Archive for William Alland

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.

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Mondo Kane 9: Rosebud

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The final part of our journey through The Second Greatest Movie Ever Made (pah!).

Paul Stewart’s brief flashback is the only one that dovetails into a substantial new scene, picking up his factotum character Raymond with Thompson on the grand staircase at Xanadu and following them into a sequence detailing the inventory of Kane’s vast collection of objet d’art and general junk. (“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head.”)

“Part of a Scotch castle over there but we haven’t bothered to unwrap it yet.” It’s exciting to think that Xanadu might contain all the sets for all Welles’ future productions. This one would obviously be MACBETH, whose “Scotch castles” always did look somewhat incomplete. The reference to Spanish ceilings could mean MR ARKADIN or DON QUIXOTE…

“I wonder… you put all this stuff together […] What would it spell?” Here, Thompson is hinting towards Borges’ parable, not yet written — “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” Interestingly, Borges disparaged KANE as “a labyrinth without a centre” — yet it seems to have inspired this memorable mini-narrative, with its echo of Kafka’s The Parable of the Law, visualized by Welles in THE TRIAL. (Borges’ claim that KANE owed its cleverness to Sturges THE POWER AND THE GLORY is fatuous, whether Welles had seen the earlier film or,as he claimed, not. The brilliance of KANE stems from the application of its audio-visual, formal qualities to that structural idea. William K. Howard’s direction of TPATG does not approach these qualities. Borges is reviewing KANE as if it were a novel.)

Alan Ladd gets a line! I never really notice him here, and I find him a little bland for my taste. But the perky, bespectacled girl reporter character (Louise Currie, who died September 8th this year) should’ve had her own movie series. Thompson as romantic interest? Perhaps not.

When William Alland, who plays Thompson, took over Universal’s sci-fi monster department in the fifties, he ought to have hired Welles. Those movies should look like TOUCH OF EVIL, not the flatly lit and composed, static things they are. I wondered at this, and thought maybe Alland wouldn’t have wanted to hire his own boss because how would he exercise authority over Welles? But then I learned that Alland named names for the blacklist, so he and the pinko Welles would mutually have wanted to keep away from each other, I guess. And thus we were deprived of Orson’s version of THE MOLE PEOPLE.

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Welles is using camera flashes — often in the form of inserted white frames — to teleport about his big set. The formal ploy of tying the flashes to the edits is a genuinely experimental technique unheard of in ’40s cinema, yet it doesn’t get mentioned much in discussion of the film’s innovations, possibly because, like the abstract snowglobe opening, it didn’t immediately lead to anything. Whereas low angles, noir lighting, overlapping dialogue, atmospheric echoes, etc, were picked up and run with.

The trek through Kane’s collection allows for lovely echoes of previous moments in the movie, as the jigsaws, statues and the trophy from Inquirer employees get to reappear. This narrative replay, a sort of slight return of the opening newsreel, is picked up again by Welles’ closing credits…

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Thompson’s speech, intended as the only moment when he gets to be a real character instead of an audience surrogate (“The embodiment of your desire to see everything,” as Walbrook puts it in LA RONDE) becomes instead a bit of editorializing by Welles and Mankiewicz, both keen to “take the mickey out of” their MacGuffin, Rosebud. By having Thompson claim that Rosebud’s identity wouldn’t have explained Kane, they’re trying to diffuse accusations of what Welles called “dollar-book Freud.” So we can see the sled as the answer to the emptiness in Kane (not in itself, but in the childhood and mother-love he was deprived of) or we can simply see it as a missing piece of a puzzle, still scrambled and incomplete.

“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” ~ Thompson. “What does it matter what you say about people?” ~ Tanya.

