Archive for WS Van Dyke

The Final Shot

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2017 by dcairns

Thanks to Matthew Wilder for alerting me to W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke’s final film. I’m a fan of the THIN MAN films and have delved lightly into his other ’30s work, particularly the first two TARZANs and SAN FRANCISCO, but I haven’t been systematic and I didn’t even know JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942). It’s basically the film that properly gave us Margaret O’Brien, phenomenon.

The movie is MGM’s first “children in war” drama of WWII, predating Zinnemann’s emotional THE SEARCH, but giving the subject a soupier, more Hollywood approach. It’s really good, though. The great Franz Waxman’s score is really the most problematic part, suffering from a literalism that didn’t usually afflict this composer — the little boy with the toy lamb is accompanied by lachrymose variations on Baah Baah Black Sheep wherever he goes. Awful.

Woody, credited as MAJOR Van Dyke here, handles the action with his trademark efficiency, though the fast cutting of disparate talking heads which predominates each THIN MAN denouement has now spread to most of the film. Considering the director was, apparently, in constant pain at this time, he does great.

Robert Young and Laraine Day are an attractive couple of Americans in London during the Blitz. He’s a journalist. They’re smart and witty and she’s even called Nora, so there’s a strong tie to Woody’s earlier (in fact, ongoing) work. However, there’s no Asta here — Day is expecting a baby, but she loses it in a bombing, and loses also the ability to have more kids. As she’s passing out under sedation, she intuits everything that’s happened to her even though Young has been told (appallingly) to keep it from her ~

 

“They’ve killed our baby. All our babies. Tomorrow’s baby. The day after tomorrow’s. All our babies. Forever dead.”

“Who told you such nonsense?”

“No one told me. It’s true.”

“Please, darling, go to sleep now.”

“What did I want babies for? I’ve been a bad wife. Trying to hang on when there wasn’t any use trying. Making snug little homes in the midst of hell. I’ve been a bad wife because I’ve been a good one.”

“[…] Think about going home to Connecticut. The leaves will be turning, and snow on the ground… Think about that, and -“

“OH NO! That’s not my life! […] I’ll be a ghost. You’ll be a ghost. The whole world, crawling with ghosts…”

David Hertz & William Ludwig scripted this from William L. White’s novel, and Day puts it over powerfully. It’s a remarkable transformation for a typically bright, light, starry performer.

Now the pair embark on a months-long bender, going about their lives merrily squiffled, a tragic version of Nick & Nora (though he’s called John). Best friend Nigel Bruce tries to give Nora a wake-up call, a pep talk on the subject of pain.

“I have known soldiers after they’ve left hospital with a bad wound, they’re so dazed they can’t even sign their names the way the used to. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of escaping pain. They think some other fellow got hit. Not them.”

The cure arrives in the form of the little lamb boy (William Severn) and O’Brien, Hollywood’s best weeper. The bereaved couple’s best course of treatment is to get involved in the lives of other people whose need is greater, and so they adopt this waifs and must now get them to America somehow. Surprisingly, the structuring principle of the film is not the kids’ trauma (MO’B doesn’t appear until midway), but the parents’.

The ending has the kids arriving in New York just as a blackout is tested, and the Manhattan skyline goes dim. Cue inspiring speech about turning the lights back on for the next generation. It’s sentimental and manipulative but effective. I seem to be hardwired to respond emotionally to the Blitz. I have a queasy love of Hollywood effects shots of searchlights panning dark skies.

Van Dyke became seriously ill — cancer and heart disease. And, as a good Christian Scientist, he forbade himself pain relief. In 1943, he put his sidearm in his mouth and shot himself through the head.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke, 1889-1943.

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Whistle, Blore

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by dcairns

James Harvey, in The Romantic Comedy, tries to make sense of the various studios’ outputs during the screwball comedy years (1934-maybe 1941?).

Warners, who had been kings of the hardboiled comedy, were not particularly distinguished in the field of screwball comedy, perhaps because their tight factory approach to production didn’t translate readily into daffiness.

MGM were even more regimented, but Harvey argues that their commitment to gloss and sheen and class gave them a valuable angle on screwball’s tendency to locate dizziness in high places, plus they had Powell & Loy, and he gives credit to Woody Van Dyke also.

Columbia shouldn’t have had a hope, but they had Capra, who helped inaugurate the whole movement before backing away from it as rapidly as he could.

Paramount felt the allure of high-gloss spectacle, and was a flakey kind of studio with Lubitsch and Leisen to hand.

RKO had Fred & Ginger, their only real entree into the world of light comedy.

Fox was hampered by the kind of stars they had under contract — we just watched CAFE METROPOLE, which has a pretty clever script, but lovely as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are to look at, they don’t deliver the kind of attack and sharpness the comedy needs, and even as able a farceur as Adolph Menjou is left high & dry by the flabby pace. Harvey suggests that director Gregory Ratoff never really got off the ground because he was stuck at Fox.

