Archive for The Palm Beach Story

The Deluxe Treatment

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

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My favourite bit in EASY LIVING is probably the guided tour of the opulent suite at the Hotel Louis. A bewildered Jean Arthur is shown around by Louis Louis himself (Luis Alberni). The sequence seems to exemplify screenwriter Preston Sturges’s concerns — sudden reversals of fortune, the fickle finger of fate, the absurdity of the lives of the rich, funny foreigners, linguistic play — and those of director Mitchell Leisen — most of the above, plus lavish sets. There’s a lot more to Leisen than that, of course — one might mention his love of all different modes of camp, his fondness for Mexicana, Freudian motifs, and romanticism. In a way, this scene shows how for years critics have tended to regard the deep stuff in Leisen’s films as entirely the work of the writer, while regarding his own contribution as window dressing. Yet the visual choices of a filmmaker are not secondary to the thematic ones. And Sturges couldn’t have staged this scene as well as Leisen, because Sturges’s visual style favoured vulgarity and boisterousness over elegance. If Leisen had made THE PALM BEACH STORY, it wouldn’t have been as funny but Claudette Colbert would have had better frocks. The Hotel Louis IS vulgar, but it’s also beautiful.

The scene could have been written for Leisen, since it’s suck a design showcase. At the same time, Louis’s garbled descriptions of the suite’s features provide a ludicrous counterpoint — I particularly like his cockeyed neologism “gymnasalum,” which suggests some kind of workout regime for the nostrils — perhaps Kenneth Williams had such a facility in his flat (we’ll never know because he banned visitors).

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The gymnasalum features a hobby-horse, leading to a surprise bit of slapstick. It’s not surprising that Louis should attempt a demonstration, but it is a surprise that Luis Alberni should prove to have such very short legs. They’re like thumbs. Since most of the film is shot in that forties mid-shot standard, the sudden appearance of the micro-limbs is startling, and we suddenly see that Alberni’s tailoring makes him virtually a circus clown, with the costume exaggerating rather than concealing his physical oddities. And, mounted on the horse, his movements acquire a herky-jerky peculiarity perfectly in tune with his dialogue.

The most fabulous thing is the bathroom, with its “plunge” (see top) — it’s bigger than it looks, as we see later when both Jean Arthur and Ray Milland get in together. And, in operation, it looks like it might be annoying rather than invigorating — little streams of water spouting from all directions. Like Dolby Atmos only wet. But I like to believe the plunge is as wonderful as it looks, and to hell with such practical considerations. When I’m a billionaire, I’ll order four.

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The only bum note here is one I’ve got only myself to blame for. When I wrote for a Channel 4 “education” show called The KNTV Show, I borrowed Louis Louis’s habit of randomly pluralizing singular words, and gave it to the Eastern European characters on the show. And then a set of commercials featuring a CGI meerkat stole this idea from me — otherwise, how to explain that the meerkat has an Eastern European accent? I don’t like most commercials, and I certainly don’t like the idea of some rich advertising jerk-off making money off an idea he stole from me, even if I stole it from Preston Sturges in the first place. Probably the meerkat isn’t as annoying as KNTV was. But I’d prefer, on the whole, not to think of either.

Meanwhile: I score co-authorship on a limerick. And a movie Fiona and I wrote seems to be tumbling erratically towards production. Remain skeptical, but we’ll see…

Support Shadowplay, and your classic Hollywood habit: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

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The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2013 by dcairns

No sooner had I finished turning one of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary intertitles into an actual graphic, than I stumble upon another story with an intertitle in it, this time PG Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings (a Blandings novel). The relevant bit goes —

If she had appeared, looking as she was looking now, in one of the old silent films, there would have flashed on the screen some such caption as:

salt

The missing comma that makes the second sentence read very awkwardly, is of course deliberate satire. It’s 1952 and he’s making fun of silent movie title writers. One of the remarkable things about Wodehouse is that his failure, or refusal, to move with the times does not harm his work, or hardly at all. No doubt facilitated by the fact that he never returned to England after WWII, he went on writing a world that never advanced socially from the 1930s, and indeed has much of the early 1900s about it. But because his particular comic universe simply had to be insulated from the darker things in life anyway (other comics thrive on darkness: Wodehouse can only use the tiniest grain of it), this time-capsule effect isn’t a problem at all, except when some glancing reference to modern events creeps in. When Roderick Spode, Wodehouse’s devastating parody of fascist Oswald Mosely, returns in the very last Jeeves & Wooster book, there’s some mental confusion created in the reader about when this is all happening — it can’t be 1974, when the book was published, but when is it? Spode has given up on fascism some time back, it seems, but WWII is not mentioned — it simply couldn’t be (WWII was a painful subject for poor Plum).

Wodehouse engaged with the cinema quite a bit, or tried to, but apart from the excellent A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, co-scripted by him from one of his own books, little of his work has really succeeded on the screen. This is odd, since filmmakers have been trying since 1915. Wodehouse had success on the stage; his dialogue is exquisite, if protracted (Hollywood tried to get him to cut it down, which rather ruins the effect, since circumlocution and repetition are such major tools in his comic armoury); his plots are ingenious; and he had a handy sideline as lyricist, though the movies didn’t exploit that much either, apart from the sublime song Bill appearing in all three versions of SHOWBOAT.

