Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone out there, may all your Christmas wishes come true!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Random Thoughts # 2 - November Round-Up featuring George Sanders and Bob Hope

November was a kind of quiet month for me movie wise, but nonetheless follow me as I dissect the film watching part of my brain to uncover last month’s highlights…
Movie of the month was a film that I (shock!) actually watched on broadcast television! The fact that this surprises me shows you the state of classic movie watching on regular TV these days (I’m really looking forward to Christmas and the annual repeats of Casablanca and the like). The movie in question was The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from 1945 starring the ever-wonderful George Sanders. I’m always drawn to George Sanders due to his world weary, sardonic screen persona (which by all accounts spilled over into real life too). He could take fairly everyday roles and imbue them with a charming cynicism that was really quite subversive. Obvious examples include his turns in All About Eve and The Picture of Dorian Grey, and less obviously his starring role in Albert Lewin’s rather brilliant The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Sanders was a unique actor in that he often gave the impression of being above it all and at times even terribly bored to be on screen. Though they were childhood favourites, looking now I can see that he is virtually sleepwalking through the Saint and Falcon series (and the films are possibly all the better for it). However, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is one of his non-cad roles and as such he brings a laid back, almost vulnerable quality to his role as the mild mannered clothes designer who is dominated by his overbearing, possessive younger sister. Technically the movie is classed as ‘film noir’ (to be honest not one of my favourite genres) in that Harry is motivated to take revenge on his sister when she breaks up his one and only love affair. Nevertheless, most of the film is taken up with a well-observed study of the lonely life Harry lives, constantly trying to make his sister happy and to keep the peace between her and their older sister. This in itself would have made an interesting film since it is so sensitively played by the cast, with Geraldine Fitzgerald as the younger sister being particularly excellent. The revenge plot takes the film into altogether darker territory and initially results in what we are led to think is a rather bleak ending. This development is interesting as Harry is not your typical ‘noir’ protagonist, almost being an innocent who is forced into making a tough moral decision. That is, until the twist is revealed! I can’t tell you the twist because the film told me not to with a “please do not disclose the ending” title card. However, suffice it say, Les Diabolique it is not! Anyway, George Sanders is always a fascinating actor who can always be relied on to brighten any screen, and here it was good to see him in an atypical part so well written. The ending, however, is not to most people’s tastes but in a strange way reflects Sanders own perverse and contrary sense of humour. But more importantly I saw this film on television! In 2010, who would have thought? Other Movie highlights in November – Quiet Please! (1933) – A fantastic Edgar Kennedy RKO short directed by George Stevens which sees the characters of the “Average Man” series begin to take shape. Here we find Edgar receiving a stroke of luck while on a train journey only for the family to ruin it all. There’s a nice reworking of Laurel and Hardy’s bunk beds sequence from Berth Marks and Kennedy is so good with his deadpan looks to camera that you really feel for him when it all goes wrong. So far two volumes of these shorts have been released by Alpha Video and here’s hoping for more! So Goes My Love (1946) – A Fairly entertaining Myrna Loy drama with Don Ameche doing his best William Powell impression as her eccentric inventor husband. What I found odd is that it features one of those typically ‘Hollywood’ pregnancies. After Myrna has told her husband that she is expecting, we flash forward a while to a scene where she has to chase away the family dog. She collapses from exhaustion and the next day the baby is delivered! At no time did she show the slightest sign of being pregnant. They must have had good corsets in those days… Lost in a Harem (1944) – I know the received wisdom states that Abbott and Costello were on the wane by 1944 but I really enjoyed this one (I’ve been watching them all in order and this has probably been my second favourite after It Ain’t Hay). It was slick, well made entertainment with some funny gags to boot. Of course it has the famous “Pokomoko” routine (or did the Three Stooges do it first? I can never remember) with Murray Leonard as the raving madman with the broken heart. Incidentally, they did the routine a decade later on the Colgate Comedy Hour with a grizzled Errol Flynn in the Leonard role which is worth seeing for the oddity value if nothing else. I really like Abbott and Costello. I don’t love them, but I really like them.
Old Time Radio highlight of the month – This month I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Hope radio shows. The collection I have also includes many of his guest appearances on other shows and it really helps to get a sense of Hope in the context of the period. There don’t seem to be a whole lot of his shows left compared to Jack Benny for instance, but what does exist is very interesting and as I mentioned back in May, show a side to Bob that many forget. In November I reached 1944, and by this time Hope has firmly established himself as the forces favourite with his tireless campaigning and entertaining. Although he was famous before the war started, it really seems to be this side of his career that establishes him as a massively popular star and showbiz fixture. He’s just so confident in front of the G.I. crowds, with expertly written and delivered monologues and a loose style that uses ad-libs in the right places to give the impression (whether true or not) that he’s relaxed and having fun out there. And the response from the troops is often deafening, it’s a crowd that sorely needs to be entertained. Strangely though, it’s his appearances on other shows that display his skills the best. Shows like Command Performance and G.I. Journal where he hosts alongside other stars allow him to interplay with others in a really funny way (you know, the way that makes you imagine that the stars are all part of one big showbiz family, living an big house together). Of course, this works supremely well when he’s teamed with Bing Crosby. Good examples of their patter occur on Command Performance from June 3rd and December 15th 1944 (the first one also has a great routine involving Bing, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra). The absolute best Bob and Bing routine I’ve ever heard is from Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall, dated October 12th 1944. Crosby had just returned from entertaining the troops overseas and appears from New York while Bing’s cast and Bob are in Los Angeles. What’s lovely about the skit is that the real affection between the two is immediately apparent. You can tell that Bob is really pleased to hear from his friend after time away, and the insults fly thick and fast, and are seemingly ad-libbed at times. Despite not being a ‘proper’ double act, I’ve no doubt that Hope and Crosby could improvise together at the drop of a hat, and that’s what is so good about them. They are a team, yet not a team and united in a real friendship. Anyway, my month’s listening has really made me realize how important to the war effort Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) were and when Hope sums up at the end of his shows with a message to the people at home, while it’s easy to be cynical in this day and age, I truly believe that he was being sincere, and in essence that is what made him so popular with troops the world over. And that folks, was November. Don’t expect any Christmas movies next month as I can’t ever think of any good ones to watch and I really think we all need to give It’s a Wonderful Life a rest for a few years…

