Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Monday, 26 April 2010

Footsteps in the Dark (1941) - Errol Flynn, the Light Comedian

Errol Flynn has aways interested me. He's such a fascinating, contradictory and almost mythical character and a far better actor than he is ever given credit for, though you get the feeling with him that acting was just one of many sidelines he dived into in the pursuit of adventure. Still, it's always good to see him cast against type and working for his money, and comedy is something well out of his normal range and a genre he rarely got the opportunity to try. Only three of his films could be classed as comedies (and no, that's not counting Cuban Rebel Girls, that's a whole different type of comedy) and apart from the occasional television appearance (I've only seen him on the Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello and his appearance was a bit odd to say the least but he looked to be having fun), Errol Flynn the comedian was rarely seen.

Footsteps in the Dark is the last of Errol Flynn's comedies and although in terms of comedic value it's the least of them, it still has some points of interest. Whereas The Perfect Specimen and Four's a Crowd veered into the more traditional vein of screwball and relationship comedy, Footsteps in the Dark was an attempt to put Flynn into the comic murder mystery, the sort of part played so effortlessly by the likes of William Powell or Warner Baxter. It's not quite The Thin Man, as Errol doesn't partner up with his wife (not until the end at any rate) instead it's the more traditional detective story, to the point that he even gets Allen Jenkins as his put upon sidekick. The result is not entirely successful, mainly due to a pedestrian script and workmanlike direction, but what is really interesting is the hints that Flynn gives of having a real talent for that almost lost art - light comedy.

Flynn plays Francis Warren, a rich socialite who lives a dull live with his wife and mother-in-law but who, in secret is a crime novelist and writer of the scandalous book "Footsteps in the Dark" that satirises the spoilt society of which he tires. He also uses his alter ego to hang around with the police and stumbles upon a real murder. Warren has to balance this double life all the while making sure that his family don't find out, by way of more and more elaborate lies while trying to solve the murder. This plot lends itself to some interesting situation which unfortunately frequently lack any real sparkle. If not for the sterling work of the cast, wringing the comedy out of the script by way of gesture and delivery, it would really fall flat.

Luckily there is an excellent cast, including the ever dependable Allen Jenkins, who sadly doesn't get much to do other than perpetually look exasperated, Flynn crony Alan Hale as the chief inspector and the excellent William Frawley as a dim witted detective. Added to the cast are the familiar faces of Roscoe Karns (again under used), Grant Mitchell and Jack La Rue. As Flynn's wife, Brenda Marshall gives a good performance in an under written part. She's particularly good when she starts to become suspicious of her husband's late nights and tries to catch him out. However, for me the scene stealer was Lucile Watson as Flynn's interfering mother-in-law. From her disapproving reactions to her son in law's behaviour to her comic embarrassment upon going to a burlesque show, her antics are hilarious. There is a particularly funny moment when mother and daughter confront Flynn with some difficult questions. Errol starts to stutter as the tirade of accusations start then he suddenly compliments her on her hair. Without missing a beat Watson changes immediately into a pussy cat, flattered at the comment, before a nudge from Brenda Marshall brings her back to the point and the nagging resumes. It's beautifully played and one of the many highlights in the performances of the leads.

However, it's Errol Flynn that gives the most illuminating performance. A large percentage of his time is spent doing one of his most used acting techniques, grinning nervously. however here he has a good reason for doing so an he grins for Tasmania, all the time with eyes that don't match the confidence of his smile. His jittery fumbling coupled with over the top bravado is quite brilliant and really very unexpected. He frequently milks all the laughs out of the domestic circumstances, whether it be creeping into bed late at night or, in one very funny scene, bounding down for breakfast, all smiles, only for his voice to go all high when he tries to speak. He consistently shows great timing with his ticks, mannerisms and frequently raised eyebrows. Added to that he shows ability in physical comedy too, especially in a nightclub scene where he madly dances, spinning round the floor in a ridiculous attempt at a hoe down straight out the Cary Grant book of dignified silliness.

There is also a sub plot involving a burlesque girl who Flynn tries to woo in order to extract some information about the murder. To do this he pretends to be a rich Texas oil baron and employs one of the most half-assed Texas accents this side of Northampton rep. You would think with all his experience in Westerns that he would have picked up the ability to do a better accent but then again, perhaps it's a sly nod to the fact that most of his cowboy parts had to have a line written into the script to explain his cultured Anglo-Australian accent. Despite this there is another interesting scene where Blondie, the showgirl (played by Lee Patrick) tries to kiss him. The look of momentary confusion as she lurches towards him is priceless, as is the increasingly uncomfortable expression as she tries to get closer. Errol Flynn recoiling from a beautiful woman in abject terror? Now, that is acting...

