Archive for The Devil and Daniel Webster

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

The McCarthy Era

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2018 by dcairns

Frank Tuttle directed 1939’s CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE. I don’t know what they had on him to make him do it, but it must have been damning.

Charlie McCarthy plays himself in the title role. I’m not sure how he ever became a star. Plenty of movie stars are short, of course, and plenty are not classically handsome. Plenty more, these days, have rigid, immobile features, thanks to Botox. But McCarthy is tiny, knee-high to his co-star Edgar Bergen, and apart from his flapping jaw his face doesn’t seem to move at all. Added to these disabilities, either of which might be expected to disqualify him from motion picture prominence, he seems to be totally disabled from the neck down. His co-star literally carries him through every scene. I suppose it’s commendable that Universal were willing to overlook the actor’s physical problems, but he also has a really obnoxious personality, so I’m not sure why they thought it was worth it.

McCarthy, left, with his supporting actor.

Bergen isn’t so great either. When McCarthy speaks, Bergen seems to move his lips slightly in rhythm with his lines, as if he’s learned the whole script and is waiting for his own lines to commence. (You can see Emma Watson do this in the last scene of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, but at least she has the excuse of being a little kid.)

Bergen and McCarthy never made any films on their own. They were truly an inseparable team. I don’t know anything about their offscreen relationship, but there’s something I noticed in this movie… I hardly like to point it out. I feel like it’s bound to upset someone. But, in several of the wide shots of the two actors, it’s painfully obvious that as Bergen carries his diminutive partner about, his hand is vanishing up the seat of McCarthy’s trousers. It’s really impossible to miss. I can’t imagine how they got this past the censor, or why they did it in the first place. I mean, in private, sure, we’ve all done it. But on a movie set? When it’s NOT essential to the plot? I mean, none of the other characters in the scene respond to this startling behaviour in any way, just as they politely overlook McCarthy’s inhuman tininess and terrifying, corpse-like, unmoving features.

Charlie auditions for the role of Mr. Scratch, which he failed to play two years later.

I think perhaps Tuttle intended the film as a Bunuelian satire on the mores of the wealthy. The upper-class characters among whom McCarthy operates, in their swank night clubs and country manor, are shown as so absurdly polite and civilised that they react not in the slightest to the grotesque sight of this shrunken paralysed homunculus, face fixed in a hideous rictus, being carried aloft with another man’s fist crammed into his tiny anal compartment. They smile and nod and show their impeccable manners and their utter separation from reality. Viewed this way, CHARLIE MCCARTHY, DETECTIVE is a powerful condemnation indeed.

Also starring the Butcher of Strasbourg and the Walking Fontanelle.

Carnival of Latex

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2012 by dcairns

The red balloon.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO, an uncategorizable western fantasy from George THE TIME MACHINE Pal, achieves some of the grand, poetic, mysterious beauty it aims for, despite inexplicably looking like an episode of Star Trek much of the time — low-horizon prairie cyclorama sets alternating with overfilmed scrubland locales.

(Fellini claimed he felt surprise at seeing the Trevi Fountain still standing after he’d filmed it: like all sets, it should have been torn down after serving its purpose. And the camera is known to steal souls. By that logic, Bronson Canyon ought to have been erased by now, swept away by the camera pans restlessly caressing its boulders.)

I’m inclined to blame the cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner, an experienced MGM pro who did fine work on musicals like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER and SILK STOCKINGS, but he employs the same bright, colourful look here — everybody else involved seems well aware that this is not, despite advertising to the contrary, a kids’ film*. What it needs are shadows, both to enhance mystery and to hide the cheapness of the sets. Few films would have benefitted more from black & white.

Pan pipes.

Or from Orson Welles behind the camera. George Pal is no Welles, but I don’t want to be harsh about him, because he got this made, and he occasionally pulls out just the right shots — as in the mad spinning of the Pan sequence. Sweaty, gasping Barbara Eden emotes hotly as the camera burls round her, and her POV is an incessant pan, following Pan, whose goat-legged prance is wonderfully antic and teasing but wouldn’t amount to anything were it not for the brazen eroticism of her performance…

I dream of Eden.

