Archive for Thomas Mitchell

Victory Thru Ty Power

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2020 by dcairns

THIS ABOVE ALL turns up, unnamed, as a reference in Anthony Burgess’s novel of Excalibur, Any Old Iron, which is what got me thinking about it. And then the idea of doing something on Anatole Litvak came up, and the two things dovetailed.

(The novel also features a US serviceman turned novelist called Irwin Roth, who seems to be a nasty joint portrait of Irwin Shaw and Philip Roth. Oddly, Shaw was a writer for Litvak: he authored the source play OUT OF THE FOG derives from, and later co-scripted ACT OF LOVE. This started me wondering if Burgess, who did a lot of writing on unfilmed movies, ever brushed up against Litvak. Actually, this story is a bit like ACT OF LOVE, pitting love against war, but without any of the bite.)

THIS ABOVE ALL features, asides from the elaborate studio recreations of the blitz which Burgess remarks upon, some good atmospheric blackout stuff at the start. The romance seems interesting, but then the film goes on, and on… Ty Power, of course, is playing it American, despite his character being English. He has PTSD and is a deserter, an interesting set-up for a propaganda film. I’m assuming it was conceived and shot before Pearl Harbour, so it’s allowed to be pro-Britain but a bit anti-war. Power’s problems have potential, but only come up intermittently: everything kind of drags on. Wartime movies usually bring a tear to my eye: I’m easy. This felt like watching Paul Muni shove a piano up a hill.

Joan Fontaine has good moments, bad moments, and truly awful moments which seem more like aeons while they’re happening. At her worst, that woman could simper for England: here, she does.

Litvak is seemingly at sea in this increasingly turgid morass. He tries a few zip pans, but they seem unmotivated, forced. Like trying to get a conga line going at a funeral reception. The action is far from zippy. Incredibly, the source novel is by Eric Knight, whose fast-paced hardboiled thriller You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up would have made a far better subject for this director. Knight also write Lassie Come Home. This one is tonally stranded in no man’s land between the two, a strange place to be. R.C. Sherriff, the poet laureate of Hollywood England, doesn’t seem to have found a workable cinematic structure in his adaptation.

Actors keep turning up, people we like. Thomas Mitchell, speaking truth to Power, essays a gratuitous Scottish accent, which is not disgraceful. It’s identifiably East coast, though it wanders up and down the shoreline a bit. Nigel Bruce does something rustic. You need these guys around because the central couple aren’t doing it. Whenever they were alone together after the half-hour mark, we prayed for an interloper to interlope them.

Very handsome photography by Arthur C. Miller, though

THIS ABOVE ALL stars Leonard Vole; Mrs. de Winter; Uncle Billy; Lord Willoughby; Doctor Watson; Mrs. Higgins; Professor Sorel; Mrs. Midget; Woodrow Wilson; Ethel Rogers; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Claire Lennartz; Dr. John Lanyon; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Inspector Lestrade; Old Tom; Leuwen Grayle; Uncle Arn; California Carlson; and Dai Bando.

Capra Con

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2020 by dcairns

After years of intending to see LADY FOR A DAY, I finally watched POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, the generally-judged-inferior remake by the same director, Frank Capra. I will get around to the original, I promise!Angelo Rossitto, top left. You don’t often see him there.

Maybe I ought to have a Capra week so I can mop up late stuff like A HOLE IN THE HEAD and early stuff like the silents and then DIRIGIBLE and FLIGHT and then BROADWAY BILL which I turned off in disgust when Warner Baxter hit Clarence Muse? I find I have to be careful with Capra — up to a certain point, I find his work admirable, incredibly skilled, then I can sour on him because of his undoubted excesses or bum notes, and then I can reach the point where I’m no longer able to appreciate the brilliance because the less pleasant qualities are shining too luminously. This may be what happened to his biographer, Joseph McBride, who wrote an excellent book which does not make you think more highly of its subject.Pros and cons. Pros:

  1. Lots of terrific character actors and comics, from Peter Falk, who brings the pre-code energy Ford tends to lack, to Edward Everett Horton, still magnificent, all the way down to little Angelo Rossitto. Arthur O’Connell plays a Spanish count, which seems bizarre on the face of it but he’s excellent in the role. Fernando Rey wouldn’t have been any better. And nice to see Thomas Mitchell again.
  2. Bette Davis is good, though the story, which has been inflated from the original, allows her to drop out of sight for what feels like hours at a time.
  3. Hope Lange is terrific.
  4. “Introducing Ann-Margret.” Charmed, I’m sure. It’s a nothing role, but she had to get introduced somewheres, hadn’t she?
  5. It looks really nice. The backlot throngs and feels alive. Randy Cook advised me to see this, pointing out how different it is from contemporaneous George Roy Hill period yarns that always look stark, clean and underpopulated. Museumlike.

Cons:

  1. Bette is unable to wring tears from this material, maybe because she’s too strong? But Hope Lange steps in and manages it. Remember Capra’s uncharacteristically modest late-in-life observation, “I made a mistake about tragedy. I thought tragedy is when the actors cry. It isn’t. Tragedy is when the audience cries.” Oddly enough, he’s right in general but wrong about himself: Capra’s most teary scenes always have the audience joining the actors — but often it’s the tears of joy, as at the unendurably effective climax of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
  2. They’ve added what feels like half an hour onto the start of the story. It’s all good stuff, but it stretches a sentimental farce out to 136 minutes. That’s obviously too long. There’s a point where the plot kicks in and I thought, “I bet that’s the opening scene of LADY FOR A DAY.”
  3. Glenn Ford, who was apparently such a dick as co-producer that Capra henceforth retired from features, is an effective lead, though with Ford I can see the talent but I usually wish I were watching someone else. Except in GILDA, where I think it kind of helps if you don’t much like Ford. You watch it rooting for Rita without knowing why. Anyway, Sinatra would have been better here.

Bette’s street person makeup is both good and bad. They’ve gone wild with the stippling, but it makes for an extreme effect that wins points for boldness. She’s once again wearing the big caterpillar eyebrows she sported in NOW VOYAGER. Fiona pointed out that older women LOSE their eyebrows. But I guess Bette is going for unkempt rather than aged.

For all the flaws, it’s not embarrassing, and it’s nice to see Capra going out with something large-scale, worthy of his skill in organizing group babble and spectacle. A shame he didn’t enjoy the experience more, but at least he wasn’t cut down to tiny, cheap stuff.

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES stars Jubal Troop; Baby Jane Hudson; Mrs. Carolyn Muir; Parnell Emmett McCarthy; Columbo; Uncle Billy; Mr. Witherspoon; Hunk Houghton; Rip MacCool; Nick the barman; Ali Baba; Lady Booby; Lt. of Detectives Dundy; Carson Drew; Miles Archer; Xandros the Greek Slave; Grandma Walton; Lord Byron; Abe Vogel; Charlie Max; Sgt. Monk Menkowicz; Hannibal Hoops; Peter Pan; Mona Plash; Mrs. Laurel; BJ Pratt – Bill Collector; Arigeleno; and Cueball.

 

 

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

Sternberg

“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

repulsion-coming-out-of-the-wall

4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.