Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) - Mantan Moreland Gives Another Masterclass in Scene Stealing

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is a decidedly lesser entry in the Universal horror and mystery cycle and one which pretty much deserves its obscurity. It’s a tale of avenging justice gone wrong, as our titular doctor embarks on a gruesome killing spree of recently acquitted criminals. As the bodies pile up, the police and private detective Jerry Church race against time to find the culprit’s true identity. As a brief plot synopsis the story sounds fairly interesting, but in execution the movie is anything but. What could have been an engaging whodunit is marred by the inclusion of far too many characters, a romantic subplot that descends into endless quarrelling, an all too obvious red herring and generally just far too much talking to pad out the film’s paltry 62 minutes.

By the time the mystery is solved, it’s difficult to care who Doctor Rx really is, let alone why he has been bumping off criminals. In fact there is instead a lingering resentment that he didn’t get his act together and kill off most of the cast to spare us the endless talking and bickering. So, you may ask, why am I bothering to write about such an average and uninspiring little pot boiler of a movie? The answer is simple - the inclusion in the cast of a certain actor who singlehandedly makes the movie worth watching, one Mantan Moreland. It’s been a while since I’ve had cause to write about Mantan but if ever there was an example of his unique charisma and innate ability to rise above mediocre material, it’s his performance in The Strange Case of Doctor Rx.

Here, Mantan Moreland is billed ninth and not even included in the opening credits, only the closing ones. Yet despite this he has more screen time than practically any character other than the two leads, Patric Knowles and Anne Gwynne. Sadly, one can only draw an obvious and disappointing conclusion as to why this is, and it is certainly a far cry from his featured billing while working at Monogram. Moreland, true to form for black actors in Hollywood in the 40s, plays the lead character’s manservant, but thankfully this time his role is extended beyond mere (ahem) stepping and fetching. His character, Horatio B. Fitz Washington is an interesting precursor to the role he would become most famous for, that of Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movies starting in 1944. Here he is somewhat braver than the usual stock African American servant character, and despite being loyal to his ‘boss’ still gets a few good one liners in response to Patric Knowles’ at times obnoxious and unlikable character. There’s an obvious influence in the development of these sort of roles in the popularity of Eddie Anderson as Rochester in the Jack Benny Program on radio, though I don’t doubt for a minute that Mantan Moreland getting this kind of part has just as much, if not more to do with Moreland’s own  comic gifts. Nevertheless, it’s always good to see him get a lot of screen time, even if this was only ever to happen in B movies.

As mentioned, the film itself isn’t particularly memorable, and the script is fairly dull, but more than any other cast member Mantan Moreland wrings out every drop of potential in the bland words. It’s no exaggeration to say he steals every scene he is in and makes tired old situations at least vaguely amusing. He expertly manages to give his stock character a glimmer of an inner life just by his reactions and the small movements he makes. This is evident from his first scene where he answers the door carrying a radio (helpfully tuned to a news broadcast and filling us in on the plot) to get a telegram. The delivery boy asks whether Washington is a place or a name and Mantan snaps back “Ain’t you never heard of Washington? Ain’t you studied your history? You don’t know nothin’” , then proudly declares “That’s the greatest name there is!”. His indignant eye rolls and incredulity at the question show him to be a man of pride and despite being a valet, knows that even he is better than a no nothing delivery boy. As the scene goes on there’s a lovely bit of business as he stares at the delivery boy then makes out that the boy is looking at the radio, which he then protectively tucks under his arm. Moments like that can’t possibly be in the script but are the little details that Mantan adds to his performance which enable him to stand out in an otherwise run of the mill movie.
It really is the small details that make the difference all throughout the picture. For example, at one point he rushes to answer the phone then realises the receiver is upside down. It’s a quick moment filmed in a long shot so is not meant to ever be noticed but Mantan, ever the trouper, just adds it in to get a brief laugh. Similarly in a scene where he is talking to the police and realises there is a microphone in a nearby lamp, he tilts the lamp in their direction as they speak, but does it in a hilariously understated way that manages to be restrained yet outrageous. His method is to tilt the lamp in an exaggerated manner towards the talking cops while staring blank eyed and nonchalantly into middle distance. It makes a brief yet memorably odd visual and once again gets far more laughs that the script could possibly have managed as written.

Possibly the highlight of the movie is the chance to experience a great bit of comedy dream casting as Mantan Moreland shares a short scene with the one and only Shemp Howard. Shemp, at the time firmly established as a reliable comic heavy and sidekick plays a dim witted police officer. Sadly all the potential in his casting is largely wasted as he is reduced to little more than reaction shots as others talk over him. However, in a brief comic interlude the two titans of character comedy finally meet and their timing and chemistry is a treat. The scene takes place in a kitchen and Shemp, seeing a bottle of booze asks for some (the only discernible character trait he has in the movie is that he likes a drink) but Mantan wants some money for it. Eventually he offers to roll dice for it, but Mantan firmly states that he doesn’t gamble. Shemp then pulls out the dice and Mantan gives a little high pitched wince and says “Oooh, on second thought maybe I might”. Again, while not particularly funny on paper, the scene has great energy from the two, with the rapid fire delivery and timing pitch perfect. Moreland’s pacing here is reminiscent of his cadence in filmed versions of his famous ‘incomplete sentences’ routine with Ben Carter in vaudeville. What’s interesting about both the performers is that they alternate at being the straight man and take turns to attempting to one-up the other. It’s one of those moments when you get to marvel at the ability and versatility of two seasoned comedians who know their own characters so well, just going out there and trying to get some laughs out of virtually nothing.

The end of the movie is its highlight (and not because it is finally over), as Mantan is kidnapped by the evil Doctor Rx to lure Jerry into his lair. At this point the film just suddenly throws everything it has at the screen and the now hooded doctor chains our hero to a gurney while attempting to transfer his brain into that of a large caged gorilla he happens to have as a pet. The fact that none of this is even hinted at throughout the preceding 50 minutes just makes it all the more mystifying, but at least it all goes out with a bang. Throughout this part of the movie Mantan Moreland does a commendably good job of playing it straight. His tired, sweating face and monotone voice make him look like he has been on the receiving end of some sort of torture and elicits genuine sympathy. His solemn phone call to Jerry under duress is perfectly judged, with the fact that he eschews the usual laughs making it all the more potent. When he is then forced to watch Jerry face the crazed gorilla, his horrified yet feeble cry of "Don't do that to my boss" immediately sells the seriousness of the situation. It's another testament to his likability that despite any racial connotations to the scene (a white hooded villain torturing a black man) it's more disturbing to see the effects of real violence on such a gentle man.

What strikes me after watching The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is that, if it were not already obvious the movie industry missed the boat massively on utilising the talents of Mantan Moreland. While I’m sure that due to racial attitudes of the day, a great many African American actors (and those of other ethnicities) were denied their chance to shine, in the realms of comedy especially, Mantan’s absence hurts the most. In a colour blind world, Mantan Moreland could have easily become a featured solo comedian, or at the very least part of a double act (a series of films with Ben Carter would have had potential). At an absolute minimum he should have had a short subject series for Columbia or RKO but it seems the world wasn't ready for it and our cinematic lives are thus poorer for it.
Mantan Moreland may have had expert timing and comic reactions, and years of stage experience to help him but what sets him apart from others so much is that he’s just so darn likable. He had a real and believable everyman persona, standing outside of society (where all good comedians do, regardless of skin colour) yet with an evident sense of self worth and value. He could be cowardly yet loveably pompous, street smart yet gullible and beyond the one liners and comic business was a fully formed comic original. Despite playing secondary roles for a lifetime, Mantan Moreland had the ability to make us root for him, to overcome stereotypes and displace prejudice with laughter. That alone should have been enough to make him one of the great character comedians of his time, but it was not to be. Luckily, movies like The Strange Case of Doctor Rx gave him enough screen time to show what he could do. And what he could do was outshine most of the cast and steal the whole picture from under them. Though, when you steal every scene you are in because you are just better than those around you, it's not really scene stealing, it's just called talent. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Snapshot # 6 - Beauty and the Boss (1932)

What is it about?: Josef, a wealthy Viennese banker with an eye for the ladies has to fire his beautiful secretary for being too much of a diversion at work. He then hires Susie, a plain ‘church mouse’ of a girl who quickly organises his affairs and keeps him focused on his business. However, things change when Susie falls for her boss and begins to transform her appearance and use her womanly ways to catch his eye.

The Call Sheet: Marian Marsh, Warren William, David Manners, Charles Butterworth, Frederick Kerr, Mary Doran, Lillian Bond, Yola d’Avril.