In the excellent doc The RKO Story, Ed Asner wanders through the studio scene dock, which incredibly still houses props from the 1940s. Maybe that’s why this last scene always feels like the employees packing up at the end of a studio shoot. A great way to end a movie, with the actors leaving the partially deconstructed set. But there’s more —

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Slow, funeral glide over the array of boxes — see also TOO MUCH JOHNSON, which has a chase through a maze of stacked crates, likewise taken from a high angle. Amazing the visual continuity in that early work with Welles’ later masterpieces. The end of this movement takes us to the heap of “junk,” most of it recognizable as the stuff from Mrs Kane’s boarding house which her son had put in storage. Interesting arrangement of a china doll embraced by a plush toy chimpanzee in the crate at centre here. Next to it is a picture of the adult Kane, presumably kept by his mother, along with all his toys. There’s an image of Agnes Moorehead with Sonny Bupp (young Kane) too.

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“Throw that junk!” orders the unobservant Paul Stewart, uttering the last line of the script. Rosebud seems to be going up in smoke along with several violin cases of unknown provenance.

I think none of us really put a lot of store in what Welles told Barbara Leaming, that “Rosebud” was Hearst’s affectionate term for his mistress Marion Davies’ genitals. As well as being a way of further “taking the mickey” out of the plot gimmick of KANE, this may have been Welles’ rebellion against the movie which had come to define him and must have seemed something of a millstone around his neck. Kind of like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But where did Welles get the Georgia O’Keefe-style flower-vagina connection from? I didn’t think that one needed explanation, but then just as I was finishing this piece I found an answer anyway ~

I was reading Robert L. Carringer’s essay The Scripts of Citizen Kane and I think I have the answer. Carringer’s source is the biography William Randolph Hearst, American.

“Finally, the strongest of all of Kane’s attachments to mother and youth may also have been inspired by Hearst. One of Hearst’s childhood friends was a neighbor, Katherine Soule´, called “Pussy” by her playmates. She and Hearst often played together in the Hearst walled garden as Phebe Hearst tended her flowers. Miss Soule´ recalled to Mrs. Older: Willie Hearst was conscious of all beauty. When his mother bought new French dishes he pointed out the rose buds to Pussy. One day his head appeared at the top of the fence and excitedly he called, “Pussy, come and see the ‘La France’!” Pussy had never heard of a La France, and so she hastily climbed the ladder to see this new exciting object. “Why,” she exclaimed, “It’s just a rose!”

EXACTLY. It’s just a rose, Orson.

Magnificent Bernard Herrmann music and effects shot as Rosebud comes out the chimney as a death-like black cloud. And Welles repeats a few of his opening shots to pull us out beyond the No Trespassing sign. Welles loved signs.

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The end credits are lovely — MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS improves on them, though. But by bringing his cast on for curtain calls like this, Welles gives the film’s last line to George Coulouris, and who can begrudge him? Note also that it’s a different line reading from the one earlier in the movie.

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Mondo Kane #6: The Huntington Memorial Hospital on 180th St.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by dcairns

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And so to Joseph Cotten, who nearly walked off the film because his old age makeup cracked every time he raised his eyebrows. My suspicion is that Cotten’s thick, slightly wavy hair was putting to great a strain on his Maurice Seiderman bald cap. So in the finished film he wears a sun cap to conceal the join.

Establisher — Thompson looks up at the tall hospital, dwarfed by an even taller bridge. OK, so this is rear-projection, I think — the background was shot previously as a tilt up, and William Alland as Thompson must be on a little elevator being lowered out of view while the camera stays statically filming the rear-pro screen. At least that’s how I guess it was done. It looks unreal yet perfectly real.

Cotten is shot against a strange, abstract, soft-focus background — I think this was shot during the week of tests, so they couldn’t build any really detailed sets. This one looks almost like a backdrop, or a slide. Arguably the shallow depth , unique for the film, has something to do with old Jed Leland’s senility (though he’s really quite lucid — but everybody says the slow dissolves here are due to his rusty memory so let’s go with this).

Cotten’s old age performance is good — he’s trying to suggest weakness without doing exaggerated slow movements — there are bits where his hand drops back into his lap as if it’s quite a weight, which are very fine work indeed. This is another star-making shot, with Welles simply holding on his pal, pushing in very gently now and then, and letting Herrmann underscore with a beautifully elegiac theme. Cotten is utterly magnetic.

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Gainsborougfh girl Ruth Warwick.

