Archive for Spencer Tracy

The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by dcairns

The first kind of intertitle in this film is odd, since this was never a play. But LIFE is a play, if you’re George Cukor, so that’s okay.

The second kind comes in the home movie sequence, one of the more convincing examples of its kind. Hand-held shots and hand-drawn cards.

Picked up ADAM’S RIB for cheap in a charity shop, just when this urgent Cukor job landed on me, so it seemed like a valuable bit of research. The Kanin-Gordon script is, I think, about one-third successful beyond all measure, one-third adequate/shaky, and one-third just weird, which is a pretty good set of proportions — things are never going to be dull with that kind of unevenness.

Examples: well, the brilliance is impossible to miss, with Cukor’s genius for casting evidenced not so much by the pairing of Tracy & Hepburn, in roles ideally suited to exploit their talent and their real-life relationship, which was likely the starting point, present in everyone’s mind as soon as the married lawyers idea emerged, but by Judy Holliday in an early role, Tom Ewell as a repellant slug, and Jean Hagen (how to explain Ewell’s success with the ladies?). And Marvin “Choo-Choo” Kaplan. Etc.

Things that are less successful? Well, I think there’s a slight sense in the Kanin-Gordon-Cukor films that when they take on the subject of women’s rights, gender roles etc, the late-forties/early-fifties version of normal is so extreme that arguing against it can seem redundant to a modern sensibility — Aldo Ray’s insistence that his wife not work in THE MARRYING KIND, for instance, is just obviously wrong, selfish and neurotic. Which doesn’t mean the filmmakers were wrong to tackle it — it clearly NEEDED tackling — it’s just that the argument can seem a little, well, obvious. And ADAM’S RIB is all about the double standard in crime passionel cases — on the case itself, the film is mercilessly funny and clever, but the development of the argument leads to some more standard stuff: the underlying issue of a thing is never as exciting as a good specific example.

Then there’s what seems to me a structural mistake, with the movie continuing a good twenty minutes after the conclusion of the trial. Developing the marital crisis in concert with the criminal case has been so successful, this seems like madness, but the writers and director, with all their experience, have decided that the verdict is merely the second-act climax, precipitating the crisis in the marriage, which will now take centre stage, with all those entertaining supporting characters shunted aside. Very well, but I think you’re making a mistake, guys.

Glenn & Claire Kenny have been doing excellent work on the Tracy-Hepburn films and unpick some of the pleasures and peculiarities of this one here. A lot of the weirdness centres on David Wayne, positioned simultaneously as gay best friend for Hepburn and love rival for Tracy. Which arguably makes us much sense as anything else about that mysterious pairing. But means that Tracy has to be at once/alternately jealous of Wayne’s attentions to his wife, and homophobic about him. The cognitive dissonance alone would kill a lesser actor. I have to think that Tracy’s Catholicism would come in handy, allowing him to compartmentalize all the contradictory elements. There are no connecting doors in the conservative mind.

Lacking those abilities, I’m forced to try to achieve some kind of wretched synthesis. Let’s dismiss any suspicion that Cukor simply didn’t notice how gay Wayne was coming across. It does sometimes look like that, but that would be (a) out of character for everyone and (b) flatly contradicted by all the clearly conscious gay coding that didn’t just happen, you know. That Buddha didn’t just walk into Wayne’s apartment and set itself down. Why having a colossal stone Buddha makes you gay I can’t answer, it just does, OK? In 1949. You don’t get to have actual sex, this is the nearest allowable equivalent, seemingly. Decor = sexuality.

So maybe having Wayne actually proposing to Hepburn is just plausible deniability for the censor. With no credible in-the-film motive. Or maybe he’s shopping for a beard — he mentions half-heartedly proposing to some other woman when we first meet him. Could the film be making the case that there are men who seem gay, but aren’t? Or is Tracy meant to be too masculine to notice that the man hanging around his wife is not a serious sexual competitor? Or has he seen through the fey act and spotted the seducer within? (Ambiguity is usually supposed to be either-this-or-that, not this-or-that-or-that-or-that-or-what?)

It’s odd to me that the role, which has to serve as a complicating factor in the marital comedy, developed this way. “Let’s make the love rival gay!” just doesn’t seem like an obvious way to up the stakes. And since it’s the comic trope that dare not speak its name, it has to go sort of unresolved.

But it is part of the film’s strategy of questioning gender norms. Seems brave of Cukor to have taken on this subject in this way —

   

Transgender phantasms of the supporting cast — Holliday and Hagen seem curiously alluring, then everyone shrinks back in horror from a dragged-up Ewell.

Thank God there was no formal HUAC for homosexuality! If you started looking in Hollywood films for a secret queer conspiracy to normalize the reversal of societal norms, you’d find it (almost) everywhere.

At the end, the movie teases us with a sequel where the heroes compete for a judgeship, he as a Republican and she as a Dem. My God, they should have made that!

I Guess That’s Why They Call Them McHughs

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

Thursday kicked off with LIGHTS OF OLD BROADWAY, a fun Marion Davies vehicle in which she played twins, separated at birth and never really reunited since director Monta Bell apparently hadn’t heard of split-screen. One twin is posh and boring, to make producer William Randolph Hearst happy, one is a boisterous Irish colleen, to give vent to Davies’ comedy chops, if chops can be said to have a vent.

The old New York setting was amusingly rendered — 5th Avenue looked like a troglodyte enclave, and there were walk-ons by a nubile Thos. Edison and an eight-year-old Teddy Roosevelt. The movie burst into Technicolor to render scenes in the variety hall where Davies dances, and when the electric street lights come on for the first time.

Frank Currier throttles Charles McHugh. We all win.

The daily spanking was performed on Davies by her rambunctious da, ever-ready to bean an Orangeman with a brick, and then on him by her. The Davies sire was played by Charles McHugh, the spit of Matt McHugh, whom I take to be his son, but neither the IMDb nor Wikipedia confirm this.

Matt turned up, in an archetypal sidekick role as Butts McGee, hero’s ivory-tickling pal, in THE MAD GAME, a Fox post-code with a lot of interesting elements. It does go downhill when gangster Spencer Tracy reforms and has plastic surgery to go undercover. You can’t really disguise a face like Tracy’s. Everything is too big to add to. The anonymous artisan entrusted with the job dyes the star’s hair, tans his skin, applies a Dirty Sanchez mustache, wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery yellowface eyelids, false teeth and a lot of Don Corleone appliances stuffed in his mouth. Even Tracy can’t act through that lot, and it kind of hurts to look at him, but he does do a good voice — very Don Corleone, in fact.

This may be why Tracy didn’t use much make-up when he played Mr. Hyde. And have you EVER seen him in an effective make-up?

Meanwhile, the great Frank McHugh (or Fronk McHuge if you’re Jean-Pierre Melville), with whom the McHugh clan reached its schlub-apogee, has been conspicuously absent from Bologna, something that should be rectified with his own retrospective sometime soon.

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.