Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Hot Saturday (1932) - Cary Grant Needs to Work on his Cary Grant-ness...

For years, Cary Grant was my favourite film star and one of the idols of my formative years. I watched all his movies that appeared on television and feverishly read any biographies I could get my hands on. After a while the new films to watch dried up so I rested him for a few years and moved on in other directions. Recently I’ve returned to him, filled all the gaps in my collection and then watched a number of his films only to find that…well it’s not the same. For reasons that I haven’t yet fully understood, I’m not enjoying his movies as much as I used to and most of the ones I’ve viewed lately, whether they were good films or bad have left me a little disappointed by his performance (for the record these films have been When You’re in Love, Kiss Them for Me, Wedding Present, I’m No Angel, Only Angels Have Wings, Holiday and Indiscreet). While Cary Grant is still the benchmark in my life when it comes to sartorial elegance and gentlemanly conduct, I’m finding that there’s just something missing when I watch my former favourite on the screen. He’s just not matching my memories from when I was younger. What’s wrong with me, am I ill?

Which brings me to Hot Saturday, currently the earliest performance of Cary Grant that I’ve seen (actually I’ve watched Singapore Sue but that doesn’t really count). Though top billed, he’s not really the star as that honour belongs to Nancy Carroll. She plays Ruth Brock, a pretty girl in the sleepy small town of Marysville who regularly has to fight off the attention of the bored young men at the bank where she works. She meets local playboy Romer Sheffield (Grant) who invites everyone down to his house for a party, the ‘Hot Saturday’ of the title. From there we get the usual melodrama of love affairs and misunderstandings with the main message being the petty-mindedness of small town gossips as Ruth becomes a scarlet woman due to her carefree attitudes. There’s quite a lot to talk about in the film (short version: Nancy Carroll does a ridiculous Lillian Gish impression, lots of underwear on show gratuitously, Randolph Scott undressing an unconscious woman in a cave and a hilarious turn from Grady Sutton) but just this once I’m going to ignore all that and talk about one aspect, the aforementioned Mr. Grant.

Cary Grant’s character in Hot Saturday is interesting as not only is it his first leading role but possibly his first excursion playing the “Cary Grant” character that he would go on to perfect, both on and off screen. Here he hasn’t quite figured out the formula. As Sheffield he is charming and romantic but with an altogether harder heart. For example, at the start of the film he pulls up outside the bank with his current girlfriend, who is promptly dispatched with once Nancy Carroll becomes the new object of his affections (complete with monetary pay off). When he asks his servant if she has left a message for him, the reply is “..she said you can go to h...the devil”. Sheffield is obviously a worldly-wise character with a long line of female conquests to his name.

You get the feeling with Grant in this picture that he is still finding his way in this sort of role, still piecing together his screen alter ego. At his party he’s decked out in boating whites and blazer, and walks around with an almost Gatsbyesque air of bored detachment (everybody is enjoying the food and drink except him). When trying to woo Nancy Carroll the words sound lovely but the delivery is hesitant and at times empty. He also has that strangely toothy and feminine smile that he only seems to have in early portrait pictures. It’s almost as if he hasn’t even grown into his face either. He’s not helped by a lack of close ups and some bad continuity throughout the film as he sports a healthy and deep tan in some scenes, only to have the white pancake makeup on in the next. It’s an altogether stuttering start for the local lothario.

Despite these teething troubles, his character certainly shows the suave arrogance of a true cad to match his detachment. After trying his best pick up lines on Carroll at the party, he emerges hand in hand with her in full view of her current beau as if to highlight that he is used to women falling into his lap regardless of their existing relationships. Later in the film when Carroll appears at his house late at night we find the young playboy lounging about on his porch in his smoking jacket. He seems unsurprised to see her and admits that when he saw her he knew he had to have her. When Carroll talks marriage he replies “Marriage…ownership...dreadful thought isn’t it?” He has the casual attitude of a bored playboy who is used to living his life the way he wants and used to getting what he wants, and usually through money. This is scripted without a trace of emptiness on his part - up to this point money has bought him happiness. Though it’s early days, this embryonic version of the ‘Cary Grant’ character is with hindsight quite troubling. After all, Cary Grant without a heart, without a sense of compromise, without the ability to be ridiculous and self depreciating is, well…you can fill in the name of your least favourite leading man if you want to be cruel.

Luckily by the final reel Cary has a sudden change of heart and starts to really look a bit more familiar to our modern eyes. When informed that Nancy Carroll is due to marry longtime friend Randolph Scott he accepts the news with disappointment but also grace and gallantry (and all while impeccably dressed in a tuxedo). It’s an unexpected admission for a man who gets everything he wants that he has lost for the first time in his life. However, this in turn leads to the frankly unbelievable ending where Carroll decides to run off with Grant and get married. Yes, faced with scandal and ruin, she sides with the home wrecking cad. Worse still, he goes along with it - what happened to all that dreadful ownership stuff?

