen, Emeric Belasco (pictured) and Budgie.

More Pat Jackson (if you’re nasty). I was impressed by the camera direction in WHAT A CARVE UP!, which is not, otherwise, a distinguished work. Let me explain.

The movie is kind of a remake of THE GHOUL, supposedly, later re-remade by Amicus, I believe. But the three films have little in common. In this one, cowardly proofreader Kenneth Connor is summoned to an Old Dark House in Yorkshire for the reading of an eccentric uncle’s will. Being a coward, he brings his flatmate Sid James along. Some brief intrigue is managed by bringing two Carry On film regulars into a spookshow populated by horror icons Michael Gough, Michael Gwynn (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, very funny here) and an unblinking Donald Pleasence. His character name is Everett Sloane, but this is not an in-joke, so far as I can see, just laziness. Murders ensue.

There are very few good jokes, but here is one. It’s so gloriously stupid it achieves a kind of glory.

The script is a pile of old tosh by Ray Cooney & Tony Hilton, who also wrote one or two serious thrillers like THE HAND around this time. Cooney, of course, is an unbelievably persistent and diabolical scourge on the British cinema: everything he touches would turn to shit except it already IS shit. He has some kind of reverse Midas touch, though, which allows him to turn shit into much, much worse shit. This is a unique gift to have, though not in any way a useful one… except in Britain, it seems, where it can get you a 58-year-and-counting screenwriting career. You also get to direct, because hey, how much worse can shit get? See NOT NOW, DARLING and find out.

I do honestly like the moose joke though. It’s the only good Cooney joke I know.

The early scenes showing Connor and James’ home life have a very Hancock feel, and I wonder if the movie were actually intended for the great Tony H.

Cooney & Hilton are, God knows, no Galton & Simpson (RIP), so I can easily imagine Hancock turning his nose up at this sub-CAT AND THE CANARY tosh. Sid James, of course, would say yes to anything, which is why we have BLESS THIS HOUSE: THE MOTION PICTURE. His eternal, dogged professionalism and scrotumnal fizzog carry us through the dross.

 

Connor is a perfectly OK supporting player but becomes irritating over the long haul of a leading role, and his vulnerability is undercut by the script, which makes everyone an asshole. The best perfs come from the straight actors — Pleasence plays it eerily still, Gough lopes crookedly, and Michael Gwynn is a delight, all pixilated stare and rigid arms, a man unable to awaken from a dream. Really eccentric, something you haven’t seen before in the world of acting. It is worth sitting through this muck for him, Esma Cannon, and the previously mentioned.

Then there’s Jackson’s choice of angles, which show an imagination and cheek not so evident in his other works. I get the feeling he’s taking the mickey, trying to liven up tired material, and he probably thought this kind of showmanship beneath him, normally. A shame, because if he’d gone all out on his other dramas, he might have built up a rep as a minor Hitchcockian.

Jack La Rue — Sexual Outlaw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2009 by dcairns

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Apart from being a pre-code smut-holocaust, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE is a quite weird adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (later adapted by Tony Richardson, disastrously according to received wisdom). Some American TV writer once said of that book, “Faulkner thought he was going to the limit by having his heroine screwed with a coke bottle. He didn’t know television.”

But the anonymous wag is wrong, imputing the coke bottle of Fatty Arbuckle legend to Faulkner’s antagonist, impotent hoodlum Popeye, who in actuality uses a corncob to rape Temple. Although I doubt that distinction would cut much ice with a jury.

In bowdlerizing the story for the screen (even pre-code Hollywood had its limits), screenwriter Oliver HP Garrett (awesome pre-code credits including A FAREWELL TO ARMS,  NIGHT NURSE and CITY STREETS) has dispensed with the impotence and the corncob because you can’t have one without the other and you certainly can’t have the other. As a result, Popeye is transmuted to Trigger, a highly sexed bandit who has no problems whatsoever in the downstairs department, other than keeping it in his pants. The whole first half of the film becomes a quasi-pornographic fantasy along the lines of THE SHEIK, with Temple Drake, embodied by a smouldering Miriam Hopkins, characterised as a brimming flagon of lust who becomes a slave to her own desire awakened by Trigger.

All this is, if anything, more offensive than Faulkner’s classified pulp nasty, because of what’s implied rather than stated, if we take it as in any way representing anybody’s views about male-female relations. Taken as fantasy, this kind of thing was obviously very popular with audiences of both sexes back then, and the idea of a sexual passion that overcomes all moral scruples is still one that exerts some fascination.

The film’s second half, with Temple killing Trigger, and then being faced with the dilemma of whether to clear an innocent man for one of Trigger’s killings, even though this will incriminate her in his death, is quite a compelling moral maze melodrama, although it’s even further from Faulkner’s book, which takes a considerably darker turn.

Anyhow, apart from the seething Miriam, and Stephen Roberts’ strikingly fluid and sinuous direction (the great Karl Struss is on camera), and the odd sight of William Gargan as a lawyer in very obvious lipstick, the movie’s main attraction is Jack La Rue as Trigger. With his ugly/handsome face and implacable macho arrogance, he comes across like a cross between Treat Williams and an erupting sperm volcano. He’s a pinstriped obscenity and he’s looking right at us.

