Archive for Stagecoach

My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror

Posted in Comics, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by dcairns

wellesrichardiiiIt was at Norman Lloyd’s house that we saw this Al Hirschfeld cartoon, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, predicting the roles to be taken on the New York stage by the leading players that fall.

Norman is top left — Hirschfeld always drew him this way, though Fiona thought it a dubious likeness.

Orson Welles is dead centre, as Richard III with flat-topped head and lank black wig. In the end he never played the role, something he blames John Houseman for, I believe, in My Lunches with Orson.

But the image suggests to me Boris Karloff, and ties in with my theory that Welles was influenced, probably in childhood, by the Universal school of horror.

Was Karloff’s monster a good model for Richard III? Possibly not — the personalities are quite different. But Welles’ putative performance as the disfigured, limping king might easily have been influenced by the monster, who had so recently returned to the screen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And there is at least one image in existence of a teenage Welles playing Richard on stage at the Todd School with a big, built-up head like the one in Hirschfeld’s cartoon.

Then there’s the Mercury Theater radio production of Dracula, which owes nothing much to the Universal movie but certainly displays a keen interest in, and aptitude for, gothic horror.

CITIZEN KANE’s opening has much of the feel of a ’30s horror film — Xanadu is not only dark, looking, shadowy and surrounded by desolation, it is a painting, like Castle Dracula. If few were convinced by Pauline Kael’s suggestion that Welles’ old-age make-up bore the influence of Peter Lorre’s Gogol from MAD LOVE, we can at least agree that part of the movie’s style is at times somewhat Gothic — and this fed into the 1943 JANE EYRE, which Welles influenced greatly (though he disparages the production in My Dinners with Orson.

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And Welles’ MACBETH would be the clincher — I’m certain Welles said something, somewhere, about BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN being a visual influence on his papier-mache and dry-ice Scotland, “a violent charcoal sketch of a great play.” Whale occupies exalted ground, since Welles has comparatively few cinematic antecedents — he borrows liberally from Eisenstein in his first two Shakespeare films, and the smooth matching of his theatrical sensibility with Gregg Toland’s cinematic one obviously helped form him as a filmmaker, but apart from that, Whale is just about the only source you can point to. (He learned basic film grammar from running STAGECOACH, and maybe there’s some stylistic influence — but nothing that couldn’t be explained easier by Toland’s help and Welles’ pre-existing fondness for chiaroscuro.)

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Part two of my theory tomorrow, and starting soon — a major Shadowplay series on CITIZEN KANE. What else is there to say about that film? Maybe nothing, but I will say it with different punctuation.

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The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, it’s not exactly an intertitle, but I had to honour the fact that John Ford pasted my address across the screen in MARY OF SCOTLAND.

It’s a legendarily quite bad film, though more of an honorable failure than, say, THE HURRICANE (a commercial hit but a veritable TOWERING INFERNO artistically), part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH. In fact, the movie is quite interesting, or anyway “interesting” — it rarely achieves anything resembling compelling drama, and censorship forces it to take the dullest path whenever there’s a knotty historical issue to be resolved. Dialogue is of a heavily expository nature, with everybody always telling each other things they must already know — you’d never guess that either Dudley Nichols, or Maxwell Anderson whose play he’s adapting, was a good or even competent writer.

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However, it’s possibly Ford’s most gay film, with Lord Darnley in particular striking a bold blow for the lipstick, earring and ruff look. Queen Elizabeth surrounds herself with rather camp confidants too, despite the fact that she’s basically a sullen mound of beads.

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(This was the movie where Ginger Rogers campaigned hard for the role of Elizabeth, and shot a screen test in heavy makeup which the suits loved until they realized who it was. The thought of Ginger as the Virgin Queen was apparently too much of a stretch. So Florence Eldridge lands by far  the best role and does well with it.)

Katherine Hepburn as Mary is surrounded by several of the same stock Scots and pseudo-Scots from RKO’s  THE LITTLE MINISTER (Alec Craig, Mary Gordon, Donald Crisp). Fredric March does do more than hint at a burr, but Fiona felt he captured a quintessentially Scottish attitude. It seems to involve bellowing heartily. He also presents a baby with the present of a broadsword, which does seem quite authentic behaviour.

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Perhaps sensing the inertia of the material, Ford attempts a few stylistic flourishes. In one key scene, Mary/Hepburn must decide whether to sign, at sword’s point, a pardon for the murderers of David Rizzio (John Carradine [!]). In her closeup, she’s separated by the characters over her shoulder by a layer of scrim — and interesting psychological effect, thrown away by too-hasty editing. I suspect the film was so stodgy they took the shears to it, and out went the more promising material. (Tag Gallagher certainly suggests that the studio botched the edit, and it appears that Ford’s system of protecting himself by shooting no coverage was not yet in place.)

Ford also plays with theatrical lighting changes, dimming the key light on Darnley when he acquiesces to an assassination plot. Did Orson Welles check this movie out when he was running STAGECOACH all those times? It’s made by the same studio, so it would have been to hand. CITIZEN KANE advanced on the idea by staging the fades during dissolves, so that one part of the shot would linger longer as the rest faded out, but the initial idea had to come from somewhere

For years (decades?) Alexander Mackendrick dreamed of filming MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, his office papered in storyboards. Since historical movies usually ossify alive onscreen, he was determined to make his version live and breathe — the western was his role model, a genre in which history is depicted IN ACTION. Ironically, the man you would have thought ideally suited to make such a film had already tried, and fallen victim to period movie syndrome.

P.E.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by dcairns

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My Pierre Etaix piece, an epic career overview, is now up at The Criterion Collection website.

The other essays completed for Criterion are also there — STAGECOACH and THE 39 STEPS. But the Etaix is, I think, not only the biggest but the best of the three.

Pierre Etaix (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Pierre Etaix (Criterion Collection)