Hot Saturday is interesting for what could have been had this character emerged as the template for Cary Grant’s screen persona. Though his character had a somewhat ambiguous morality, I can’t say I enjoyed his performance and I wouldn’t say that it is in any way a star making turn, though these days it’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a viewer seeing Cary Grant for the first time. I’m afraid that for me the movie continued the run of under whelming performances by Grant. What’s interesting is that the suave playboy he portrays in Hot Saturday certainly lacks ‘something’, with his empty words and arrogance. Of course, that ‘something’ is the special magic that Cary Grant eventually brought to his roles as a star, that unique charm that made him stand out from the crowd and made him my favourite actor for so many years. It’s strange watching him in the process of finding that magic and seeing him misjudge a few steps on his way to creating one of the most enduring and popular characters in film history. I guess I’ll have to find a way to reconnect with Cary Grant with the next film I watch…

Monday, 21 June 2010

Girls About Town (1931) - Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman Check Their Morals at the Door

Girls About Town is one of those pre code films that deal with a somewhat undefined sense of morality. The girls in question are Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman, and the town is well, any town though strangely they spend a lot of the film on a boat. The two stars play a couple of gold diggers who spend each night taking out wealthy businessmen to show them a good time on the town. For giving the men this service they get well paid by the mysterious “Jerry”, their agent of sorts (well that’s a polite word for it). Unsurprisingly this set up is never called into question, and “Jerry”, if indeed that is his real name, manages to sleep well at night, his conscience untroubled. The two girls live together in their plush apartment on the money they earn for their “services” and the “gifts” they procure from the various middle aged men they have wrapped round their little fingers. They sleep during the day, go out at night in their finest clothes, party the night away, only to return early the next morning to bed for the cycle to begin again. Of course this being the 1930s the question of sex is never mentioned, and in this case never even hinted at, but their lifestyle was certainly something that wasn’t going make the Catholic Legion of Decency too happy.

The basic theme of the movie is how far you can take the gold digger lifestyle and whether it truly buys you happiness. Of the two girls Marie (Tashman) is more concerned with wealth and what she can get from people, but Wanda (Francis) is beginning to have doubts and wants to settle down. From there we get the usual twists and turns of melodrama, action and comedy with a fairly sharp script from silent film star and soon to be successful producer Raymond Griffith.

The film, directed by George Cukor begins at a breakneck speed with a clever title sequence that has the stars’ names in neon lights over city scenes of buildings, bright lights and merriment. We then get a dizzying montage of the girls taking out some clients, with fast cuts to the faces as the girls pretend to look interested and the men get more and more drunk, while champagne bottles pop their corks over the picture. As far as setting a scene and getting you straight into the story and its characters it’s about as effective as you will ever see and highlights the great economy of script and scene used in the films of this era (the film itself is a snappy 69 minutes). After this a tracking shot of the girls’ bedroom showing the effects of the night before brings the action up to date. I’ve never been a huge fan of Cukor but it’s an impressive start.

The girls get the call from Jerry and go to a boat for their next assignment, entertaining a businessman and his assistant, played by Eugene Pallette and Joel McCrea respectively. From here Tashman pairs up with Pallette to milk him of his money and Francis falls in love with McCrea. Although the film starts promisingly, it soon starts to get a bit patchy, mostly because it doesn’t know whether it’s a light comedy or a full blown Kay Francis style melodrama. Both are good in their own way, but sandwiched here side by side they don’t quite add up.

On the comedy side we get Lilyan Tashman’s exploits as she tries to get practical joker (and skinflint) Pallette to part with his money and jewels. Eugene Pallette is particularly good as the annoying prankster (and since this is the earliest of his films I’ve seen is considerably thinner and less raspy throated than I’m used to) who regales everyone with stories of the awful jokes he’s pulled, especially savouring the poor woman who “got such a surprise she fell and hit her head on a chair”. Tashman goes all out to get the money, eventually involving his wife, a bit of blackmail and a sort of happy ending. This plot line possibly could have supported the movie on its own with plenty opportunities for Tashman to swindle the money and get one over on the stingy businessman.

However, we also have the Kay Francis storyline to deal with. Kay looks wonderful throughout the film, positively glowing with glamour (though as usual perhaps just a little too much eye make up). Her story involves her love affair with Joel McCrea (who really doesn’t do much to stand out in this movie) and the sudden revelation that “I haven’t lived the prettiest life in the world” and that shock! she’s already married! and that shock! her husband is also married! This bigamy (and subsequent blackmail) sub plot just comes out of nowhere and isn’t in the least bit convincing. However, it is introduced in a very subtle and clever manner. Kay phones her estranged husband, and as they talk we slowly see a woman’s leg in the background hanging off the edge of a bed. After the call the brief conversation between the two lets the viewer in on the secret shame. The sad thing is that Kay levels this announcement on poor Joel while at the zoo. They had been happily poking the rather circus like cages full of sad looking bears and monkeys, and he had even bought her a nice balloon, before getting slapped in the teeth with the “but I’m married!” speech. The moral: never go on a date with Kay Francis. you'll buy her a balloon and this is how it will end.

So the trick of the film is to draw these two plots together and sadly it just doesn’t quite work. The other problem with the film is that of Lilyan Tashman. While she is undoubtedly very good and very funny in the movie, she is seen only in contrast to Kay Francis’ gold digger with a heart character. It’s almost as if she has decided to harden her character to differentiate herself and the result is at times too severe. Even though she helps get a marriage back together at the end, she is still too mercenary (and unrepentant) to be wholly sympathetic. Perhaps it’s her face, which is better suited to portraying frosty other women or society dames (as she did wonderfully in The Marriage Playground). An actress like Glenda Farrell would have been more suitable for the role and able to bring some more warmth to a funny but potentially unlikable character. However it’s only a minor quibble as Tashman, regardless of how she plays the role is full of energy and her contribution to the film is far more interesting than the drippy melodrama of the Kay Francis story.

That said Kay Francis is also excellent in her role. She seems most at ease with the comedy and gives the impression (at least at the start) of being a happy and carefree girl about town, resplendent in shiny gowns and fur coats. As expected the bigamy subplot all works out in the end and we get our usual pre code cop out on any truly scandalous behaviour. What is worth mentioning however is the film’s one real pre code moment where, fresh from a dip in the sea Miss Francis proceeds to do a scene with McCrea in her soaking wet and completely see through white top. I was actually shocked that they left the scene in and didn’t think to cover her up, for her own modesty as much as anything. I guess it helped to sell tickets, in fact I’m sure it did.