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Fast-forward fifteen years or so and La Rue is BACK! The film is NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, a 1948 British flick that attracted unprecedented critical opprobrium (unmatched until PEEPING TOM, 11 years later) for daring to tell a low-class American pulp story in the UK. Ken Hughes’s JOE MACBETH somehow got away with this a few years further down the line, perhaps because it adds Shakespeare into the mix for that necessary touch of class.

Amusingly, the novel NO ORCHIDS is based on is by James Hadley Chase, a British bookseller whose real name was Rene Brabazon Raymond (!). Mimicking the snappy American dialogue he saw in movies, and cribbing from a dictionary of slang, Raymond/Chase turned out a string of sexy shockers which have proven popular with filmmakers — Patrice Chereau’s THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID with Charlotte Rampling, based on a quasi-sequel to No Orchids, is probably the finest adaptation.

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New York, England.

While the Raymond/Chase transatlantic literary drag act excited little critical distaste, something about the first movie adaptation shocked our middle-class pundits to the core, as Brian McFarlane observes in Outrage: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, an essay appearing in the collection British Crime Cinema, published by Routledge. Something about the idea of a British production erasing its own national signifiers and doing its best to merge with the lower end of the Hollywood mainstream was deeply offensive to British sensibilities — and we didn’t have the model of the spaghetti westerns to point to as a defense, not that that would have helped, since that genrewas despised for decades too. 1948 was a rather good year for British cinema — perhaps our best ever, so the film’s blatant embrace of American noir style and content seemed particularly offensive.

The problem is surely as much to do with class as culture. When American films shoot in the UK, we’re grateful for the $, and generally try to claim some of the glory (cf the Film Council boasting of record box office for British films, and including the Harry Potter movies, produced by Warners). Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS was nominated for an award as Best British Film, despite being a French story, shot in Spain, by an ex-pat American director, with a mainly American cast, and the production being listed officially as Panamanian. Nobody protested, although Lester was a bit nonplussed. If Michael Powell had decided to shoot a film of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, recreating New York in the studios at Pinewood, as he had Tibet for BLACK NARCISSUS, it’s likely that the debate would have concentrated on whether the choice was artistically wise. But to film a trashy potboiler on these shores, with Dermot Walsh (a Scot) and Sid James (a South African) essaying Amurrican accents, was somehow beyond the pale.

Of course, the reviewers had to justify their outrage by claiming that the film was both shoddy (inferior to the American originals) and vile. The movie is actually decently made, although it lacks the sweaty intensity of TEMPLE DRAKE — Linden Travers is no Miriam Hopkins, and Jack La Rue at 46 is no Jack La Rue at 31. He looks OK, but his face has drooped, and his intensity has slumped from 11 to about 4. He’s more hangdog than horndog.

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As for vile, the film is pretty intense for 1948, with far more gratuitous violence than TEMPLE DRAKE, some of it quite protracted or explicit. The sex is mostly pan-to-the-fireplace stuff, although La Rue seems to place his big paw into the front of Travers’ dressing gown bathrobe at one point. But it’s probably the film’s attitudeto the transgressive stuff that caused the offense — and of course, since this was a faux-American film of a faux-American novel, a defense on the grounds of realism was unlikely to convince anyone.

Interestingly, writer-director St John Legh Clowes, in adapting the novel, has altered La Rue’s character, Slim Grisson, in much the same way Garrett changed Popeye to Trigger. Slim goes from being an impotent, mother-dominated loony nutjob to being a self-directed, sexually powerful alpha male. This time round the sex is consensual, since Slim is “too proud” to take a woman who doesn’t want him, but Blandish yields to his blandishments anyway. His behaviour towards her is rather gentlemanly, although he continues to murder everyone else in cold blood. What remains controversial is Blandish, a kidnapee, falling in love with her kidnapper, in what is presented as true love rather than Stockholm syndrome. 

At the film’s conclusion, the nice, normal people have managed to get Slim shot by the police and Blandish returned to her millionaire father, and they’re just congratulating each other on their virtue and effectiveness and normality normalcy and preparing to skip off into the sunset, when there’s a scream, and they rush into the Blandish boudoir. She’s gone out the window, unable to live without her bit of rough hunk.

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The defenestrated heiress lies dead on the pavementsidewalk twenty storeys down, with unfeeling pedestrians trampling the orchid lying by her outstretched hand. I can see the symbolism Clowes is aiming for here, but it’s actually pretty funny how every damn shoe manages to descend on the crushed plant. Apart from the inappropriate hilarity, what’s most striking is the slap in the face delivered to the healthy, happy-ending sexuality of the heroes — the film really is a celebration of the abnormal and anti-social. And that was an unheard-of thing for British movies in 1948… apart from in the morbid romanticism of Powell and Pressburger, of course.

Another film of NO ORCHIDS is Robert Aldrich’s ’70s remake THE GRISSOM GANG. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Grisson or Grissom is the name used in the original book. Kim Darby is a bland Blandish and Scott Wilson plays Grissom as the damaged creep of Chase’s novel, in a faithfully grubby and unpleasant version. Projectionists had to sterilise the light after it passed through the celluloid.