Archive for The Wizard of Oz

The Sunday Intertitle: Wirework

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by dcairns

1910’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (Otis Turner) is a very sound example of those earlies that almost seem to be built around their intertitles. The system is simple: reduce a famous book everyone sort-of knows to about eight sentences. Insert shots illustrating those sentences in between thee titles. Film done!

Dorothy is blown to Oz along with a cow and a donkey and a scarecrow (he’s not an Oz native in this version, so we’ll have no mucking about with dreams at the end). The animals are men in costumes — I’m assuming they’d be men, in which case the cow is also a drag act. The loose-limbed Scarecrow is pure Ray Bolger, a welcome link forward to what we all feel is the authentic OZ film of ’39.

On touchdown, most of the characters are shown already in situ, just sort of ACTING as if they’ve been dropped by a cyclone, but the Scarecrow drops from a great height, falls gently to earth, then rolls over several times before getting his bearings. This worried me, rather. I’ll explain.

When Mark Cousins interviewed Donald Sutherland, the Great Man talked about doing his rope-dangling but in the church in DON’T LOOK NOW by himself because “The stunt-man, at the last minute, didn’t want to do it for some reason.” (If it were me, I’d be very curious about the reason.) Years later, Sutherland was complimented on his bravery by another stuntman. “Oh, it was quite safe, I had a Kirby wire on.” “Yes, but you were going LIKE THAT,” [rotates finger to indicate spinning] “Yes?” “Well, when you go LIKE THAT [rotates finger] on a Kirby wire, the Kirby wire BREAKS.”

So I hope that scarecrow didn’t do too many takes.

Anyway, turns out Dorothy is played by a tiny, nine-year-old Bebe Daniels and the Scarecrow is future director Robert Z. Leonard. He would have been on the MGM lot when they were filming the ’39 version! He could have said, “Remember, play him LOOSE-LIMBED!” I’m fantasising — Ray Bolger never in his life needed THAT bit of advice.

Oh, Momba the Witch (Winifred Greenwood) also enters by wire, and it’s a real coup de cinema, as she soars over the heads of a throng of Ozites, who scatter as she lands, centre-screen and resplendent. Glinda the Good (Olive Cox) pops from the undergrowth on a wire that just elevates her a few inches off the ground for a moment, but gives her rise a fluid, effortless grace. Amazing what you can do with wires. When you consider the actors who have done their most popular work on wires (Chow-Yun Fat, the entire cast of THE MATRIX) it’s surprising we don’t attach all our actors to wires all the time. We might not choose to yank Tom Hanks twenty feet in the air to emphasise a dramatic moment in THE POST, but the facilities would be on hand if we did.

The Lion is a man in a costume, but he wears a great big lion head, so he doesn’t have Bert Lahr’s expressiveness. (You know that W.C. Fields nearly played the Wizard? He went so far as to annotate his script with additional dialogue. The best line read, “Remarkable! He even smells like a lion.” The friend who told me this added, “It would have been a whole. Different. Movie.”)

The Tin Woodsman, looking just like Jack Haley, is surrounded by a bleak landscape of massive deforestation. Leave him rusty! Seeing him referred to as The Woodsman got me thinking about David Lynch, a big fan of the Victor Fleming version. And bang on cue, a winged frog shows up! Coincidence? I think not!

Momba’s house has an evil face. I wondered if, like Baba Yaga’s domicile, it could get up and walk. But it doesn’t bother.

Momba’s fatal dowsing doesn’t make her shrink through the floor, she just fades away, like Graf Orlok in NOSFERATU.

The Great Oz himself is Hobart Bosworth, who would direct what may have been America’s first feature film, THE SEA WOLF, a few years later. It’s lost now, swept away on the great cyclone Time.

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The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~

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Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

Special

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Managed to largely ignore the Oscars again this year. My overall take on the awards is that they can pretty much be guaranteed to go to the wrong people for the wrong films. If an award-worthy actor gets a little golden swordsman, it will be for the wrong film, probably in the wrong year. I have to be careful here because I have a great good friend who has three of the metallic minions, and he totally earned them. Maybe I can make my rule work by saying he should have won his 2001 award in 2003, his 2002 award in 2001, and his 2003 award in 2002. Yeah, that makes sense. Good.

I have a sort of perverse respect for the tradition of the Honorary or Special Oscar. Why should the year’s great accomplishments be forced to fit into a set of more or less random categories? Traditionally, these went either to children, black people and the disabled, or, by some special dispensation, to Walt Disney, who got three. Maybe because he made children’s films, and although he was neither black nor disabled, he was a racist, which is a kind of disability which relates to people of colour.

 
Prepare to cringe: at 3:14 Clooney utters the most disappointing words of his life (apart from, I guess, for some, the words “I do”). Disappointing since he’s supposed to be smart.

If you’re an able-bodied actor pretending to be disabled, obviously you can get a normal Oscar. Confusingly, Harold Russell got a Special Oscar AND a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Although they don’t actually manufacture a special Oscar with hooks for hands, or a child-sized Oscar struggling to see around the bloody great broadsword. So it’s sort-of special, but not THAT special.

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Still, though there’s a certain amount of confusion about how Honorary Oscars work (James Baskett got one for playing Uncle Remus, but Hattie McDaniel got a regular award for playing Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND: she just had to sit at a segregated table away from her colleagues on the production), I think the tradition should be expanded upon. Anything that makes the Academy more ridiculous and self-parodic is to be encouraged, so that the awards can be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

There should, upon occasion, be an award for Best False Nose, and this should be presented not to the actor or to the makeup artist but to the actual nose. The acceptance speech would be gratifyingly short. To avoid any sensation of anti-climax maybe Rick Baker could rig up some kind of air pump so the nose could sneeze its gratitude.

There should be an award for Best Dead Person Left Out of the Obituary Montage. This might have to be annual and there might have to be multiple winners.

Rather than giving honorary gongs to people who have never won fair and square and who are now approaching death, they should randomly pick a young up-and-comer each year and give it to them, on the understanding that the Academy can henceforth ignore this person’s work without feeling guilty about it. A sort of pre-emptive Lifetime Achievement Award. If we’d given that to Michael Keaton for NIGHT SHIFT, imagine how much better we’d be feeling now. Or MR. MOM, or JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY!

Look at how well it’s worked for Roberto Benigni.

The honest thing to do, now that we recognize that going “Awww” in the form of an Oscar isn’t an appropriate response to children, ethnic minorities and the disabled (although, given the Academy’s reluctance to hand out awards to any of those groups, why not give ’em a chance at a patronizing consolation prize at least?), might be to give Special Oscars to people who have been humiliatingly dumped by their celebrity partners. Jennifer Aniston is overdue for this. The poor woman STILL seems to evoke sad-face sympathy reactions ten years post-Brad, despite her wealth and success and constant visibility. It’s as if she had invisible hooks for hands. She deserves a medal — or an Oscar. Hmm, who could present it, to drive the point home?

There could be award for people who have contributed greatly to the cinematic culture by stopping making films. If he just took a short sabbatical, Michael Bay could qualify, and let’s face it, what other chance does he have?

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Imagine this guy in gold!

No person of diminutive stature has ever won the Oscar for anything — clearly an insulting mini-Oscar should be gilded in preparation for the moment when Time has whittled the surviving Munchkins down to one. Treat it as a tontine — the Oscar goes to Last Dwarf Standing. The Academy — nay, the industry as a whole — has a proud history of insensitivity and bogus good intentions — there’s so much to live up to.

Your suggestions are welcome.