Essentially the film is all good clean fun under the pretense of being a bit risqué. It’s unusual that these sorts of morally dubious female characters frequently haunt films of the pre code era, and more so that their lifestyles are usually held up to be something to aspire to or at least sympathize with. The popularity of the “gold digger” character shows that the audiences of the Depression wanted to see women claw their way up the rungs of society by using their sex appeal and street smarts to their advantage. Whether it’s exploitative or empowering is difficult to say but the sheer style of the string of actresses who played these characters at least makes it entertaining and palatable regardless of morality and after 1934 it would quite a while before women would get to enjoy themselves as much on screen.

Girls About Town is an interesting and engaging movie that nonetheless leaves the viewer uneasy as to where their sympathies should lie. Should we applaud Lilyan Tashman’s character for living the high life and getting what she can out of others with no guilt or remorse? Or, as Kay Francis notes as she tries to seduce an unwilling Joel McCrea, is it all okay if it’s only pretend? The movie is certainly amusing and full of life but the hard edge of the girls’ essential selfishness left much of the film and its characters in a moral fog. Of course this in itself is quite refreshing as there is little outright moralizing (other than that of the sanctity of marriage) but the tone just doesn’t fit the action. And what’s more, we never did find out who Jerry was or why he’s not been arrested because I'm sure what he's doing is illegal…

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Errol Flynn - Underneath the Iceberg

Another day, another birthday and this time the occasion is for Errol Flynn, born 101 years today. To me, Errol Flynn remains one of the most fascinating characters to populate Hollywood in its Golden Age not just because of his contribution to the cinema but due to his uncanny ability to live life to its fullest. Yet acting was just one of the many strings to his bow, and you only need to read a biography of the man to realize that there was a lot, lot more to him than the cinematic on and off screen Casanova of modern legend.

Two things happened to make me interested in Errol Flynn. Firstly I read his autobiography “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”. The second thing was that I found out it was ghost written and was mostly a pack of lies.The fact that I had been hoodwinked brought on a compulsive need to find out more. Since then, it seems that every new biography of Flynn that comes out has a new angle or opinion on his life. Was he a Nazi spy? Was he bisexual? Was he a drug addict? It shows that even today, Errol’s extraordinary story still continues to fascinate and confound and I could guarantee that wherever he is, Flynn is having a jolly good laugh at it all. (As an aside, Myrna Loy said of the Nazi allegations, “My God! He was never sober long enough” )

To me his appeal lies in the mass of contradictions that marked his personality and deeds. Writer Earl Conrad, who ghost wrote Flynn’s autobiography and who wrote a memoir of his time with the star sums up the different versions of Errol Flynn thus:

“the philosophically curious man, the frustrated writer, the congenial seeker after monogamy who could live only promiscuously, …a wanderer over seas and lands…, a seeker after elemental meanings that have eluded the whole of mankind as well as himself, a man tormented with the acquisition of the wrong image, a figure of human contradiction whose thoughts and acts were caricatures of caricature itself”

He paints Errol Flynn as a Quixotic figure, endlessly seeking and wandering, partly tortured by life but always railing against his creator. In the end he decides that the best word to describe Flynn is “elemental”. This is an appropriate description as there is something in his worldliness that is almost wild and untamed that sets him apart from this contemporaries in Hollywood, as if he knew that it wasn't really his home and that for him it was just a means to an end. Also there certainly seems a great deal of depth behind the man, and he did indeed grow to loathe the public image he had created for himself, preferring to be sailing on his boat and near to his beloved ocean. There is also a contradiction between his need to take something as far as he could, be it alcohol consumption, drug taking or womanising and a loneliness that could only be satiated by returning to the sea and its exploration, free from the trappings of hedonism.

However, the side of Flynn I find most interesting is his contrary sense of fun, his need to point out the absurdities of life, to upend the social order and to offend all that is good and self satisfied. Flynn seemed to have a compulsion to bend society’s rules, to laugh at life and death,not really to bring about any change but rather just for the hell of it, as if to stave off boredom. For most of his life he adopted the question mark as his personal symbol, a potent reminder to him not only of his mission to constantly reach out and ask more of life but also of the uncertainty of existence and the need to understand his own actions.

This brief sketch leaves out a lot of the fascinating minor moments of his life such as his two novels, his journalism, his lost plays, his time in repertory theater in Northampton, his sojourn to the Spanish Civil War which ended up with him fighting for both sides, his astonishing drug and alcohol intake, his real and imaginary links to the Nazis and his exploits as an amateur scientist and oceanographer. With all the colour of his life it’s amazing that he felt he had to embellish it with made up incidents. What’s even more amazing is that you don’t even have to talk about his career as an actor to find him compulsively interesting. Earl Conrad said of him “ the first half of the twentieth century was lived by him perhaps as wholly and completely as by anyone”. Well, in terms of enjoying yourself I think that’s true, and luckily when he died in 1959 Frank Sinatra was there to take on his mantle…

I think my favourite Flynn story is when he got involved in the Cuban revolution. He arrived there to lend a hand with Castro’s side not really due to any deep seated political leanings (though he did sympathize with the revolution and the people’s plight to a degree) but in a desperate race to find Fidel Castro and get his picture taken with him before fellow Cuban darling Ernest Hemingway (he managed it to his endless glee). This demonstrates Flynn's talent for finding the absurd in the ordinary, for playing the trickster, a person of no sides, or both sides depending on his whim. Due to his unique philosophy and his unique individuality he made the world a far, far more interesting place. Oh, and he made some movies too.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Stan Laurel - 120 Years Young!

