Archive for The Great Gatsby

Falling Stahr

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by dcairns

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Reading Elia Kazan’s memoirs, which include his diary of making THE LAST TYCOON, his last film, it’s easy to see why the film came out oddly. Kazan’s mother was dying, and he experienced an unsettling outpouring of hate and bitterness from her as she went — he could not entirely convince himself that this was merely the result of her illness. So he was more than a little distracted. I rather hate Kazan for political reasons, but I couldn’t help but pity him here — and he wasn’t asking me to.

He complained that screenwriter Harold Pinter had shortchanged him on the love story, and that Pinter had failed to provide a usable ending. Indeed, though Pinter’s usual approach is to leave big gaps for us to read between the lines, this script is so spacious it feels less complete than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished source novel. (This is one of the great late films — it’s director’s final movie, based on a posthumous and incomplete book, featuring a host of aging Hollywood talent including Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. The hero even has an unfinished house.) Pinter, not much of a romantic, ALWAYS seems to scrimp on the love stories, and DeNiro can be a limp, ungenerous lead in love scenes. As for the finale, no doubt Fitzgerald’s brace of assassination schemes was judged too melodramatic, but what Pinter substitutes is curiously UNdramatic. Kazan shot his star/Stahr Robert DeNiro (the movie is an “interesting” blend of new talent and old) repeating a speech from earlier, shuffled into a suggestive montage, and lets his leading man wander into a darkened sound stage for his fadeout. It has the SENSE of an ending without being an ending.

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If the movie doesn’t end, it doesn’t seem to begin or middle either — it just drifts. Actors turn up — Jack Nicholson makes an amazingly late appearance, and livens things up a bit — or disappear. It’s very enjoyable to hear Mitchum and Curtis speak Pinter — you still get a sense of the playwright’s weird rhythms. Vincent Canby, praising the film, remarked that Ingrid Boulting, DeNiro’s love interest, alternates between an eerie certainty and a clueless inability to say a line. That’s about right — I’m assuming poor Kazan wasn’t much help to her, given his state of mind. A Spiegel discovery — neither Kazan nor Pinter wanted her — she could have carried it off with more guidance — her good moments are evidence enough of this. She was rather good in THE WITCHES ten years earlier — here, she’s being “introduced,” which is usually the kiss of death to a career.

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Fitzgerald had written a striking entrance for his love interest, floating on a disembodied prop statue head through a flooded studio. By the time Kazan got around to filming it, it must have seemed like second-hand Fellini. I actually wonder if the scene in the book could have inspired FELLINI CASANOVA the same year. But I doubt FF ever read the book. It is kind of nice that the head is carrying Angelica Huston, daughter of John, and Ingrid Boulting, step-daughter of Roy. The film, if it is a film, is a decided clash between old generation and new.

Pinter’s sense of period Hollywood is shaky — early on, John Carradine, sepulchral studio tour guide, brags that he’s worked for the studio since “way back in the silent days.” Way back when you were a young man of sixty-five, John? Jeanne Moreau makes an implausible thirties star, and places impossible stresses on the wrong words: “What’s wrong with my frigging hair?” (My normal hair is fine, but the hair I have specifically for frigging with, that’s all out of whack.) Having invented fictitious movie stars, the film starts referring to real ones halfway through, which is suddenly distracting. Maurice Jarre’s music is weak. Kazan’s blocking and cutting is sometimes choppy and chaotic. As with Jack Clayton’s THE GREAT GATSBY, the adaptation leaves you rather wondering what the book was about. And yet… it’s all rather watchable, flowing by in a distracted manner. Nice clothes, nice-looking people (Theresa Russell squints and grins attractively), nice locations. And Tony Curtis as an aging matinee idol speaking in Pinteresque non-sequiturs — that tickles me.

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“I love her. She’s my wife.”

“I know.”

THE LATE SHOW — The Late Films Blogathon will be running all week.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.

King Fu Fighting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2012 by dcairns

Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)

But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.

This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu  the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…

So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.

The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.

About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.

This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.

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