As mentioned before, the film isn't really anything particularly special and sadly it isn't quite the sum of it's parts. What makes it fascinating is that it marks the last time Errol Flynn would be given the opportunity to try comedy. While he lack the lightness of touch of a William Powell, the feeling I get is that he had a real gift for comic timing and with a bit of studio vision could have really excelled in those sorts of roles. I always got the feeling with Errol Flynn that, in many ways like Elvis Presley's film career, he constantly felt short-changed by the sort of roles he was given but despite the private frustration was happy to coast in the typecast parts as they brought him the fame, money and lifestyle he enjoyed. Looking at Footsteps in the Dark in the context of Flynn's filmography, we see it placed right in the middle of his peak years as a War and Western hero, coming after the likes of Santa Fe Trail and Virginia City and before such blockbusters as Dive Bomber and They Died with Their Boots On. Faced with the onset of war, Warner Brothers naturally would have wanted their bankable action hero to be even more typecast to boost morale on the home front.

It's just a real shame, both for Flynn and for the viewer that this sort of film didn't come his way again. He shows real skill in terms of his reactions and mannerisms and quite a flair for the comedy of embarrassment. This subtle form of comedy really played to his strengths and in this viewing at least gave some new insight into his acting abilities as well as the inevitable lost potential. Would Flynn the light comedian have gone down well with his public? Obviously not since it never happened again. Maybe he really was as frustrated with his typecasting as he often admitted to his ghost writer Earl Conrad in his autobiography. Or maybe he didn't really care, did his day in the studio when went out for a drink. With Flynn, who ever knows the truth? I'm not sure even he did.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Girl Crazy (1932) - The Case for Wheeler and Woolsey

I must confess to being a bit of a fan of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Should I say that in hushed tones? (or is that saved for admitting to being a Ritz Brothers fan?). It almost seems like a guilty confession as the pair are frequently derided and the general consensus seems to be that their humour has dated badly. Currently I'm working my way through their pictures in order, and now after the ninth movie, I'm finally getting to see what it was that made them so popular.

In retrospect it's fairly obvious why they haven't had the lasting appeal of their contemporaries. To put in plainly, they are just not in the league of Laurel and Hardy nor the Marx Brothers. They neither have the innocent charm of the former, nor the anarchic bite of the latter. They are a classic case of having a little from column "A" and a little from column "B". History remembers the victors and Wheeler and Woolsey, like that other underrated 30's team, Clark and McCullough were just lost in the shuffle. And Bert Wheeler, like Bobby Clark, would sadly find his partnership cut short before its time.

However, they have been unfairly overlooked. While they may lack the universal appeal, the unbreakable on-screen friendship and the methodically worked out gags of Stan and Ollie, in their best films they more than hold their own. While it's true that a lot of the appeal today of Wheeler and Woolsey is in spotting the frequent occurrences of bawdy pre-code humour, they themselves as performers are far more than their reputation for (sometimes very) thinly veiled innuendo would suggest.

Nine films in, Bert Wheeler emerges as a versatile comic character, all smiles and innocence and easily coerced into Robert Woolsey's fast talking shyster's schemes. It's the sort of relationship that worked so well for Abbott and Costello a decade later, but performed with so much more style (and less violence) than the boorish Bud and Lou. However, ultimately their lack of lasting fame comes down to a lack of a consistent relationship between the two. Though ostensibly a double act, on film they frequently act like two solo performers, playing different characters who often don't meet until part way through the film. What sets Laurel and Hardy apart from practically every other double act in film history is the beautifully observed relationship between the two friends. And without this, no double act no matter how good, is going to last the test of time.

Anyway, as I said, I've been watching the boys sing their way through their early musical appearances in Rio Rita, The Cuckoos and Dixiana and then into their own star series. Both Caught Plastered and Peach-O-Reno were excellent and very amusing, but I found their ninth film, Girl Crazy to be their most satisfying to date (and yes, I know it's not going to last - I've heard their decline is quite painful to watch.Thank you very much Mr Hays.)