Behind the Camera: Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Screenplay by Joseph Jackson from a play by Ladislas Fodor, Cinematography by Barney McGill, Art Direction by Anton Grot

Snapshot Thoughts: Adapted from the popular stage play A Church Mouse, Beauty and the Boss is another of the many Hollywood films of the 30s concerned with the lives and loves of the rich in Europe. In this case the action revolves around the affairs of the wealthy Viennese banker Baron Josef von Ullrich (Warren William), as he struggles to balance his work life with his love life. It is interesting to note that despite most of the protagonists being the titled rich or ladies of leisure, no hint of financial trouble either at home or abroad is mentioned. Instead, all the Baron’s problems are caused by his own actions, for the Baron’s Achilles heel is women, and when he carouses with the fair sex, he loses money. To this end, he cannot have a secretary who will distract him with her good looks, so decides to employ a rather plain girl to help him concentrate on his work. Of course, this being Hollywood, as soon as you can say ‘Ugly Duckling’, our plain Jane transforms herself into a ravishing beauty and the Baron is back where he started.

It’s perhaps best to gloss over the inherent chauvinism of the story, with its ideas of a woman’s place (either by day or by night). Luckily the script skirts these issues with such a light touch, and the cast perform it with such aplomb that it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the movie’s charms. Despite its outdated gender politics, the film is essentially a fairy tale wrapped up in a romantic, far off land of make believe (ie Europe), and that is all it is ever meant to be. While lacking the witty continental touch of a Lubitsch or Mamoulian, the movie does have a certain sophistication, and this is all down to the very capable presence of Warren William, as Baron Josef. He stamps the picture with his imposing presence, rattling off his lines in a gruff, confident manner as if he was born to be the head of a Viennese bank. Yet, between the lines William’s quick delivery and raised eyebrows belie a charming, rakish side. Despite playing such a patrician, sexist character he makes Josef immensely likable. He may be the head of a large bank but at heart all he wants to do is whisper sweet nothings to a beautiful woman. His first reaction upon seeing Susie all dressed up in a ball gown is to notice how smooth her “pretty little arms” are, which is a bit strange, but is endearing none the less. It’s a wonderful performance from Warren William, to the point that you can’t imagine any other actor taking the part and making it work so well. However, perhaps the strangest thing of all is that Warren William was only 37 when he made the film. That man was born middle aged!

At its heart though, Beauty and the Boss is a battle of the sexes tale crossed with an ugly duckling story, and the bulk of the action and dialogue concerns those two themes. While not quite subversive or loud enough to be considered ‘screwball’ the film is essentially a comedy of manners, and with its sophisticated European setting and clash of cultures and social classes it plays out exactly the way you’d expect, and is reassuringly all the better for it.

Star Performances: In a movie awash with talented players such as Warren William and Charles Butterworth it’s perhaps surprising that hands down, the star performance goes to sixth on the bill Mary Doran as the Baron’s jilted ex secretary Olive Frey. She is a breath of fresh air in a film that all too easily could have been static and stage bound, and her worldly wise yet peppy character is a delight. She displays a great deal of confidence in her scenes and has good chemistry with Warren William. In contrast, Marian Marsh, though generally quite appealing in her role as Susie, is given an overly verbose script which results in some stilted delivery on her part. The two actresses share a key scene and while Doran is sassy and relaxed, Marsh is stiff and laboured. Some of this is due to their respective characters but most of it seems a matter of screen presence and confidence. Doran goes on to have perhaps her best scene in the film where she tries to explain to Marsh that she doesn’t know how to use her womanly charms. She goes on to breathlessly explain how exhilarating it is to be a real woman then acts out the routine she uses to attract the attention of her suitors. The whole speech is wonderful, and acted with conviction and gusto. It’s definitely one for the audition show reel. All the while, Marian Marsh looks like she is reading from an auto cue, and the quality of her lines doesn’t help with gems like “How vulgar you are!” making her seem stiff and wooden.

Although Marian Marsh does have some good scenes, Mary Doran uses her screen time better and consistently outshines the star to the point that it mystifies me as to why her cinematic legacy is not more significant. Doran is perhaps not quite conventionally pretty enough to be a leading lady, though she shines in close ups and has a dazzling smile. However, she’s got the sort of look that would have worked as a featured ‘other woman’ or best friend in a whole host of films (or at the very least, she would have been amazing as a regular in Hal Roach comedy shorts). Sadly, she had an all too brief career, only appearing from 1928 to 1936 generally in minor roles. However, on the strength of her charisma and charm in Beauty and the Boss I feel compelled to track down more of her work. Watch this space!

Technical Excellences: The movie is directed with a sure hand by veteran Roy Del Ruth. While often workmanlike in his approach, Del Ruth always knew how to keep the pace flying along and his movies of the 30s move at a joyous pace, never outstaying their welcome. While there is nothing too interesting to be said about the way the film is shot, mention should be made of the impressive sets. There is a moment in the movie where Warren William chases Marian Marsh around the furniture in his room and the camera lifts up to an overhead crane shot as they frolic. It’s only then that you realise how massive the sets were in many of these movies. The room looks enormous, with every corner dressed the part. Obviously this was done for practical reasons but the sense of design and scale is impressive, especially in a ‘small’ film like this. It goes to show the craftsmanship put into all these movies, even on parts of a set that usually would never be glimpsed.

The Sublime: The best part of the movie is the opening scene between the Baron and his secretary Miss Frey. It’s a really well played scene that sets up the premise of the film perfectly and highlights the talents of Warren William and Mary Doran. Doran’s character exists to set up the entrance of Marian Marsh, the de facto star of the movie but in a way it’s a shame the movie didn’t continue her story as the jilted secretary. The scene starts with The Baron dictating at a terrific pace and Miss Frey struggling to keep up. She crouches slightly, revealing a low cut top and crosses her stocking clad legs (complete with a pan downwards by the camera, subtle as ever). Distracted by what he sees, the Baron chastises her to “Leave your skirt down during office hours”. Miss Frey replies “Well you dictate so fast I never know where my skirt is!” There then follows some cheeky innuendos about low cut tops, bare shoulders and his rapid dictation accompanied by Miss Frey’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, Baron!” (which, the way she says it is perhaps one of the raunchiest pre code things I’ve ever heard, Wheeler and Woolsey would have been proud!).

The Baron then outlines his belief that “No woman should look pretty who works in a bank…the clerks become confused with their columns. It’s dangerous. Invites disaster”. All through this, the pretty Miss Frey gazes on in admiration until he decides it is too much and he fires her on the spot. Her face goes from a picture of happiness to a dejected pout, her little heart broken. Luckily this is just the beginning of a new role for Miss Frey, who the Baron believes was not cut out for secretarial work. He tells her she is “a girl for the evening, who I met unfortunately only in the daytime”. Immediately the truth dawns on her and Miss Frey is a ball of energy and glee once again.

It’s a wonderfully played scene, with Warren William at his haughty patrician best, yet displaying a naughty twinkle in his eye. Mary Doran is a perfect partner for him, acting like a lovesick puppy - all big eyes and smiles and eager to please her man. Despite this she still knows her own worth and the power she can hold over men and so uses those self same big eyes and smiles to be flirtatious and coy to her own advantage. The relationship between the two characters seems warm and real, and while it probably couldn’t have sustained a whole movie, in these bite sized pieces, it’s the high point of the film.

The Ridiculous: When Marian Marsh’s Susie first appears she is poor, plain and nervous, a church mouse in appearance and manner. The only thing that stands out is her outfit, which seems to have been chosen from the costume department at Biograph circa 1912. With a dowdy long skirt, a straw hat complete with feather attachment and an umbrella, she is half Mary Poppins, half Victorian washer woman. Unfortunately she looks ridiculous and totally at odds with the way everyone else in the picture is dressed. I know the movie is set in Vienna, but somehow I doubt she is displaying the working class outfit of the day. To add to her problems her face is given the full pancake treatment to give her the appearance of being tired and plain. She has that weird look that the studios in the 30s and 40s gave to actresses when they wanted to make them appear to be elderly in order to (for example) tell a story in flashback. It’s strange that in order to give the impression she is wearing no make-up that they give her twice as much make up! The effect is disarming to say the least, like a sort of deathly apparition from the workhouse. Thankfully once she cleans herself up, though still tying her hair back severely, she begins to look more recognisable (and she also dispenses with her breathlessly wavering nervous voice). The transformation from church mouse to woman can’t come fast enough.