Whew. That’s one of the centrepiece good scenes, the others being the incredible, brutal demolition of a fading widow by the fortune-teller Appollonius, and the Giant Serpent’s take-down of bad guy Arthur O’Connell is equally harsh and memorable.

This is the original of what became Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (and then Stephen King’s It) but Charles G. Finney’s book (titled The Circus of Dr Lao) is sharper and weirder, since Lao’s circus is neither straightforwardly benign nor malign, it inhabits a Willie Wonka Wonderland of rather cruel magic working in the service of … what? Humanity? Or Dr Lao’s private amusement? Charles Beaumont, that excellent scribe of Twilight Zones and Corman Poes, softens Lao considerably and gives him a more linear mission statement, but traces of the original remain. In the most intriguing adaptations, not all the nails are knocked flat.

Pal’s performers are rather excellent. Eden does the buttoned-down librarian act rather well, but really throws herself into the unbuttoning. The Pan scene is about eroticism in a way that seems distinctly unusual, not just for a kid’s film, but for any mainstream Hollywood product. Sex is generally part of something else, love interest or plot point, to give it plausible deniability: this is about lust and frustration and how good/bad frustration feels.

THAT’S why I think of  Star Trek — the snowman could be the Salt Vampire’s twin!

Of course, Tony Randall is “the whole show.” With a series of excellent William Tuttle makeups (WT won an Oscar for this before the make-up Oscar actually existed) he plays Lao first as a crudely stereotyped “old Chinaman,” then with a standard American accent, suggesting that Lao is actually taking the mickey out of his listeners’ expectations, then with a series of disparate and mostly quite terrible accents — his Scottish one starts out sort of identifiable, at least, before morphing into (I think) Irish and (I think) Welsh. Rotten accents aside, it’s a terrific perf, or series of perfs: his abominable snowman is just a man in a suit; his Medusa is a memorable drag act, but basically just a single facial expression, Joan Crawford green lips parted in wickedness; but the sombre Apollonius, insinuating serpent (voice-work for a combined glove puppet and stop-motion creation), dithering Merlin and Lao are all exceptional characterisations. And we get a glimpse of the real T.R. too —

Holy crap, just realized that the shallow widow is Lee Patrick, Effie from THE MALTESE FALCON. (Somebody should write a series of detective novels about Effie. Well, they shouldn’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t.) We also get John Qualen, Miser Stevens from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, doing one of his Yumping Yiminy turns.

Leigh Harline’s Chinese-Western score is very nice, and he finds, at last, a good use for the bagpipe: it makes the perfect sound to simulate the Loch Ness Monster inflating from minnow to plesiosaur — a combination of mass air-pumping, alien drone and screeching horror. Harline also scored Disney’s SNOW WHITE.

Nessie, animated by legend Jim Danforth, is a splendid creature, even if the optical work enabling her to interact with Royal Dano (who’s also in SOMETHING WICKED, oddly) and Tony Randall is distinctly sub-par, resulting not only in shimmering matte lines, but wild fluctuations of colour. Seems like rear projection would have worked better, but I don’t know if this problem was always apparent, or was caused by the film aging. Perhaps somebody out there can tell me? The other animation, on the Great Serpent, is remarkable for how smoothly integrated it is — most of the time, the serpent is a glove puppet, but for particularly tricky bits, like catching a cigar in his mouth, sucking it in and reversing it, he’s stop-motion.

And then there’s THIS psychedelic weird-out —

Young minds were warped… but then, that’s what they’re there for.

***

*It totally enthralled me as a kid, but that was because of its adult feeling, the sense of being let in on secrets normally forbidden to kids. Jan Svankmajer is very much opposed to the whole idea of films for children, feeling that they stifle imagination and infantilise us. His dream of an all-adult cinema is impossible, commercially, of course: the poor parents need something they can safely dump kids in front of without the momentary expectation of screeching trauma at the stuffed rabbit with the real tongue. What I’d settle for is kid-friendly films with adult themes — NOT a few adult in-jokes thrown in to divert the moms and dads, but actual issues dealt with in exactly as subtle and intelligent a way as we’d expect in good mature films. “But the kids won’t understand!” Yet kids cope with reality, on a day to day basis, without understanding that, either.

Let Lao explain it —

“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

Kid: “I don’t understand.”

Lao: Neither do I. “