Piccadilly Jim, Wodehouse’s first big bestseller, was first adapted in 1919, and again in 2005. I had a look at the 1936 version. It keeps the characters and throws out the whole story. Well, arguably the story is a bit too convoluted, and has some tricky backstory coming in from a previous novel. Charles Brackett had a hand in the new plot, and dialogue is courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein (of the very mildly Wodehouseian country house comedy CLUNY BROWN) and Lynn Starling (ditto HE MARRIED HIS WIFE). Robert Montgomery and Frank Morgan are well cast.

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So why does it seem so strained and unfunny? Precisely the quality that a Wodehouse piece has got to not have. I think it’s because they’re trying to write funny dialogue for the characters. Witty dialogue. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of Wodehouse, whose characters are rarely witty on purpose. Like the best comic characters, they’re funny in spite of themselves, just by being so openly and helplessly themselves. When the Jim of the novel asks for a job, he doesn’t get laughs intentionally, but by stressing how he really doesn’t mind what he does as long as it isn’t work. Work would be a waste of his talents. But he’s sunnily certain he’ll be a great success in any position which doesn’t require him to exert himself.

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Glancing through Between Flops, James Curtis’s biography of Preston Sturges, I was pleased to find Sturges, in a letter, expressing supreme admiration for Wodehouse. And it occurred to me that THE PALM BEACH STORY is a Wodehouse type of story, filtered through the brasher Sturges sensibility. It’s a comedy about the deserving poor trying to get into the pockets of the frivolous rich, by various impostures and lies.

Then I read Wodehouse’s Uncle Dynamite (Uncle Fred may be mu favourite Wodehouse character: too bad he’s in so few stories), and it seemed to me that the influence worked both ways. The novel, written in 1948, opens with a young man on a train being embarrassed by an impromptu welcoming committee waiting for him at the platform — a situation Sturges introduced in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And the young man is just back from a trip up the Amazon, like Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE.

Did Wodehouse borrow lightly from Sturges on this occasion? It would be nice to think so, and certainly Sturges would have been flattered.

Snowflake of Lumberton

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2009 by dcairns

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What? Yes!

Snowflake, the black American comic actor showcased in numerous ’30s and ’30s films, and best-known for his appearances in Preston Sturges comedies, is a disturbing figure when seen with modern eyes. A gifted comic, he is generally cast in demeaning roles, as a half-witted servant or train porter, and he plays them to the hilt, without any obvious desire to subvert the stereotype or turn the joke around. At the same time, he’s an appealing sort of fellow, so his appearances often create a kind of sadness that colonises his scenes in a film and threatens to spill over. Another weird thing is that he always seems to be playing a character called Snowflake — in COME AND GET IT, he doesn’t get any lines or even any bits of comedy business, he just stands around grinning, but is referred to by Edward Arnold as “Snowflake” several times, raising the unresolved question of how Edward Arnold knows this guy so well.

Looking around the internet, not much seemed to be known about him — even his real name was in question — and then it turned out that, naturally, Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe had uncovered the facts in the case of M. Snowflake, and he was kind enough to pass on to me the article he’d sourced (since Snowflake is actually TOO PROMINENT a movie actor to be featured on Diarmid’s very special site). Fascinating to discover that Snowflake, real name Buster Hayes (how can anyone called Buster require a nickname?), was born in the town where BLUE VELVET is set. Just think, if he had lived, he could have played one of the old guys working in Kyle MacLachlan’s garage.

Diarmid says:

“Well, Snowflake’s a guy who everyone’s got an opinion about, but no one knows anything about him beyond what they see on screen (which is pretty damning, obviously). How strange. He’s not even in “Blacks in Black and White”, my seemingly exhaustive reference book on black cinema. I guess people just can’t take him these days.

It’s quite unusual to find that someone as prolific as he was never appeared in the syndicated gossip or humour columns. Obviously, it’s partly because he’s black, but Clarence Muse appeared in the papers often enough.

Anyway, I can only find one decent article on him, but it’s a good one.”

Note — like Snowflake’s performances, this article is very much “of its time.”

FEBRUARY 12, 1942

Lumberton’s Only Actor, Snowflake, Tells How He Crashed The Movieland On Recent Visit To His Old Boss Here

By Ray Pittman

Lumberton’s only movie star is a toothsome darky by the name of Snowflake and one can look a far ways before he’ll find a more genteel colored man and yet a more determined cuss when the spirit gets behind him.

Snowflake, for example, went to a moving picture house in Chicago close to a decade ago and saw for his first time the antics of a slim, dark negro named Snowball, who was packing them in back in the thirties.

Snowflake, at that time Buster Hayes, decided point blank that he was going to be a movie star. He went back home, packed his grip, and hopped the rails for Hollywood.

In a matter-of-fact way, and in double quick time at that, the Raynham darky became a movie star—and one who has played in 360-odd pictures in his nine years in Hollywood.

