Archive for Wilfred Lawson

Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER! again) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but his paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

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Threat of the Week

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2011 by dcairns

“You’ll be fucked up by motor boat.”

Michael Rennie receives disturbing news in TOWER OF TERROR, 1941 — the year of the great Associated British Pictures proofreaders’ strike.

Movie features good, intense creepy work from the great Wilfred Lawson as a hook-handed drunken and psychotic lighthouse keeper. Terrible thing, typecasting. It also stars Movita — I’d forgotten there was such a person as Movita, and I laughed when I saw her name. It sounds like some manager’s invention, a failed attempt at exotic allure — but it’s her actual name. She was the female star of  the 30s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, and she married Marlon Brando, who later also married the female star of the 60s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. Apparently his goal was to marry all the female stars of all the versions of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. Ah, Tevaite Vernette, you had a lucky escape!

“I’ll be WHAT???”

Terror in the Aisles

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2010 by dcairns

Above: the news ad reproduced by Denis Gifford in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies.

The first talking horror movie, THE TERROR, directed by Roy Del Ruth from Edgar Wallace’s play, is now a lost film. This is bad news for obvious historic reasons, but artistic ones too: here’s Denis Gifford on the movie, which he apparently either saw, or read a detailed press release about —

“The sound of horror had begun in 1928, in the second full-length talkie ever made: THE TERROR. For the first time movie audiences heard the howl of the wind, the beat of the rain, the creak of the door, and the scream upon scream of a girl in fear. There was also the pounding of the Terror at his underground organ, and the creepy croak of Squeegee the trained toad. It was the first and only Total Talkie: even credit titles were taboo as the shadow of an unbilled Conrad Nagel intoned them from the screen.

“Roy Del Ruth used Vitaphone to add a new dimension to pictorial fright. He took Edgar Wallace’s melodrama of a hooded madman, hidden loot, clutching hand and stormbound tavern, and salted in with cinematic shocks. With his cloaked killer whisking victims up flues, down trapdoors and through catacombs, Del Ruth pointed his camera straight down at a table-top seance, slung it from a basket for an overhead travelling shot, and ran it on rollers into a screaming female face. More than enough movement to prove that sound need not kill the visual art of cinema.”

Via the late lamented blog Vitaphone Varieties, I bring you this press release, which slightly contradicts Gifford re the shadow of Nagel — this suggests to me that Gifford is going from his (occasionally faulty) memory, and did actually see the movie on release (and why wouldn’t he?).

“In ‘The Terror,’ mystery thriller at the __________ this week, the opening titles are announced by a masked man in formal dress with the admonition that no one is to leave the theater until the picture is finished. This warning was totally unnecessary because after ‘The Terror’ began, the fans could do little but grip their seats.”

(Nagel also appeared in the movie’s specially-shot trailer, talking to the audience and introducing the cast, each of whom said a few words. This seems to be lost too, along with most of the Vitaphone discs and even the silent version shot alongside THE TERROR for use in theatres not yet wired for talkies.)

“Black shrouded death hovers throughout the picture while the audience shudders and shivers. Flickering lights, ghostly shadows, strange murders, knives flashing in dark places, shrieks and screams, guns blazing out of darkness, dead bodies falling, appalling situations, a treasure hunt sheeted with deadly angers — and, throughout, spine chilling touches of human comedy!”

“There are no subtitles. The characters introduce themselves, and the plot is carried along through voice and action throughout the play — and successfully too, for in ‘The Terror’ the realization is brought home as to the possibilities of the Vitaphone. There is none of that delay or slowing up of the action, for which there was criticism of the talking pictures when first introduced.”

“In this picture, thrills run rampant. Peculiar happenings like screwing men’s heads to their bodies and holding spiritualistic seances in the dark, are but a few of the highlights of horror.”

“The story is set in an old house called Monkhall, which is being used for ‘rest cures’ for the insane, and which is infested with toads, the harbingers of death — and tells the story of a maniacal murderer, a Mr. O’Shea, who has eluded police and whose crimes are always marked by devilish ingenuity and characterized by mutilation and horrible violence. An old doctor, played by Alec B. Francis, is the proprietor of the place, and by some mysterious influence he is compelled to stay there with his daughter, played by May McEvoy. Then, one character after another is introduced into the scene, while leaving the impression that each is more weird in ‘get up’ than the one immediately preceding.”

“As with all mystery stories, the tale is made up of a succession of queer happenings. Edward Everett Horton in the hero’s role is fine in such situations and through the constant use of the Vitaphone, his portrayal is colored more effectively than it would be in the silent drama.”


“As an example of the added effectiveness obtainable through the Vitaphone, director Roy Del Ruth cites the weird effect secured through a hidden pipe organ whose uncanny interruptions of scenes is one of the many factors injecting a creepy feeling into the play. In the silent drama, the weird effect of the organ’s playing would be put over only by the registration of the physical reaction of the player’s fingers upon the keys and by written titles. In this Vitaphone production the weird melodies of the organ break into the tense dialogue of the actors, thus setting them on the quest of the cause of the mysterious music and make everybody in the audience eager to tiptoe after.”

“Other scenes, such as the sound of a falling body in the darkness indicating that violence has been done, the sudden slamming of a door with no one near to slam it, mysterious rapping, shots, and shrieks, all become dynamic through the Vitaphone.”

“The fine recording of the Vitaphone cannot escape mention, and it must be said that ‘The Terror’ gains much through continuous use of it. However, the audience is altogether much too absorbed in the idiotic laughter of John Miljan and other blood-curdling events to notice such details as that. The thrills persist even to the finish. As the final scene fades, one can still hear John Miljan’s voice ringing out that the man in the seat next to you may be ‘The Terror!'”

With THE TERROR apparently lost forever, the best way for me to tick it off my list would be to hear the surviving soundtrack discs. Hoping somebody can oblige! The strongest possibility seems to be UCLA, which holds a set.

A different problem is presented by the movie’s sequel, RETURN OF THE TERROR, featuring Mary Astor and directed by Howard Bretherton. I find no evidence that the film is lost, and indeed, thankfully few 1934 Hollywood movies have been destroyed. But nevertheless, the movie never seems to show up. Can anyone help?

Here’s a fine image from Mark A. Verieira’s Hollywood Horror: from Gothic to Cosmic ~

Further homework — I’ve just seen the 1938 Brit version, seemingly quite faithful to Edgar Wallace’s hokey original, and presumably also close to the Del Ruth. The Horton role is taken, bizarrely enough, by a nubile Bernard Lee (“M” in the early Bonds), and he’s a comedy drunk who’s really a detective in disguise, something I realised about five minutes after he showed up. An almost-equally young Wilfrid Lawson is a baddie, also very obviously, and he appears to be playing his role sober, the first time I’ve seen the actor in this lamentable condition. Linden Travers, bony-faced lead in NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, has the ingenue role. Acting honours go to Alastair Sim, as they always must, playing a vengeful crook. The movie strongly suggests that Del Ruth didn’t have much to work with in terms of story and character values in his original version, hence the stylistic brio, perhaps…