Is it worth watching?: I’d recommend Beauty and Boss highly. It’s fantastic entertainment with a good cast, a sprightly pace and a script full of sharp humour and pithy remarks. Sure, you can see the end coming a mile off and the characters are at times portrayed with a lack of subtlety and the less said the better about the role it assumes of women but the whole production just radiates charm and fun. It’s a perfect pre code afternoon matinee, unassuming, genial and at times surprising. All in the company of a pitch perfect Warren William and a supporting cast of familiar faces and an overachieving starlet. What more could you ask for?

Random Quote: “Don’t squirm. I know you have hips!”

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ronald Colman - 125 Years On, Still the Gentleman of the Screen

Today, one hundred and twenty five years ago, Ronald Colman was born just outside of London, in Richmond, Surrey. It’s another of those impossible numbers when it comes to movie stars. I still have difficulty acknowledging that the actors who are such a large part of my life and thoughts are mainly the product of a long gone era. Film lends its leading lights such immortality that it’s difficult to associate the brightest of stars with a now largely disappeared, unreachable world.

Thoughts of these vanished times are particularly appropriate when recalling of the kind of old world, gentlemanly charm that is associated with Ronald Colman. Lately his brand of worldly sophistication seems to have been overlooked in favour of imitators like David Niven and James Mason (or indeed George Clooney). I remember when I first discovered his films as a teenager, I decided to ask my father what his thoughts were. I knew he wasn’t my dad’s sort of star, he was more of a John Wayne and Gary Cooper person, but his one word reply to me forever stuck in my head: “insipid”. That response has often puzzled me, but I took it to be a criticism of his acting style, often seen as overly mannered. Maybe for many people he is indistinguishable from others in that group of smooth, cricket playing British gentlemen in Hollywood - the likes of Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone and Brian Ahern. Additionally, his distinctive voice and vocal delivery was in its day much parodied, so perhaps in the minds of some, he was so archetypal in his role that he became the archetype.

However, these views do the man a great disservice. When someone becomes so famous that imitations become commonplace, you often lose sight of the qualities and subtleties of the original as all the details become glossed over by a catchphrase in the public consciousness (think the artistry of Frank Sinatra’s immaculate phrasing reduced to ‘do be do be doo’). For make no mistake about it, Ronald Colman is one of the greatest actors and stars the cinema has ever seen, a skilled performer of impeccable judgement, an honourable man who lived a life of integrity off screen and on and a true screen original who managed to make a deep and lasting connection with audiences all over the world.

Ronald Charles Colman was born in Richmond in England on February 9th 1891, the son of a silk merchant, Despite attending boarding school his education was cut short due to a lack of money caused by his father’s sudden death. This led to a spell working as a clerk before joining the London Scottish Regiment of the army where he would see action fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. In October 1914, he received a serious shrapnel wound to his ankle and was invalided out of the army. He would recover from his wounds but walk with a slight limp for the rest of his life. For the 23 year old the war was over but Colman quickly got the acting bug and son started to appear in minor roles on the London stage. By all accounts he wasn’t a natural on stage and it took a number of years before he started to gain any parts of note but he steadily worked away at his craft.

By 1919 Colman’s good looks drew the attention of film makers and he appeared in a number of British silent films. It wasn’t until touring the American stage and co starring with George Arliss in the early 20s that he caught the eye of Hollywood, where director Henry King cast him as the lead in the Lillian Gish feature The White Sister. He was an immediate success and remained in starring roles for the remainder of his career. Colman was a versatile silent screen star, playing the adventurous, dark and handsome romantic leads in such notable movies as Romola, Beau Geste and The Dark Angel. Additionally he proved that he could also turn his hand to comedy with ease, as seen in Ernst Lubitsch’s production of Lady Windermere’s Fan and the bedroom farce of Clarence Brown’s Kiki. Colman co starred with many of the leading actresses of the day such as Lillian Gish, Barbara La Marr, Constance Talmadge and Blanche Sweet and as the silent era began its final years he reached new peaks of popularity for his screen partnership with Vilma Banky,  at times rivalling the similar team of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.

With the coming of sound to movies, Ronald Colman’s career never missed a beat. In fact, it cemented his star status and brought him to greater heights. It is difficult to think of a leading man of the silent era who survived sound better than Ronald Colman. Indeed, outside of Laurel and Hardy there isn’t anyone whose career benefitted more from the coming of the Talkies. Of course, Colman had the one thing so many of his contemporaries lacked, the smooth, velvety speaking voice that would become his trademark. Colman’s first sound film was Bulldog Drummond in 1929, which even today stands up as a fast paced, exciting adventure and showcases him as a natural in front of the microphone. It’s not just that his distinctive mellow tones were finally unleashed on the world, it’s the way he carries himself. He shows no hesitancy in delivering lines, he refrains from theatrical silent film acting and yet neither does he merely stand still and deliver his lines as if in a stage show. He is a flurry of movement, intimate glances and subtle inflections. He hits the ground running in his sound debut, showing a mastery of the new medium and arriving on screen a fully formed cinematic character.

Colman, who had a long term contract with Samuel Goldwyn, continued to make films regularly throughout the early 1930s. He starred with the likes of Kay Francis in Raffles and Cynara, Loretta Young in The Devil to Pay! and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back and Helen Hayes and Myrna Loy in Arrowsmith to name a few. These films are great examples of 1930s Anglophile Hollywood at its best with their tales of honour and sacrifice, exiled nobility and gentlemen adventurers, and all delivered with the clipped, cultured tones that were a million miles away from the likes of Warner Brothers Depression era social dramas. Nevertheless, these films provided the right degree of romance and escapism and did much to solidify Ronald Colman’s fame and popularity not only in America but in Britain where he regularly topped the box office rankings. In fact the UK published World Film Encyclopaedia in 1933 called him “probably the most consistently popular actor in American films ”.

With the release of 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, Colman’s career began a new phase. Despite the frequency of his film appearances slowing down to around one a year, the remainder of the 30s was a fruitful time for Colman, producing many of his most iconic roles. In fact, the combination of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Light That Failed (1939) provided Ronald Colman with virtual screen immortality, and an almost mythical celluloid persona. In all four films he plays an everyman character seeking a universal truth despite insurmountable odds. In Lost Horizon he perfectly encapsulates the ideals of the story, of an ordinary man pushed to the limit to discover the eternal unknowable secret of Shangri La and his need to believe that such a place can exist. Colman imbues the part with such humanity that it makes the viewer wish that they too had his sense of idealism and courage. With these four powerhouse performances Colman made his mark on the cinematic consciousness. His career after this point continued to be successful but these years were undoubtedly his most memorable.

The 1940s and beyond resulted in a further slowdown of Colman’s output but still resulted in some well remembered parts in movies such as The Talk of the Town and Random Harvest. Finally, in 1948 his hard work and talent was rewarded for when he won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actor with his stunning performance as a tortured Shakespearian actor in the previous year’s A Double Life. After this triumph he made his last starring role in 1950’s underrated comedy Champagne for Caesar and then made only a couple of appearances in ensemble cast spectaculars after that. He left a cinematic legacy of modest numbers but high quality, with each and every performance full of the conviction and integrity he was renowned for. There simply are no bad performances in his back catalogue

While Ronald Colman was a movie star of the highest order, was also a pioneer of television and a regular voice on radio. Colman frequently lent his soothing tones to drama anthologies such as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater and hosted (and sometimes starred in) a few of his own drama shows like the wartime Everything for the Boys. Later he starred in the popular sitcom The Halls of Ivy, which successfully transferred to television (and how many silent leading men survived not one but two industry shaking changes?). Colman was a natural on radio, and as would be expected his voice alone was enough to charm the vast listening audience. However, the place where Colman shone the brightest on radio was in a most unexpected place – The Jack Benny Program. Ronald Colman and his wife the actress Benita Hume first appeared on the show in 1945 and continued with regular appearances through to 1951 (with an additional appearance on the television version in 1956).

They played Jack’s long suffering neighbours and each week endured the social embarrassment of Jack's oafish attempts to befriend them. Jack was the neighbour from hell, selfishly inviting himself over for dinner or borrowing things without asking, and blissfully unaware of the trauma he caused the Colmans (who would usually try to hide when they saw him). Of course, being terribly British about it all the couple tried to be polite and the resulting predicament showed Colman’s flustered yet pained and witheringly dry comic abilities at their best. If you know little of Ronald Colman past his movies, the Jack Benny appearances are a revelation. In one memorable storyline, Jack borrows Ronnie’s Oscar then promptly gets it stolen and the ensuing attempts to get it back before he realises are some of the funniest radio shows of all time. And each step of the way Ronald Colman (and Benita) match Benny gag for gag (though Benny had a habit of giving the best lines to his guest stars).

