Archive for Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Sunday Intertitle: The Whoring Twenties

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by dcairns

As far as I know, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE is the only roadshow musical about the white slave trade, but I could be wrong.

We watched it partly in honour of the late Carol Channing and André Previn, both of whom make excellent contributions to whatever this film is, and partly just because I’d picked up the DVD for cheap and had never watched the film properly. An odd DVD, whose Greek subtitles seemed to switch on automatically whenever there was an intertitle.GOOD use of intertitles, though — the movie is a twenties pastiche, fine, but they’ve worked out a specific way of using intertitles in a talkie — they use them as thought bubbles. So Millie (Julie Andrews) will look to the camera at a key moment and the intertitle will pop up, giving us her take on whatever’s just happened. And they don’t overuse the gimmick.

The Hallelujah Chorus, wrote editor Ralph Rosenbaum, is “always a sure sign of a film in trouble,” and so are wipes, and this film liberally uses both. Iris in and outs are fine, period-appropriately, and I wish people would use them for no reason in non-period movies, but wipes are the devil’s own transition devices. They should be shunned. And those flip-flop things, where one image blurringly spins like a revolving door and another replaces it, make me want to take an axe to the next optical printer I see.

(DEEP BREATH) Everyone in this is perfectly good, OK, and it’s terrific to see Beatrice Lillie in a rare movie perf (but in a problematic role) but James Fox is the stand-out. The glasses are clearly aiming at Harold Lloyd (I overcomplicated things by wondering if Creighton Hale was also an influence), confirmed when he gives the matte lines a work-out by scaling Millie’s place of work, human fly fashion. It’s a shame his big number, the Tapioca, is quite poorly filmed (they over-edit and cut off the feet). George Roy Hill is not a musicals guy, I fear.

Oh, and Fiona was impressed by how sexy Julie Andrews managed to get during her vamp scene. Apart from THE AMERICANISATION OF EMILY, where James Garner seems to animate some hitherto iced-over aspect of the Andrews persona, she’s not really known for her blistering eroticism, is she? And yet, here it is, however briefly.

Being a long, sprawling roadshow affair, the movie by rights ought to offer a PANOPLY OF TWENTIES AMERICANA, but this it has no interest in doing. Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s putative stage career leads to absolutely no Broadway business, and the settings specifically evocative of the period are limited to a vaudeville show, a country house (with biplanes), a Chinatown knocking shop. Most of the action seems to take place in a nondescript hotel (it’s written as eccentric but the art department keep things TV-movie-looking) and an office.

Oh, the movie does come up with one of the great actor/drug combos of all time. You know how Dennis Hopper performing a sense memory of nitrous oxide became an iconic image in BLUE VELVET? The combination of John Gavin and curare proves similarly apt. The filmmakers must have known they were onto a good thing with this business, because they blowpipe the poor bastard twice.

Gavin is GOOD in this. He gets the joke, he knows he’s the butt, and he goes at it. Admirable.

The sex trafficking angle (no, we don’t see Calvin Coolidge as a customer: it was a different era) is handled… weirdly. The movie opens with a choloroforming/abduction scene shot like a giallo, lit and designed like a TV movie of the week. In Chinatown, the whorehouse-warehouse is a Man’s Adventure magazine style bdsm fantasia. And, when James Fox, looking rather fetching in flapper drag, is kidnapped and his captors go “Ugh!”, thinking him less than glamorous, Beatrice Lillie shrugs, “I know she’s not much, but in a dark corner on the late, late shift…” which puts the whole thing into a really horribly clear picture and any amusement kind of does a death rattle. We’re openly being invited to imagine a line of sweaty customers doing a train on a drugged-up, cross-dressed James Fox. I know it’s A Ross Hunter Production, but I can’t imagine they really wanted to do that to their audience.

The racism is another spectre haunting the story. Jack Soo & Pat Morita get a sinister gong on first appearance, as if we’re meant to be scared of them purely because they’re Chinese (in fairness, one can imagine a movie pastiche portraying any pair of spying henchmen of whatever race in a similar way: but here, it has a particular ethnic flavour). Philip Ahn as a sympathetic servant can’t do enough to remove the yellow peril undertones, as he enters too late and does too little, and that in a subservient capacity. The otherwise pointless Jewish wedding scene is presumably meant to make things feel inclusive, which is a pretty clueless idea. Seeing four white protags beat up a couple of stage Chinamen and stand triumphantly over their crumpled bodies has an uncomfortable feel to it, nowadays. The period pastiche patina should help alibi this, but it’s a strain.

