Archive for Tom Ewell

The Sunday Intertitle: Adam, Ribbed

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2018 by dcairns

The first kind of intertitle in this film is odd, since this was never a play. But LIFE is a play, if you’re George Cukor, so that’s okay.

The second kind comes in the home movie sequence, one of the more convincing examples of its kind. Hand-held shots and hand-drawn cards.

Picked up ADAM’S RIB for cheap in a charity shop, just when this urgent Cukor job landed on me, so it seemed like a valuable bit of research. The Kanin-Gordon script is, I think, about one-third successful beyond all measure, one-third adequate/shaky, and one-third just weird, which is a pretty good set of proportions — things are never going to be dull with that kind of unevenness.

Examples: well, the brilliance is impossible to miss, with Cukor’s genius for casting evidenced not so much by the pairing of Tracy & Hepburn, in roles ideally suited to exploit their talent and their real-life relationship, which was likely the starting point, present in everyone’s mind as soon as the married lawyers idea emerged, but by Judy Holliday in an early role, Tom Ewell as a repellant slug, and Jean Hagen (how to explain Ewell’s success with the ladies?). And Marvin “Choo-Choo” Kaplan. Etc.

Things that are less successful? Well, I think there’s a slight sense in the Kanin-Gordon-Cukor films that when they take on the subject of women’s rights, gender roles etc, the late-forties/early-fifties version of normal is so extreme that arguing against it can seem redundant to a modern sensibility — Aldo Ray’s insistence that his wife not work in THE MARRYING KIND, for instance, is just obviously wrong, selfish and neurotic. Which doesn’t mean the filmmakers were wrong to tackle it — it clearly NEEDED tackling — it’s just that the argument can seem a little, well, obvious. And ADAM’S RIB is all about the double standard in crime passionel cases — on the case itself, the film is mercilessly funny and clever, but the development of the argument leads to some more standard stuff: the underlying issue of a thing is never as exciting as a good specific example.

Then there’s what seems to me a structural mistake, with the movie continuing a good twenty minutes after the conclusion of the trial. Developing the marital crisis in concert with the criminal case has been so successful, this seems like madness, but the writers and director, with all their experience, have decided that the verdict is merely the second-act climax, precipitating the crisis in the marriage, which will now take centre stage, with all those entertaining supporting characters shunted aside. Very well, but I think you’re making a mistake, guys.

Glenn & Claire Kenny have been doing excellent work on the Tracy-Hepburn films and unpick some of the pleasures and peculiarities of this one here. A lot of the weirdness centres on David Wayne, positioned simultaneously as gay best friend for Hepburn and love rival for Tracy. Which arguably makes us much sense as anything else about that mysterious pairing. But means that Tracy has to be at once/alternately jealous of Wayne’s attentions to his wife, and homophobic about him. The cognitive dissonance alone would kill a lesser actor. I have to think that Tracy’s Catholicism would come in handy, allowing him to compartmentalize all the contradictory elements. There are no connecting doors in the conservative mind.

Lacking those abilities, I’m forced to try to achieve some kind of wretched synthesis. Let’s dismiss any suspicion that Cukor simply didn’t notice how gay Wayne was coming across. It does sometimes look like that, but that would be (a) out of character for everyone and (b) flatly contradicted by all the clearly conscious gay coding that didn’t just happen, you know. That Buddha didn’t just walk into Wayne’s apartment and set itself down. Why having a colossal stone Buddha makes you gay I can’t answer, it just does, OK? In 1949. You don’t get to have actual sex, this is the nearest allowable equivalent, seemingly. Decor = sexuality.

So maybe having Wayne actually proposing to Hepburn is just plausible deniability for the censor. With no credible in-the-film motive. Or maybe he’s shopping for a beard — he mentions half-heartedly proposing to some other woman when we first meet him. Could the film be making the case that there are men who seem gay, but aren’t? Or is Tracy meant to be too masculine to notice that the man hanging around his wife is not a serious sexual competitor? Or has he seen through the fey act and spotted the seducer within? (Ambiguity is usually supposed to be either-this-or-that, not this-or-that-or-that-or-that-or-what?)

It’s odd to me that the role, which has to serve as a complicating factor in the marital comedy, developed this way. “Let’s make the love rival gay!” just doesn’t seem like an obvious way to up the stakes. And since it’s the comic trope that dare not speak its name, it has to go sort of unresolved.

But it is part of the film’s strategy of questioning gender norms. Seems brave of Cukor to have taken on this subject in this way —

   

Transgender phantasms of the supporting cast — Holliday and Hagen seem curiously alluring, then everyone shrinks back in horror from a dragged-up Ewell.

Thank God there was no formal HUAC for homosexuality! If you started looking in Hollywood films for a secret queer conspiracy to normalize the reversal of societal norms, you’d find it (almost) everywhere.

At the end, the movie teases us with a sequel where the heroes compete for a judgeship, he as a Republican and she as a Dem. My God, they should have made that!

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Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

Alfred Christmas Presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by dcairns

Before we run out of Hitchcock Year, I just wanted to run through the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master, so I can say I’ve done ’em.

