Archive for The Great Ziegfeld

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.

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North

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by dcairns

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For some reason, every film I watch lately seems to have an Overture, an Intermission, an Entre-Acte and Exit Music — it started with the Easter weekend of biblical pictures, but then Fiona wanted to follow up our THIN MAN marathon with Powell & Loy in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. The downside of these roadshow events is one gets half as many films watched. And then there was ICE STATION ZEBRA, which fitted in with my recent researches into the career of John Sturges.

This is a real roadshow picture, as whitely elephantine as one could wish — I remembered it from TV screenings, all those endless submerging and surfacing sequences, a voyage to the North Pole that seems to take forever (the first half of the three hour picture) and a lot of static scenes in cramped submarine interiors. Was DAS BOOT the first time a filmmaker realized you could move the camera in a sub? Wolfgang Petersen, for all his many and unforgivable subsequent sins, not only proved it could be done, he proved it OUGHT to be done. Mobilis in Mobili, is what I say.

Tempted to look at Robert Wise’s RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, just to see if he manages a track here or there.

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Anyhow, following on from THE SATAN BUG which is handsomely shot but also bloated rigid, Sturges is in the process of becoming the screen’s leading adapter of Alistair MacLean novels. MacLean really has fallen out of favour, hasn’t he? You don’t even see his books in Charity shops anymore, and the last adaptation was back in 1996. But in the late sixties and early seventies, you couldn’t move without slapping into a screen showing one or other of his thick-eared thrillers.

My English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Chapman, either knew MacLean or knew some someone who knew him, since he was a Scottish schoolteacher himself. She remarked with horror that his novels were all plotted on charts, with action and exposition mapped out at intervals, a cold, mechanical approach that horrified her.  I personally don’t see why author’s shouldn’t plan their stories on graphs — I just think ideally the finished book shouldn’t read like it.

McLean does not, so far as I can see, write good characters. Had Sturges applied the approach which served him so well with THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and stuffed the films with charismatic stars, some of this problem might have been diluted to a non-toxic level, but THE SATAN BUG stars low-wattage George Maharis (quite good, but definitely low-wattage) and ISZ has Rock Hudson in a severely underwritten, no make that unwritten role, which doesn’t capitalise on the actor’s light touch and sensitivity, nor on his impressive physique. Ernest Borgnine is quite good fun as a hearty Russian, and Jim Brown has a bad-ass military role which may be a stereotype but is a refreshingly un-racial one, but it’s left to Patrick McGoohan to carry the whole movie, nuclear submarine, polar cap and all.

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Fortunately, our Pat is up to this challenge. Talking in a preternaturally clipped manner, through immobile, wooden lips, with irony dripping from his every utterance like seaweed, smiling tightly on one side like a very repressed stroke victim, glowering like a betrayed monitor lizard, and occasionally pounding tables violently and yelling at the top of his lungs without fair warning, he’s a live wire alright, and not the sort of thing that should be waggled about near water. But waggled about he is.

One extra-textual pleasure of the movie, which manages just about to scrape up enough intrigue to keep a patient viewer partially engaged, is that I’m told it was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie during his declining years. He’d run a scratchy old 16mm print of it again and again, as he watched in the nude (possibly with Kleenex boxes on his feet: one likes to think so, anyway). What a cheapskate millionaire, that he didn’t even have an Ultra-Panavision 65 print.

Easy to see why he liked it, though: the hardware, the engineering, the jets, the sub, the gadgets, the militarism, the manly men being masculine at each other, and the icy cleanliness of the environments. There’s no dirt at the arctic — not even any land. The lack of character psychology wouldn’t have mattered to him — in fact, he would have embraced it, just as he did in his own production JET GIRL, in which the only motivation that stays consistent is the kind provided by Janet Leigh’s twin thrusters.

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RoboYeggs

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2011 by dcairns

Critics attacking Michael bay’s TRANSFORMERS pictures as imaginatively bereft, inhuman, bloated multi-million-dollar celebrations of cheap plastic toys merely display their own lack of historical awareness, for, you see, long before the Hasbro toys were dreamed up, TRANSFORMERS was already a movie, 1934’s Warner/First National production, THE TRANS-FORMERS. Tragically, the movie was shelved after the Production Code came in, as Joe Breen objected strongly to the sight of Joan Blondell, as Optima Prime, shooting missiles from her nipples. The film is now considered lost, and only these stills of costume tests survive.

The 30s was in some ways a better age for strong female characters, and THE TRANS-FORMERS reflected this in making many of its protagonists robotesses. Optima was envisioned as a curvaceous platinum giant with the ability to turn into a Model T Ford. The model cities built as her stomping ground reputedly rivaled those constructed for JUST IMAGINE and DELUGE. Blondell’s Optima was joined by the sleeker Kickback, embodied by Glenda Farrell as a silvery version of the robot Maria from METROPOLIS, with a shiny front grille and the ability to turn into a Model T Ford, and by the aptly-named Ned Sparks as Wreck-Gar, thumbs welded into the pockets of his brass waistcoat, who has the ability to shoot lightning from his scowl and turn into a Model T Ford.

We can never really know what this lost classic was like, although the casting of Eugene Pallette as Unicron suggests it was lighter in tone than subsequent versions. We know the shoot was troubled — David Manners developed an allergic reaction to the lead body paint he was required to wear as Cliffjumper, and had to be replaced by Phillips Holmes, on loan from Paramount. (Manners’ allergy was severe, causing him to lose the use of his head. Fortunately, a prosthetic replacement was manufactured by Perc Westmore and Manners was able to continue his career unhindered.) The pioneering use of “animatronics”, a new special effects technique whereby elaborate mannequins were jostled about on tyres by burly stagehands, led to budget overspends, and the movie far overshot its original schedule of three weeks. Script alterations were made to help get the out-of-control production back on track, resulting in the deletion of Frank McHugh’s role as Ultra Magnus, the wrought-iron Irish-American with the ability to turn into a Model T Ford.

Some say the project was inherently limited, and could never have been a hit, since the scenarists had given their heroes the power to transform into cars, but not the power to transform back.

(Stills actually from MADAME SATAN [top] and the first version of THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.)