Archive for Swing High Swing Low

It’s Official —

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by dcairns


— Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.


There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.


And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:


Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…

From Boom to Bust

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by dcairns

Like probably a lot of people, the first thing I knew about Mitchell Leisen was that Billy Wilder was unhappy with Leisen messing with his scripts. And since Wilder was the legendary director of numerous clever and beautiful films, I assumed Leisen was a Hollywood hack.

The first person to correct this impression was my friend Lawrie Knight, who was old enough to have seen Leisen’s films from the ’30s, ’40s and 50’s when they were new. He may even have seen, as a child, some of Leisen’s work as designer for Cecil B. DeMille, or on Raoul Walsh’s Douglas Fairbanks epid THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. He suggested that Leisen had made some beautiful films, and we managed to get hold of some. In particular, HOLD BACK THE DAWN made me realise that Leisen had certainly not trashed Wilder’s work, while TO EACH HIS OWN showed that Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, had respected Leisen enough to hire him to film one of his best scripts. And EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, discovered in the Lindsay Anderson Archive, showed that Leisen could also do great work with Preston Sturges’ scripts. The two films are maybe not quite as great as SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or THE PALM BEACH STORY, but they’re probably better than CHRISTMAS IN JULY or THE LADY EVE, and that ain’t bad.

David Wingrove opened my eyes further. He’d seen a Leisen retrospective at San Sebastian, and ended up writing the best overview of Leisen on the web, here. He had copies of FRENCHMAN’S CREEK and the excellent noir NO MAN OF HER OWN.

Then the Edinburgh Film Festival shows its own retrospective, curated by the then-director Shane Danielsen. It wasn’t a complete retrospective, and rather than attempting an overview of all Leisen’s styles, it concentrated on his comedies and melodramas, largely ignoring his musicals and period movies, the more “camp” side of the oeuvre — stuff like MURDER AT THE VANITIES that seemed to make Danielsen uncomfortable. But it allowed me to see SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, which became my favourite Leisen of all, perhaps because it combines both his comic and his romantic-tragic side so boldly.

So, as a huge Leisen fan, I was delighted to get my hands on two more of his films. BRIDE OF VENGEANCE was first into the player. Fiona has just quit her job and needed cheering up. I suggested this film.

“What’s it about?”

“Paulette Goddard is Lucrezia Borgia.”


Superb looking but appallingly acted and rather stodgily directed piece of historical melodrama. Totally studio-bound, but one of these days it could find a sympathetic audience. ~ Halliwell’s Film Guide.

Reader, we were that audience!

I admit, I quailed slightly at the prospect of John Lund as the Duke of Ferrara. In my view, any film with someone called Lund or Lundigan has a humanoid hurdle to get over. Ray Milland was supposed to take the part, but went on suspension at Paramount for the only time in his career rather than be associated with what seemed to him a dreadful script. When the film came out, the critics’ comments so resembled Milland’s criticisms, the producer suspected him of being in league with the reviewers.

A hero disguised as a fop — a sort of rennaissance Pimpernell.

But I needn’t have worried — Lund is actually pretty good in this. He was always a fine actor, he just slightly lacked charisma, or gravitas. His lightweight character actually adds tension to the story, since he seems but a slight threat to the advancing invader Caesar (sic) Borgia. He makes an able Ferrara. He also helped out by rewriting a lot of Clemence Dane’s unspeakable blank verse dialogue.

Paulette Goddard is, I suppose, too old, and Milland thought her too worldly. The film casts Lucrezia as something of an innocent, to the dismay of audiences but with some degree of historical accuracy. Leisen found he couldn’t get the performance he wanted from P.G. so concentrated on her looks, co-designing the costumes with Mary Grant (Mrs. Vincent Price). Particular care was taken in diminishing her eighthead (like a forehead, but twice the size). This is kind of a shame as I have long admired Paulette’s towering blind wall of a brow, which looks as white and fragile as eggshell.

MacDonald Carey as Borgia, the part Lund was originally to play, gets spectacular muscly armour, practically a bat-suit. All the costumes aimed for an unusual period verisimilitude, although the studio forbade Leisen from codpiecing the men. “He’s gay! We can’t let him get his hands on codpieces!”

Best performance of all is Raymond Burr as a Borgia thug. Even though it’s only 1949, Burr seems to have fully absorbed the influence of Marlon Brando, who had not yet made a film. He swaggers about with a nasal whine in his voice, cramming food into his face so he can hardly speak his lines. Also, he makes no effort not to be American. It’s a hilariously disruptive performance that the film nevertheless manages to contain — Burr shakes things up, but not to the point of damaging the story. It’s a wonderfully bold and fruity bit of showing-off, and it hereby earns Burr a coveted posthumous Shadowplay award for services to discombobulation. OK, it’s just an old golf trophy with “GOOD WORK FATTY” scratched on it with a key, but it’s the thought that counts.