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936) - Tod Slaughter Tells Us About His Latest Murder

I once read an article that declared that everyone owed it to themselves to see at least one Tod Slaughter film during the course of their film going life. While I would hesitate at the idea of seeing only one (why stop there?) I agree whole heartedly with the sentiment. Once you’ve seen Tod Slaughter “polish them off” it’s difficult to view classic horror movies in the same light. Such is the sheer gusto and enthusiasm he displays for his fictional vocation that one really can’t help but to cheer him on to ever more extravagant depravities. And if ever a horror star had a more apt name…

By the time Tod Slaughter made his first feature film appearance in 1935 he had accrued a lifetime of experience on the British stage. He specialized in revivals of Victorian melodramas, his so-called “new old melodramas” These plays gave him the opportunity to revel in all the grotesque grand guignol of favourites such as Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn and his signature role, that of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Incidentally the roles chosen for his first two film appearances). Melodrama, essentially is the struggle of good versus evil, and in playing the most outrageous, dastardly villains with such vigor and aplomb, Slaughter became a theatrical legend in his own time. His screen appearances are essentially filmed version of his plays, with even movies that originated as screenplays rather than stage plays following the same formula, both thematically and visually. Into this set up thunders Slaughter with his distinctly energetic and theatrical style. He has little concept of subtlety, preferring to hold the audience’s attention with sweeping gesture and (expertly delivered) lurid dialogue.

The Crimes of Stephen Hawke was Slaughter’s third film, and the immediate follow up to the success of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He plays the titular Stephen Hawke, a kindly moneylender by day who stalks the countryside wreaking havoc by night as the nightmarish “ Spine Breaker”. However, before we get to that it must be noted that the picture has one the most off beat and unusual beginning for a film (especially a horror film) that you are ever likely to see. After the credits, the camera pans out on a radio microphone and we are treated to a topical song by the comic musical duo Mr. Flotsam and Mr. Jetsam. Both in tuxedos and with Mr Flotsam playing the piano they are terribly “British” in the Noel Coward sort of way (although Mr Jetsam was actually Australian but I digress) and sadly have absolutely nothing to do with the film. Next up we hear from a Henry Hopkins, London’s last cat meat seller (that’s meat for cats not the meat of cats - I was worried for a moment) He tells us about how business isn’t what it used to be and…has absolutely nothing to do with the film.

