Archive for Victor Saville

Think of India

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2021 by dcairns
It’s actually quite hard to find shots favouring Dean Stockwell’s face in this film where he has the title role…

It’s definitely a mistake to watch MGM’s KIM (1950) right after reading Kipling’s novel, but it would also be a mistake to watch it before reading the novel. So probably the best thing is not to watch it at all.

The three screenwriters have actually done a passable job of compressing and adapting a book that has several aspects that render it tricky. Kim ages from aged ten to at least fourteen, and the change in him is remarked upon by others. Still, Dean Stockwell was around fourteen and manages to suggest a fairly ambiguous age. Also in the book, Kim both speaks and thinks in more than one language. The writers manage to quasi-suggest this without ever showing it.

The most overt distortions have come in the service of Errol Flynn, preposterous casting as a Sunni Muslim Pathan, but given the lack of Indians in speaking roles, not really that preposterous compared with everything else. But now they have to give his character more leading man action stuff to do — they kill off Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway, the only one who dares attempt any kind of Indian accent — his role was clearly intended by Kipling for Sydney Greenstreet, or would have been if the actor had been a bit older than 21 when the novel appeared, and if Kipling had been thinking of casting white folks as Indians in a movie version back in 1900) to give Flynn’s Mahbub Ali more to do. He obliges by chucking somebody off a cliff and then starting a rockslide.

All that I can kind of overlook, and I think you could just about make a passable Hollywood KIM even with all those changes. The numerous location shots are a help, even when they’re just used as rear projection fodder…

What I can’t forgive is the terrible flatness. Andre Previn seems to be asleep (maybe it’s the heat) — he provides a bit of martial splendor (absent in the book) but remains unstirred by scenes of nominal suspense. Director Victor Saville is one of very few Brit directors to go to Hollywood and totally give up any attempt at achieving cinema. His standard mode is the flat two-shot, and I do mean FLAT.

Dean Stockwell shows signs of being quite capable of playing his role, but I don’t think he’s been guided, and the camera doesn’t encourage us to consider Kim’s emotions as particularly important. You need Hitchcockian POV/reaction shot stuff to bring the character alive. It’s a bit like Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND — he’s a little powerhouse, not subtle but capable, but he’s under orders to emasculate every scene by playing it as a cheerful romp (Stevenson’s novel is a horror story).

Who the hell is this meant to be? He narrates the film, but the even credits don’t explain.

The biggest casualty of Saville’s disinterest is the Lama, played by a miscast Paul Lukas in his dullest manner. We get a voiceover — provided by some unexplained Indian — TELLING us that Kim grows to love the Lama, but the scant, desultory interactions depicted in flat and distant style give us nothing of this. I suppose it’s a typical Hollywood mistake to privilege the violent action stuff at the expense of character and spirituality, but there are plenty of movies of the time that do get this right. If Frank Borzage had been in charge, both the relationship and the religion would have come through strongly: Borzage believed, as does Kipling (speaking as Mahbub Ali), that all spirituality is a way to truth (Borzage would have insisted on kindness as a necessary tool). And he was at MGM!

Although Kim isn’t an easy book to film, it does have a number of very strong cinematic scenes. These are all either absent or ruined by Saville’s clumsy handling, except for the hypnosis bit, played by one of my favourite underused actors, Arnold Moss — the book is 100 times more powerful, and provides visuals that any competent director ought to have seized upon, but the material is so strong and Moss plays it so well that Saville actually wakes up very slightly and it becomes fascinating.

One weird thing: I’d seen bits of the movie as a kid, and now I understand why I was bored. No child focus. But I do recall the cliffhanging bit, and when I got to this passage in the book, describing the plunge — “No need to listen for the fall — this is the world’s end,” it rang a strong bell and I assumed the line appeared in the film. It SHOULD, but it doesn’t. I have this FALSE MEMORY of hearing the line as a kind and thinking “Is that TRUE?” Maybe I heard a similar line elsewhere. The child’s brain is strange — as Kipling knew.

The Rudyard Kipling Cinematic Universe

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on May 22, 2021 by dcairns

This journey began with a Penguin book of classic short stories, in which I read Wireless, a very strange story indeed, by Rudyard Kipling.

That lead me, after weeks of time-wasting, to pick up and devour a volume called Strange Takes, which collects many of Kipling’s tales of the uncanny but NOT Wireless, which is incomprehensible to me since Wireless is, as noted, a very strange story indeed. With telepathy compared to radio as its theme.

Strange Tales shows a fantastic breadth — there are fairly straightforward accounts of supernatural vengeance, but also an uncanny dog story, the healing of a sick building, an account of what the Victorians termed “maternal influence” and an encounter with something called a “wishing house” — a creepy element in a story that’s otherwise plain tragedy.

Two features recur — the casual racism of the time, and a fear of madness so persistent that I wondered about Kipling’s own mental health history. He seems familiar with manias, persecution complexes, depression, the horrors, and all manner of malaises of the mind.

A character called Strickland recurs only twice, in the first two stories, written at the outset of the Great Man’s career, both tales of native revenge and both fairly horrid — contemporary reviewers were repulsed by the grisly imagination displayed, one critic declaring that the author would end in the madhouse.

Strickland is described as the sort of man things happen to, a throwaway line to account for the sheer implausibility of High Weirdness striking twice in this character’s life. He’s like Kolchak. Strickland is an effective sort of bastard, driven to grisly extremes in his first appearance in Mark of the Beast, and I was sort of looking forward to reading more of him, but he doesn’t appear again.

Still, Kipling’s prose and imagination lead me to pick up Kim, which is free of racism and cultural prejudices to a striking degree, magnificently written, and combining high adventure with still loftier spirituality. And here comes Mr. Strickland, walking into the book and out again within a page or two.

I’d started reading Edward Said’s intro but discovered to my fury that it was full of casual spoilers so I set it aside. Now I’ve finished the novel I’ll go back to it, but right now I’m following Strickland’s trail on the internet and discover he’s in four more short stories so I’ll have to read them too. Mark of the Beast is not his actual first canonical appearance. And he’s one of these masters of disguise the Raj seemed to be full of, dragging himself up as natives like the hero of The Deceivers.

But first I’ll watch Victor Saville’s film of Kim — from the one scene I remember of it, it’s clearly going to be a travesty, but then Kipling’s novel is not conventionally filmable. I did recognise a line of dialogue from the book repurposed for the movie, dropped into another character’s mouth in another situation, and I sort of appreciate that kind of effort.

Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2021 by dcairns

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.