Today marks the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Stan Laurel's birth. It's strange that we've got to a point in time that most of the stars I grew up with on television are now passing out of living memory (and also fading away from our television screens). Sadly, when anniversaries start getting beyond a hundred years they really become part of history rather than culture. I remember the big celebration for Stan's 100th anniversary (and also for Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton etc), but now that milestone looks to have been the final party for the cinema pioneers. When the final veteran of the Somme died recently people mourned not just the man, but the final passing of an era into history. Perhaps we should have done the same for Anita Page? Time marches on...

Anyway, I just wanted to mention Stan because he's basically the reason I'm here writing this. His films didn't just get me into classic movies, they got me into movies. Because of this, I've always gone through life assuming that everyone likes Laurel and Hardy, and though I've found that increasingly not to be the case (and honestly it's something I struggle to understand in other people), any one of their films can instantly lighten my mood and make me laugh without fail no matter how many times I've seen it.

Of course, Stan is nothing without Ollie and vise versa, but on his own Stan Laurel's creative drive and control over the making of his films has always inspired me. I honestly think that there was no one working in Hollywood in the Golden Age who understood instinctively the mechanics of how comic situations worked than Laurel. Keaton was close, but he cared too much about the big picture. Stan's attention was to the tiny details and that instantly made his humour more real and more human. You only have to watch any of his later pictures where he had no creative control to see how badly his unique mind was missed. He had no ambition to be a great auteur, just to come up with funny and unusual situations for Laurel and Hardy to battle against. You can see this attention to details in everything he does and it's one of the reasons why his films are so endearingly popular.

Anyway, I've no intention to go on about his virtues as a performer as I think they go without saying. At the end of the day if I hadn't been exposed to Laurel and Hardy at an early age I doubt I would have grown up to have an appreciation for all things "classic", be they films, records, or books. It was the starting block that shaped all my tastes and opinions. Without Laurel and Hardy, I may have got there in the end but things would have worked out in an entirely different and possibly alien way. I might be a Chaplin fan! Perish the thought...*shudder*

Nope, it all started with Stan. A genius, a gentleman and my hero since childhood. My life would have been infinitely poorer without him.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Champagne for Caesar (1950) - Ronald Colman, Drunken Parrots and Phonecalls from Einstein

In 1948 Ronald Colman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the previous year’s A Double Life. His performance as the tortured Shakespearean actor Anthony John was a triumph that rounded off a superlative career as a consistently popular, well loved and highly regarded actor. After winning the Oscar (and the Golden Globe), Colman seemed in no hurry to follow it up, instead concentrating mostly on radio work. In fact, it wasn’t until 1950 that he made his next film, the very funny but nonetheless lightweight Champagne for Caesar. I don’t know enough about his personal life to know exactly what he did in the intervening three years, or indeed why he waited so long to follow up A Double Life, but I’ve always found it odd that this was the vehicle he chose, especially since it proved to be his final role as a leading man. After Champagne for Caesar, he only made a further two screen appearances, firstly a wonderfully symbolic cameo in Around the World in Eighty Days and finally as the top billed performer in the all star mess that is The Story of Mankind.

The basic premise of Champagne for Caesar didn’t seem too promising at first: a satire of television quiz shows where a polymath tries to bankrupt the quiz sponsor as revenge for not giving him a job. It’s a plot that seemed a bit dated and forced and given the film’s reputation as a bit average my expectations were a somewhat low. Though a Ronald Colman performance is never less than entertaining, the film seemed in retrospect to be an afterthought to a career that had already reached its happy ending. In fact, I would suspect that many critics tend to overlook Colman’s final screen moments for precisely this reason, like a retired Hall of Fame sportsman coming back for one last ill-advised season.

In the movie, Colman plays the unfortunately named Beauregard Bottomley, the man who “knows everything except how to make money”. What’s immediately impressive is that Colman makes this know-it-all character so likeable and sympathetic, never once letting his vast intelligence turn into something that would alienate the viewer. Even when chastising characters on their lack of education, he’s never less than charming in his use of his expressions, gestures and of course his soothing voice. How can you not trust the owner of that voice? This likeability factor is one of the hallmarks of Ronald Colman's screen persona, and one that ensured that he remained a firm favourite of audiences for decades despite changes in fashions and film stars.

The film starts off rather oddly, with a purposefully irrelevant opening scene and constant jaunty comedy music that sounds like the linking music on a radio show where someone is going shopping somewhere busy. This combined with the silly character name makes one fear that the words “zany” and “madcap” may be needed to describe the action. Luckily after a shaky start establishing the character, things pick up as Colman attempts to get a job at a soap company run by none other than Vincent Price (with an office designed by Jean Cocteau by the looks of it).

Vincent Price is laugh out loud funny in this film, a real revelation. At this point in his career he had outgrown the secondary dramatic leads of his youth but was yet to find his niche in horror and surprisingly here displays an as yet largely unseen talent for comedy. It is strange watching him with hindsight because his performance is exactly what you would expect from the Price of the Corman era and beyond with over the top exclamations and scenery chewing, except it’s happening in 1950. He starts off the proceedings by enthusing about his new idea, a soap for teeth then decides to not hire Colman because “I loathe humor, and you are humorous”. Finally he promptly disappears off into a trance mid conversation to visit the astral plane. By later standards of his performance, it's a restrained debut.

Our hero sees that the soap company sponsors a television quiz show and is horrified by the lack of education needed to win a prize, saying (with scary prescience) “If it is noteworthy and rewarding to know that 2 and 2 make 4 to the accompaniment of deafening applause and prizes, then 2 and 2 making 4 will become the top level of learning.” I think he safely managed to predict the future, and not just in game shows. Though it’s really only a small part of the film, the satirical point being made about prime time entertainment's lack of intellectual value on television is something that is even more relevant today. Nevertheless, the point isn't heavily laboured, possibly lest the audience felt they were being accused of anything. It does however let the movie industry have a well-aimed dig at the young upstart that was beginning to eat into its profits.

