Archive for Sonnie Hale

You Just Can’t Get the Distaff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2021 by dcairns

GIRLS WILL BE BOYS (1934) is thematically much like FIRST A GIRL, but instead of Jessie Matthews disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, we have Dolly Haas dressed as a boy, then as a girl (causing certain parties to think she’s a boy dressed as a girl).

Dolly is delightful. As a boy she’s like a prancing monkey, and her German accent runs wild, drawing out single syllables into low whoops. A strong-willed tyke, she signed with Columbia after this but declined to change her name to Lilli Marlowe, and so that went nowhere. She was chums with Hitchcock — I guess from around this time — and he put her in I CONFESS, but that role doesn’t find a use for her simian high spirits.

The script — co-credited to Curt Siodmak (!) — keeps Dolly in sexy jeopardy, much of it caused by male lead Esmond Knight. It’s always a surprise to see him in a leading role if you know him as a character man in post-war Powell & Pressburger films, heroically covering up his lost eyesight (blinded at sea). But here it makes sense: by the standard of 30s Brit leading men, he’s fairly handsome (no Leslie Banks scarring) and even has a physique.

Speaking of physique — the script’s main method of unmasking Dolly’s disguises is to undress her. While FIRST A GIRL contrived a swimming accident, at least Jessie had a cossie. Dolly, entangled in weeds in the estate’s pond (it’s a country house escapade, vaguely Wodehousian in spirit) is bare buff, save for a chaste weed bikini top.

Director Marcel Varnel hasn’t much of a rep — his IMDb bio says “his films were for the most part undistinguished” — he did go on to make too many George Formby vehicles (picture a clown car with a massive front grill) — two moments deserve special mention. One is a scene change, where a character exits through a heavy door — with a jolt the whole wall is hoisted into the air and at once we’re in a theatre. Later, in boy drag, Dolly must listen to a smutty story after dinner with the old duffers — Varnel tactfully swoops out of the room in a thrill-cam glide, then, after the shortest possible pause, swoops back in on Dolly, having missed the one about the commercial traveller and the lady with the glass eye.

Though there are fewer hints of male-male attraction, and no obviously queer-coded character like Sonnie Hale in FIRST A GIRL, the film feels more transgressive because Dolly is a more convincing boy than Jessie could ever be. So gender certainties are throw into doubt, before being happily resolved — or are they? In fancy dress for a fete, the lovers clinch for some hey-hey in the hay loft, and Esmond’s frilly sleeves rhyme elegantly with Dolly’s bloomers.

Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2021 by dcairns

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.

More love for Litvak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2020 by dcairns

NIE WIEDER LIEBE! (NO MORE LOVE, 1931) is the earliest Litvak directorial work I could get my mitts on. The success of this light romantic comedy enabled Litvak to get the job of doing COEUR DE LILAS (1932) which is the other earliest AL film I’d seen (in Bologna).

This is a frivolous film, typical it seems of Litvak’s early work, but very stylish — the tendency is to extend shots for whole sequences, zip-panning (a persistent Litvak trope) rather than cutting, roving ceaselessly. Litvak was known for his long traveling shots later, but I sometimes wish they could be longer. This time, I get my wish. Very Ophulsian — and in fact it turns out that Max Ophuls was the assistant director. Fun to realise that Litvak worked for Gance, Pabst and Tourjansky and Ophuls worked for Litvak… so did Don Siegel. You can’t make it prove anything, it’s just fun.

We begin in a fantastic, fog-and-light Manhattan, the camera gliding through a miniature, neon-sparkling cityscape, then through a life-sized window into scene one, where hero Harry Liedke is being fleeced by a seductress. He’ll swear off women, on a bet, but just before his five-year abstinence is over, he’ll meet Lillian Harvey. You’ll see how that could complicate things. Harvey has no tits hardly at all but is extremely vivacious, and that can be a powerful combination. She’s certainly a funny kind of girl for a fella to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year. Harry has been sailing round the world for FIVE…

A youngish Felix Bressart (NINOTCHKA, TO BE OR NOT TO BE) is a fine dry comedy manservant, longsuffering variety. It’s strange to hear the familiar voice speaking its native German. He’s no longer a funny foreigner. He’s just funny.

Margo Lion, chanteuse (Pabst’s THREEPENNY OPERA) sings a song on top of a piano, Dietrich-style, in a ridiculous version of a New York waterfront dive, but it’s full of black and white people getting sloshed together, so that’s nice.

As with all the early Litvaks, this one is co-written by the director and the splendidly-named Irma von Cube, who would also go to Hollywood, become Irmgard von Cube for some mysterious reason, and write JOHNNY BELINDA with a couple of male collaborators.

This was also made in a French version, CALAIS-DOUVRES, starring the trilingual, London-born Harvey, with André Roanne (DIARY OF A LOST GIRL) and Armand Bernard (THE CHESS PLAYER).

Litvak also supplies some rhythmic montages so the long take style never gets stale. These are sometimes partly made up of moving machinery, and one senses either the influence of Lang or some zeitgeisty Germanic thing that just loves fetishised close-ups of machine parts. Here, the hero sails off on his ship with his crew singing a jaunty march celebrating their new-found celibacy and misogyny as the pistons pump, the water rushes by, the mouths sing…

Then there’s a lovely comedian-harmonists type number, once the men have all gotten lovesick. You’ll like this —

And the climax is at Nice amid big carnival heads and so on. Hero Harry Liedke isn’t as appealing as Ms. Harvey, but I don’t think he deserved to be kicked to death by invading Russians at the end of WWII, though I guess his presence on German soil made him a Nazi by default. But a light musical comedy Nazi. Surely other men deserved death more.

I was also able to see LA CHANSON DE LA NUIT (1932), which is the French version of DAS LIED EINER NACHT, also made in English as TELL ME TONIGHT. All three versions star Polish opera singer Jan Kiepura and Magda Schneider (Romy’s mum, star of Ophuls’ LIEBELEI). The third lead/comic relief is a young and strangely fey Pierre Brasseur, a long way from EYES WITHOUT A FACE, in a role taken by Sonnie Hale (SABOTAGE, Mr. Jessie Matthews) in the UK version and Fritz Schulz (don’t know him) in the German. Most intriguingly, Henri-Georges Clouzot gets a script credit on this frothy Riviera-set quasi-musical, but it seems his job was just translating Litvak and von Cube’s original, rather unmotivated farce.

But there are some good gags! Mostly in the bravura opening sequence, which shows the voice of its star blasting out over the airwaves, to be received by a series of beautiful vintage wireless sets and assorted vintage listeners. Big laughs! You can watch it!

ACK! It’s gone! This was on the YouTube, now it has vanished, leaving only a scene —