He was never in doubt, was Snowflake. that he’d finally get in pictures. But the way he made the grade was, he’ll admit, just a little bit freakish though on conformity with the accepted Hollywood-crashing procedure. Let Snowflake tell it, as he told this Robesonian reporter during the actor’s recent visit to his old home here:

“Two Genulmans”

“I wuz in Los Angeles walking down the street when I sees two gennulmans standin’ on the corner. I commenced t’ask the gennulmans if they knew wheah I could find a job in the Moving pictures and they says ‘Yes, go to the Hollywood B and B club and tell ‘em there you wants a job.’ I went to Hollywood, but couldn’t find any such club, so I started back to Los Angeles.”

Here Snowflake believes he became confused and ended up on the set of some studio. At any rate, “two gennulmans” again enter the scene.

“I sees these two gennulmans standing together talking and by this time I’m broke. I commence to thinkin’ and wondrin’ how I’m goin’ to get back to Los Angeles and all at once I feels my harmonica in my pocket. I asks these gennulmans if they would mind me playin’ them a little tune for a dime. Well, instead, one of them gives me a dime and I tells him, ‘Thank you, SUH!’ and stahts to leave.

“About that time I heahs one of the gennulmans say to the other gennulman, ‘Hey, Weeks, he’s just the man we need,’ and then the other gennulman hollers at me and says, ‘Hey, come back heah, son!’ So I comes back.”

And to make a long story short, Snowflake was hired on the spot, he says, to do a bit part in Honeymoon Lane. The “two gennulmans” turned out to be “Mistuh Gawge Weeks and Mistuh Eddie Dowling”, the former a producer of his day and the latter the star of Honeymoon Lane.

Well, Snowflake, still going strong, has been in Hollywood ever since, playing bartenders and porters and valets and funny men in pictures of all sorts. Of late he’s appeared quite a bit in pictures starring Don Barry, the Red Rider.

In fact, if you went to the Pastime theatre Saturday, you saw Snowflake yourself. He was one of the ranch hands of the heroine of “Bad Men of Missouri”

Worked For Dr. Dowman

The adopted son of Moriah Munn of the Raynham section, Snowflake-Buster got his start in this world as a general handyman to Dr. E. L. Bowman when the Lumberton doctor was starting out with a practice in the town of McDonald. Dr. Bowman had one of the early “Model Ts” in this section and Snowflake swears he was chauffeuring it for the Doctor when he was only 12 years old.

In his early teens the wanderlust hit Buster and he hopped a work train out of .Lumberton, went to New York, and finally secured work on a train making a New York-Chicago run. It was on the Chicago end of this run that he first saw the show featuring Snowball and for the first time in his life gave a thought to making a living as a movie actor. Snowflake says he rode the rails back into New York, then chucked the works to go to Hollywood and become a movie star.

“I thought Hollywood and Los Angeles was just around the corner. As a matter of fact, I’d never heard of either one of them before.”

The Snowflake-to-be finally got to the West Coast, but not without a deal of hard work. He had to roll up his sleeves and do a little out-and-out work of every nature after his very very slim roll thinned out.

After he reached Los Angeles, he drove a truck for a while. But not for long. Snowflake was headed for the lights.

He’s Satisfied

He holds no grudge with the life Hollywood has handed him, and  is more than satisfied with the money and the compensations his roles have rewarded him with. He’s been married twice, and has dabbled in chicken and turkey farming.

As for the matrimonial ventures, Dr Bowman will tell you that the first of his wives “married him for his money”, then induced him into the chicken farming business.

Snowflake will laugh at this, as he did the other day in the Lumberton doctor’s office, then said: “I didn’t like chickens, ain’t never liked chickens. I got tired of lookin’ at ‘em” Snowflake divorced that wife; he’s getting along fine with his second.

Snowflake looked plenty “Hollywood” the other day in his green sport shirt, gray trousers, and yellow convertible automobile. But with it all he was just plain home folks and doggoned glad to be back in Lumberton for a few days.

It was his second trip home since he left Lumberton. The first time he was gone for 13 years, but he now plans to come more often.

Snowflake’s in his thirties and is perhaps a quarter of a century younger than is his stepmother, Moriah Munn of Raynham. Moriah has been mighty good to him in those years, he’ll tell you, for it was the little colored women who took him as a several-day-old baby and cared for him until he was able to fend for himself.

Mother Disappeared

There’s one thing that bothers Buster, and outside of that he belies his looks if he never had a care. Buster wants to know what became of his folks, and especially his mother, Bernice Hayes, who hasn’t been seen in these parts since soon after the birth of young Snowflake (His real name’s Fred).

If anybody is able to enlighten Buster as to the whereabouts of his mother, please shoot a postcard
in to the Robesonian. It will be forwarded to Snowflake out in Hollywood, and the boy will certainly appreciate it.

And if you want to see Lumberton’s only movie actor on the screen, just watch for the new production “Palm Beach Story” starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea.

Snowflake will be the big, scared bartender on a fast train. But we’ll bet he gets in one good solid grin so you can recognize him.

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