And you don’t want strain in a musical.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE stars Maria Von Trapp; Chas; Mary Richards; Flo; Sam Loomis; Sammy Fong; Mr. Miyagi; Dr. Fong; Mrs. Lorelei Dodge-Blodgett; and Molly Molloy.

Advertisements

The Monday Intertitle: Barnstormers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-11-25-12h28m01s216

In Tay Garnett’s riveting pre-code HER MAN, there’s a cameo by perennial bit-player Franklin Pangborn which may raise eyebrows. Pangborn is beloved of Preston Sturges fans and lovers of 30s and 40s movies generally for his finely-honed fruit characterisations, playing “the pansy” as comic foil, swelling more than a scene or two with his arch antics. It’s not exactly a politically-correct take on homosexuality, and of course it’s strictly coded so as not to offend the censors — Pangborn never, or almost never, has any visible other half with whom a homosexual act could ever occur, even off-camera — he’s “the only gay in the village” so that his persona exists only as a series of caricatured mannerisms. Nevertheless, everybody seems to love Franklin P, gay or straight.

What’s startling about HER MAN is that Pangborn isn’t playing it camp. “A pre-gay Pangborn” is how one amateur reviewer referred to his appearance here, and it’s a touch disconcerting to see that all-too-familiar actor suddenly disporting with unrecognizable attributes. I got the same uncanny valley feel from seeing Mischa Auer without his mellifluous Russian accent in something called SINISTER HANDS (1931), playing “Swami Yomurda.” I know these guys are comic specialists and what we see is schtick, not reality, but somehow I don’t want to see them any other way.

But this seems to be a one-off, for in EXIT SMILING (1926), the Pangborn we know and adore is present and correct, albeit silent.

Pangborn plays the butch leading man in a company of strolling players, who is naturally enough effeminate and sissified off-stage. All the familiar tropes are here — the narrowing eyes, the toss of the head, the near-perpetual air of grande-dame outrage. The following line occurs when the leading lady accidentally tumbles into his berth on the sleeper train.

vlcsnap-2013-11-25-12h27m57s180

The movie’s real good too. Said leading lady is the great Beatrice Lillie, playing a role surely planned for Gloria Swanson (who excelled as a similar stage-struck drudge in STAGE-STRUCK), this being an MGM production. As good (and game!) as Swanson is, I don’t believe she could be as funny as Lillie, who is a true comedian’s comedienne, or vice-versa. I began to appreciate the brilliant things she was doing with her costumes. It soon seemed there would be a bit of amusing costume-work in every scene, from an apron that won’t stay on to a hat adorned with a pom-pom she’s just used as powder puff to apply her makeup, to a boa which she slings round her neck only to have it spontaneously unloop itself and slide down her back, affixing itself somehow to her skirt, to dangle like a skunk tail.

vlcsnap-2013-11-25-12h25m41s98

This all seems like it’s going to climax with the scene where she drags up as the villain in a melodrama — twirling a moustache that comes off in her hand — but the film has a further comic set-piece up its sleeve, when she plays the vamp, and that one’s really good.

Lillie had a strange career — all the high points are decades apart. Her silent career went nowhere after this. She made a pre-code musical, ARE YOU THERE? which is now apparently lost save its soundtrack, and she starred in ON APPROVAL, forming a superb one-off double-act with an unexpectedly hilarious Clive Brook (who also directed). And then came THOROUGLY MODERN MILLIE.

vlcsnap-2013-11-25-12h28m33s18

While Lillie loses something by not being able to use her precise vocals, her odd, sculptural appearance (midway between a novelty pepperpot and one of those figures who emerge from clockfaces to signal rain) and eloquent movements are all the equipment she needs to get laughs, and she may provoke a tear too. The material (story by Marc Connelly) is straightforward stuff and leading man Jack Pickford is a hair too rodent-like, but Samuel Taylor frames crisply and indulges in sweeping, formal camera moves, some of which bizarrely suggest Dario Argento in their precision. (I suppose I’m unduly influenced by an early tracking shot approaching a stage curtain and ending on a single eye peeping through a gap in the drapes.)

Taylor is mainly remembered for supposedly adding the credit “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” to his film of Shakepeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW. A shame, because he had strong comic and visual sense, even if he lacked the more common kind.

vlcsnap-2013-11-25-12h27m09s207

EXIT SMILING is, happily, available to buy and would make a fine gift for the cinephile in your life: Exit Smiling The bittersweet ending is remarkable.