Finally, the doubtlessly puzzled audience, lest they walk out of the theatre thinking they’ve wandered into the wrong film are introduced to the noted actor Tod Slaughter. When asked to introduce himself he immediately admits that “In my career I’ve murdered hundreds and hundreds of people”. The announcer asks rather sheepishly whether he has any favourite method of murder, to which Slaughter replies that “I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter”. Uh, we are still talking about fictional murders aren’t we? Aren’t we? He enthusiastically tells us about murdering Maria Marten and his grisly exploits as Sweeney Todd before introducing his new killing spree, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke. It’s a very odd start to the film that unwittingly makes you question where the real Tod Slaughter ends and the fictional one begins. To this day I’ve still got a lurking suspicion that he probably got mixed up sometimes and killed a few people for real. If nothing else the man certainly seems to take his work home with him.

However, the strangeness of the prologue merely serves to make us ill prepared for the opening scene of the movie. It starts with Slaughter skulking in some bushes (in an enormous hat) in the grounds of a country estate. A podgy yet adorably cute little boy comes over and asks him what he’s doing. “Can’t I look at a nice little boy’s garden?” he spits ominously. He beckons the boy over to show him a flower and the camera then quickly cuts to the boy’s nanny as we hear a piercing scream. A crowd gathers round the dead boy (the body is just out of shot) and people fearfully mutter about “the Spine Breaker!” It truly is a shocking beginning, as even in American pre code movies we wouldn’t expect to see a toddler brutally murdered by a predatory serial killer (especially in the opening scene!). Stephen Hawke (for it is he) is next seen galloping away by horse complaining that “my artistic ability was not appreciated”, before crackling evilly. Yes, actual cackling. The contrast of sadistic child murder and hokey melodrama couldn’t be sharper.

We then meet the kindly daytime version of Stephen Hawke, alongside his adopted daughter Julia and her would be beau Matthew (confidently played here by a young Eric Portman. It’s not often that Slaughter’s co-stars leave an impression but he does very well). They trust and love Stephen Hawke though unbeknownst to them he lives a double life. In true melodramatic fashion, Hawke uses his status to infiltrate the local rich families’ good graces in order to steal from them then finish them off as “the Spike Breaker”. However, this being a Tod Slaughter film things have to be taken to a few extremes. True to his villainous nature, Stephen Hawke has a deformed sidekick who does his bidding (I think there’s a law about it somewhere). In a normal film the sidekick would be a hunchback, or have a wooden leg, or perhaps wear an eye patch. Not for Tod Slaughter, oh no! His sidekick has all three at once! Take that Boris Karloff!

Despite it being noted that Stephen Hawke's hands “have sinews of steel” (he accidentally breaks a statue when he gets angry) and that he is insanely jealous of any man that goes near his daughter, no one seems to notice that kindly Stephen is the dreaded "Spine Breaker" (you’d think hanging around with a shifty hunchbacked, peg-legged, one eyed man might tip then off). The real reason for this is actually Slaughter’s remarkable transformation as he slips between the dual facets of Hawke’s life. Tod Slaughter, the actor was a deceptively large man (certainly over six foot tall) but in playing the kindly Stephen he shrinks down to an almost unrecognizably shriveled old man. The contrast between the body language of this performance and the dynamic fury of his murderous alter ego is amazing and obviously comes from Slaughter’s years of experience with quick changes on the stage. In this respect he is reminiscent of Lon Chaney, albeit only really being able to play the one character type.