Whatever medium he appeared in, the appeal of Ronald Colman was in what he represented. His characters were invariably courageous, charming, kind, romantic, dignified and yet driven by a steely eyed determination to find truth. Yet, in all these parts and in real life he was never anything less than a gentleman. In her autobiography Myrna Loy has a charming story about working with him on The Devil to Pay! in 1930 :

"At one point I became nervous about a scene we were doing. "Courage, my sweet," he kept saying in that beautiful voice of his. "Courage, my sweet." I liked him very much then, and later on, when we used to see quite a bit of him socially. But he was an Englishman, you know, in every sense of the word."

Ronald Colman died in 1958 aged just 67 and with him died a particular type of old world charm and values. It’s no coincidence that Colman’s cameo on Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days in 1956 was as a Railway Official stationed at the furthest reaches of the Indian rail system. As the train reaches the end of its long journey and the steam subsides by the platform the dapper figure of Ronald Colman appears – the reassuringly familiar face in a hostile environment and the personification of the British Empire at the edge of the globe, clinging to decency as the world around him changes forever. It’s a highly symbolic appearance, a summation of a career and the celebration of an ideal that was beginning to fade away as the 1950s drew to a close.

It’s perhaps what he represents that has made Ronald Colman less well remembered than many of his contemporaries today. In this day and age all too often common decency and quiet determination are overlooked in favour of the brash and the loud. When I was younger I idolised Cary Grant for this suave sophistication but later when I became a fan of Ronald Colman, Grant’s manner seemed irritatingly hyperactive and borderline rude compared to the understated appeal of Colman. Just a glance, a twinkle in his eye and few words in that reassuring voice could convey so much about what is good in the world, and more importantly, what could be good. Off screen and on, Ronald Colman embodied a sense of decency, of unwavering determination and of easy going, wryly self effacing charm that made him so beloved and respected for generations. Perhaps more than any other movie star he’s the man I choose to live vicariously through, and the man whose ideals I strive to achieve. Like Shangri La it’s an unreachable goal, but definitely one worth trying for.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

God's Gift to Women (1931) - Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell and Laura La Plante: Three Women Fight Over Frank Fay, One Wins

Frank Fay was a fast talking Broadway star who was snapped up by Warner Brothers for a string of talkies at the dawn of sound. The hope was that with his immense stage popularity and gift of the gab the studio could make him into an attractive new star to give a boost to the fledgling technology. Sadly, his personality didn’t catch on big with the movie going public and by the time he made God’s Gift to Women in 1931 we find him near the end of his contract, looking tired and exhausted after a rough couple of years in Hollywood. By all accounts Fay wasn’t the easiest of men to like, as he was known to be incredibly egotistical and his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was a tumultuous affair which did his standing no favours. A lot of his early films miscast him as a ladies’ man, and God’s Gift to Women is no different. Here he plays Toto, a modern day Don Juan, with an insatiable eye for the ladies and a reputation as an incorrigible rake. Despite this he somehow manages to fall in love with demure society girl Diane (Laura La Plante) and he resolves to mend his ways. A sudden life threatening heart ailment appears to seal the deal, but unfortunately his many previous girlfriends have other plans and continue to fight over him (well, he is God’s gift to women…)

So there you have it, the set up for an entertaining Pre Code bedroom farce, full of knockabout comedy, racy one liners, daring fashions and familiar faces. However, in reality the movie just doesn’t quite work. It may be the fact that Frank Fay just doesn’t suit the role, or that he talks incessantly to the point of distraction, or that the whole set up is just too preposterous to take seriously. It’s a fun, diverting movie but nothing to write home about (or in a blog for that matter). Based on that, the movie would probably deserve to be largely forgotten and consigned to gather dust in a darkened vault surrounded by Frank Fay’s other pictures.

And that would be its fate if not for, in hindsight a very interesting bit of casting that keeps the film alive in the minds of film fans. For not only does God’s Gift to Women contain one of the few featured sound roles of Louise Brooks, but it also has Joan Blondell in her sixth feature film appearance. And to make it even more interesting, they appear together! And they wrestle each other on a bed! Sometimes the random cast lists thrown together in the days of the contract studio players result in some very odd and interesting pairings. Often, when past and present collide you get to see stars of different eras or on different career trajectories briefly work together. Vilma Banky and Edward G. Robinson in A Lady to Love, Al Jolson and Harry Langdon in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, Clara Bow and Jean Arthur in The Saturday Night Kid or even John Gilbert and the Three Stooges in The Captain Hates the Sea are examples of this intriguing clash of eras that spring to mind but there are surely many more.

In God’s Gift to Women we have the effervescent spirit of the Flaming Youth meeting the epitome of Depression era sass, and stuck in the middle is pretty but dull Laura La Plante. The result is a film with three actresses all at different stages of their careers and going in three entirely different directions. Here the past, the present and the future co-exist in the movie in the forms of Louise Brookes, Laura La Plante and Joan Blondell respectively.

By the time she filmed God’s Gift to Women, Laura La Plante had enjoyed a film career for over a decade, attaining great success as a silent leading lady for Universal. She is perhaps best remembered in silent pictures for the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary, directed by Paul Leni. When sound arrived she made a fairly seamless transition, first starring in the popular part talkie Show Boat. She continued making films for Universal, but after leaving them in 1930 she bounced around the studios for a couple of years before retiring in 1935. In God’s Gift to Women she is still a top billed star and a leading lady, but there is the distinct feeling that time and the competition is catching up with her. A lot of silent stars seem to have been given a run of sound films as a sort of courtesy since they were stars (providing their voice was good enough). Actresses like Olive Borden and Billie Dove made a string of sound films as headline attractions then either moved down the playbill or disappeared altogether. Laura La Plante lasted a bit longer than many other silent stars but on the strength of God’s Gift to Women it’s clear that she was on borrowed time. She’s perfectly acceptable in her role as society girl Diane but she lacks that certain something to make her special. Her voice is good, apart from a tendency to over enunciate her lines, and she handles the comedy fairly well but nothing about her stands out. She is one of many leading ladies of the Pre Code era whose pretty, aristocratic and virtuous nature began to look a bit old fashioned once the Depression fully kicked in. When you consider the new talent coming up in 1931 as competition it’s easy to understand why early retirement was a sensible and dignified option for Laura La Plante and many like her.

On the other hand, Louise Brooks’ career was on the downward spiral by 1931 having returned from Europe to the Hollywood scene she loathed so much. I must admit at this point that whilst I understand Brooks’ importance as an icon of style and independent spirit, as an actress I don’t see what all the fuss is about. When she’s lit and filmed correctly she does have a transcendent beauty but out of this gaze she has little else going for her compared to many of her contemporaries (especially someone like Colleen Moore). A great star is a star wherever they go but in Louise Brooks’ case, she is only good when handled correctly and that to me is a limiting factor in her legacy. Additionally I always get the feeling that making films in Hollywood was such a chore to her and there are certainly times in God’s Gift to Women where she looks positively embarrassed to be slumming it in such nonsense. She plays Florine, one of Toto’s many girlfriends and she really only has one notable scene. Under doctor’s orders Toto is to stay away from women in order to stop him having an aneurism. She arrives to find that her rivals are also there and ends up having a cat fight with Joan Blondell and Yola d’Avril. Her initial appearance is filmed in profile, with her face almost turned away from the camera and her famous bob covered by a hat. It’s in these scenes, her signature look obscured, that you realise that if you didn’t know who she was she wouldn’t be making as much of an impression. She certainly has some charms but whether she truly thought the whole enterprise was beneath her or she was just tired of the Hollywood rat race, it’s clear her heart isn’t in it. However there is a reaction shot at the end of the scene of just her face in close up that is filmed perfectly and for a few seconds the familiar Louise Brookes look emerges. However, it’s a fleeting glimpse of a star whose best work was firmly behind her.

Lastly we have Joan Blondell playing Fifi, another in Toto’s harem of beautiful women. The film finds Blondell less than a year into her movie career and in her highest placing so far on the playbill (3rd). She was still eight months away from her breakout performance in Blonde Crazy but was steadily climbing up the ladder as a fresh young face. Whereas Laura La Plante represented the typically conservative and virtuous leading ladies of the mainstream cinema thus far, and Louise Brooks a reflection of the high living Jazz Age flapper that was extinguished by the Wall Street crash, Joan Blondell gives us a glimpse of the modern woman of the 1930s. Although Frank Fay is fast talking and fairly animated throughout the film, he looks too middle aged and brings a tired vaudeville sensibility to the movie. In contrast, Joan Blondell is bursting with a fresh, new type of energy. In her first scene she lights up the screen with her big eyes, short blonde hair, wide smile and snappy delivery, and her pep and effervescence prove to be a lively interruption to the creaky old bedroom farce. She looks modern, talks modern and acts modern and seems at this early stage of her career to be well on the way to finding the screen persona that would define her in Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s actually amazing how charismatic she is despite such a lack of film experience and screen time. Just like Louise Brooks’ character, she visits Toto to nurse him back to health and bursts in wearing a patterned, figure hugging dress and throwing herself on him. Compared to Brooks and Yola d’Avril, who make the same sort of entrance, hers is the most memorable and energetic. She then shows an excellent grasp of comic timing (something Laura La Plante struggles with at times) saying that her husband “is ferocious when he’s jealous. He kills people” The pause and the delivery of the punchline combined with a wide eyed look towards Fay at just the right moment is a brilliant piece of business and far more skilful than much of the stilted delivery and hammy acting throughout most of the film. The point is, that fledgling star Blondell is a real breath of fresh air in the movie and has future star written all over her.