Without giving away the whole plot, our genius takes on the sponsor in a double your money quiz show and keeps going until he stands to win the net worth of the company. Along the way, Vincent Price devises more and more elaborate ways to sabotage his progress, including hiring a femme fatale (played by Celeste Holm) to cloud his judgement with thoughts of love. As the story picks up so do the laughs, especially from Colman and Price who work wonderfully together. Ronald Colman’s understated, gentle way of delivering his lines (even though they include some quite cruel put downs) only serves to up the tempo of Vincent Price’s theatrics. There’s a very funny scene where Colman is at the soap factory and bending over a large vat of soap. Price sees this and then suddenly a devil appears on his shoulder. Without missing a beat he says to his evil side “I’m way ahead of you” (sadly he is stopped by an unexplained indoor flash of lightning!). As the drama of the final quiz question unfolds, Price is hilarious as he cackles maniacally when he thinks he is winning, only to do a ridiculous double take before collapsing into a heap due to an outrageous last minute intervention from none other than Albert Einstein (just watch the film, it makes sense, trust me).

Of course it’s a clichéd formula, as we wait for the hero to answer the final question to get his revenge on the evil (and loopy) executive, but it really works. Naturally there are some twists along the way but I don’t want to spoil them for anyone. And predictably there is a happy ending as everyone pairs up, even Vincent Price who finds out that Colman’s alcoholic parrot (one of the more bizarre sub-plots involves Colman's search for the man who introduced the bird to booze) was his roommate and drinking buddy at college!

It's difficult to put into words how good Ronald Colman is in this film because he’s really no different from the wonderful, charming, graceful character he plays in all his pictures. The main criticism leveled at Colman is usually that he’s too mannered, or too perfect in his delivery, but if anyone in movie history had a real twinkle in his eye and just consistently projected an air of honest integrity, it’s him. In a way, Ronald Colman is not so important for his performances but for what he represents, but that’s an argument for another day. In Champagne for Caesar he looks like he could do this sort of film in his sleep, and although I overuse the term "effortless" for actors of this era, it really does look that way. Of course in reality the opposite is true as he works very hard to judge his performance of, on paper, a possibly unlikeable character and make it rather endearing.

Of the rest of the cast, the standout is Celeste Holm as the Mata Hari hired to woo Colman and throw him off his game. For a largely treacherous character (mainly due to the fact that she is pitted against such a sympathetic man in Colman) she is a constantly smiling, effervescent presence. She plays the femme fatal with gusto (and given her character’s name, Flame O’Neill, she had better!) and the script gives her plenty of opportunity to milk the situational back stabbing and wooing. In a way she’s perfectly cast, looking vulnerable yet glamorous (and always smiling!) though in the end when she recants her evil ways I didn’t quite buy it – I think she looked like she was enjoying being bad a bit too much. Interestingly, though billed second, she doesn't actually turn up until about 50 minutes into the film, but she certainly makes an impact once she arrives.

Other cast members are variable. Barbara Britton is excellent as Colman’s prim sister though unfortunately doesn’t get much to do other than engage in an unlikely romance with Art Linkletter as the obnoxious quiz show host. He’s good as the host (and I’d be worried if he wasn’t given his background) but is a bit of a dud when shoehorned into the romantic sub plot. Britton does get to call him “the forerunner of intellectual destruction in America” which was pretty funny. The only other casting of note is that of Mel Blanc as the parrot (the Caesar of the title), pretty much reprising his role from Jack Benny’s radio show.

All in all there is a lot to enjoy from Champagne for Caesar. Sure, it’s no Oscar winner, but it’s sharp, clever and expertly performed. I honestly don’t know why it’s not more highly regarded, especially amongst Vincent Price fans as he steals the film and establishes himself perhaps for the first time as a master of the ridiculous. However, when it came to the star my fears were for naught and it can safely sit proud in the Colman canon. It’s a film that doesn’t take anything away from his previous award winning performance and gives Colman the opportunity to play the affable and suave character he is associated with one last time. In fact, with Ronald Colman moving more and more into radio and television in the 1950’s, a clever satire of these mediums seems an appropriate taster to his new (and ultimately very successful) career.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Happy Birthday Priscilla Lane!

I thought I’d make a quick mention of Priscilla Lane on the occasion of the anniversary of her birth. When I first got into classic movies she was one of my early favourites, and while I haven’t watched one of her movies in a while, nor managed to come across any of the ones I’ve yet to see, I still have fond memories of her. She always struck me as someone who could have achieved a lot more with the right studio or directorial support but who nonetheless gave her best in all the (usually second rate) roles she was given.

During her comparatively brief career (1937 – 1948 with 22 screen appearances) she starred alongside Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and John Garfield and worked with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh and Frank Capra. That’s a pretty impressive resume and for most people that would guarantee at least some recognition but sadly these days she’s been relegated to the list of contract actresses who were there just to make up the numbers.

Part of this is obviously because of the sudden end to her career. It seems, like Kay Francis she got on the wrong side of Jack Warner and lo and behold, the decent roles suddenly dried up. Personally, I’ve always thought that her good looks, particularly her girl next door wholesomeness held her back from the roles that weren’t marked “junior lead”. Sometimes she looks like she was born to be the sappy love interest for the nominal lead in an Abbott and Costello picture. She just looks like one of those pretty girls whose sub plot gets in the way of what everyone actually paid money to see (does anyone ever pay attention or care in the slightest about these parts in comedy films?). Anyway, she has that unique wartime “Forces Sweetheart” look that belied her real ability and range as an actress.