At the end of the day, what all Tod Slaughter fans come to see is some gruesome murders. Or rather, Slaughter’s insane, eye rolling, gurning expressions as he revels in the sheer ecstasy and pleasure of his job (or hobby, take your pick). Luckily, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke does not disappoint, as he goes on a back breaking spree. In one fantastic scene, Hawke arrives by night at the home of his oldest friend to (obviously) murder him. Resplendent in a velvet cape that wouldn’t look out of place on Coffin Joe, he hovers over the hapless friend as we get a close up of his face, grinning and smiling as he breaks the poor man’s spine. In true Tod Slaughter fashion he exits giggling endlessly to himself like a child at Christmas, pleased as ever at an honest night’s work. A later scene sees him framed in shadow, almost Max Schreck-like as he creeps into another darkened room. No stealth for Slaughter, the man always makes an entrance.

Although his characters invariably are insane, it’s the over abundant sense of enthusiasm that makes Tod Slaughter such a great film star. Its as though he inherently understands the ridiculous nature of not only the scripts but of the genre itself (both horror and melodrama) and is thus determined to give the audience what they paid to see, not only first rate entertainment but grisly murder and lots of it. While the films generally aren’t explicit in the way of modern horror, his reveling in the process and detail of murder gives them a real vein of dark humour and a sense of (or at least a hint of) visceral depravity. Inevitably, as in The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, when the hero gets closer to uncovering the truth, Slaughter in turn ramps up the performance level and crashes and burns in a demented display of theatrics.

In this case, as Matthew unmasks Hawke as the villain and the officers of the law close in, Slaughter gets his big finale, proclaiming to the world gleefully “You’re right! I am the Spine Breaker! So many I’ve come to grips with!” before disappearing onto a rooftop for his inevitable fall. However, in a master class of true villainy he saves the best for last. He turns to the heroes, shakes his fists and cries, “You haven’t caught me yet, curse you! Hee! Hee! Hee!” before promptly falling off the roof. The quote itself doesn’t really do the unhinged nature of the performance justice. He’s every cliché of the mustache-twirling, cape wearing Victorian scoundrel, but in a style so outrageous that he tramples on these clichés and reinvents them for himself with his own mad rules. As I said at the start, you owe it to yourself to experience Tod Slaughter first hand. Finally, as he lies dying, he tries for redemption by, er…telling his daughter that she’s adopted. Thanks dad. Rather wonderfully, as the camera leaves the scene, the daughter looks distinctly unmoved as the thrice-deformed sidekick breaks down and starts to cry. And if all that is too much to take in we’re whisked back to the radio studio to see the announcer fast asleep! Well if The Crimes of Stephen Hawke didn’t keep him awake, I don’t know what will. Tod Slaughter looks on, rather bemused the wanders off as the credits roll.

These days he is often derogatorily labeled a “barnstormer”, or even worse “camp” for his scenery chewing acting style, but to see Slaughter in this way is to miss the dynamic, manic energy that he brings to each film. He positively steamrolls his way through each picture, rendering the supporting cast mere bystanders. Although melodrama is intended as the struggle of good and evil, it is only for Slaughter’s villains that we unashamedly root for. It is difficult to think of another film actor who consistently played villains, and more importantly whose villains become the focal point and raison d’etre of their films. And for all the talk of his theatrical acting style, it may be slightly unusual (and scarily, probably a considerably toned down version of his stage technique) but it never quite becomes over the top. Slaughter effortlessly pitches his performances to reach its pinnacle of madness at precisely the right moment, when all hell breaks loose. Up until the villain is caught out, Slaughter cackles and grins with a knowing wink to the audience, reeling them in to his diabolical schemes. It’s this ability to become the absolute focal point of the films, the one actor whom it is impossible to take your eyes off that is Tod Slaughter’s great skill. And of course, once mesmerized and under his spell, we too revel in his fiendish crimes.

It really is a shame that Tod Slaughter is not remembered in the same breath as the likes of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre in the canon of classic horror. What’s also a shame is that for many people, British film horror started with Hammer in the 50s, rather than enjoying a healthy lease of life in the 30s and 40s due to Tod Slaughter. While hardly forgotten today, and with a sizable cult following, Tod Slaughter and his films have been nonetheless sidelined and unjustly derided by history. In his day he was more evil, more deranged and more sadistic than Karloff or Lugosi ever were, and he made films that even today can often startle but will always entertain. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke, while not quite his best or most remembered is still a potent mix of dark humour and chilling horror. However, it’s Tod Slaughter that brings the “new old melodrama” to life with an energy that puts his contemporaries to shame.