Breakdown is a real mini-masterpiece, reuniting Hitch with two-time collaborator Joseph Cotten. There’s an extremely nice conflation of theme, character and plot in this one, which gives the impression of being a simple exercise in suspense and subjective camera. Many of the best AHPs do this: deceptive simplicity at the service of an idea.

Revenge went out as the series opener, bumping Breakdown into a secondary spot, purely because Hitch was so pleased with Vera Miles. She co-stars with Ralph Meeker in a very dark, upsetting little conte cruel, strong meat for 1950s TV.

The Case of Mr Pelham I’ve already discussed, and it’s a nice, inexplicable fantasy tale with Tom Ewell and Tom Ewell. Hitch’s intro and outro actually expand the story nicely.

Mr Blanchard’s Secret is basically comedy — I think Hitch was often drawn to these episodes as a way of working outside the thriller genre which his feature films committed him to. This is a tiresome, overplayed story, with a very annoying performance by Mary Scott as a crime writer (a frequent Hitchcock character/stand-in) with REAR WINDOW style suspicions about a neighbour. I found this so tedious the first time, I’m deliberately leaving it unwatched in Hitchcock Year. Because nothing should ever be really complete.

Maybe because it’s so dull, the episode escapes mention altogether in Charlotte Chandler’s filmography in It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

Back for Christmas is a marital murder romp (lots of wives and husbands get the chop in these things), undistinguished as a story but enlivened by the presence of John Williams, sometimes called Hitchcock’s most frequent star. Williams also crops up in —

Wet Saturday, a fairly delightful John Collier adaptation with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, another actor Hitch enjoyed greatly. Collier’s stories also graced The Twilight Zone, and one, The Fountain of Youth, got the experimental treatment by Orson Welles. If you haven’t sampled his short fiction, I highly recommend it. In amoral little comedies like this, Hitch’s outro is often used to placate the censor with a tacked-on “happy” or “moral” ending.

One More Mile to Go is another neat little suspense situation, referred to in my PSYCHO post. David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M) plays another sympathetic wife-murderer in search of a body of water to lay his wife to rest in, and pestered by a persistent traffic cop and a faulty tail-light. A lot of these pieces nicely balance the sympathies of the audience, as deftly manipulated by Hitch, with the demands of morality and censorship.

Perfect Crime is enjoyable enough, the story not being anything special, but the pleasure of seeing Hitchcock direct Vincent Price is a unique one.

A Dip in the Pool is a comedy with uncertain sympathies but a very nice twist. Keenan Wynn stars, and it’s nice to see Fay Wray in a supporting role. Spectacular stunt, also (above).

Poison — almost missed this one! Will watch it tonight and report back.

Lamb to the Slaughter is the famous one where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her policeman husband with a leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to his investigating colleagues. Even better than the idea suggests, although it is basically a typical Roald Dahl piece, stronger on its central gimmick that anything else. This shot of BBG seems to anticipate the end of PSYCHO.

The chair against the wall, the slow track in to a smile…

Banquo’s Chair is a fairly predictable story, in which a fake ghost is to be used to trap a killer, but the cast is magnificent: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh, Max Adrian. The VERTIGO echoes are amusing too, with impersonation, faked supernaturalism, a retired detective hero, and a Ferguson.

Arthur is a black comedy about a homicidal chicken farmer, with a lovely sinister and charming perf from Laurence Harvey, and the always-welcome Hazel Court.

Crystal Trench crams most of Fred Zinneman’s 5 DAYS ONE SUMMER into half an hour, with this tale of a woman waiting decades for her lover to be freed from the glacier in which he perished. Evan Hunter, preparing to take the job of writer on THE BIRDS, came by the set, and the block of ice shipped in nearly melted while Hitch entertained Hunter’s attractive wife.

Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is another incredibly drab comedy, with no bad-taste or homicidal element whatsoever — it shouldn’t have been done on the show, let alone by the master himself.

The Horseplayer could be said to have similar issues, but the religious setting is intriguing for Hitch, and the presence of Claude Rains (and Percy Helton!) means the piece can’t be considered a total loss. Quite enjoyable.

Bang! You’re Dead is another masterpiece, and a great note to end on. It’s not the last ever episode of Hitch’s show, but it’s the last he directed himself. The story is so nerve-wracking, Hitch dispenses with humour in his intro in order to justify the torture he’s about to subject us to. It’s a little gun-safety lecture wrapped up in another basic suspense situ: a small boy with a loaded gun. The small boy is Bill Mumy. As he aims the pistol at his mother, neither of them realizing that it’s a genuine weapon, the effect is both frightening and deeply shocking, almost blasphemous. Various parties are placed in danger as the story goes on, and the jeopardy mounts as the kid keeps adding bullets to the gun, so what starts as Russian roulette ends with the certainty of a shot being fired…

Hitch guesses that we don’t expect him have the kid assassinate his own mother, so for the climax he aims the pistol at the family maid. We’re calculating… is Hitch going to go through with this? He wouldn’t kill the other, that would be too much. But maybe the maid? After all, she’s not a family member, she’s not white, she’s not middle-class… You’d think the mother might produce the maximum suspense, but it’s the maid, because she seems more… disposable.

Hitch and his writers have thought it all through, of course.

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review Books Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 1 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 2 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents : Complete Season 3 [1957] [DVD]