Of course all this is with the benefit of hindsight. Contemporary audiences watching the movie would have accepted La Plante as a proper star player, may have remembered Louise Brooks as a star from the past and would have thought Joan Blondell was one of many up and coming young actresses that were regularly appearing on the screen. However, knowing what we know now, we see the three stars in a considerably different light. Joan Blondell obviously has charisma and star quality in spades and her appearance fits into the story of her hard working rise to the top of 30s cinema. Laura La Plante’s career has sadly now been largely forgotten and if she is remembered at all it is for her silent work, not her polite but dull sound roles. And Louise Brooks is an eternal icon, far more famous than her actual screen career ever deserved, but her story and life as a Hollywood free spirit continues to strike a chord with successive generations. Her appearance in God’s Gift to Women is a footnote in her career, though due to her fame reviews of the movie nowadays seem to centre on her performance, uneventful though it is.

When all is said and done, of the three women, Joan Blondell owns the movie. Hers is a dynamic, sarcastic and peppy character that would highlight the way for a decade of hard working chorus girls, quick witted screwball heroines and down of their luck ladies of ill repute. She is effortlessly of her time, and the other two would quickly be left behind as tastes changed. One star fell because she couldn’t keep up with the new generation, and the other because she didn’t want to. In the middle of these women was Frank Fay, whose own career was on borrowed time (for about twenty years at least).

God’s Gift to Women is, like I said, a nice little diversion highlighted by some dream casting. It’s not often you get to see Louise Brooks and Joan Blondell wrestle on a bed in nurses' uniforms, but it happened, and the world is a better place for it. Watching the scene it’s interesting to note that Joan Blondell really puts her heart into the catfight and appears far more animated (and possibly violent) than her co-stars. Louise Brooks looks awkward and embarrassed and Laura La Plante isn't even in the scene (she's far to well mannered). And in a way that works as a representation of their respective careers by 1931 (of course, in the long run Louise Brooks' fame outshone everyone but that’s another story). The lesson to be learned is that when the old stars start to fade, there's always a fresh and eager new face to take their place. Sometimes it’s survival of the fittest, and in 1931 Joan Blondell was the new breed clawing her way up, and Louise Brooks, Laura La Plante and Frank Fay, in the cruel jungle of Hollywood with its fickle and precarious ladder of fame were about to run out of time.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Snapshot # 5 - Ladies' Man (1931)

What is it about?: A notorious society gigolo wines, dines and beds a wealthy socialite and then her daughter but finds it difficult to escape the consequences of his lifestyle when he meets someone he really loves.

The Call Sheet: William Powell, Kay Francis, Carole Lombard, Olive Tell, Gilbert Emery

Behind the Camera: Directed by Lothar Mendes, Screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz from a story by Rupert Hughes, Cinematography by Victor Milner

Snapshot Thoughts: Ladies’ Man is a fairly routine and static melodrama whose main selling point is its rather sordid story of Pre Code loose morals. William Powell plays Jamie Darricott, the titular ‘Ladies’ Man’ (the film’s euphemism for gigolo) who is the escort of choice for middle aged socialite Mrs. Fendley (played by Olive Tell). Mrs. Fendley is rich and bored, as her husband is too busy making money to take her to the opera and go to parties with her. The perpetually jaded looking Jamie fulfils his position with a resigned stoicism due to the fact that it provides him with money to keep up the pretence that he is a gentleman. A complication arises when Mrs. Fendley’s young daughter Rachel (Carole Lombard) falls for Jamie and he obliges to her overtures, creating an odd ménage a trios between mother, daughter and gigolo that is mildly distasteful even in the context of Pre Code bad behaviour. Jamie eventually meets Norma Page (Kay Francis), a fairly normal woman and they start a relationship while Jamie attempts to extricate himself from the entanglements of his profession and start a new life with Norma.

From that brief synopsis we find a movie shrouded in a bleak air of tragedy where death constantly lurks. William Powell plays the part of Jamie in the restrained manner of a man married to his fate and tired of life. In Mrs. Fendley’s home he admires portraits of Catherine the Great and her lover the statesman Grigory Potemkin (I love how 30s films continually throw in these historical references assuming their audience knew full well that they were talking about. I wonder how many did? I had to look it up). They talk about how Potemkin ‘had to die’ for loving Catherine but that it was ‘a glorious death’ for such a love. The relationship is brought up several times throughout the film to remind us that following your heart results in death.

Jamie finds something to really live for when he meets Norma, but we know full well it is doomed (and if we didn’t, the fact that Mrs. Fendley and her daughter both proclaim that if Jamie doesn’t marry them they will kill him kind of gives it away). At this point we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Jamie’s dilemma, but it’s really difficult not to think he has willingly and selfishly brought it all on himself. Meeting Norma may have made him see the light and experience real love but he is still unrepentant for his lifestyle and prefers to blame busy husbands for creating the bored wives that provide a living for him. It’s a testament to the screen persona of William Powell that we feel anything at all for the cad.

Star Performances: William Powell is his usual excellent self and without him the movie would be like watching paint dry. He portrays Jamie Darricott as a world weary, fatalistic traveller who is constantly aware that his life can only end with premature death. Unfortunately at times he is often too world weary which hurts the picture when the poor dialogue and somnambulant pace really require a jolt of energy and movement. Powell is good in the film but the restrictions of the part really limit his ability to give his usual warm, assured performance. Kay Francis, still a few films away from stardom gives a rather charming performance as Norma. She is likable and feisty despite her motivation being questionable (why exactly is she with him?). Unfortunately she serves merely as window dressing for many of her scenes, standing or sitting silently while other characters move the plot on. However, it’s definitely a positive appearance for her, and she has future star written all over her. Speaking of which, the third part of the triumvirate of dream casting in the movie, Carole Lombard acquits herself well as the highly strung daughter Rachel. It’s not much of a part and indeed her character disappears two thirds of the way through the movie but she shows poise and charm. The scenes where she is blind drunk and acting alternately silly then threatening are particularly good. Finally, plaudits must also go to Olive Tell as the bored society wife who starts the whole sorry mess. She looks and sounds like the typical middle aged socialite of so many classic movies, yet instead of being shocked at immoral behaviour, she is the one instigating it. It’s an interesting role for her that continually plays against type.

Technical Excellences: There’s not much to report here sadly. The direction by Lothar Mendes, is flat and uninspiring. The fact that he had previously worked with William Powell and Kay Francis several times seems to made no difference to the quality of their performances and the generally static visual style. Looking at his other directorial efforts of the period, this seems to be his characteristic style and generally his films rise and fall based on the script and the charisma of the actors. Sadly here, neither are particularly inspiring, with Herman Mankiewicz’s script delivering some of the most stilted and dull dialogue imaginable. On the plus side, there are some lovely sets, particularly the hotel lobby set and the various society balls portrayed in the film look like they take place in some suitable grand surroundings. However, the flat direction generally reduces such scenes to vacant wide open spaces.

The Sublime: The best bit of the movie is it’s finale, where Mr. Fendley finally confronts Jamie about his dalliances with his family as a costume ball is about to start. After a brief scuffle, Jamie falls to his death from the hotel balcony and Mr Fendley takes his place leading the procession at the ball. He walks with his wife as it slowly dawns on her what he has done, his eyes glazed over as the police arrive. It’s a really strong ending which in the hands of a better director could have been a powerful scene of celebration slowly descending into tragedy as the truth dawns on all involved. As it is it’s still good, and capped off by Norma crying in the corner if the hall as the dance begins. A policeman says to her “Were you in love with him too?” and in a classic piece of Kay Francis tragedy she tearily replies “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. He loved me. They can’t take that away from me!”. She gives the camera a desperate, hysterical look as the film ends, safely chalking up another entry in the Pre Code book of miserable downbeat endings.