Despite not having watched one of her movies in a while, her charm, sparkle and gift for light comedy made a lasting impression on me. When she’s in a picture with something for her to do she’s very good, such as in the excellent Dust Be My Destiny with John Garfield or Blues in the Night with Jack Carson. However, in pictures where she’s really just there as the “Generic Female Lead” she more than holds her own with the likes of Bogart, Benny and Cagney. Though I haven’t seen it in many years I remember particularly enjoying her in the early Bogart obscurity Men are Such Fools. It’s not a great movie but she really brings a bit of life to an otherwise dull (and slightly odd) film. In fact that’s generally what she did throughout her career.

Though most people agree that Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant is her best role (and ironically her last major film appearance), I was never too fond of it (both the film and her part in it). Perhaps I was overpowered by everything else going on, and reading the recent reviews tells me it’s possibly worth another look. Strangely enough, I’ve been disappointed by Cary Grant in the few of his films I’ve watched lately and my once favourite star has seen his stock drop quite a bit, so now perhaps is the time to give the film another go and view it through less star struck eyes.

All in all, Priscilla Lane isn’t the most memorable actress in the galaxy of stars but I always found her to exceed expectations. Her good looks let you think that she’s going to make little impression but she always does something, a look, an eye role, a smile that draws you in and makes you realize that there is a great deal of subtlety and talent behind the make up. As I said, her look was perhaps what held her back, but with a suitably interested director I think a lot of depth could have been coaxed out of her. Apparently Hitchcock wasn’t too pleased with her casting in Saboteur so the opportunity to dig beneath her surface was largely lost there. If only she had stayed around a little longer as I think she would have fitted in perfectly in the era of film noir. It would have been an opportunity to put her good looks and wholesome charm to use while concealing all sorts of sinister thoughts and deeds!

She was one of the first stars I started to follow, and writing this has put me in a mind to go and watch one of her films again. For anyone who feels like celebrating her birthday I’d recommend Dust Be My Destiny because she worked so well with John Garfield. I’ve never been disappointed by any of her performances that I’ve seen, and I can’t say that about too many other film stars. Happy Birthday Miss Lane!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Lawyer Man (1932) - William Powell Goes to Court, Joan Blondell Throws Stuff Around...

I had been looking forward to watching Lawyer Man for a long, long time. The reason? Because it features the one time only teaming of two of my tip-top favourite screen stars, William Powell and Joan Blondell. Successful screen partnerships are always a tricky business. On paper, having two favourite stars together always looks like an exciting proposition, but in reality a number of factors can enable the venture to fizzle away into 90 minutes of forced love scenes and passionless kisses (think Errol Flynn and Bette Davis). A good script helps, as does a capable director and supporting artistes, but when it comes down to it you either have chemistry together or you don't. William Powell had it in spades with Myrna Loy, and before that with Kay Francis. Joan Blondell obviously had it with Dick Powell and also with James Cagney. But put the two of them together and would it work?

To be honest, having just watched Lawyer Man I'm none the wiser.

The movie, directed by William Dieterle is one of those fast paced, star laden Warner pre-code gems that the studio managed to churn out so effortlessly in the early 30's. The story concerns the ups and downs of lawyer Anton "Tony" Adam (Powell) as he goes from struggling East Side councillor for the needy to Assistant District Attorney and right back again. In between he gets mixed up with a crooked D.A, a shady doctor and his scheming gold digging gal. The constant in Powell's rise and fall is his no nonsense secretary Olga (Blondell) who acts as his personal organiser and conscience, all the time holding a secret love for her boss.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, in a movie like this the plot is (obviously) necessary but ultimately just window dressing for the stars to do their thing, and here is no different. The story is engaging and brisk, though moving from each new set of situations and characters rather quickly with little time for much characterisation or detail. As it typical of the era, the tone mixes the light with the dark, segueing from broad comedy and pathos to the serious inner workings of the courts and the corruption of City Hall and the racketeers. This backdrop is all standard fare but never less than exciting.

A lot of the fun to be had in Lawyer Man is by spotting the familiar faces in the cast, not all of twhom are listed in the credits. Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue play a couple of hoodlums lured into the pay of William Powell by the offer of maple layer cake; Claire Dodd once again excels in having dubious morals as the film's bad girl; Roscoe Karns shows up unannounced as a reporter; and Laurel and Hardy fans like myself will spot Tom Kennedy, Wilfred Lucas, Henry Hall, Dorothy Christy and Max Davidson in (sadly) minor roles. Finally, in the pre-code moment of the whole movie Sterling Holloway pops up as a drunk in a bar while poor Joan Blondell mopes around over Powell. As she looks off into middle distance all sad he declares that "you're in love with your boss and he won't give you a tumble". That she doesn't disagree with him is one reason why we all love pre-code films.

However, when it comes down to it this is a William Powell picture. He gets the top (and only) billing on the title card and everyone else is reduced to support (Blondell does get a fairly prominent mention in most of the advertising). As usual he is fantastic, giving an assured performance typical of this pre-Nick Charles period in his career. Powell's films with Warner and Paramount are always good value even though he essentially plays the same character in most of them, as he reigns in his comedic tendencies and and allows himself to be slightly unsympathetic when need be. In this era (before Manhattan Melodrama) he's a real leading man and one who doesn't need a female co-star to help carry a picture. I always felt that as good as he was with Myrna Loy (and he was very good) he always got tagged as a part of a double act once they got established and in all his appearances after The Thin Man producers felt they couldn't put him in a movie without a Loy surrogate. Interestingly Myrna Loy didn't suffer from this as she continued to carry movies whilst slipping back into the Loy-Powell partnership when needed.

