Tearing myself away from the Lithuanian baby racing (banged a tenner on a sprog that threw a tantrum on the final stretch) I turn my gaze upon more from Stanley Donen. LATE PERIOD Stanley Donen.
I thought this would be interesting, having recently “enjoyed” his musical parody MOVIE MOVIE, which was a very mixed bag. I remember seeing stills from THE LITTLE PRINCE in old movie mags when I was at school, and discussing it with someone (a Gene Wilder fan, I think) who had seen it and hated it. So I was fascinated (those stills were intriguing!) and also rather wary.
I. Loved. It.
Based on the story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, adapted into musical form by Leopold and Loeb. No wait, not them, the other two — Lerner and Lowe. Much better choice. Still it’s a weird book that I couldn’t get on with as a child, but which I’d probably love now. One of those “children’s books” that’s probably wasted on kids. It’s very peculiar and so is the film.
it’s also made in quite a bold style that possibly seemed dated when the movie came out (1974) — Donen uses stylised sets not just for the fantastical otherworldly bits, but also for the desert at night, even though the daylight stuff is mostly shot on real locations (Tunisia). But this isn’t like Billy Wilder using rear projection for car journeys in BUDDY BUDDY (1981), Donen’s choices make sense for the film he’s making. Looking ahead to modern cinema we could even say he was ahead of his time.
In fact, when the central characters pass a giant fish skeleton in the Tunisian sands, and a soft-edged wipe takes us on to the next scene, it’s easy to see George Lucas MUST have seen this before embarking on STAR WARS. Everybody assumes those are sand worm bones in A NEW HOPE, but that would suggest Lucas had read Dune. I’m not even convinced he’s read Joseph Campbell.
Plot: An aviator crashes in the Sahara where, as he desperately tries to repair his plane, he encounters an extraterrestrial child who tells him his strange story… it’s like THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, only with more dancing.
There is quite a bit more to it than that, but describing it would get us into the pernicious realm of spoilery, and I quite liked not knowing what was going to happen in this case. I must say I would NOT have predicted the ending. Crikey.
Incidentals: travelling through space, our little cosmo-lad encounters several eccentric characters, played by eccentric actors of various type: Joss Ackland from England, Graham Crowden from Scotland, Victor Spinetti from Wales and Clive Revill from New Zealand. Not major stars, but with impressive track records of cult cinema trailing in their wakes. Each embodies some aspect of adult human folly.
Two of them appear on giant spherical sets, and two appear filmed with a fish-eye lens that folds them into a spherical image. This must be one of the most brazenly stylised devices ever deployed in a mainstream entertainment. It’s pretty alienating and freaky, but so’s everything else. What I actually loved in this film are all the things than probably made it completely unacceptable to my schoolfriend.
Once on Earth, the little guy (a rubber-faced child with albino eyebrows and a fright wig, also a curious flattened delivery) encounters a snake, who offers to return him whence he came by killing him (all in song form) and a fox who wants to be tamed. The snake is Bob Fosse and the fox is Gene Wilder, and they don’t use animal costumes or special effects, just a few jump cuts to equate each with the animal they’re playing. It works marvellously well, but might be a stretch for little kids. Kids would always rather have a talking animal than a great actor or dancer.
(The tacky part of the film is actually the flock of birds that transport our miniature hero through the stars — they’re poorly drawn and animated and clash with the rest of the film. I assume that animation was used only because real doves couldn’t be tied to a child and unleashed. We’re not talking Hitchcock and “Tippi” Hedren here. Maybe, in keeping with the more theatrical approach to the talking animals, the birds should have been invisible, with sound effects only, or something? I actually think they would have sucked even if they’d been better designed and animated.)
Fosse is amazing here. Fiona found it disconcerting to see Bob Fosse dance moves actually being danced by Bob Fosse. He’s styled kind of like Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe, and some of his moves and dress sense call to mind Michael Jackson, which is alarming. Both Fosse and Wilder’s scenes involve SEDUCING A CHILD, which obviously complicates our responses to the scenes, but I enjoy a healthy dose of malaise and discomfort in my entertainment so that didn’t spoil things for me.
Gene Wilder is doing his saccharine thing as showcased at the end of WILLY WONKA (he’s wonderfully sinister in the rest of that film) and it’s slightly problematic for me. I prefer Wilder when he’s funny. But he features in one of the film’s most lovely and weird shots:
It’s almost like a William Hurt hallucination from ALTERED STATES, as is most of the film. In Ken Russell’s psychedelic sci-fi extravaganza, stoners would famously lurk in the lobby during the talking bits, until a hallucination came on, then they’d rush into the cinema to experience it. In this movie they’d never have to leave their seats.
My biggest problem with the film was leading man Richard Kiley, a baritone voice with legs. At first I misread the credits and thought it said Richard KIEL, the hulking Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which would have been a miraculously brave choice. The kid would have barely come up to his calf. Kiley sings with that rather strenuous, fakey passionate commitment that I associate with the more generic kind of Broadway entertainment, and he kind of acts that way too. But in a strange way he balanced out with the non-acting, non-singing kid. By the end I liked them both. I mean, I liked the kid from the start because he’s a shaggy foetus in a frock coat, and you don’t see enough of those, but by the end I also RESPECTED him. He can pop round for a biscuit anytime.
The songs and music sometimes tend to the sugary as well, but I Never Met a Rose was lovely and Fosse’s number was spectacular (and looooong — Fosse fans will not feel cheated) and any film where you get Joss Ackland singing will score highly on the old Weirdometer. He can kind of carry a tune, but more importantly, he can bulge his eyes like an ill frog.
Having cringed slightly at the stylistic vagueness of MOVIE MOVIE, I was thrilled at most of Donen’s visuals here. He seems confident, imaginative, on close to peak form. There are some very odd camera moves — when the Prince first appears it’s in a little crane shot, descending to earth so the kid sort of grows, which can only be explained in fairly abstruse psychological terms, but works, in some way. A lot of the moves are beautifully counter-intuitive. I get the impression Donen is enjoying himself, which didn’t so much seem the case in MOVIE MOVIE.
Cinematography, favouring the wide-angle lens, is by Christopher Challis, who did beautiful work on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES and shot most of the later Powell & Pressburger flicks — films that aren’t as good as the ones Jack Cardiff filmed, mostly, but which are every bit as beautiful. And it’s worth getting his book.
I was lucky enough to see Challis introduce P&P’s OH… ROSALINDA! here in Edinburgh. After he’d trashed the film, which everyone involved in considered a total failure, he observed that this was a restored print. “I’m not quite sure what that means, but when I look in the shaving mirror in the morning I do sometimes wish there was a restoration scheme for aging photographers.”