Archive for Tallulah Bankead

All At Sea

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2009 by dcairns

After the blasting Hugo Friedhofer score, and titles which weirdly assert “By John Steinbeck” and “Screenplay by Jo Swerling,” we get a moody shot trawling the misty Atlantic waters of the 20th Century Fox studio tank, alighting upon curious and suggestive items of flotsam, or do I mean jetsam?

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The hand of cards Hitch was seen playing in his last movie, SHADOW OF A DOUBT? If so, this would be a sort of phantasmal cameo appearance, the shadow of a previous walk-on.

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This copy of The New Yorker makes me wonder if each piece of floating detritus stands for a different character in the film? This would be Tallulah Bankhead, photo-journalist and society lady. But I’m not sure I can be bothered stretching the metaphor all the way to include every last but of bobbing debris. Let’s just say the bobbing apples are a reminder of Hitch’s upbringing.

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“What are those letters on your diaphragm?” Tallulah Bankhead drawls to John Hodiak, and indeed, he is a heavily initialed sailor man, with a prominent “B.M.” on his chest. Who might those letters belong to?

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Barbara Morton — Pat Hitchcock’s character in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN?

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The Bald Mexican — Peter Lorre in SECRET AGENT?

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Bob Montgomery? We never do find out.

LIFEBOAT, while very enjoyable, seems strangely divided between propagandistic, artistic and genre tendencies. While savagely anti-German, it also portrays the jolly Nazi captain Walter Slezak as the only competent and committed man on board, and as Hitchcock and Truffaut agreed, during the moments when the other passengers are plotting against him, they appear quite monstrous. Then again, Slezak’s character really is the embodiment of evil, picking off the weakest of his fellow survivors by way of psychological manipulation techniques bordering on hypnosis.

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What Slezak brings to the role, apart from his authentic accent, is a rather chummy, guy-you-can-trust quality, which colludes with his cherubic (and slightly Hitch-like) appearance to create a nice complexity of effect. In many ways, this guy would make a great captain of the lifeboat, were it not for his tendency to dispose of the weak.

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Do we believe, necessarily, that William Bendix is a jitterbug champion? I wonder if Hitch had a strong idea in his mind of what jitterbuggery actually consists of? I guess WB would be good and hoisting his partner through the air, but I can’t quite picture him cutting a rug. Trampling it into dust, perhaps. Still, Bendix makes a fine lumpenproletariat, even if he does tend to overdo his William Bendix impersonation at times. My favourite Bendix is DETECTIVE STORY, in which he pulls off the impossible feat of out-over-acting Kirk Douglas, going so far over the top he comes out the bottom into a new form or underplaying. It’s like William Bendix parodying William Bendix parodying William Bendix, and it’s a beautiful thing. You won’t believe me but, I’ll say it — moving.

Hitchcock’s cameo, in a newspaper ad for a miracle weight-loss product (or “obesity slayer”) is one of his wittiest, nicely solving the problem of how to do a walk-on in a tightly contained narrative (floating past as a corpse was briefly considered) as well as a chance to show off the results of his recent diet. Many viewers wrote in asking where they could be Reduco, we are told.

If Reduco is Hitchcock’s diet pill, then presumably Emerg-O is William Castle’s personal brand of Viagra.

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I don’t mind John Hodiak in this! He still looks a bit like a Tex Avery wolf, but his slight lack of leading man charisma seems to work neatly in what is basically a group jeopardy picture. A Cary Grant figure would overbalance the thing.

Just realised that not only does Henry Hull advocate the extermination of all Germans in this movie (an awkward moment — had Hitch started editing footage of concentration camps yet? At least the other characters don’t all rush to voice agreement), but he was also the character in OBJECTIVE, BURMA! who advocated extermination of the Japanese. Is there any race on Earth who haven’t been threatened with extermination by Henry Hull? I guess English werewolves get a free pass.

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Hume Cronyn is lovely, however it should be observed that his cockney accent is among the worst on record. Dick Van Dyke is a regular Meryl Streep by comparison. Since Cronyn was so good in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and since he could undoubtedly adapt to many unlikely characters (see his sadistic gay prison warden in BRUTE FORCE for an eye-popping example), he must have seemed like a safe bet, but there are limits to his versatility. I’m surprised he couldn’t just mimic Hitch’s Leytonestone vowels. It took us ten minutes to decide if he was actually doing an accent, or was just suffering concussion or a head cold.

