Archive for William Powell

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…

The Sunday Intertitle: Various Kinds of Eggs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by dcairns

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Lots of entertaining intertitles in SPECIAL DELIVERY, but this was my favourite. Madge is played by the unfortunately-named Jobyna Ralston, who keeps showing up at Shadowplay, like some kind of crazy stalker woman. The first egg we see her serving is Paramount contract player William Powell, back when he was playing villains. WP only really became a leading man when sound came in and his mellifluous voice revealed his latent charm — one forgets totally that he has a kind of weaselly face. So of course in silents he was typically cast as a weasel — Sternberg cast him as a Sternberg type film director, which is to say a weasel (THE LAST COMMAND), and Gregory La Cava slid him into the role of a villainous bootlegger (FEEL MY PULSE) — in that one he has a scene cussing out Bebe Daniels and just the way he uses his face makes it abundantly clear that he’s using the vilest terms, though if I were a better lipreader I’d probably discover he was really asking what Bebe fancies for lunch.

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SPECIAL DELIVERY (1927) stars Eddie Cantor, better known for talkies where he could sing, and is directed by William B. Goodrich — Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle hiding out under an assumed name, officially banned from appearing onscreen himself. Maybe Arbuckle behind the camera explains why Cantor at times resembles Buster Keaton when he played an ape in THE PLAYHOUSE. He sure isn’t particularly winning — in talkies he stands a better chance just because he’s so bizarre, and because he can put over a song with that unlikely voice of his.

There are plenty of good gags, though, as when a lovesick Cantor absently tucks his pancake into his collar and carves up his napkin. He does need doubling whenever the roughhouse stuff gets going, which is a mark against him.

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Eddie plays an operative for the post office secret service (no, me neither). Also appearing, briefly, is a minute person rejoicing in the name of Tiny Doll, who turns out to be a member of the celebrated showbiz Doll family, which is to say she’s the sister of Harry Earles from FREAKS. She plays an outsize baby. There is definitely a family resemblance, and it goes deeper than being around three foot high. They both could play slightly gigantic babies. Eddie Cantor couldn’t do that. In ROMAN SCANDALS, when he gets shrunk in a steambath, he has to be doubled by Billy Barty.

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.