Archive for William Powell

The Monroe Doctrine

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2017 by dcairns

I bought Conversations with Marilyn by J. Weatherby because it was 25p, and my Scottishness exerted itself (the inability to resist a bargain can wind up being expensive). Fiona was the one who read it, though. So I suggested we watch some accompanying films. I hadn’t seen HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE since I was a schoolboy, and one thing led to another and the other was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES which I’ve seen a lot.

Both films are about snagging rich mates, and it’s soon apparent that Fox’s takes on this theme are a bit more sympathetic to their gold-diggers than MGM’s, which always have a tang of DIRE WARNING about them. While GENTLEMEN cheerfully inverts conventional thinking about propriety and ethics (in a playful rather than iconoclastic way), it’s less easy to parse MILLIONAIRE except as a fairy tale, where the moment Bacall abandons her dreams of marrying wealthy, it turns out her new husband is in fact as rich as Croesus, if Croesus had diversified into oil and cattle and real estate.

The girls all work in the Black Lodge.

I don’t remember ever finding MILLIONAIRE that funny. My best friend at school was a Marilyn obsessive and I sort of drifted along into that. Same with the Beatles. My personal interest was always film, though I didn’t notice that my enthusiasm for it was anything out of the ordinary until friends pointed it out. Anyway, HTMAM had Monroe and so it was good, but not that funny, and it went without saying that it would have been better with MORE Monroe. Funnily enough, my response to it is about the same thirty-four years later.

I suspect I hadn’t seen MILLIONAIRE in its true ‘Scope ratio, so that was illuminating. Jean Negulesco wasn’t particularly a comedy director, but he was a visual experimenter. He’s being pretty cautious with this new medium, but he manages a few nice things. You do feel the strain of filling all that space, though, hence the inspiration of reviving the old three-girls-on-the-make-in-Manhattan sub-genre from the ‘thirties. Just line them all up, with some subsidiary menfolk if you like, and the acreage is occupied. Or have them recline languorously, which Bacall is particularly good at.

And this is a good start to a scene.

Pulls back to this.

But the endless lolling isn’t good for LOLs — the necessary pace is sacrificed to the cumbersome equipment, and something seems generally off with the comedy timing. Bacall wasn’t often called on to be funny, but she’s very amusing in her Hawks films — but that’s very different from this. Betty Grable, I think, is the one who’s contributing most to the sense of awkward timing, or, if not awkward, at least ineffective. It is quite hard to put your finger on what’s wrong, but these gals don’t gel.

A schmoe called Fred.

The film also seems seriously undercast from the masculine side (so is GENTLEMEN, for that matter — and yes, Elliott Reid, I’m afraid I do mean you. You’re fine, but you’re up against serious female firepower). Cameron Mitchell seems better suited to investigating a faceless serial killer. Rory Calhoun always seemed he should be more interesting with a name like that. And David Wayne was very effective PLAYING a serial killer… but more on him shortly. Fred Williams Clark is along for comic bluster and glower, but plays all his scenes with Grable, igniting neither laughs nor chemistry. (Incidentally, who would win in a fight between Fred Williams and his son, Fred Williamson?)

And then there’s poor old William Powell, whose scenes harp endlessly on about his old age. (Leading to one nice line, though, as Bacall insists she prefers older men: “That old guy in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, I’m crazy about him!”) Fiona thought the film, and the mercenary Miss Persky, treated him very badly, toying with his emotions like that. Though not half as badly as Hollywood movies would treat many of their leading ladies once they neared his age.

Powell, of course, is by light years the most talented comedian in the film, which gives him no jokes or comedy business whatsoever. Just the sorrows of age.

Dream sequence. In a film about models, this model gets one of the biggest laughs.

Oh, and I’m forgetting Alexander D’Arcy, so good in THE AWFUL TRUTH, here sporting a natty eye-patch. So the film isn’t undercast at all, it has several superb light comedians, it just doesn’t use them for much of anything. And it gives the larger roles to the less appealing, less funny men.

Then there’s Monroe — I think as a kid I was slightly offended by the myopia jokes — I was a prudish little jerk. The conceit that she’s blind as a bat but won’t wear glasses gives her a huge advantage over her teammates — Bacall is meant to be the smart one, which is only an active attribute when she’s dealing with her female pals — if she were partnered with dumb males it could get some real play — Grable doesn’t seem to know what’s meant to be funny about her character, though there are plenty of dumb blonde jokes (Monroe recounts being led into Grable’s dressing room and given the distinct impression by management that she was the new upgrade of the soon-to-be obsolete pin-up, which made her feel VERY awkward).

Monroe scores virtually all the laughs, with material that’s dumber than the other leads have to work with, and then she meets David Wayne on a plane to Kansas City and the film actually catches fire for the duration. Wayne was a really good actor, and he tunes in to Monroe in a way nobody else has managed (maybe SHE’S the one sabotaging the others?) It’s fascinating, because you wouldn’t peg him as a loverboy (fifteen minutes in the sack with her and surely he’d look like the Straw Man of Oz after a run-in with the flying monkeys) nor as Monroe’s kind of performer. But magic is magic.

Nothing much new to say about GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES except that it feels much more benign than its widescreen companion, and that as video technology improves, the Technicolor just gets fiercer, which is why I now have the outline of Jane Russell’s lipstick seared into my retinae. I think the moment that did it is when she says “…but nobody chaperones the chaperone: that’s why I’m so right for this job.”

 

Advertisements

The Sunday Intertitle: A Female Alarm Clock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by dcairns

Just as the hero of FAZIL (Charles Farrell) prefers camels to women, the hero of PAID TO LOVE, another silent Hawks, prefers automobiles.

The film deals with a cash-strapped Mediterranean Ruritania and an arranged marriage intended to solve its cash problems and also features some good TINY INTERTITLES, for a hushed conversation between an American banker and the King: “Your shirt’s out.” “I know it.” “Then why the hell don’t you fix it?” “How the hell can I?” The minute lettering is very funny, and I felt I could hear Hawks’ tone of voice in this.

We also get William Powell, very funny as a skirt-chasing duke. Here’s his POV as he applies the monocle to a passing maid ~

Though Bill is in fact standing, stationary, watching her go, his viewpoint is gliding along the checkerboard floor at ankle height — evidently he has astrally projected like DR. STRANGE. The same thing happens in SOME LIKE IT HOT: Jack Lemmon’s awe-struck view of Marilyn Monroe’s ass is tracking after her at ass-height even after he stops walking at Jack Lemmon height. POVs can be psychological rather than optical, especially when there’s something worth seeing.

Here’s an intertitle that seems to anticipate LAND OF THE PHARAOHS ~

This is a Fox film — the study of smoky atmosphere and crumbling walls. Our first view of Paris is a crumbling wall with girls walking by in front of it. This is meant to represent Montmartre. It seems to get the job done.

Lots of fun in this film! It’s the kind of movie where a Montmartre apache hides his knitting when the tourists appear.

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”