Raymond Burr attempts that tricky “Gomez Addams look”.

Ah yes, the plot. “That was a lousy story about a big cannon that went boom,” observed Leisen in David Chierechetti’s essential study, Hollywood Director. Leisen told his producer, “You’re an ass to think anybody would care about this after the atomic bomb.” At this greater historic distance, the weapon of mass destruction makes a decent plot device, and Leisen seems well aware of it’s potential as a phallic symbol. Lund even has to abandon Paulette on their nuptial night to help Albert Dekker with his throbbing great piece of artillery. And then, weakened by Borgia poison, he RIDES IT INTO BATTLE.

“Get your farting gear around THIS!”

Ferrara is building the gun in secret, like Saddam (those W.M.D.s really were awfully well hidden, weren’t they? When Tony Blair swore he had absolute proof of their existence, you’d think some of that proof might pertain to their location. But no), while pretending he’s casting a giant statue of Jupiter. “You must come and see my big Jupiter,” he suggests to Paulette, before snogging her violently. “That was disturbing,” she observes. Fiona resolved to try this line next time I go for her.

Despite everybody’s harsh words about the story, it has some surprises, it’s played in a lighter vein that one would expect (I disagree with Halliwell’s “stodgy” crack) and the marriage is an exact match to the one in Leisen’s next-again film, NO MAN OF HER OWN — a bride takes her husband with the intention of killing him (“I will,” smiles Stanwyck, chilling the blood pleasurably).

There’s a very well plotted moment when Paulette realizes that her brother (rampantly incestuous, which is a surprise in 1949) has framed Ferrara, and her vengeance is misguided — it’s all done through three paintings knocked up by Titian (Don Randolph). “Why have you painted a demon with my brother’s face?” gasps P.G., seeing a likeness of Caesar. “I paint what I see.”

Fiona guffawed: “That’s what I used to say. I was probably five, and I drew our neighbour. ‘You’ve made me look all old and wrinkly.’ ‘I draw what I see.'”

No wonder she’s out of a job.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE has been dismissed for too long. It’s campy and daft, looking ahead to Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN and countless Italian peplum films, but also smart and witty, beautifully designed and shot, and we get the vicarious pleasure of watching Raymond Burr stuffing his face. I call that A GOOD NIGHT IN.

Now we have Leisen’s KITTY to watch. It’s supposed by some to be his best film. I’m almost afraid to look.

My cinematic Babelfish translates this as: “Caesar or nuthin’!”

Swing High!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2007 by dcairns

Above is a very rare clip featuring director Mitchell Leisen (and star W.C. Fields). The only other footage of Leisen I know of is the start of HOLD BACK THE DAWN, where Leisen plays, basically, himself, a top Hollywood director making a wartime romance with Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake (I WANTED WINGS, a real Leisen film from the same year, 1941).

Leisen has been either ignored or devalued for too long. Billy Wilder, who didn’t much enjoy writing for the director, spent fifty years denigrating Leisen at every opportunity (“I don’t knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen’s problem was he was a stupid fairy,” gives you the tone of the debate). The legend grew that Wilder was compelled to become a director because Leisen mutilated his scripts. But the films he co-scripted for “Mitch”, MIDNIGHT and HOLD BACK THE DAWN, and at least the first half of ARISE, MY LOVE, are far stronger films than Wilder’s first couple of Hollywood movies as director, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and 5 GRAVES TO CAIRO. Both filmmakers made great films, and a good Leisen film is clearly better than a middling Wilder film.

There’s a resurgence in Leisen’s reputation now, with retrospectives in recent years at San Sebastian and Edinburgh. Leisen is finally on the rise, and this may actually lead to a slight downgrading of Wilder’s standing, although I would expect that films like SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT have a secure place in film-lovers’ affections that cannot be dented.

The reason Leisen’s rise might bring about a dip for Wilder is found in one film, SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, from 1937. Fred MacMurray plays Skid Johnson, a trumpet player with an alcohol problem. The film details his affair with Carole Lombard’s Maggie King, a singer (Lombard and MacMurray had already starred together in Leisen’s HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE two years earlier). There’s a scene later in the film where Skid hits the skids, raggedly walking the real streets of New York and pawning his trumpet to buy more drink. This may surprise anybody who bought the line that Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND, seven years later, was the first talkie to take alcoholism seriously. The sequence in that film where Ray Milland goes to pawn his typewriter closely echoes Leisen’s earlier movie.