The Ridiculous: Kay Francis’ fashions. I don’t know who was responsible (sensibly the guilty party is left off the credits) but she wears some truly ridiculous outfits in Ladies’ Man. First off she has a hand muff in the hotel lobby that is the size of a baby seal (it may actually be a baby seal). It’s so big it takes up most of a coffee table and provides a useful ice breaker for Jamie to talk to her. Maybe that’s why she was wearing it as it’s really difficult to miss. The film’s designer then strikes again when it come to Kay’s evening wear. She wears a fur coat that looks like a stuffed and mounted poodle lives on her shoulders complete with a collar that even Liberace would say “No, too much” when asked to wear. And after that there is her dress. Wow. It’s a white (I think) number with polka dotted shiny things on it that may or may not be bits of foil taped on, or the entire 1931 supply of rhinestone, it’s difficult to tell. It also seems to have bits that hang off it and move about and basically it is a mess. From a distance it looks like a landing strip for a flying saucer. If you need to see this film, if you really need to, it should be to witness this monstrosity of misplaced glamour. No wonder everyone at the nightclub was drunk - one look at her ensemble and they were three sheets to the wind.

Is it worth watching?: In a word, no. Unless you are a hardcore Pre Code fan and have to see everything, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the sort of film that is interesting as a glimpse of the average filler material thrown out to a public demanding constant product. Not every film was a priority and contracts had to be met so the result is a movie like Ladies' Man. It takes a well known star, a couple of up and coming players and some veterans then throws together a bunch of ‘scandalous’ tropes involving sinful behaviour. Add some melodrama, a contract director and mix. Quite watchable, with hints at greater things but ultimately average and uninspiring. It’s the sort of picture that filled up the bill of an evening’s entertainment and was then instantly forgotten. And let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, with that said, if you are true connoisseur of 30s high fashion and impeccable glamour then Ladies’ Man is one of the greatest films ever made.

Random Quote: “Women are always waiting for someone, and then Mr. Darricott comes along!”

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Diplomaniacs (1933) - Wheeler and Woolsey Go to a Peace Conference, Freedonia and Klopstokia Are Not Invited...

Diplomaniacs is, simply put, a work of sheer insanity. It attempts to catch lightning in a bottle in its heady synthesis of Broadway chutzpah and stream of consciousness, rapid fire surrealism. Nothing makes sense, nothing is taken seriously and everyone is fair game for being offended.. Upon watching the movie, you have to wonder how this sort of stuff ever got made. Was everyone at RKO drunk on bootleg gin? Did Wheeler and Woolsey have carte blanche to do whatever whey wanted as long as it made money? Did the desperate need to be entertained in the height of the Depression lead to a style of humour that was only intelligible at that particular time and largely baffling otherwise? There are so many questions, but I suppose it really all comes down to context. Context is everything.

It’s always difficult to untie a film from the social and artistic circumstances of its creation. Diplomaniacs is no different, as it exists both as an entertaining comedy in its own right, but additionally as a film that is difficult to untangle from the context of not only the Depression but two of its very famous contemporaries: Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup. While the purpose of this little assessment is to look at it in isolation, it would be remiss of me not to make brief mention its esteemed cinematic bedfellows

All three movies share a similar plot and a bizarre sense of humour, combined with broad satire and a number of shared actors and writers to form a trilogy of sorts. Million Dollar Legs (released by Paramount in July 1932) starring Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields got the ball rolling in a tale of a mythical small country that decides to join the 1932 Olympics. Woven around this story is a satire on international relations told in a free wheeling surreal manner. Next on the radar is Diplomanics starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (released by RKO in May 1933) and also dealing with international relations, but this time in the form of a peace conference. The same irreverent sense of humour is present due to the fact that both films share the same writer in Joseph Manciewicz. These two movies could be seen as companion pieces of sorts if not for the very obvious elephant in the room in the shape of the most famous about diplomatic relations, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (the last of the bunch, released by Paramount in November 1933). The most well known, better written and depending on your tastes, possibly funnier of the three if anything is the most restrained and coherent (and incidentally produced by Joseph Manciewicz’s brother Herman)

Much could be written about the links and shared heritage of the three films but perhaps that is for another day. To me, all three films do the same things in subtly (and some not so subtly) different ways, and the success or otherwise of the results are up to personal preference. However, in this fight, I’m all for Team Wheeler and Woolsey.

One of the reasons I like Wheeler and Woolsey so much is due to the haphazard nature of their comedy. Whereas much has been written of the Marx Brothers’ ability to undermine societal institutions with their unrestrained anarchy, their best work (though wonderful) always struck me as too well thought out (or even intellectual) and structured to be truly anarchic. This is in part due to the endless theatrical touring the Marx Brothers did to get the routines and concepts of their theatrical features hammered into shape. The end result is brilliantly realised but often lacks a certain level of spontaneity. Rather, it is a measured anarchy they present, and one that would be diluted as studios got more involved with their creative process. What sets the Marx Brothers apart from their contemporaries is their uniform presentation of a rebellious attitude. They are a close knit and clearly defined band of rebels whose primary purpose is to deflate pompous authority. Also, their tightly written and perfectly performed routines meant that they were more consistently entertaining, hitting the target more often than not.

Now, all of the above is what makes the Marx Brothers so good. Ironically, I find that it is the exact opposite that makes the best of Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedies that tiny bit superior to the Marx Brothers in the anarchy stakes. Their lack of critical praise, and their looser approach to structure gives them a hint of danger, a position of real comedy outsiders. Their movies give the sense of two performers not really caring what they say or do, not caring who likes them or what the critics think of them, and this attitude gives flight to some truly absurd, insane, anarchic and downright offensive material. As with any comedians working in this manner, the results are somewhat hit or miss, but the best bits (and some of the worst bits too) are some of the most gloriously inventive gags your are likely to see, years before Hellzappopin’ supposedly set the benchmark for surreal, ‘anything can happen’ screen comedy.

Diplomaniacs is a perfect example of Wheeler and Woolsey at the height of their powers and exuding a confidence that leads itself to experimentation and spontaneity. It’s a film where anything can and usually does happen, where there are no sacred cows and where the sense of fun and comic invention is palpable. And most wonderfully of all, not all of it hits the target but it doesn’t stop them trying one bit. Here, Joseph Manciewicz’s script works in perfect unison with the boys’ frenetic performances and cocksure delivery. Whereas his script for Million Dollar Legs has political and satirical points to make, here there is none of that subtlety. Everyone is well aware that what they are doing is not high art, and that no one will be writing books about their ‘method’, it’s just silly, low brow humour with its finger on the pulse of Mr and Mrs Average movie goer of 1933.

Of course, the plot of Diplomanaics is utter nonsense and serves merely as an excuse to link all manner of skits, songs and routines together under a loose story about Wheeler and Woolsey going to an international peace conference. The picture starts with the boys working as barbers on an Indian reservation (with the gag being, in the first of many racial stereotypes, that Native Americans don’t grow beards). Despite this there is some very silly humour involved including a bearded man with a bird’s nest and a golf ball in his facial growth, and a scalp that tries to run away rather than being checked for dandruff. The dialogue flies think and fast with such gems as “Are Indians foreigners?”, “No, they’re only on our nickels. If they were foreigners they’d be on our dollars” and the rather risqué exchange of ”Willie here has scruples” “ No I haven’t, not since I used witch-hazel”. The Indians here are in full racial stereotype mode, dancing and whooping and seemingly only able to communicate with the word “Oompa!”. Luckily their chief turns out to have been educated at Oxford and though his ear is “not yet attuned to your American-isms”, he knows enough to offer Wheeler and Woolsey $2 million to represent his tribe at the Geneva peace conference. What could possibly go wrong?

Before they go, there is a song and dance number which ends with Wheeler and Woolsey being bounced on a carpet so high that they fly off into space. The boys are also shown a large gorilla in a cage that used to be “the most beautiful woman in Paris”. The gorilla has a dresser and a chaise longue in its cage. Why does all of this happen? I have no idea; it’s just another day at the office.

Before long everyone is aboard a liner heading to the conference where we meet the villain of the piece Winkelreid, played with delicious gusto by Louis Calhern (basically playing the insane brother of the character he plays in Duck Soup). He hams up the role of diabolical villain in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in the Batman TV show, complete with a gang of inept henchmen. First among them is Hugh Herbert as a Chinaman (obviously), with a distinctly Yiddish twang and Fifi (played by a smouldering Phyllis Barry), a femme fatal who arrives as requested on a conveyor belt wrapped in cellophane, ready for action and “untouched by human hands” (though not for long).