The dissolve, aided by fading down the background on Cotten, so we seem to teleport with him into the past — and then we’re in that wonderful snappy compressed marriage seen at the breakfast table, which Welles admitted to pinching from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner — but applying such narrative devices to a film was still an innovation.

Of course, Leland is apparently describing scenes he didn’t personally witness, and would be unlikely to have been told of in detail — a common movie device. I imagined Welles and Mankiewicz must have considered having Thompson interview the first Mrs. Kane, then decided to kill her off. Emily is so damn shallow here (though perfectly right to protest against her husband’s ignoring her) that we don’t really want to spend a whole chapter of the film in her company, but the breakfast montage HAD to stay in.

But according to Bill Krohn’s Orson Welles at Work (a book I prize), the first draft (by Mankiewicz and John Houseman) had Emily alive but refusing to speak to Thompson. Welles inserted the breakfast montage into draft 6, after killing Emily off. His conscious strategy was to largely ignore the logic of who knew what and organize the flashbacks so they make a kind of narrative sense that’s sometimes chronological, sometimes emotional. Thus, Thatcher is disposed of via his own memoir, which supplies the bookends to Kane’s career, Bernstein supplies the bright and lively early days, perhaps because those are what he chooses to recall, and Leland provides the bitter aftertaste, also setting up Susie Kane so that her narrative will make sense.

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But then Leland’s next memory is about Kane and Susan Alexander, and again he’s not present. He claims Kane told him about it (later, Susie Kane will remember some of Leland’s memories).

Welles cut a bordello scene from the script at the censor’s insistence, and performs some fancy footwork to establish Kane’s extra-marital affair without giving offense. Still, Susan’s invitation to Kane, a well-dressed (if muddy) stranger she has just met, to come back to her room plays a little disreputable, Kane slamming the door in the camera’s face once they’re inside seems VERY suggestive (and very different from the door slam at the Thatcher Memorial Library) but Susie makes him open it again for the landlady’s sake. Still, next time we visit this location, Susie and Charlie will have become lovers and the landlady’s objections are never heard. Possibly Kane has bought the building in the interim.

VERY nice dissolve from the street door to the bedroom door, occupying the same screen space.

Kane/Welles wiggles both ears at the same time, but the joke is his face is so wide and massive we can’t SEE both ears at the same time — he has to turn from side to side. Welles’ ears are on the back of his head.

Giggling at the shadow-puppets — wonderfully naturalistic! The real benefit of the overlapping dialogue, which isn’t just a trick — but also the mis-hearings and repetitions and crack-ups create a real sense of spontaneity and intimacy and make the laughter somewhat infectious, which it rarely is in movies. Like Welles, Comingore is at her very best here, better I think than the later screeching scenes.

“You’re not a professional magician, are you?”

As far as the audience’s sympathies are concerned, I find Kane at his sweetest in the scene where he befriends Susie, and though both Mr and Mrs Kane come across pretty badly in the breakfast montage, Emily’s hint of anti-Semitism tells against her. And Kane seems genuinely touched to meet someone who doesn’t know who he is and still likes him. The reference to his planned expedition to the warehouse prepares the ground for Rosebud’s screen debut — Susie interrupts Kane on his way to the end of the movie —  but also allows Welles to film more conventionally than usual — a two-shot and two close-ups (Fiona noted the very bright light Toland imparts to Dorothy COmingore’s eyes here) — and to simplify his performance. “My mother died…a long time ago,” sounds like Welles. And it’s tempting to imagine the little autobiographical touches here explaining why he’s so good in this scene. He may have been the greatest anti-Stanislavskian of the century, but can any actor say a line like that, if it happens to be the truth, and not feel something? Am I getting sentimental? And Herrmann’s underscoring… I actually blinked pretty hard during this scene. Don’t let anyone say KANE is a cold film — it’s just that the moments of emotion mainly involve a not particularly admirable character.

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“Let’s go to the parlor,” — Fiona is in hysterics at the suggestiveness with which Welles imbues this line.