That would be of only minor interest if SH,SL were a minor film, but it’s a rich and fascinating work that easily stands up to Wilder’s more celebrated film. Starting as a romantic comedy about bohemian musicians in Panama (with a hypochondriac pianist friend, a wisecracking older broad, and a pet chicken), it slides, without us noticing, into romantic tragedy, as MacMurray Makes it Big in the Big Apple, is seduced away from Lombard by an impossibly sultry young Dorothy Lamour, lets success go to his head and falls from grace as the booze goes to his liver. All this happens over the course of a substantial two-hour running time, allowing us a rare feeling of nostalgia for the early, happy part of the film, when the characters were poor and struggling but hopeful. It’s like the contrast between the two parts of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.


Leisen was a marvel at managing these tonal shifts: REMEMBER THE NIGHT, scripted by Preston Sturges, flips from urban screwball comedy to bucolic sentimentality, slipping smoothly into romantic tragedy at the end, with a couple of other detours on the way — Barbara Stanwyck’s mother lives in a Gothic noir house and extinguishes the only lantern when her daughter leaves: to use a great line from Bruce Robinson, she lives “mainly in the dark, like a tongue.”

Similarly, nifty rom-com HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE features a moody, low-key nocturne in its second act, with low key-lighting, much pensive cigarette smoke, unresolved sexual tension, and an early example of the psychological track-in, as Leisen glides towards Fred MacMurray (his favourite leading man), creating a slowly mounting romantic tension. This kind of camera movement probably originates with Murnau, but is otherwise not much seen until the ‘forties, and rarely then. It became a bit of a tic with Spielberg in the ‘eighties, and was hyped up to new levels by Sam Raimi, who uses it almost musically.

Leisen presents a modest challenge to auteurist critics because his work is disparate, crossing genres and tones, often in the same film. But the same can be said of even as consistent a filmmaker as Hawks. Leisen’s best work falls into three main categories:

Olivia and some guy (John Lund)

1) Melodrama. Leisen’s “women’s pictures” include TO EACH HIS OWN (winning an Oscar for Olivia DeHavilland), a tear-jerker about a girl who, separated from her illigitmate child, struggles for years to win him back. Charles Brackett’s script (unlike his partner Wilder, Brackett had no problem working with Leisen again) leavens the intense sentiment with bitter elements, as DeHavilland tries to take her son back by blackmailing his adoptive parents. Leisen managed to persuade the censors to allow the use of the word “bastard” in its technically correct sense, then dropped it when Olivia couldn’t say the line without laughing. This willingness to change dialogue on the floor is what pissed Wilder off.

2) Comedy. Leisen’s work includes oddities like THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937, but it is in romantic comedies like EASY LIVING (scripted by Sturges) and MIDNIGHT (Wilder and Brackett) that he showcases his skill with light comedy, broad comedy, and elegant design and filming (Leisen began as costume designer and then production designer on DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and Walsh’s THIEF OF BAGDAD).

EASY LIVING features the world’s most beautiful automat, scene of an escalating slapstick food fight that gave employment to every pratfall specialist in Tinseltown, as well as Jean Arthur in an accidentally acquired fur coat (“Kismet!”) causing a run on the stock exchange despite a complete innocence of financial matters.

3) Camp. Which of course can combine elements of 1) and 2), but in Leisen’s case also introduces historical and musical elements. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a boisterous backstage mystery with ludicrous, gorgeous musical numbers, such as “Marijuana”, in which a cactus-like pot plant sprouts naked girls. The song is interrupted by a screaming showgirl as blood drips from the rafters onto her bare bosom*, which should give you some idea.

Although Leisen’s oevre crosses genre boundaries, sometimes in the same film, he does have themes and motifs that spring up again and again: psychoanalysis (Leisen was an ardant devoteeof the couch); Mexico and Central America; gay characters (Richard Hayden in NO TIME FOR LOVE is the rom-com’s best-ever Gay Best Friend); impostures (especially in the comedies, Shakespeare-style, but NO MAN OF HER OWN, Leisen’s sole noir, uses the device for suspense and pathos); abrupt mood swings (see above); elaborate design of sets and costumes (a virtue with which the director has often been beaten by homophobic Wilderists); love stories in which one lover is virtuous, the other shiftless or untrustworthy (this may have had an autobiographical component).

David Melville’s Great Directors essay, online at Senses of Cinema (, should be your first port of call for more information and analysis (after the films themselves, slowly becoming available on DVD).

David Chierichetti’s HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR, available secondhand, is an interview book and critical study: Leisen, retired and in ill-health, cooperated fully, hoping to salvage his reputation. Maybe it’s finally working.


*According to psychologists advising the British Board of Film Censors, the sight of blood on breasts acts as a Rape Trigger in some male viewers, but the intended audience of MURDER AT THE VANITIES is perhaps immune to such auto-suggestion.