Archive for WC Fields

Dickensing About

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2023 by dcairns

Caught up with Armando Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVIS COPPERFIELD at last. Bought it secondhand on DVD twice by mistake. It was almost worth buying twice.

I’m naturally inclined to compare it to the Cukor film which we ran recently. Iannucci gains by putting the protag’s writing front and centre — the fact that Copperfield is a writer is essentially ignored in the earlier MGM movie — sure, he narrates it, and we see book pages, but this plays out the same as Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and in that movie we kind of know that Dickens is writing the book, not Pip.

The new film begins with Dev Patel as David/Daisy/Dodi/Trotwood doing a dramatic reading, in the Dickens style, and becoming an author at the end saves him from all his troubles — he writes his way out of them. Somehow, this focus on authorship ties all the material together, in a way sorely lacking in the Cukor, which seemed like a random assemblage of stuff to me.

It helps to have a characterful lead — Patel is funny and loveable, whereas Freddie Bartholomew and Frank Lawton were like smiling stick figures. Iannucci’s actors are generally very fine, with Ranveer Jaiswal and Jairaj Varsani very natural as the younger DCs. Weakest link may be Peter Capaldi, although maybe the pruning of the novel has hurt Mr. Micawber as much as miscasting. He’s just a sponger here, not very likable, resulting in DC’s indulgent attitude coming across as just him being a pushover, which we see also in his relationships with other characters like Steerforth, who are MEANT to seem exploitative.

The other champions of Cukor’s film, besides Fields-as-Micawber, were Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick and Roland Young as Uriah Heep. Ben Whishaw is a suitably uncomfortable presence here in his Ish Kabibble haircut, , although in our more egalitarian age the character seems harder to parse: Iannucci gives him sympathetic underdog moments, or anyhow he GETS them, DC’s horror of him seems to arrive too soon, and his comeuppance falls short of triumphant satisfaction or pathos.

Pawle-as-Dick seemed untoppable, a towering comic personification, but Hugh Laurie is magnificent — the script allows us to know far more about the character and every added moment is worth its weight in gold. Laurie’s British comedy roots saw him essay a range of appealing, dopey characters, but the pixillated Dick is richer and more tragic. The sensitivity Laurie has built up in his serious work is beautifully integrated into his comic skill.

Sometimes the script improves on Dickens, or tries to: rather than killing off Clara, conveniently so that DC can marry a more capable woman, Iannucci has her ASK to be written out of the plot: it’s more compassionate (in a way?), more writerly, it makes interesting use of the film’s quirky narrational devices — but I wonder how comprehensible it is to anyone unfamiliar with the book or previous versions? But probably I shouldn’t worry about that. This is a film for smart audiences.

There are lots of DEVICES — the stage reading, fancy transitions, surreal juxtapositions, fantastical images like the dome of St Paul’s wearing Clara/Dora’s hairstyle (a screen first, I believe). Some of these are marvelous — the ending, with dc addressing his younger self, I found very moving. Some are infuriating — the action projected on a bedsheet interrupts an emotional scene in a very off-putting way. Some are just a bit silly: the camera attached to a clock pendulum seems to achieve nothing of value.

All this sometimes fussy play does give us a break from the camerawork, which a frenetic stream of Steadicam thrusts and whirls, vaguely Branaghesque (not a compliment), sometimes well suited to a scene of chaos or strife, sometimes just meaningless decoration. I longed for stable, considered compositions for the actors to be funny within.

I found I had not much to say about THE DEATH OF STALIN, though I enjoyed it. Iannucci is trying a lot more things out in this one — not all of them work, but I feel like when he puts everything together and throws out what doesn’t work he could make something amazing.

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD stars Sir Gawain; Malcolm Tucker; Adult Boris; Dr, Gregory House; Galadriel; Bernie McGloughlin; Q; The Ancient One; Wong; Poly; Diomika Tsing; Tite Barnacle Jr.; Brienne of Tarth; Stan Laurel; Yelena; Uzman; Anastas Mikoyan: and May Dedalus.

The Sunday Intertitle: Old Scenes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2023 by dcairns

So, in our Dickens double-bill, it turned out that, surprisingly, the director of RED-HEADED WOMAN was a better match for the author than the director of A WOMAN’S FACE, or maybe it’s only that the rambling picaresque of DAVID COPPERFIELD is less readily adapted to cinema than A TALE OF TWO CITIES, which is more of a rollicking thriller.

Both 1935 films resort to montages, title cards, hastily summarised scenes in order to compress their sources into a decent span of celluloid. At times, COPPERFIELD seems like lightning sketches stitched together with glass paintings and Vorkapich effects.