Girl Crazy works so well for a number of reasons - It has a sharp script, a plot loosely adapted from a Gershwin musical and a strong ensemble cast. Pulling this together is their frequent director, William A. Seiter a man most comfortable working with experienced comedians. Though Gershwin purists generally dislike this version of the musical, they forget that it is primarily a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, not a full fledged Gershwin musical (that version would follow in 1943) and as such the few moments of Gershwin exist only to add a touch of class to their vaudevillian antics. However, whether the film is true to its source material is irrelevant as there is a well structured story that lets Wheeler and Woolsey do their characteristic shtick while keeping the various characters and sub plots moving along nicely.

The plot concerns a city slicker (Eddie Quillan) who rolls into a small town in Arizona where he sets up a dude ranch. He needs the skills of gamber Slick (Woolsey) in the casino so Slick hires a taxi (driven by Wheeler) to take him (with wife in tow) from Chicago to Arizona. Once there, Wheeler is unwittingly elected Sheriff not knowing that local heavy Lank (Stanley Fields) has sworn to kill the next man who takes the job. Add to that various love affairs and a couple of songs and hey presto!

Where Girl Crazy really shines however, is in the cast. Eddie Quillan and Arlene Judge do more than enough to engage as the male and female leads, with Quillan using his Sennett and Roach training to liven up proceedings with appropriate physical comedy. The pair even have a nice bit of pre-code dialogue at the start ("I take care of the mails in this section" says mail girl Judge, to which Quillan replies "What, all of them?" - wow did he see her future or what?). Stanley Fields is rather excellent as the classic Western heavy and lends an air of menace and blustering incompetence at the same time. It's a shame he never tied up with Laurel and Hardy as he would have made a great foil for them. There is a great running gag in the film where whenever "The West" is mentioned, all the cowboys take off their hats and stop for a moment of quiet reflection. Shades of Blazing Saddles, perhaps?

Other notables in the cast include Kitty Kelly as Robert Woolsey's equally fast talking wife. Her (and the film's) standout moment is the nightclub scene and her spirited rendition of "I Got Rhythm" (called "I've Got Rhythm" here) where spotlights are spun around the room as the song picks up pace, resulting in a delirious strobe like effect as the camera cuts to dancing cacti in the desert and stuffed deer heads on the wall moving back and forth to the beat. It's a truly jaw dropping scene of 30's exuberance and dizzy thrills.

The other stand out is the delightful Mitzi Green as possibly the only child star in history who acts like a brat without actually being one. She expertly manages to wind up and annoy the other characters precisely because she knows it annoys them. This extra dimension to her character shows her to be a very gifted actor at such a young age. She also does a great dance number and her impressions are pretty good too (especially her verging on the surreal but spot on George Arliss). I recently saw her in the Mary Brian and Kay Francis picture The Marriage Playground (1929) and she was really excellent so I may do a bit of digging and do a short profile of her at some time in the future.

The only downside to the wonderful cast is that the usual third man in the Wheeler and Woolsey act, Dorothy Lee is a bit sidelined and doesn't really have much to do. Sadly, she only made four more appearances with the boys and her slightly wonky charm is missed here.

As for Wheeler and Woolsey themselves, they get to do all the things expected of them that shocked and amused movie audiences so much. Though tame by today's standards, the free and easy nature to their comedies has a remarkably liberating effect, especially compared to the starchy comedy efforts of the subsequent decade. When Fields pokes a gun at Woolsey's behind and he thinks it's Wheeler goosing him, his remark to "Cut out that backgammon business" really takes the viewer by surprise. Though the slang is dated, the fact that there is a gay joke in a 30's light comedy musical is still an unexpected and disarming moment. But of course this is what audiences went to see their films for - the expectation of hearing something that most comedians wouldn't dare say. Everything is fair game and in this film Wheeler and Woolsey run the whole gamut from cross dressing to inebriation to infidelity and more. This run of "what can we get away with this time?" movies reached it's peak with the film So This is Africa, by which time the censors had had enough and the boys were sadly reduced to far tamer material.

Added to all these pre-code shenanigans there are some very well realised routines, from the epic cross country taxi ride and it's police bothering to the hilarious hypnotism routine at the end. Also notable is some great business at the start where taxi driver Wheeler manages to smash his windscreen while cleaning it, then throws the broken glass onto the road. He watches as all the cars burst their tires, all the time pretending to clean an invisible windscreen so no one realises he is to blame. It's a nicely observed bit of Harry Langdonesque comedy and shows Bert Wheeler to be a much under rated physical comedian.

