Archive for Sir Guy Standing

Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin —

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit —

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

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Broken Wings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Once in a while I see a movie I love that I hesitate to write about, for fear of just gushing away and not expressing anything. I feel nervous in approaching THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK for that reason.

The film is credited primarily to Stuart Walker (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) but there seems to be firm agreement that the real man at the helm was Mitchell Leisen: “I stuck Stuart in the sound booth again and he didn’t say a word through the whole picture,” says Leisen in David Chierichetti’s definitve study of his work, Hollywood Director. And Chierichetti is able to enlist Fredric March, the film’s star, to back this up.

This movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. Again the subject is WWI fliers, and here we actually deal with the war, as in WINGS, rather than its aftermath, as in THE LAST FLIGHT. There’s still plenty of drinking going on though. Saunders seems to have a unique handle on self-destructive behaviour among the biplane set — and he lived the life offscreen too.

But while THE LAST FLIGHT has an impressively varied range of antique acting styles which make it seem intriguingly like a film from another planet, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK features early work from notable screen stars working in a recognisably modern style. Fredric March is the titular eagle, a high-born American who enlists in the RAF for sport at the outbreak of war (the American Air Force didn’t manage to get a single plane in the air during WWI, but that didn’t stop lots of young Americans joining up overseas and getting their wings). Cary Grant is the hawk, a tough guy who rejects the fliers’ code of chivalry and fights war to win. His stance is unsympathetic in the movie, but it’s clear that he’s not exactly wrong, either: humanity is a tenuous proposition in wartime, chivalry an absurd, even grotesque one.

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Fiona wonders why nobody seems to talk about March these days. He’s like the male Miriam Hopkins.

The film interweaves two narratives, the first being March’s slow destruction, which basically lasts the length of the film. He starts off hale and hearty, with that very Fredric March ebullience that some people find hard to take. He give it his all, and he has a lot of all to give. But he’s slowly broken by the deaths of his colleagues, and of the men he shoots down. One of the striking things about the film, which goes way beyond traditional Hollywood anti-war posturing, is how it makes no distinction between the deaths of comrades and enemies. Each one diminishes March.

“You don’t drink enough,” advises comedy relief buddy Jack Oakie to his sodden friend. “I can’t drink enough,” replies March.

Parallel with this decline and fall is Cary Grant’s troubled relationship with March. It’s very much a love story, only Grant also hates March. His final act for his friend is both tender and protective, and a profound betrayal. I don’t want to give away too much here, which is another problem I have when I see an obscure film I love — steering people towards it without spoiling it.

IMDb commentators point out that Grant hasn’t quite found his style yet, but that’s beside the point. He’s found a style that perfectly suits this movie, and he’s lost the stiffness I see in BLONDE VENUS and his Mae West movies. His neck doesn’t seem like a rigid column of bone here, which is a relief. Despite the flying story, this isn’t even the Grant of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, it’s a whole different Grant, marking the precise spot where he became a fluent screen actor, but had not yet adopted the star persona he was to triumph with.

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Also in the cast is Carole Lombard, for about ten minutes. Censors cut the line “Your place or mine?” when the film was re-released during WWII, since the pre-code spice welcomed during the film’s first release had become verboten, and we also lost an entire post-coital moment, with March awakening to find a flower lying in the indentation of her pillow. Leisen welcomed the movie’s revival, although “I was sure I was going to be arrested,” since the film was so anti-war, but he didn’t realise until later that the studio had made further cuts to weaken the film’s message. It’s to be deplored that the original ending is now apparently lost, but I found that the film was still savagely and unambiguously anti-war, and carries its argument all the way to a surprisingly bleak conclusion. I can’t think of another film before the ’60s that goes as far as this one. It’s an even more negative view of warfare than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

Visually, the film is one of the darkest I’ve seen from this era, which suits the story well. Leisen filmed a long conversation between March and his commander (Sir Guy Standing, chummy yet distant) at dusk, allowing the actors to walk through pools of light into complete silhouette. Cary Grant plays some scenes smothered in shadow, only his forehead and nose looming from the night.

Fredric dreams:

Leisen is here really at the very outset of his directing career — officially, he’s not even a director yet — but he brings eloquent style to the story. This is something his critics miss — and there’s a homophobic subtext to Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe dismissing him as a set designer who made pictures –Leisen’s stylistic tropes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, they become the very essence of expressive film narrative. And Leisen always had a sharp interest in capturing reality: he just had the ability to hold it back when it didn’t suit the project. And if the script lacked dramatic values, Leisen would step into the breach and decorate with bravura flourishes, and people would point and say he was a shallow aesthete.

Leisen’s sexuality is certainly relevant to his work. Regular Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein talks about the distinction between Queer Cinema and older films made by queer directors, which are of necessity somewhat closeted, even when their makers were not. Leisen comes closer that most to blurring that line. In this film, not only are the young recruits astonishingly androgynous and beautiful, but death itself is eroticized in male form:

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After Stuart Walker basically stole the directing credit on this movie, Leisen retaliated by stealing Walker’s next two projects, one of which was DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, again with March. This got his directing career off to a strong start, but really it had already begun. Leisen’s career ran from his designing days in silent cinema (THIEF OF BAGDAD) to television work (The Twilight Zone) and yet its duration and its quality is not reflected in its reputation.

Everybody try and see this one, please. I’d place it in my alternative Shadowplay history of the cinema as a great film from the 30s that isn’t sufficiently appreciated. The Leisen rediscovery is moving forward slowly. Time also for a Saunders rediscovery (since writers don’t get enough credit in cinema).

Sir Guy Standing, standing.

Posted in FILM with tags , , on June 11, 2009 by dcairns

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Actor Sir Guy Standing, in the standing position, in Mitchell Leisen’s THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK.

More about this (sincerely) amazing film soon.