Well, we liked IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER much more than we expected — it’s Warners and it’s screwball, with what you would think would be unsuitable stars — Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Olivia DeHavilland and some pasteboard point-of-sale device as the fourth corner of the romantic rhombus — Patrick Knowles. Perfectly adequate, you know, and more handsome than most UK imports, but unmemorable even when he’s in front of you. The miracle is that the unsuitable stars prove to be just right, and director Archie Mayo keeps some of the pace that distinguished Warners’ pre-codes.

Bette and Leslie play feuding actors/lovers, finishing a run of Romeo and Juliet and constantly either breaking up or making up. He’s an incurable Romeo/Lothario and is worried that his moral bank balance is overdrawn. He feels the need for a good deed. Olivia is a starstruck teen smitten with him, and Knowles is her jealous beau, who approaches Howard and asks him to end Olivia’s mooning by turning up at her country seat and behaving like a boor.

The complications ensue when everything Howard does to make himself unappealing only deepens the girl’s affection. Knowles is beside himself, and then Bette turns up…

Of course, Bette as a fiery, tempestuous ham is perfect casting, and she did have comic flair as ALL ABOUT EVE shows. Howard proves to be a very nimble light comedian in the Rex Harrison mold. Olivia’s role is theoretically a lot less interesting, but she plays it like a maniac, making her character’s romanticism seem on the verge of lunacy. When Leslie tries being crude and rough, impersonating the villain from a play he’d triumphed in, she responds eagerly. “You don’t suppose I’ve aroused her ‘slap-me-again-I-love-it’ complex?” he worries.

Pleasingly, this screwball, though ritzy and upper-class in setting, nicely Wodehousian in some respects, does retain some of the best pre-code Warner style, notably a “whatever-works” approach to morality. It’s not specifically scandalous in any particular way, but it does require you to root for scoundrels and have genial contempt for “normal” people.

Oh, but best of all, as the film’s definitive portal into the heights of screwball, Eric Blore plays Howard’s dresser/valet, an ex-vaudevillian bird imitator, who still trills, hoots and squawks in moments of high emotion. Our guests for the evening were much taken with this thespian, and demanded second helpings, so we ran TOP HAT, which is Blore in full flow, and pretty definitive screwball even if it’s early and is also a musical.

Return to Zenda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by dcairns

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“Why are old films so much better than new films?” asked Fiona in wonderment, as John Cromwell and David Selznick’s film of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) unspooled before us. It may or not be true, but it’s the kind of thought that certainly FEELS true when you’re seeing a classic Hollywood movie in which all the elements have come together. “The genius of the system” is the usual phrase on these occasions, because John Cromwell is not an auteur, because the source novel was adapted by a pretty big roomful of scribes, because “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke handled some unspecified reshoots, because Selznick was very hands-on. “A good film can be made good by anybody – the writers, the actors, the editor,” said Orson Welles. “Great films are made by the director.” So in a case like this, the film is ascribed either to providence, an impersonal system, or else we downgrade the movie to just “good.”

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Well, whether or not ZENDA deserves the weighty name of Greatness, it is definitely excellent. Everybody in it is perfect. Ronald Colman gets to be dashing but also soulful; Madeleine Carroll gets to be beautiful but also alert and alive in a way people in costume dramas often aren’t (acting in the past tense); David Niven gets to be funny; Raymond Massey snarlingly villainous in a monocle; Mary Astor tragic; and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. seems to be having the time of his life. Funny thing about Jnr. — he had big shoes to fill (although: “How did he perform such amazing stunts with such tiny feet?” ~ Hedley Lamarr) and when cast as roguish heroes he sort of doesn’t quite make it, but cast as outright rogues, something is UNLEASHED.

Great fights in this movie. Colman evidently can’t fence like Flynn, even with the aid of undercranking, so he’s doubled in the wide shots, and then we get quick cut-ins to tighter frames in which a few slashes are exchanged. It’s tremendously dynamic and effective, even if it’s born of necessity. The huge wide shots mean the misty backlighting and Gothic sets provide much of the drama. Colman’s character is also a master of bricolage, enlisting tables and chairs to help him fend off bullets and blades and opponents. He does this so consistently that Fairbanks complains he can’t get used to fighting furniture.

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But despite all the action, the film is at heart a love story: the true effect of all the plot is to bring a pair of lovers together in an untenable situation. It works admirably, even though stories that have people sacrificing happiness for the throne do leave me asking “Why?” a little. But the movie has done such a good job of presenting the conceit that being an English gentleman is the best thing you can possibly be, that it even makes me swallow this final silliness. Besides, if you don’t put Ronald Colman through some romantic agony, you aren’t really making the most of his unique gifts (even if he’s playing a dual role).