Archive for Stanley Donen

The Split

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2017 by dcairns

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What was behind Stanley Donen, from more or less 1958 to 1974, becoming a European filmmaker, with the emphasis on Britain? Whatever it was, it did yield some interesting work. We just enjoyed THE GRASS IS GREENER, which falls into the lightly likable camp, but has one really great scene.

In this romantic quadrangle, three of the stars are cast violently against type, but two of them act as if they weren’t. Deborah Kerr, as the Lady of the Manor, is close enough to her usual field — forbidden desire throbbing behind stolen glances, and whatnot. And she’s glancing at Robert Mitchum, who was even more forbidden in HEAVEN KNOWS, MR ALLISON. Mitchum has to play a smooth wife-stealer, a romantic, a charming but dishonorable but not VERY dishonorable rogue. He just does what Mitchum does, and it seems to work, despite being quite removed from his usual honest he-man stuff. Cary Grant has to play a cuckold. He dresses down, and that’s the only adjustment he makes, and again it works fine.

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Jean Simmons, meanwhile, is having the time of her life as a vivacious, dumb and bitchy friend. While Kerr is elegant in Hardy Amies, Simmons exults in  a series of lunatic creations by Christian Dior. Used to being crammed into what she called “poker-up-the-arse parts” — stiff wives, standing by their men, she explodes all over the place like a slightly drunk fireworks display.

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The one time the film reaches her level of extravagance is a split-screen phone conversation, where Donen pulls out all the stops. As the men converse, one in his stately home, the other at the Savoy, the women, who aren’t supposed to be in either spot, listen in. Each time the men swap the phone receiver from one hand to the other (which they always do in perfect sync) the women circle them to continue listening in. Dialogue echoes back and forth, with nobody but the audience knowing that the same thing is being said in each location, sometimes in succession, sometimes in unison. And as a final grace note, Grant flicks something out of his drink — and hits Mitch in the eye, fifty miles away.

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Also of note: Maurice Binder title sequence. Not a James Bond nude silhouette in sight.

Plasterworks of the cinema

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.

The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.

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On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.

Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.

Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.

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The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.

But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.

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What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.

The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.

 

Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.

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As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.

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By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.

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Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.

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I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…