Archive for The Red Shoes

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns


A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.


I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.

HI is for Historia de un amor (Story of a Love)

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2012 by dcairns


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

HI is for Historia de un amor (Story of a Love)

In the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Libertad Lamarque was an unlikely star. For a start, she was not even Mexican. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1908, she was a top star in her native country for two decades – before relocating to Mexico in the late 40s. What’s more – in an industry ruled by the incandescent glamour of Dolores del Río, María Félix and others – Libertad Lamarque was less than a classic beauty. A gawky, angular woman with a pronounced squint, she looked a bit like a none-too-successful drag queen impersonating Norma Shearer.

Yet Lamarque reigned supreme as a star in Mexico for at least four decades (from the 40s to the 70s) and was still appearing in telenovelas at the age of 90. Her secret was that of any Latin American star of her era. The ability to play any situation with total and complete conviction – no matter how contrived, melodramatic or absurd it might be. That was coupled, in her case, with a high soprano voice so crystal-pure that it sent a long, cold thrill down your spine, like silver needles. Her forte, of course, was musical melodrama. Luxuriant suffering in the manner of Lana Turner or Joan Crawford, only with half-a-dozen hit musical numbers thrown in.

It was as a singer that she first made her mark. The popular Argentine tangos of the 20s and 30s had two great interpreters – Carlos Gardel for the ladies, and Libertad Lamarque for the gents. Her fame on radio and records won her the title “la novia de América” (Bride of the Americas) so, even if she was not conventionally photogenic, a career in movies lay ahead. Her lush musical weepies of the 30s were akin to those of Zarah Leander in Germany or Imperio Argentina in Spain, both of whom thrived around the same time. It would be fascinating to know why this genre flourished particularly in countries that were prone to nasty right-wing dictatorships – but that’s probably a whole other article.

Why did Libertad abandon her home country for Mexico? Rumour has it that, on the set of one her films in the early 40s, she had a run-in with an untalented but fiercely ambitious starlet named Eva Duarte. During a break from filming, the tired newcomer made the unforgivable mistake of sitting down in the Great Lady’s chair. Outraged, and determined to show this little hussy who was boss, Libertad pulled the girl out of her chair and slapped her sharply across the face. (One may assume this was standard diva behaviour at the time.) Unfortunately for her, Eva – who never forgot a grudge – was soon to marry the most powerful man in Argentina, Colonel Juan Perón, who would become absolute ruler of the nation in 1945. Libertad soon realised that her best, and safest, career options lay elsewhere.

Within a year of landing in Mexico, Libertad was back on top. Her first Mexican film, Gran Casino (1946), was directed by a little-known Spanish refugee named Luís Buñuel, who spent the rest of his career trying to pretend he hadn’t made it. Historia de un amor, in contrast, is the work of Roberto Gavaldón, one of the all-time great directors of melodrama – and one who wore the genre as a badge of honour. Made in 1956, when both his and Libertad’s careers were at their height, Historia de un amor is deluxe musical soap opera with bells on. One of those films that elevate shameless wallowing to the level of High Art.

It’s the story of a singer (Libertad seldom if ever played anything else) and the trials and traumas she faces in her inevitable rise to stardom. The “love” of the title (in theory, at least) is her on-and-off affair with a composer (Emilio Tuero) who discovers her and promotes her until she hits the top. A boozer and a womaniser, but blindly devoted to her deep down, he marries Libertad only so she can adopt her maid’s illegitimate child and prevent it being snatched away by the father’s family. Our heroine enters a false marriage in order to sustain a false motherhood, and expects – in her self-involved and profoundly delusional way – to find true love and happiness at the end of it. As a poet of career ambition versus romantic illusion, Gavaldón is a rival to Douglas Sirk; the falsity of Libertad’s suburban Art Deco home (by ace production designer Günther Gerzso) is up there with Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life.

It’s a telling detail that most of Libertad’s key dramatic moments are played not with the man she “loves” (or any of the other characters) but with strategically-placed reflections of herself – in the mirrors, polished surfaces and gigantic picture windows that dominate the sets. When she rejects Tuero’s first offer of marriage – because she doesn’t think he really loves her – she asks him if he even knows the colour of her eyes. Turning away as she speaks, she contemplates her own (exquisitely gowned) image in a darkened pane. Later, as they share a brief and fragile happiness, she turns to the mirror in her dressing room and exults: “What a happy woman I am!” (A sure sign, in a movie, that tragedy is about to strike.) Sure enough, a few scenes later, the child’s rich, mean old grandfather has stolen her away. Libertad sits and mopes, artistically, above her own face reflected in the lustrous dining room table.

Libertad’s other “big” moments are all musical numbers, in which she communes passionately with herself and the one other being that truly matters to an artist – her slavishly adoring public. On tour in Caracas, Venezuela, she stars (without dancing) in a ballet number that’s an eye-popping black-and-white pastiche of The Red Shoes. Titled “The Girl in the White Shawl” it casts Libertad as a pure young maiden whose spotless shawl protects her from “the evil of the world” – in much the same way that her own romantic illusions protect her from even a nodding acquaintance with reality. As the choreography and décor grow ever more bizarre, her dancing alter ego fragments into three. Not just a girl in virgin white, but a sexy gypsy temptress à la Carmen, and a Greek tragedy figure in robed in black like Medea. Just like Moira Shearer in the Powell film, Libertad’s character is confronting her own suppressed demons, who may well hold the key as to why her life is such a mess!

Naturally, once its audience has sobbed and sung along for the requisite 100 minutes, Historia de un amor winds up in a tear-stained, if none too convincing, happy ending. Working-class audiences in Latin America had enough tragedy to contend with, so the least that Libertad could do was live blissfully ever after on their behalf. (The lady herself died in 2000, at the ripe old age of 92.) Call me a cynic, but the joyous finale of Historia de un amor was the one moment I found seriously hard to believe.

David Melville

Meet Lawrie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 30, 2010 by dcairns

This is a little documentary a couple of my students, Susan Lamb and Stephen Tebbutt, made about my friend Lawrie Knight, some years ago. It’s only  a second year project, so it’s no masterpiece, but it’s the only film I have of him, and he tells some of his favourite Michael Powell stories. Lawrie worked as an AD, stand-in, editor, and various other jobs on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES, as well as END OF THE RIVER. Other productions included KING SOLOMON’S MINES, BLANCHE FURY, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. He had stories from all of them, not all of which I have yet shared here…

I might need to add some notes later to clarify a few of his stories — he’d told them so often he sometimes left out vital details. When he set up in Scotland he quickly became famous as somebody who’d always mention his P&P experience within seconds of meeting you. And this, later on, is how we met him. Fiona was working in a furniture store and Lawrie trundled in by electric wheelchair to buy a couch, and announced that he was a film director. When she asked what he’d worked on, he said something like, “Oh, nothing you’d have heard of, probably. Classics!” But Fiona had heard of them, more than that, they were among both our all-time favourites, and within hours Lawrie was lending us his precious production stills from BLACK NARCISSUS (how I wish I’d scanned them!)

So began a friendship that lasted the final five years of Lawrie’s life, and enriched ours.