The ocean liner gets lost at sea and (obviously) ends up in Switzerland where the villainous gang retreat into ‘The Dead Rat’, the World’s Toughest Dive where they sit at a table marked ‘Reserved for Conspiracies’ ("Gentlemen, let’s have a nice secret conference”). Later, our heroes arrive in Geneva (in full alpine hiker outfits no less, saying "I wonder if we're in the right city?") and discuss their plan, with the help of a passing dog that delivers a message from the reservation. In a great parody of the snooping villain, its revealed that the whole gang of spies are all sitting in a tree directly above them in full view listening in. Once the counter plan is hatched, Fifi suggests, “Let’s all neck”.

It’s about this time that Hugh Herbert’s Chinaman decides to leave, telling Winkelreid, “You are the ugliest villain I’ve ever worked for”, surely one of the great put downs in film history. He rows back to China to find that is dinner is cold because he’s five years late, and in his absence he has gained a small army of children. Eventually we get to the conference, and as expected we are treated to more national stereotypes and the whole thing quickly descends into chaos. The chairman of the conference, played by a perfectly cast Edgar Kennedy listens to the insanity then does his trademark slow burn until he snaps and opens fire on the delegates with a machine gun. Everything explodes and the finale number “No More War” is sung in blackface, because if you are going to offend people, why not just go the whole way?

The above is just a brief description of the madness contained within Diplomaniacs short running time. Between the silly one liners, stupid sight gags, song and dance numbers and visual and verbal surrealism it never outstays its welcome and manages to elicit laughs and astonishment in equal measures.

A great example of the humour that defines the movie happens before the conference when the boys have a conversation with the femme fatale Fifi. Woolsey asks her, “And who might you be my little cauliflower?” She tells him “I am the most beautiful woman in Paris” to which his reply is “Well make the most of it my broccoli, you may soon be a gorilla”. (So that’s why there was a gorilla in a cage!). I also should mention that this scene is played as all three run laps round some furniture (“Get in there, you’re eight laps behind”, Fifi is told before joining in). They finish the conversation and run out the room, and we cut to them running in formation straight into ‘The Dead Rat’. I know the scene doesn’t sound like much as described but it’s difficult to convey she sheer lunacy of the approach taken to incidental dialogue and action in the film.

In one sense the absurdity of every situation delivers a disjointed narrative that constantly reminds you that you are watching a movie, and indeed one that no one is taking particularly seriously. This in itself often takes the viewer out of the spell of the film, yet by doing this Wheeler and Woolsey are attempting to tap into a level spontaneity that can only rival the electric frisson of a live vaudeville show. There is a certain tension in watching their performances, which must have been palpable to contemporary audiences, in that one does not know what to expect them to do or say next. Compared to the style of film comedy that was to follow, the freedom that Wheeler and Woolsey manage to convey is something rarely seen in movie comedy, certainly after the early 30s. Many try to give that improvised, shambolic look but very few do it as well as Wheeler and Woolsey. And I mean that as the very highest of compliments!

All in all, Diplomaniacs showcases a team on top of the comedy mountain and brimming with confidence. Sadly, it wouldn’t last too much longer before the censors and audience tastes spoiled the party. However, Wheeler and Woolsey’s work of this period deserves to be remembered and celebrated far more than it has been up to now. They are a comedy team that consistently present a sense of fun and enthusiasm whilst pushing boundaries of comedy and indeed taste. Most importantly, their humour is honest, often baffling yet always surprising and no one else exemplifies pre code humour in all its unvarnished glory better. The critical world will always love talking about the complexities of the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup, or indeed W. C. Fields in Million Dollar Legs, and that’s fine by me. Whilst the Marx Brothers and Fields are timeless, Wheeler and Woolsey are freed from such concerns, living only in the moment. With Diplomaniacs they produced an outrageous and funny movie that perfectly captures an era and yet creates a surprisingly modern comic style decades ahead of the curve.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Three's a Crowd (1927) - The Unmaking of Harry Langdon, Part 2

Last time, we looked at the circumstances surrounding the making of Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd and the various calamitous events that conspired to make it the beginning of the end for his career as a top star. As a result of the behind the scenes wrangling and the finished film's subsequent critical mauling (much of it done after Langdon was dead and unable to defend himself), the movie, and Harry Langdon’s reputation suffered in silence for many decades. However, recently the critical tide has slowly begun to turn, especially now that people can actually watch Three’s a Crowd once again on DVD. And it is definitely worth watching.

The surreal, dream like abstraction of Three's a Crowd begins right from the very start. The title card names the principle characters simply as One, Two and Three (as per the name of the film of course, but to a later audience this sort of non determinative labelling is perhaps reminiscent of the Samuel Beckett school of drama), and the opening tableaux is of a dusky early morning street scene at 5 am, a liminal time between night and day, dream and reality. A horse and cart travels slowly down the empty street and the street lamps suddenly switch off, signalling the start of the working day and the end of dream time. Langdon uses the switching on and off of street lamps as a symbolic marker throughout the film (he even has a street lamp inside his house) and poetically bookends the film with them.

We cut to Harry waking up as the camera lingers on his somnambulant face for around fifteen seconds while he tries valiantly to escape the haze of sleep. Langdon has always been a confused, sleepy character but here he takes it to such extremes that it establishes the off kilter tone of the whole film. After a panning shot of the objects in his room, we see Harry’s drowsy moon face again for another agonisingly extended shot lasting another fifteen seconds. Unable to rise from his slumbers, he goes back to sleep, only to reawaken as the camera fixes on his face a third time, in this case for an astonishing thirty seconds. What is extraordinary about these shots is the sense of space and tension they provide. Fifteen seconds of close up on a face (especially a face like Harry Langdon's) is a long time cinematically, thirty seconds creates a sense of awkward unease but a combined minute is positively gripping. That Langdon uses this technique so early in the film is an incredibly daring move, pushing the viewer to keep looking, and to be drawn helplessly into Harry’s dream state. To some the effect is sheer overkill or bad editing but to me, this is Harry Langdon pushing his art into an unacceptable territory, putting his stall out by forcing the gaze of the audience. It's also a technique that Langdon employed in his career on stage, thus giving compelling evidence that these extra long takes exist as a conscious technique rather than (as critics have previously bemoaned) a lack of skill. The effect is an audacious and jaw dropping start to the movie. It also underlines the fact that dreams envelope the narrative, and indeed a case could be made that in fact Harry never truly snaps out his dream state, instead sleepwalking helplessly through the vagaries of his life.

Harry, the simple soul that he is, is an overworked furniture mover whose only dream in life is to have a family. Langdon shows from the start that this is merely a unrealistic fantasy for Harry, and that he is emotionally unable to either find or cope with his heart’s dream. This is emphasized by the use of objects in the movie. Harry can only connect to emotions through inanimate objects, something that is a constant throughout Langdon’s career. Yet like everything in Three’s a Crowd, this idea is mused upon and expanded in agonisingly explicit detail. It begins when Harry finds a doll in a trash can and carries it to work. He sees his boss playing with his son and mimics the motion with the doll. It is sad because we know that not only is this the only way he can connect with the reality of this situation but that this is as near to it as he will ever get. To make matters worse, his boss sees the doll and remarks that it is “a perfect resemblance”. Rather than becoming a child surrogate, the doll has become Harry's doppelganger. This a fact the audience knows all along but for it to mentioned directly to Harry is just one of the many horrible realities that he must face throughout the movie.

The cinematography in the film by Buster Keaton’s lensman Elgin Lessley is stunningly composed, as the camera works in unison with Langdon’s eye for detail to create beautifully detailed street scenes and sets. Despite the upheaval behind the scenes with Frank Capra’s dismissal and spiralling costs, the direction is good and the few missteps (a couple of shots don’t match from one scene to the next) are incidental to the overall message and atmosphere of the movie. One would imagine that Langdon had little desire to direct himself (most star comedians were the de facto director of all their films anyway despite rarely taking a credit) but took on the job because it was the easiest and cheapest option. Regardless of the backstage turmoil, the movie looks great, with a particular strength being the small yet evocative set. Harry lives in a tiny house at the top of an enormous staircase, jutting out of the side of a building and complete with a floor trap door to nowhere. The design is something out of an Expressionist film, and is used primarily to represent Harry’s position on the fringe of society. Interestingly, the expected comedy business of the long staircase never really materialises, rather the endless steps show Harry’s distance from reality and his isolation from his desires. This restraint is another marker that what Langdon is trying to do is not a typical over the top comedy spectacular. Pratfalls and slapstick take a back seat to Langdon’s minimalist vision. The film is full of half realised gags that fade into abstraction, subdued by Harry's hypnagogic wanderings.