At the end of the day, Wheeler and Woolsey are still and acquired taste, but Girl Crazy is the team really hitting their stride. It's a shame they are almost forgotten today but I suppose they burned out too early. Writer David Quinlan supposes that had Robert Woolsey lived longer, they would have given Abbott and Costello a run for their money in the 40's. I'm not sure if that's true as it seemed hard to get a studio in that decade that was able to make a creative comedy (as Laurel and Hardy found out to their cost). At the end of the day perhaps it's best that they will forever be associated with a particular time and place. They have no peers and should you take the time to get to know them, Wheeler and Woolsey can be funny, entertaining, subversive and shocking. and sometimes all at once. They are not for everybody but for me they are an increasingly welcome visitor on my TV screen.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Pick a Star

It has occurred to me that a love of the Golden Age of Hollywood at times is a completely separate thing from a love of film as a whole. For me, the focus is different, largely because situations existed in the studio system that no longer exist today, at least in Hollywood anyway. From the early 1920's and the rise of the producer as King, until the whole thing fell apart due to television, a new generation of film educated creators and the end of the long term studio contract, movies were made as part of a collective, conveyor belt process. The studios existed to create dreams and contracted artistes were by and large told what to do. This intense management of resources created a lot of great films, some quite bad films, and a lot of solid, well made films.

The great films went on to become cultural touchstones, and the rest...well they were remembered by the people that saw them then just hung around, waiting to be rediscovered. My point being, if you are a proper student of film, you seek out the best examples of the art form worldwide and go forth to write your thesis and scratch your chin. If you are a student of classic movies, you tend to ignore (or at least take for granted - we all know The Wizard of Oz is good) the classics and head straight for the bargain bin (or at least the blue cross sale). Cary Grant? Yeah, Bringing Up Baby is a stone cold classic, but give me Gambling Ship any day.

For me it's not about auteur directors or method trained actors, nor is it about innovative camera technique and epic cinematography (though theses things all help). It's about stars. It's about a window on a forgotten world. It's about the unexpected thrill of something quite out of the ordinary happening in a very ordinary film. The films I want to watch aren't directed by Hitchcock, Ford or Capra. They are directed by the workhorses of the era, the guys made those conveyor belt films and made damn good ones too. They are the almost (but not) forgotten likes of Archie Mayo, Lloyd Bacon, Ray Enright, Alfred E. Green and Roy Del Ruth. They made the movies that recorded what ordinary people in the 30's saw, felt and loved.

My original point for this was to talk about how I got started watching classic movies, how one star beget another and through six degrees of separation I ended up with the dozen or so favorites that I feel define me and my tastes. As I said earlier, to me, classic movie watching is all about the middle ground. However, while this may apply to the middle ground of directors, it doesn't preclude anyone from following the top end of the star spectrum. Because, really it all comes down to the stars.

I'm not going to rant about the difference between the stars of today and of yesteryear because really, that would be a futile waste of space and it's also like comparing apples and oranges. but what brings me back time and time again to the films of the Golden Age is the cast of big stars, small stars, character actors, bit-parters and all the people in between. And while I tend to shy away from the important directors, I have no such problems with the big stars. However, as previously stated, the middle ground of the filmography is where they all really shine. All those early 30's films with the crackle of energy and the zip of stars finding their way, all done in 65 minutes. It is such a shame that the era nowadays is reduced to a "Greatest Hits" package and that people don't wish to see a film or a star in their proper context. Humphrey Bogart's gangster films are great,but the real fun is in watching him climb up the ranks and cast lists in his early pictures, stealing the show until he becomes a fully fledged star.

You can easily watch a bad film, or a least a pretty dull one, but if your favorite star is in it then it doesn't seem so bad. You can anxiously wait for them to reappear on the screen and the time spent just watching them sometimes turns an average film into what is often generously labelled a "curio". Afterwards, in reflection you then piece together where the movie stands in the career of your favourite, maybe it's not their best (everyone made at least a few duds) but it can help in an overall understanding of why you like them. Personally I'd take countless average movies with their various quirks to the tried and tested, and frequently over-viewed "Greatest Hit". And this applies to most major stars. Do we really need to see Casablanca again?

As they say, the devil is in the detail, and I hope to dig up a few dusty corners of film history in the months to come. Next stop should be a certain love 'em or loathe 'em pre code comedy duo...