George Cukor abandons any hope of a unified style in his cast’s performances, wisely, I think, since it allows W.C. Fields and Roland Young to do their respective things to the fullest of their mighty talents. Fields is terrific, of course, a cartoon made flesh, even his costume design marking him out as an inhabitant of a different genre from everyone else. Young had a brilliant understated schtick as a light comedy sidekick, but when given anything more to do he always delivered — his Uriah Heap is strikingly oleaginous, viviparous, a cringing Gollum seething with pass-agg resentments. It’s hard to process the idea, though, that Freddie Bartholomew and Frank Lawton inhabit the same world, or film.

Freddie is a weird little phenomenon. Given business to do, he does it skillfully (wiping his hand after Heap has shaken it, with a barely-suppressed shudder). Given dialogue, he often appears extraterrestrial, inhuman. Asked to weep, he becomes a disgusting, bleating animal, repelling sympathy. Halfway through the film, we lose him, as Lawton is airdropped in to take up the role, replacing his younger self. Lawton is puppyish but a little dull. I guess Copperfield in the book is just an innocent set of eyes observing the other characters, but in a film we have to look at him.

Hugh Williams spends much of his small part appearing outwardly honourable, a waste of his oily talents — when the scenario permits him to hint at inner rottenness, he’s terrific.

Una O’Connor and Elsa Lanchester add pep — and make me wish James Whale had gotten to film Dickens. Basil Rathbone, whose non-Holmesian career was spent embodying evil, embodies it in a fresh way here, making of his wicked stepfather an alarmingly genuine sexual sadist who gaslights his wife and delights in beating her child. (The purportedly autobiographical FANNY AND ALEXANDER seems to have drawn its inspiration from this sequence, though in fairness not getting on with one’s stepfather is probably quite a common experience.) Herbert Mundin and Edna May Oliver are good living pen-and-ink caricatures. And the extraordinary Lennox Pawle, as the pixillated Mr. Dick — a kind of creature never previously or since represented on film — single-handedly justifies the whole enterprise.

The Cast and the Curious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2023 by dcairns

Or maybe I should’ve saved this title for IF I HAD A MILLION, in which WC Fields and Alison Skipworth trash more vehicles than George Miller could get through in, oh, a lunch break.

Too late, I’m using it for SIX OF A KIND, a Leo McCarey film I’d somehow bypassed. It’s rather adorable, with its middle-aged characters (only Grace Bradley is youthful — her screen partner/fellow baddie Bradley Page is only in his thirties but seems prematurely seedy and dissolute in a very thirties way).

Bank clerk Charlie Ruggles and wife Mary Boland decide to take a road trip to Hollywood for their second honeymoon. They never arrive — Page has smuggled stolen thousands out of the bank in Ruggles’ valise, Boland has advertised for traveling companions to share the bills and Burns & Allen show up, causing chaos; mostly Gracie’s doing — it’s interesting to see her pretzel logic and unflagging joie de vivre matched up to some life or death situations. You really wouldn’t want her around when the going gets serious. When Boland is hanging from the Grand Canyon by suitcase straps, Gracie gets convulsed with laughter because a key strap is fraying. Idiocy is terrifying. Fields and Skipworth turn up as small-town sheriff and hotelier.

Fields does his pool routine, explaining how he came to be called Honest John while elaborately failing to break the balls. Amazing stuff, his physical skill (all that juggling pays off) allied to his sense of absurdity. The punchline, casually thrown away as he wanders off, would have been funnier onstage, where the exit would read as a definitive scene end: on screen, we sort of expect him to pick up the line in the next set. But watch it a second time and the inconclusive feeling makes it even funnier. Fields practically invented the art of naturalistically underselling a joke.

Frank Tashlin seems to have had this at the back of his mind for HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, since the unwelcome car-share couple have a huge dog, though he is not called Mr. Bascombe or whatever it was this time round. Both movies are Paramount, of coutse.

Some comedians benefit from flat staging. Keaton, of course, used beautiful planimetric compositions as part of the gag. Laurel & Hardy, more apparently artless, eschewed showy angles and favoured flat lighting. And so it only takes a slight emphasis to turn W.C. Fields into the beginnings of a horror movie character. (His sequence being cut from TALES OF MANHATTAN may be down to the fact that the film used dramatic lighting, turning Fields from a cut-out cartoon into a fully dimensional gargoyle.)

McCarey didn’t rate this one too highly, and it doesn’t reach the head-spinning heights of THE AWFUL TRUTH, but I’m accustomed to his films either soaring to the heavens or falling flat, so it’s nice to meet one which is just perfectly pleasant.