An encapsulation of Langdon’s comic ideas occurs in a scene where, after being chased by his boss, Harry seeks to hide from him by jumping out of the trap door in his house, suspended by a carpet that is wedged in the closed door. This is a familiar trope of silent comedy - the comic suspended on high and perilously close to falling. Obviously, Harold Lloyd made a career from dangling off high buildings in his many ‘thrill’ pictures, but here Harry Langdon makes an important distinction in his approach. Whereas Lloyd ultimately triumphs over the many dangers and pitfalls though a combination of skill, luck and determination, here Harry Langdon is suspended in a trap of his own making, and one from which both he and the audience knows he cannot escape. He climbs up the carpet and opens the trap door, so releasing more of the carpet and sending him back to where he started. This routine goes on for an agonisingly long period of time (perhaps too long if truth be known) and the carpet slowly ekes away. The brilliance of Langdon’s approach is in the sheer nerve of presenting an impossible situation as comedy. Harry can’t escape, and we laugh at him trying to escape, knowing full well he can’t. This essential cruelty is something no other comic would even consider touching, as we laugh at his suffering. And to underline his point, the carpet eventually runs out and he does fall. No skill or luck presents itself, Harry struggles, we laugh at him, he fails to escape and he falls. As it happens, his boss’ truck breaks his fall, but in concept the routine is astonishingly dark in the lengths Langdon will go to torture his on screen alter ego. And he’s not done yet, by a longshot…

What Harry desires more than anything in the world is to be a family man, and as he looks out into the cold one day he sees a young woman collapsed in the snow. He takes her up to his house to recover and discovers that she is pregnant. In typical Langdon fashion, he discovers this not by recognising the tell tale physical signs that she is pregnant but by noticing an object, a pair of tiny socks amongst her possessions. He rounds up some doctors and local women and once the baby has been delivered, Harry is left alone in his small home with mother and child. Finally, out of nowhere, his dreams have come true. However, even at this moment of supposed triumph, we have already been conditioned to expect the unexpected.

What follows is perhaps Langdon’s greatest moment on screen. He stands in his small room, his life finally fulfilled. In a medium shot placing him squarely in the centre of the action, framed perfectly by his house, furniture and mother and child, he stands still. And doesn’t move. At all. All in all, I counted Harry standing still, blank faced and motionless for around thirty seven seconds. Compared to his minimalist experiments at the start of the film, this is an epic pause, and it’s a truly beautiful, eerily poignant moment. Langdon creates a rare thing in cinema: an open space, and on that space, and indeed Harry’s blank face, the audience is free to impose their own thoughts and feelings. What starts as a triumphant affirmation, given space to breathe swiftly shifts to a worryingly unsettling moment of tension and doubt. For all the talk of ‘the look’ of Buster Keaton (specifically the famous blinking scene in The General) or the stare of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, Harry Langdon is the true master of the blank gaze. His innocent face stares out into nowhere, out of the screen, piercing the soul of the viewer, inhabiting their mind and haunting their dreams. The moment shows that Langdon knew exactly what he was doing, and chose to push the boundaries of what was possible in film comedy in a way that none of his contemporaries could even conceive of. He creates space, disquiet and tension and thus extraordinary, haunting beauty.


Now left with this dream domestic scenario, Harry begins to worry that the girl’s husband will find her and take her back. He sees a picture of him and bashfully punches the photo with his back turned to the girl in an embarrassed, joking manner. Again this shows that Harry can react emotionally only to an object, or in this case representations of people. Against the real husband, he knows he hasn’t a chance. This theme is further elucidated upon in a dream Harry then has where the husband appears menacingly at the window of his house during a storm and Harry then fights him in a boxing match. The scene takes place in a darkened arena, lit only on the boxing ring. This seems to have been a budgetary constraint but it certainly adds to surreal, dreamlike mood. The husband has a cape and top hat and is literally twirling his moustache like the old time villains of melodrama while Harry’s secret weapon is a massively outsized boxing glove.

Again, the humour to be found in the scene is far outweighed by the impending tragedy and daring way Langdon uses narrative. Harry is defending the girl’s honour against the mean villain, and is swiftly knocked out cold. He loses the fight and the girl, in his own dream. Three’s a Crowd’s version of the hero’s journey is extraordinary and bold, and its lesson is that there is no journey, and no concept of happiness for Harry. To make matters even worse, Harry wakes up to find that the husband has tracked them down in real life and the girl runs to his arms, the family back together again at the expense of Harry’s dreams. As the day closes, dream and reality start once again to collide, and Harry disappears into the spaces in between.

As ever, Harry can go nothing to stop this happening as he stands and watches while his dream walks out the door with her true love. He literally stands by helpless and unmoving as she leaves, just as he did when she arrived. In a crushingly sad scene, Harry stands framed in the doorway of his little house, watching the happy couple disappear into the snow outside. Then we see the doll from earlier, caught in a washing line and tattered by the weather, crumpled and cast away. As predicted, the doll was not a child substitute but Harry himself. He takes a lamp and wanders out into the street. As he stands there entirely alone he blows out the lamp, and all the streetlamps also go out. It’s a beautiful little moment of magic in an otherwise profoundly bleak scene. The movie finishes with a gag, otherwise probably everyone in the cinema would have gone home and put their heads in their gas ovens, as Harry takes revenge on a bogus fortune teller from earlier in the movie. It’s a token gesture, a rare moment of comic relief in a thoroughly heart breaking movie.

What makes Three’s a Crowd so brilliant is the way that Harry Langdon seems to have almost committed career suicide in order to push his comic art further. The movie’s bad reputation surely rests on the fact that as a comedy it’s not very funny, which it isn’t. There is no comparison whatsoever to the earlier features with Capra in terms of laughs, but to do so is failing to see what Langdon is attempting to do. This is a mature work of a growing artist working on a purely conceptual level of comedy. In terms of career longevity Langdon definitely would have been better making another Long Pants or The Strong Man, but he obviously felt that to do so was a backward step. Whereas Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd continued to make more polished and more sophisticated films with each successive work, they essentially use their characters to explore the same variety of themes in varying detail. When Harold Lloyd made The Kid Brother, he achieved a beautiful synthesis of the rural and the ideal, of courage, humour and beauty, perhaps the summit of his achievements. However, the Harold Lloyd character in the movie is no different from the one that he always played, the big  difference being the scope of the movie, the fluidity of its image and perfect balance of comedy and drama.

When Frank Capra thought he understood everything about Harry Langdon’s comic character, he was wrong. Only Langdon knew what the character meant, and free of Capra’s hypothesizing he took the character in the direction it was meant to go in. Unfortunately that was the most uncommercial direction possible for an audience unused to seeing its favourite comedians as anything other than simple clowns. The essential difference is that Capra’s conception of Langdon involved the necessity of God being on his side. Langdon, being the ultimate reactive comedian historically manages to avoid tragedy by doing nothing. If he escapes from a building falling on him, it’s never anything he himself does, it’s just pure luck or Providence. Where the real difference in Capra and Langdon’s view of the character manifests itself is in this divine protection – in Langdon’s worldview, God is not protecting Harry, in fact nothing can protect him and the redemptive happy ending doesn’t exist. Harry is entirely lost, eternally buffered by the seas of Fate.

Quite how Langdon hoped to take this idea further in subsequent films is difficult to say, as his next two features were far more conventional (though the final one Heart Trouble remains sadly lost). Perhaps Three’s a Crowd was a one off, a statement that needed to be made and created in response to the situation he found himself in. Even Langdon must have been stung by the movie’s poor reception into making his next film more commercial. As it stands, Three’s a Crowd is either the work of a genius or an amazing series of unconscious coincidences by an unknowing amateur, There is so much depth and thought put into the movie, that the latter is simply inconceivable. Of course, in 1927 movies were rarely watched repeatedly or studied for meaning, least of all comedies. An acquired taste at the best of times, Harry Langdon at his most daringly opaque was going to be a difficult proposition for a lot of audiences. As critic David Kalat says in his excellent DVD commentary to the movie, Three's a Crowd “ horrifying, it is profoundly sad, deeply tragic, eerily disturbing and unrelenting”. And that I feel sums up this amazing, confrontational, divisive movie perfectly.

On screen and off, Harry Langdon exists at an awkward tangent to the real world, never quite posing the easy questions or giving the correct answers to be lauded universally by critics and moviegoers. Instead he opts to remain forever confounding, elusive and largely unloved. Yet for those who wish to listen, Three's a Crowd remains his ultimate statement, a movie that is both profound and profane. And though the critics and naysayers continue to doubt him, somewhere he watches and stands unmoved, and just stares his stare of eternity.