Archive for Spencer Tracy

William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

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Everything that’s wrong with Stanley Kramer in one hilarious frame

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2014 by dcairns

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This bit from the opening titles of JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG reduced Fiona and I to hysterics.

I know, it’s unfair. Miss Dietrich must have her gowns, and they must be by Jean-Louis, who must have his credit. Under a swastika?

In a way it sums up the film’s aesthetic, which is elucidating the darkest crimes of the 20th century using movie stars and the apparatus of Hollywood. Can commercial movies tackle such subjects? It would be more shameful not to try, I think. Maybe, as probably Claude Lanzmann would argue, the result is bound to be obscene in some way, but maybe it’s better to have that kind of artistic failure than to remain silent. Spielberg following Jews into the showers to create tension, or here, Richard Widmark narrating death camp mass burials, is undoubtedly a high-risk game.

Visually there’s some nice work, with Kramer enlivening his testimonies with a moving camera that creeps around the actors, examining them warily as if they were recently fallen space debris. He’s also discovered the zoom, and gets carried away, though one early crash in on Maximilian Schell is so powerful it causes him to CHANGE LANGUAGE. This must surely be the origin of the move-in on Peter Firth (as a character called Putin) in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, a real coup de cinema in which Firth switches to English from Russian on the word “Armageddon” (the same in any language), just as the camera reaches an ECU of his lips…

Abby Mann’s script, it seems to me, affords Kramer some excellent opportunities — I think everything that’s not a trial scene is, essentially dilution and a mistake, but the trial — if you can forgive the dramatic contrivances and what are probably blatant violations of courtroom protocol — is often riveting. Montgomery Clift proves he could still do it — his character is falling apart, so it’s hard to be sure how much is acting, but I *think* he’s actually in control of his performance. He certainly isn’t depending on an editor to manufacture it out of the most acceptable bits, as reportedly happened on his last film. He may have required a lot of special care to nurse him through it — Kramer was adept at that, dealing with Spencer Tracy’s alcoholism and later his declining health — but he offers up astonishing moments here, and I think he’s USING his physical and mental frailty.

Clift’s stuff is emotionally devastating — I would challenge any Kramer naysayer to sit through it without a pang — and I think it eschews cheap manipulation. Judy Garland’s far simpler performance is equally effective. Each of them is like a raw nerve, sat in the witness stand, getting pinged by Maximilian Schell.

Schell is also excellent — he doesn’t have sympathy on his side, but he has complexity, as he tries to make his character comprehensible, motivated, and even in some ways RIGHT — even while he becomes our hate-figure, standing in for the broad mass of Nazi Germany that went along with evil rather than initiating it.

And then Burt Lancaster is terrif, not in a feat of great acting to rank alongside his fractured co-stars, but as a towering monument of charisma, gravitas and contained energy. Star quality, with every muscle tensed trying to hold it in and focus it.

Spencer Tracy is also fine, but I could do without most of the between-courtroom filler, because what he does best here is LISTEN.

So, if one can accept the kind of film that has gowns by Jean-Louis and atrocity footage and isn’t afraid to juxtapose them almost directly, the real virtues of the drama here can be commended.

The Kerrs of this world

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2013 by dcairns

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TEA AND SYMPATHY — my goodness. I have so lightly sampled the works of Vincente Minnelli. This one is particularly handy because it ties the uniquely oppressive qualities of his comedies — domestic hells like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and THE LONG, LONG TRAILER, whose natural analog is nightmare (FOTB features a renowned expressionist nightmare scene whose image of Spencer Tracy’s feet mired in a floor swamp got quoted in the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) — to the quieter parts of his melodramas. The movie resists exploding, and so winds its audience up into quite a state. “I’m starting to find this hypermasculine environment extremely claustrophobic,” observed Fiona.

At one point Kerr claims he’s reading “Candida.” “Does he mean Candide?” I ask. “Candida is a yeast infection,” says Fiona.

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Gay man or huge woman?

I recall an online discussion between two film-lovers, I think both gay, as to whether the first of this film’s Kerrs, John Kerr, was meant to be seen as gay. Although the whole story hinges on his being regarded as sexually suspect by his fellow collegians, until the second Kerr, teacher’s wife Deborah Kerr, sleeps with him, I honestly don’t feel it matters.

The script, adapted by Robert Anderson from his own play, is careful to make clear that for purposes of censorship, Kerr’s character is straight, but unconventional and therefore regarded with suspicion in the conformist campus where the story unfolds. Both script and direction are careful to keep their options open, however — we are free to assume that some light alibiing has been applied to the scenario and that if you strip this away, Kerr’s character is gay.

On the other hand, even at face value the lesson is progressive — as with DESIGNING WOMAN, Minnelli is able to present a gay-seeming man who is “really” (according to the dialogue, the element of a film which carries the least weight of conviction) straight. The lesson is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and by extension, you shouldn’t queer-bait and queer-bash because you don’t know. Society, and schools and other institutions, would get a lot more civilized by following such a suggestion, and the true elimination of prejudice might follow more easily.

I feel like Minnelli is also crying out in this film — “Don’t you see how crazy all this is?” The homosocial world of the film is deeply closeted and strange: one of the things that marks Kerr out as potentially deviant is that he enjoys the company of women. Male activities include sweaty contact sports, talking about sex, and a nocturnal, firelight ceremony in which boys tear off one another’s pajamas (an aggressive fire ballet to match those in numerous other Minnelli films).

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Part rites of passage, part Rites of Spring.vlcsnap-2013-07-09-08h51m55s181

Furthermore, the film’s two most vociferous spokesmen for manliness are Deborah Kerr’s husband and John Kerr’s father, both of whom are peculiar arguments for normalcy. Hubby Leif Erickson can’t bear to touch his beautiful wife, cannot discuss emotions with her, and responds to her friendship with young Kerr with hysterical jealousy, so that one comes to wonder who exactly he is jealous of? His hatred of the isolated young student who rooms in his house and whom he should be protecting seems pathological.

Edward Andrews as the dad is just odd.

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Right after this shot there’s a glaring continuity error as the door opens and he’s suddenly in a completely different position, as if the movie is screaming You Didn’t Just See That! That Never Happened!

Nervous, sweaty, prissy and eager-to-please, he comes across as frantically overcompensating and desperate to be one of the boys. One senses the other men regard him as less that 100% virile, but give him a pass because at least he’s trying. Really hard. One could simply argue that Minnelli’s vision of straight men is camp-inflected and inaccurate because of who he was, but I prefer to see this as barbed satire, and carried out in a visual language too subtle for the censors to grasp, to sly for them to comment on without feeling silly.

Kerr, so good in THE COBWEB, is excellent here — I wonder if he gave up acting because typecasting in the role of sensitive, vulnerable youth gave him few options in movies of the fifties. At any rate, he made a go of lawyering instead.

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The point in the movie where it has to furiously back-pedal is the ending — the movie can coat homosexuality in plausible deniability, but it has to cop to adultery. But this is handled graciously — we learn that the Kerr-Erickson marriage was destroyed by her infidelity, which is supposed to be a sop to morality, but I think most viewers would think GOOD — maybe Debs can find happiness elsewhere. There’s a line of VO about her husband’s life being ruined, but Minnelli cannily plays it over a shot of him working away, same as always, seemingly perfectly happy without the ball and chain. And we’re told that John Kerr now has a wife — yay, she straightened him out! — or, Yay, she cured him of his insecurity! — or Yay, he got himself a lavender marriage to pacify social expectations! I think it doesn’t matter. I think it’s fine. The movie does a marvelous job of telling a story it was absolutely forbidden from telling.