I was trying to work out what I’d seen Mary Anderson in, then I realised it was TO EACH HIS OWN, which is one of the greatest of all near-unknown Hollywood films of the ’40s, but in that one Mary is up against Olivia deHavilland in full Oscar-worthy rampancy, so she doesn’t have much chance of making an impression. Most of her best scenes also feature a very cute and talented child actor. She’s screwed. Nevertheless, Shadowplay salutes her!

No doubt due to the John Steinbeck influence, there’s plenty of “premature anti-fascism” to enjoy here, with Hodiak as the leftie hero who gets Bankhead’s back up, until she decides she likes a bit of rough, and he wins enough money from Hull to becomes a capitalist in his own right, which is probably a Hitchcock-Swerling addition.

Tallulah Bankhead is Tallulah Bankhead, which is fine by me. “Some of my best friends are women,” indeed!

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Canada Lee, an important figure in American film, gets little to do but cook, although the revelation that he’s an accomplished pickpocket is actually a relief, since it lifts him slightly from the status of token black or Uncle Tom. The most uncomfortable moment is right at the start, when Tallulah asks if Hodiak has seen anything “charcoal” floating in the water, meaning Lee. But that is, at least, in character for her.

Ironic that Hitch apparently never faced any difficulties from HUAC for making this seemingly rather leftwing film, but Lee was, essentially, blacklisted to death.

One thing that’s kind of good about the film, and complicates it out of straight war propaganda, is that all of the characters have good and bad points. Bankhead grumbles, but she sacrifices for the others whenever she has to. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, and not s0 stupid mistakes, in their reaction to the German. And Slezak’s German is given a genuine point of view, nauseating as it often is.

LIFEBOAT cost a lot to make, which disappointed 20th Century Fox: impressed by Hitch’s talk of “cutting in the camera,” Zanuck was expecting this single-set movie to be  quick job. But Hitch refused to shoot in the most seemingly efficient way (Shoot everything looking forward; then everything looking back; then left; then right), which drove Zanuck crazy. But looking at the movie, at the way the characters gradually become more bedraggled and filthy, it’s impossible to see how Hitch could have worked, save scene by scene, as is normal. Years later, Sidney Lumet would shoot 12 ANGRY MEN at high speed by basically filming each actor’s entire part in one go, but that could not be done on LIFEBOAT. As he had with Selznick, Hitch had held out a false promise of super-speed. His reputation for efficiency would only slowly be made in America.

Danger: Otto at work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2008 by dcairns

“Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” ~ Vincent Price.

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In this age of high oddness — more things are available to see on home video than ever before, but not necessarily the RIGHT THINGS — it is particularly odd that Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, DANGER, LOVE AT WORK, should be available from the BFI on DVD. Why not his first feature? Why not his only pre-Hollywood film? They might be completely negligible (Otto thought so), but then, so is this.

My dog-eared copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide calls the film “not inconsiderable”, which might be true, but I would go so far as to actually call it “considerable” either. Halliwell then compares the film to YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which is bang on the money (something that can rarely be said for the once ubiquitous Leslie H, a steaming middlebrow who didn’t love anything made after 1968) — both films try to create comedy out of an excess of eccentricity. Both have dated badly and can irritate more than they amuse.

Preminger claimed that studio head Darryl Zanuck, having handed him the project, tried to foist Simone Simon upon the director as leading lady. OP protested that with SS’s scanty command of English she would be unable to cope with the current fashion for fast-talking screwball dialogue, and he claims that after a couple of days filming he was proved right. Simone was sent packing, only making her real mark in American movies a few years later at RKO.

I find it hard to believe that Zanuck would cast Simon as the daughter of a family of wealthy American eccentrics. How would he get around her obvious ooh-la-la? Some studio bosses may have been stupid, but Zanuck wasn’t one of them. Preminger tells this story in Gerald Pratley’s critical study of the director (mostly a bunch of Otto anecdotes), again in his ottobiography, and it’s repeated in Willi Frischauer’s unauthorised bio (mostly a bunch of suspiciously similar Otto anecdotes), but I’d love to hear the Zanuck version, or better yet, an account by a neutral third party.

