Archive for Who the Devil Made It?

Pg. 17, #4

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2020 by dcairns

fields

De Laurentis inspects Kong’s skeleton.

*

Vaudeville was born at approximately the same time as W.C. Fields and in approximately the same place. An outgrowth of the British music hall tradition, variety performances were initially used to draw customers into American beer halls in the 1870s. The first vaudeville theater, Tony Pastor’s, was opened in New York in 1881, and the trend to clean shows that could play to “double audiences” (meaning men and women) spread to other cities. By 1885, there were more than twenty such houses in Philadelphia, which was to become known as “the Cradle of Vaudeville” for all the important acts that got their starts there.

*

What vaudeville had to teach its practitioners was a discipline and method. The vaudeville act had to put itself over to a critical and not very patient audience, in a strictly limited time–it could be sixteen minutes or it could be eight–against relentless competition and without the benefit of a favourable context (a dramatic monologuist might be sandwiched between knockabout comics and performing seals).

*

The leaning towards violent contrast — which in Expressionist literature can be seen in the use of staccato sentences — and the inborn German liking for chiaroscuro and shadow, obviously found an ideal artistic outlet in the cinema. Visions nourished by moods of vague and troubled yearning could have found no more apt mode of expression, at once concrete and unreal.

*

Your world appeared to have everything. You grew up in Hollywood, you had the kind of adulation that people live lifetimes trying to achieve without ever attaining.

*

That June, I spent my first night alone in a hotel (at Grand Rapids), and so, a little more than a month before my sixteenth birthday, I was into a ten-week season–one production a week–during which I would end up playing leads not only in the children’s shows (for instance, the Lion in The Wizard of Oz), but in the regular Equity company too (Signe Hasso’s teenage son in Glad Tidings). I played a butler with Sylvia Sidney, worked with Edward Everett Horton (as his dresser), Veronica Lake and ZaSu Pitts (moving furniture around). I also received my first credit as director–of the Children’s Variety Show. That winter, I got special permission from my school to miss athletics so I could take afternoon and early-evening acting classes with the legendary Stella Adler, who became so dear to me in so many ways.

*

‘We were able to do that much for Bitsy, buster,’ Harry snarled. ‘We were able to get the Joint Chiefs to lean hard enough to get you an honorable discharge.’

*

Seven passages from seven page seventeens found in seven books in my living room, randomly but mostly on the same shelf. I like the mix of film and non-film here. It tells a kind of story, doesn’t it? Well, in roughly the same way that MARIENBAD does.

W.C. Fields, a Biography, by James Curtis, Buster Keaton, by David Robinson, The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, by Bruce Bahrenburg, The Haunted Screen, by Lotte H. Eisner, People Will Talk, by John Kobal (interviewing Gloria Swanson), Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich, and Arigato, by Richard Condon.

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.