As I said, this is Powell's film, so sadly we don't get to see the real potential of a Powell-Blondell partnership as Joan and indeed all the other stars are relegated to mere support. It's strange that Blondell doesn't get more to do as even though she was yet to hit her Gold Diggers of 1933 peak, she still had such popular hits as Blonde Crazy and Miss Pinkerton behind her. It could be argued that she wasn't seen at the level of William Powell at that time as her appearances to this point had been as love interest to stars such as Cagney, or sharing the top slot with other female leads (such as in The Greeks Had a Word for Them). By 1932 she was just beginning to get top billing in a few films and probably this was another step towards establishing herself as a star in her own right.

Despite her lack of screen time with Powell, Joan Blondell makes the most of her scenes. The theme of her relationship with him is the phrase"I told you so!" (so much so that it's the last line of the film) as she arches her eyebrows and screws up her face each time her boss is led astray by another woman or hopeless court case. She acts as the conscience of Powell's character and when she doesn't get her own way has a nice line in slamming doors and throwing files around the office. At one point, when Powell is about to go to lunch with his colleague's sister, Blondell glares at him while menacingly snipping a pair of scissors. What could she be implying?

Of course, regardless of threats she's in love with him. What's unusual about the film is that despite this the love goes unrequited in the end. During the film, Powell is even confronted with her attractiveness when he spots a shapely pair of legs at a shoe shine stand, only to look up and realise they are those of his secretary. In the end, back on the Est Side, the two take a stroll arm in arm, with no final kiss just two friends talking. It's quite disappointing since the film subtly leads up to a romantic conclusion after Powell's bad luck with bad women. It's also quite charming as we can imagine further legal adventures for the pair and perhaps romance now that the boss is listening to his secretary.

In the end, it is Powell's film and the point being made is about the practice of law, not the practise of love. Sadly, because of this the dream pairing of William Powell and Joan Blondell never has the chance to blossom as they are never the focus of the picture. The small hints given of their chemistry show Powell at his suave and subtly humorous best and Blondell doing her trademark pouty looks with added bursts of violence towards stationery and furniture. All in all, they make a sweet couple and given another pairing in a more standard type of vehicle (for example the usual Blondell plot of being the neglected wife of a reporter, detective etc, or of competing with said man in said occupation) they could have been very entertaining. As it is, Lawyer Man is a great film full of memorable moments but sadly only fleeting moments of greatness from two of my favourite stars together.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

His First Flame (1927) - Harry Langdon Drops in from Another Planet...

Poor old Harry Langdon. Forever destined to be the distant 4th in the pantheon of silent comedy immortals. And if that wasn't bad enough, for many his position as 4th clown is really a temporary measure while they wait for critics and historians to trot out their theories and decide who should really be in his place. Who is it this week? Charley Bowers? Lloyd Hamilton? Well, enough of this nonsense, Harry Langdon deserves his spot and created enough of a legacy in silent cinema that his place, while still firmly in 4th is rock solid.

Even then, that's not enough for some people. Despite a string of excellent shorts, some of the most innovative and sophisticated of their time, his legacy all comes down to the involvement of the supposed creative force behind his success, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. Without them, the story goes, he was a directionless mannequin lacking in ideas or any real understanding of his own character. This idea took hold due to a couple of situations, the first being that Harry died in 1944 and when the silent revival hit in the early 60's he wasn't around to promote his own work (funnily enough, pretty much every one who is now accepted as an important comedian from that era was). Harry Langdon, like Raymond Griffith, Charley Chase and many others had to wait another few decades before their work was reappraised. Of course, being dead has other disadvantages (other than the obvious one) in that those who worked with you and who are still alive can exaggerate or misappropriate their part in your story. Leo McCarey and Hal Roach tried it after Stan Laurel died, and so did Frank Capra and others when Harry died. Luckily in recent years a backlash to this way of thinking has started and Harry is getting his due as a legitimate creative force under his own talents.

The historical truth to his story is as usual, a mix of both sides. Langdon was a gifted and innovative physical comedian with extensive success in vaudeville who excelled from the minute he set foot on the screen. When Capra and Ripley got involved Langdon had already developed his character (he did that on the vaudeville stage years before he came to Hollywood) and was comfortably ironing out the details. What they did was to add to what he had already created by giving more structure and shading. When they left, from all accounts Langdon's features still did well, though it was felt that his popularity had peaked. In reality though he worked hard he wasn't best suited to being a film auteur and he probably did shoot himself in the foot by trying to do much too soon. Capra would have moved on no matter what his relationship with Langdon was because his talent was taking him different places. Due to his later and much more lasting fame, Capra's time with Langdon was always written as a parable of the student outgrowing the master. When all was said and done, the importance of Capra in Harry Langdon's career has been greatly over stated.

A big problem was that Langdon perhaps came to the party too late. When he debuted in 1924 he was already middle aged and comedy and indeed movies were rapidly growing up, with tastes and fads quickly changing. Rather than having years and years to hone his craft like Chaplin, Lloyd and others, Harry stepped in at the deep end and found that his style of comedy, though cutting edge for a time, rapidly fell out of favour as the world hurtled towards the end of the 20's and the coming of sound. Also it didn't help that he was so unusual that audiences and critics often found it difficult to categorise his work and this lack of universal appeal hurt his box office and reputation, right up to the present day. You find you either like him or you don't, there is rarely a middle ground. However, that he made such an enormous impact in such a small space of time in a busy marketplace showed an undeniable talent as a comedian.

Another downfall for Langdon's brand of humour, and this applies to Stan Laurel as well, was the move away from shorts and into features. Despite it being an economic necessity Laurel was always uncomfortable with features, feeling that Laurel and Hardy's humour was ideally suited to short bursts. Despite all the excellent feature films the pair made, even at 60 minutes there was frequently an element of padding in a Laurel and Hardy film (A Chump at Oxford's indeterminable maze scene comes to mind). Laurel settled on a four reel film as the perfect length if he had to go into features (although ironically he only made one 4 reeler in the end) and Langdon, in His First Flame (originally a five reel film, though currently running at 44 minutes in the most complete version) shows that this logic is sound. Though slightly padded, it consistently gets laughs and never outstays its welcome.

