Archive for Walter Brennan

I Am Groot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2017 by dcairns

Walter Brennan as Groot in RED RIVER.

I had a tooth pulled yesterday. It had been panging away badly. It had once been a heavily filled thing, more edifice than natural outcrop, but the back came off and the filling came out, so as to present only a facade to the world, like a western street in a movie backlot. So the dentist pulled itup by the groot, which turns out to be about the cheapest form of treatment you can have — only £12.50.

But now I’m rather sore. And sympathised more than I might have with Kirk Douglas and his finger-removal scene in THE BIG SKY. This drunken amputation was planned for RED RIVER but John Wayne didn’t think it was funny. When he saw it performed he realised it WAS funny after all, and his trust in Hawks grew. It’s quite a strong scene for its day.

Arthur Hunnicutt performs the op. If Arthur Hunnicutt ever met Walter Brennan, would there be a huge explosion?

Meanwhile, as I type this, Fiona is on the toilet watching CHARADE. She’s been having a Cary Grant film festival today as she prepares for a colonoscopy tomorrow. She’s going to star in a film, or a film’s going to be shot inside her anyway. To prepare for this, you have to drink cement or something, and it means you spend a lot of time on the lavatory. Might as well spend it with Cary Grant.

While I was trying to sleep through the throb in my jaw, and Fiona was drinking cement or whatever it is, she watched HIS GIRL FRIDAY and yesterday we both watched MONKEY BUSINESS (the Hawks, not the Marx Bros). Fiona is well-read on the subject of chimps and observed that the young ape who swings from a lamp and batters scientists on the head is making his “play face.” So s/he was having a good time on a Hawks set, as actors tended to do. Andy Serkis can stand down.

 

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Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2016 by dcairns

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So, my enjoyment of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA led me to investigate the often-overlooked John Cromwell a bit, flipping through my heap of unwatched discs to see what I might have of his lying about. BANJO ON MY KNEE came up — Stanwyck, McCrea? What’s not to like? Walter Brennan in support? Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson? All good.

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Plus Walter Catlett in the role of Harold Lloyd’s dirty uncle.

It’s not all good, though, but it has definite pleasures. It begins with a wedding, and the impetus gained by starting with the leads already tying the knot gives a sense of plunging right in. The story world is a novel one — the main characters are Mississippi river-folk, dwelling on boats anchored to tiny islands in the great river. The only unfortunate thing about this is it brings in a lot of rowdy humour of the kind Johnson would supply to John Ford, a little of which goes a long way. As the movie goes on, preventing McCrea and Stanwyck from consummating their wedding takes quite a lot of plot ingenuity, and where that fails, the movie resorts to making McCrea an obnoxious lout. Now, it takes quite a lot to render the laid-back McCrea dislikable, but at times this movie definitely manages it.

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Brennan fulfills his allotted role as Mr. Entertainment, playing McCrea’s old dad, lugging around his one-man-band “contraption,” and there’s amusing support from Buddy Ebsen and the sullen, feisty Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of Cecil, wife of Anthony Quinn). Tony Martin suddenly turns up. “Who the hell is that?” asked Fiona. “A bar of soap,” I suggested. But do you know, by the end, we quite liked him. But, just when he’s become more of a hero than McCrea, the movie forgets he’s there.

Theresa Harris from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Brennan’s contraption and Martin’s crooning combine to make this a kind of stealth musical. All the numbers are diegetic, performed in situations where they might be performed, and the plot to some extent revolves around Brennan’s desire to serenade his son and daughter-in-law on their first night of passion, that he might become a grandfather. The biggest number, and the one that feels most on the verge of breaking the fourth wall, is a rendition of St Louis Woman by the great Theresa Harris. I swear you can actually see the splice where this whole scene could be removed for screenings in the south, so that residents of the film’s locales wouldn’t have to be offended by the sight of a black person being talented.

In a way, music goes beyond being a feature in the film and becomes a theme, a plot point and a character.

Cromwell’s skill with striking compositions is much in evidence, so even though the surly hero and incessant brawling get you down a bit, the visuals and the music and the players sustain interest and provide lashings of entertainment, with a slightly unusual flavour. And Katherine DeMille, in a magnificently mean and moody supporting role, produces a surprising burst of wet slip action which puts Annabella in the shade. Or it would if Annabella stood next to her and crouched. Seems to be a Zanuck fetish.

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