Electioneering montage, with brief cameo by Joseph Cotten, the guy who’s supposedly our eyewitness. Great special effects at Kane’s rally — not particularly real, but real enough and beautiful enough. The high angle looking past Boss Jim W. Geddes (Ray Collins, so avuncular in AMBERSONS) is pretty Caligariesque in its spatial distortion — the theatre seems to be pitching forward in on itself — but the lopsided poster on the wall behind Geddes somehow balances its expressionistic slanting.

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I think the maid at Kane’s “love nest” kind of misses a beat — she smiles intimately at his arrival, which incriminates him in his wife’s eyes as it proves he’s a regular at this establishment, but she doesn’t betray enough surprise at noticing that CFK has brought another woman to the nest. The maid is cute, though — Louise Franklin was a nightclub dancer and chorus girl, and one could get into trouble imagining how Welles came to cast her.

Confronted by Geddes with the threat of exposure, Kane evinces the kind of self-defeating pride Welles may have sneakingly admired — certainly he said that Macbeth’s decision to fight on, even when he realizes the prophecy which seemed to protect him actually foredooms him, was the single moment of greatness the character shows. Here, Kane has the choice of saving his wife, son and mistress from shame and possibly salvaging his marriage, but he chooses to battle on — apparently under the delusion that he can win, though, which makes him less noble or romantic than the Scottish king, And his words confirm Leland’s belief that Kane was in politics for love “Apparently we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.” The paralysed moment when Kane realises he’s really trapped seems to be the beginning of the tycoon’s stiff-legged robot walk. In middle-aged, he’s already part-monument, but throughout his marriage to Susie he’s seen as this lumbering Frankensteinian somnambulist, a bit like the Colossus of New York.

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Defeat at the polls, and the excellent gag with the two choices of headline.

And finally the narrative crashes into something Jed Leland was an actual participant in. With Gregg Toland filming from a hole dug in the studio floor, he drunkenly harangues his old pal for letting the cause down (but apparently Leland knew about the affair from the start?). Of course it’s strongly hinted that Kane’s political affiliations, such as they are, were chosen solely to piss off his foster father, the bank, and its human surrogate, Walter Parks Thatcher. I’ve tended to feel that writers who focus on the politics and history of KANE are missing the point, the fun and the cinema — I never could get on with the Laura Mulvey BFI Classics book for that reason, and there’s a moment in Leslie Megahey’s BBC documentary on KANE where Pauline Kael says something about the film’s real pleasure being the way it calls up the 1940s, which makes me want to punch the screen. Admittedly, Kael seems kind of vague and doddery.

Mind you, the alternative is perhaps to reduce the movie to a bag of tricks, which I could be in danger of doing here. But it seems to me that shrinking it to a political message reduces it more. I guess the parallel is TOUCH OF EVIL, where the “monster” embodies negative political attitudes but still compels the audience’s sympathies, against our better judgement.

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Anyway, Leland moves to the Chicago paper in time to cover Susan Alexander Kane’s debit in Salammbo. Famous crane shot up through a wipe into a model shot depicting hanging flats of renaissance Venice, reminders of Othello or The Merchant of Venice, two future Welles movie projects, and ending on the unimpressed stagehands. Salammbo itself is set in ancient Carthage, subject of a Wellesian epigram in THE STRANGER.

Susie’s performance is lousy enough to drive Jed back to drink, so then there’s another grand gesture from Kane, finishing his old friend’s bad review, “to prove he was an honest man.” My favourite moment is the awful tragi-comedy of Mr. Bernstein reading the bad notice but faltering at the title of the opera: “I’m afraid I still can’t pronounce that name, Mr Kane.”

And slow fade/dissolve back to Mr Leland, the one Kane acquaintance so far who really has insight to offer into C.F.K.’s mind (Bernstein nails Thatcher, though). The others only tell stories, and their stories are illuminating, but Leland can actually interpret the stories for us.

Leland, like Kane and Macbeth, is indomitable in the face of certain defeat: “You know that young doctor I was telling you about… well, he’s got an idea he wants to keep me alive.”

Orson Welles at Work

Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics)