Archive for Who the Devil Made It?

The McCarey Treatment

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2018 by dcairns

Revisiting Leo McCarey for an upcoming project. MY FAVORITE WIFE recombines so many of the successful elements of THE AWFUL TRUTH it’s practically a remake, or else a dream-sequel. Like the earlier film, it ends at a mountain cottage, modeled on the one McCarey owned for real, but just before filming began, McCarey was driving back from that cottage at night at ninety miles an hour (drink may have been taken, a hypothesis strengthened by the presence of Gene Fowler in the passenger seat) when he collided with another vehicle. The accounts don’t bother to relate what happened to the non-famous collidee, but McCarey was thrown 126 feet from his tumbling vehicle, suffering serious injuries, and Fowler was pronounced dead at the scene — only to surprise everyone by coming round in the ambulance.

So McCarey was chairbound during production of MFW, leaving Garson Kanin to take over most of the direction, with McCarey supervising as best he could. Kanin is usually blamed for the film not being quite as good as the incomparable THE AWFUL TRUTH, though he could be a very good director of comedy (BACHELOR MOTHER is terrif). I’d rather blame McCarey not being in top form, for obvious reasons.

The movie begins with Grant attempting to declare one wife dead so he can marry another — Gail Patrick, screwball comedy’s perennial other woman. There’s a marvelously tetchy judge, played by Granville Bates — Peter Bogdanovich would recycle the character as Liam Dunn in WHAT’S UP, DOC?* McCarey is using his own experience as an unsuccessful lawyer here, but he reports that Patrick, who had studied law, also helped.

Then Irene Dunne turns up as the not-dead wife. Basically, she’s Ulysses, come to slay his wife’s suitors. McCarey emphasises this by having her show up in drag, as a Portuguese fisherman, and having the family dog be the only one to immediately recognise her. This being a screwball, she doesn’t physically slaughter Gail Patrick, she just bamboozles her and produces a series of confusions and impersonations, including an embarrassing southerner routine self-plagiarised from THE AWFUL TRUTH.

Reacting to the sight of one’s children after seven years’ separation is a tough task for any actor. The divine Irene overdoes it a bit. In the unfinished remake, SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE, Marilyn Monroe tries to underplay, but just manages to look as if she wants to have sex with her children.

Grant’s first sight of Dunne is one of the great double-takes of the forties. In Japanese tradition, by the way, if you get a partially occluded view of a dead loved one (as in Miike’s AUDITION), it means said departed one has unfinished business, which Dunne certainly do, I mean does.

The scenario keeps ringing the changes on Grant’s failure to inform his new wife about his late wife, cunningly devising situations where he can make the worst possible decision. But the sit. can’t keep generating com. all by itself forever, and so a new romantic rival is introduced, health fanatic Randolph Scott, who it turns out has spent the seven years of Irene’s supposed death on an island with her, shipwrecked and alone. Calling each other Adam and Eve, continuing the mythic theme. This, deliciously, allows Grant to obsess over Scott, supposedly with jealousy, but with a double entendre for anyone aware of the Hollywood lore about this cohabiting pair. A tiny phantasmal homunculus of Scott torments Grant’s imagination from a trapeze. Scott’s physique makes Grant break out in a sweat.

Grant’s character, by the way, is Nick Arden, the surname suggesting Shakespeare’s forest in AS YOU LIKE IT where names and jobs and genders become comically fluid. The first name comes into play in the movie’s final mythic reference ~

*Bogdanovich would also borrow some of McCarey’s reminiscences about his lawyering days for the opening of NICKELODEON. And he seems to have borrowed large parts of Serge Daney & Louis Scorecki’s interview in Cahiers du Cinema for his own McCarey interview in his magnificent book Who the Devil Made It? It seems likely that Bogdanovich met McCarey and got the anecdotes about the early parts of his life on tape, but McCarey’s rapidly failing health prevented him from going on. At any rate, many of the longer answers in Bogdanovich’s piece are word-for-word the same as those in the earlier interview, a remarkable feat of memory for a dying man.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Ass Backwards

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by dcairns

I always liked Leo McCarey’s description, in his Peter Bogdanovich interview (contained in the book Who the Devil Made It?, highly recommended) of coming up with the plot of Laurel & Hardy’s WRONG AGAIN during the course of a brief phone call. There was a reproduction of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy on his wall, and he spitballed the notion that the original gets stolen and the boys hear something of this, and see a horse called Blue Boy and think that’s the stolen item, and try to return it to its “owner.” And he leans out the window but can’t see the horse because of an awning, and thinks they have his painting, and asks them to “take him right in the house.” And later asks them to “put him on the piano.”

(Laurel & Hardy’s intertitles are made of cheap but durable cladding.)

The boys think this is pretty strange, but after all, millionaires are notoriously eccentric, right? Ollie even invents a hand gesture, a cupping accompanied by a firm twist, suggesting how the very rich like to have everything the reverse way round.

This philosophical theory will later be helpful to Stan when he puzzles over a strange piece of statuary. In fact it was once a normal figure, but Ollie shattered it in three pieces, and put it back together wrong. Being a Southern gentleman, he was unable to handle the statue’s bare behind with his bare hands, so wrapped it in his jacket. The result, ladies and gentlemen, is plain to see.

But not plain to Stan, who puzzles over if for 44 seconds in an extraordinary performance which seems to cycle through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, but in the wrong order. He begins with mild surprise and segues into puzzlement. He seems to be adding up the constituent parts to check they are numerically correct. They are, but something is definitely wrong. BARGAINING.

So he’s puzzled some more, and then a sort of false illumination hits him and he becomes, momentarily, very happy. I don’t think Stan knows why he’s smiling, the gladness is just like a hat he’s trying on. Maybe this is how he should react… will everything make sense if he’s happy about it? DENIAL.

Then, just as suddenly, he’s absolutely scandalised. This is an outrage! It’s as if the nude statue has somehow become twice as nude, just to insult him, personally. ANGER.

And back to BARGAINING/DENIAL. Let’s try this from another angle. It might make more sense from over here. Stan is almost moving into the role of an innocent tourist confronting a work of surrealism or, better, cubism, in a gallery.

But this doesn’t help, and finally Stan seems stumped. There are the right number of parts but, like Stan’s thought processes, they are disordered. Nothing seems adequate to explaining this obscurely terrible situation. DEPRESSION.

Finally, he remembers Ollie’s wise words and descriptive hand gesture, and a new happiness descends on him. The awful statue can be explained by the odd nature of the homeowner. Millionaires like normal things reversed. ACCEPTANCE.

Ollie’s fresh smile is now the satisfied bliss of true understanding. But Stan doesn’t leave us on this note. He prepares to leave, back to the plot, but sneaks a last glance at the offending derrière. A queasy feeling comes over him. His joy drains away. Yes. This might all be explicable from an aesthetic-psychological viewpoint, his expression tells us, but it is still deeply screwy. These millionaires are just wrong.

Now, let’s get that horse on the piano.

 

 

You can lead a whore to culture…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by dcairns

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MOSS ROSE is a moderately pleasing Gothic thriller, fairly predictable but enlivened by some odd casting and writing — the biggest fault in the film is also its most interesting feature. Faults are rarely as enjoyable as this one.

Peggy Cummins, the Welsh whirlwind, is Rose, a music hall chorus girl whose friend is murdered by a mysterious maniac — and by the corpse, a single flower, identified by horticulturally-inclined sleuth Vincent Price, as  a moss rose. Having reason to suspect Victor Mature, Rose behaves rather oddly — rather than rushing to Uncle Vinnie and spilling the proverbial beans, she blackmails Big Victor into inviting her down to his country home for a couple of weeks, under the very noses of his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and bride-to-be (Patricia Medina).

This is odd behaviour for a heroine. We expect Peggy to turn amateur gumshoe, following the bloody trail to the lair of the killer. Instead she exploits the crime for her own selfish ends, seeking to learn the airs and graces from miscast aristocrat Victor. The movie is like MY FAIR LADY with a body count. And indeed, the corpses keep coming, rapidly reducing the list of suspects to the point where even Scotland Yard might be able to figure it out.

Peggy Cummins is never less than endearing (except in GUN CRAZY where she’s flat-out sexy and psychopathic), and here her cuteness is enhanced by a cocker-knee accent which she rather struggles with: not that she can’t do it, but you’re conscious of the sheer effort of remembering to drop every single “H,” while adding others in so that “H” is pronounced “Haitch.” Actually, that’s how it would be pronounced in a well-ordered universe. It’s ridiculous that “H” begins with a silent “H.”

Our leading lady being a blackmailer could make for an interesting plot point if the movie had any plans for how to exploit it. If Peggy turned out to be the killer (she isn’t)… if she was a cold-blooded vamp (she isn’t supposed to be: she makes several comments about her poor dear murdered friend, invested with all the emotion actress and writers can muster)… if she was secretly working for the police (she isn’t)… One expects, in the days when the Production Code reigned supreme, that P.C. would get some kind of ironic comeuppance for her actions, but even on that score the film shows no signs of acknowledging the oddity of her scheme. Quite apart from the morality angle, it’s a little peculiar that she doesn’t feel herself to be in any danger from the man she believes murdered her friend.

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I was reminded of the Douglas Sirk noir SHOCKPROOF, based on a mangled Sam Fuller script, where the hero is a parole officer who falls for his client, helping her jump bail, leave the state, and steal a car. Despite the Production Code, all ends happily for the disgraceful pair: after they are returned to the long arm of the law, no charges are made. Sometimes the need for a happy ending could outweigh the need for crime not paying. Some filmmakers worked hard at finding clever ways to flaunt the Code, but others apparently solved the problem with sheer stupidity. SHOCKPROOF and MOSS ROSE can both pass for morality tales if you simply fail to think about them.

Direction (adequate) by Gregory Ratoff, script (odd) by Niven Busch, Tom Reed and the great Jules Furthman, whose weird hand can perhaps be detected in these oddities.

Another minor pleasure the film offers is this bridge —

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— recognizable as the same one depicted in Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT. A set which Lang claimed did not exist. Having been forbidden by Zanuck to shoot the bridge scene, Lang set about finding a way to do it in secret and for free.

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Frame grab from The Auteurs’ Notebook.

“All we had were cobblestones on the street. Then I said, ‘Ben, I saw a railing around here that looks like a bridge.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Does it cost anything?’ He said, ‘No, that you can have.’ But we needed two, so I said, ‘How much would it cost to make a second one–at my expense?’ I think it was forty dollars. I talked with Arthur Miller–he was a genius as a cameraman–and he said it was possible to light in such a way that the background gradually faded away in the fog, so we didn’t even need a backdrop. We had the cobblestone street and we had the sidewalk, on which we put these two railings. We had a lamppost in the foreground, then a second lamppost, and we hung progressively diminishing lightbulbs–say, a 100-watt, then 80, then 50, and so on; and over the whole thing we put a little London fog. We started at four o’clock in the morning–just Ben, Arthur Miller and myself–and we fixed up this whole set. […] I shot the scene and Zanuck didn’t say a damned word about it. All he said was, ‘WHERE THE HELL’S THAT SET? I want to talk to Silvey! You keep that set and we’ll shoot a whole picture on it.’ ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Zanuck,’ said Ben, ‘there was no set.'”

Quote from Lang interview in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich.

Not for the first time, we find Lang bending the facts, although the set is undoubtedly a forced perspective illusion and there’s no backdrop. It also looks like there might only be ONE “fence” — we never see two at a time.