Anyhow, Ann Sothern landed the part, and she’s the most appealing feature of the film, sexy and zesty and doing a bit of a Katherine Hepburn impersonation but not so’s it gets annoying.

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Preminger further claims that Zanuck LOVED what he did with the film, and this is harder still to accept, since it’s conspicuously UNamusing for a comedy of this period (it’s pretty hard to find dull studio comedies of this era, though they do exist). The film also lacks much of Preminger’s flowing visual style, tending to cut into closer views whenever it threatens to get any visual momentum going. The exception is a nice shot that follows Jack Haley and Ann Sothern out of a bedroom, along a looong landing and down a staircase, which also serves as build-up to Edward Everett Horton’s entrance.

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Horton (see B. Kite’s splendid profile in The Believer: “Edward Everett, are you gay?”) is another of the film’s delights, cast flamboyantly against type as a notoriously “masterful” he-man. As interpreted by EEH, this character is a mass of neurotic tics, obviously living a lie: HE knows he’s not masterful, and he expects at any instant to be rumbled by all and sundry, and so he strides around in a perpetual tizzy at the thought of his imminent shaming. A joy.

Jack Haley is a weak spot as leading hombre. With the appearance of a cherub gone to seed, he apparently thinks he’s CUTE. Fiona didn’t recognise the Tin Man without his lead-based face paint. He proves to be one of those select unfortunate actors who only really works when he’s wearing a funnel on his head. Richard Gere is another.

Fiona: “I don’t recall Richard Gere ever wearing a funnel on his head.”

Me: “He never had. But BOY does he need one.”

Also troublesome: John Carradine as Hollywood’s idea of a modern artist. One enjoys the Carradine presence, of course — a cadaver jerked about by invisible wires — but the loony modern artist is a tiresome comic trope. Then there’s the irritating kid — the problem here is that most Hollywood kids are already irksome without seeming to try (well, they DO try, awfully hard, but to be sweet and moppet-like rather than irksome), so an annoying little professional who’s actually an ass-pain ON PURPOSE is more than can be stood without anaesthetic.

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What I’m really complaining about is an accumulation of bits of zaniness, that tiresome substitute for the genuinely surprising. In a zany context, almost nothing is surprising except shock brutality (Jack Haley savagely kicking the little boy into a mud puddle isn’t funny exactly, but it’s a welcome change of tone). And surprise is lifesblood to comedy.

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But but but — Preminger was not totally without comedy props. His two Lubitsch-related films are hard to see, but I did manage to get my mitts on a VHS off-air recording of A ROYAL SCANDAL, made under the Great Ernst’s supervision (the other “collaboration”, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, was developed by Lubitsch then taken over by Otto after the maestro was struck down by post-coital heart attack). The film has just gotten a BFI DVD release.

And it’s pretty good! While most attention has focused on the film being unusually weak for a Lubitsch comedy, one could as well say that it’s unusually funny for a Preminger comedy. And it has Charles “Piggy-Wiggy”Coburn, who can’t NOT be funny unless seriously handicapped. The script seems to get wittier when he’s around, possibly because he’s playing a Macchiavellian rogue politician and that’s something both Lubitsch and Preminger can get a kick out of. Vincent Price is enjoyable as ever and in the lead, Tallulah Bankhead is a great Catherine the Great.

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William Eythe is the weak spot here — his timing is impeccable (EVERYBODY’S timing is impeccable when Lubitsch is lurking by, he mines comedy from the unlikeliest people) but he lacks charisma, and even in a tight white uniform he doesn’t really have what it takes to explain Tallulah’s lust for him. But he does get the best gag in the film…

Tallulah has laid her cards on the table — she hasn’t laid William but she’s declared she wants to. He steps away from the divan where she reclines and retreats to the wall. Pensive, abstracted in deep thought, he paces the room. For a long time he paces. Preminger’s camera follows him in one of those long, elegant tracks. Then — double take! he paces right into Tallulah, who has left her divan, unseen by us and him, to stand patiently in his path and wait for him to pace into her velvety clutches.

It doesn’t sound much, but it’s an elegant joke on the camera’s ability to be fooled, during a long take, if things don’t stay still. It marks the point in the film where Lubitsch’s wit and Preminger’s rather different pure style come together for one glorious moment.

The Importance of Being Ernst