His First Flame was Langdon's first attempt at a feature film, originally filmed and due for release in 1925. However, due to his leaving Sennett and setting up his own production company with First National, the film was held back and not released until 1927. As a result audiences saw it as his fourth feature and thus it was seen as a step down from its predecessors and had a mixed reception. The plot concerns Harry trying to stay away from girls to please his woman-hating fireman uncle. Throughout various situations and interludes Harry continually lets the uncle down until saving a girl from a burning building and getting a happy ending. By this time his uncle has changed his mind about women so Harry at last finds love. The plot really doesn't matter in these sort of comedies as the focus is always on the minute details of comic business involving the star as they wander from one situation to the next.

Make no mistake, His First Flame is not a masterpiece but it is a very, very funny film filled with the sort of inventive subtlety expected of Langdon in his prime. The best moments involve some of the key themes in Langdon's work, those of Harry's passive, non reactive nature and of the blurring of the lines of gender and perception. The first key scene happens when Harry meets a woman who he recognises, who happens to be a shoplifter. He walks towards her, hand outstretched. On the run from the police she runs in his direction. Friendship turns to fear and Harry starts running away, chased through the streets by the woman. From this simple and typical Langdon role reversal, he takes it one step further when he thinks he has lost her. Safe, he stands looking blankly at the camera as she suddenly hits him on the head. Langdon then does his patented standing lean (a la Michael Jackson), to the right, then the left before falling over. The woman switches clothes with him and escapes leaving Harry in her frock and hat (with a flower poking out the top). He staggers about with a goofy grin on his face as he tries to hitch a lift to the fire station. What is very unusual about Langdon in drag is firstly that it happens a lot, but more importantly that despite being dressed as a woman he makes absolutely no attempt to act feminine. To add to the confusion, everyone around him treats him as if he is a real woman, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary (he gets picked up by a driver only to eventually be thrown out the car). It makes for a rather odd situation, with a staple of comedy not being milked for all the obvious gags. Langdon's reversal of convention and minimalist underplaying of the situation just adds to the audience confusion.

Similarly, the other key scene involves Harry's frequent inability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the material from the immaterial. Later in the film he tries to rescue a girl from a burning building in an uncharacteristic burst of bravery and energy. Unfortunately the girl is in fact a wooden shop dummy. To heighten the gag, the dummy's limbs are positioned in the most unrealistic manner and it has a ridiculous wig on, but in the real moment of genius, in full view of the audience is a large price tag hanging from its neck. Harry carefully lowers the dummy down the ladder then stops half way to tell her that she's going to be alright. Then, to stretch the bizarre situation further he has a sort of tender moment face to face with the dummy. For a moment he acts hurt that his words get no response from her before the penny slowly drops and the veil of unreality lifts. He then ditches the dummy and scampers down the ladder. To end the sequence, as he leaves he notices the dummy's skirt has come up and he bashfully pulls it down for her. As if in response, the propped up mannequin moves suddenly and Harry runs away in abject terror. The sequence highlights how Langdon often played on awkwardly uncomfortable incongruities to demonstrate his ability to collapse boundaries between the real and unreal worlds. He then continues to push each situation as far as it can go, and sometimes further, to highlight his otherness in a way that would leave his audience bewildered and unsure what to think. There was literally no one doing comedy like this in 1925 but sadly audiences grew impatient with his approach and he was left to plow his field alone.

Having watched pretty much all the surviving Langdon shorts he made at Sennett (1924 - 1927), as presented on Facets' indispensable and awe inspiring box set Harry Langdon: Lost and Found, I have to say that it's an amazing body of work and in terms of short films certainly better overall than Harold Lloyd's (though to be fair Lloyd had given up on shorts before Langdon had even started). There is always an element of debate regarding silent comedians as to which ones seem the most "modern" to current audiences. Traditionally Buster Keaton always wins the argument with his stoic pioneer spirit coming up against the trials of modern life in his rather detached way. Lloyd is modern in so much as his films depict the modern world that he lived in and his character displays an admirable drive and determination. Personally Chaplin always fails in modernity for me, despite the universal ideals of The Tramp, due to eternally being stuck in that early 20th century world of poor houses and flower girls that even D. W. Griffith eventually gave up on. Langdon, on the other hand isn't modern. He's from the future.

The mere idea of a passive central comedian is one worthy of genius, but for Langdon to play him as a character who is completely oblivious to the world around him to the point of frequently looking as if he has wandered into the wrong film is the icing on the cake. Much has been made of Langdon's childlike innocence and dopey boy in a man's body behaviour, but it's really the blank look that gives him his edge. The round face, the slowly blinking eyes and blank stare is the look of Andy Kaufman fifty years later confusing audiences with his foreign man character (in fact Langdon's minimal approach to his stage comedy apparently got the same reactions in vaudeville). It's this confusion, both for the audience and for Harry that is most startling about his art. He's like an animal awakening from hibernation, unaware of how to control his extremities, looking at everything as if it's the first time he's ever seen them and unsure what is real. Mere normal objects become threatening monsters that could explode and a pretty girl's smile the most frightening thing in the world. And despite the confusion, Harry just looks, and looks, then blinks. Then frequently the moment will pass and his goldfish memory sets back to zero and he remembers to be scared of everything all over again, so then runs away. Then he runs back. Then he runs away again.

This disarming confusion, the passive apathy, the blinking face, the odd wave, the inexplicable juxtapositions and the frankly bizarre approach to female impersonation is what splits audiences over Harry Langdon today, as he did in the twenties but which makes me think that we're just not ready for him yet.