Sunday, 27 November 2011
Tuesday, 6 September 2011
That film is Wheeler and Woolsey’s So This Is Africa, and the story of its making and eventual unmaking is a long and tortuous one. Now, I had planned to outline the saga but a quick look at the ever excellent “Give me the good old days!” reveals that, with the help of the New York state archives the story has been told far better than my words could do it justice. So I’d advise a quick trip to this link to be filled in on the sad tale of cinematic clipping. I’ll be here when you get back. *waits patiently, tapping foot* Right? Wasn’t it a fantastic piece of research? Sadly, after all that you're stuck with me again…
I was really looking forward to finally watching So This Is Africa, partly to see what all the fuss was about and partly to see if in fact there was anything left of the film as eventually released. From the sound of it, the movie as originally written would have been a raucous, low brow, innuendo-laden affair and perhaps the quintessential Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle, cementing their reputation as kings of pre code comedy. As released …well it’s not quite what it should be. Wheeler and Woolsey made So This Is Africa for Columbia after a brief falling out with their home studio RKO over money. As such, we miss out on the presence of the lovely Dorothy Lee, and the cast of familiar comic faces usually employed on their RKO features. In fact there is no one in the cast that I recognized, and this probably either says something about the importance of Wheeler and Woolsey to Columbia or the state of comedy at the studio at that time. However, the film does get a safe pair of hand in director Edward Cline who as well as being a former Buster Keaton collaborator had also worked with the boys on two of their previous films.
The plot concerns out of work lion tamers Wheeler and Woolsey’s trip to the wilds of Africa to help shoot the greatest jungle picture of all time. The reason they have been picked is because the leading lady, one Mrs Martini is afraid of animals and their lions are so moth eaten and toothless that she’ll feel safer making the film with them. However, once the premise is set up, it is quickly forgotten as we travel from one absurd jungle parody to the next. In fact the plot, and indeed the cast don’t seem to take things very seriously as the tone of the humour oscillates between being pitch black and downright silly. And the poor lions simply disappear once their duties as plot devices are done. Poor old mangy lions.
When we first meet Bob and Bert (thanks to a quick camera pan up the side of a skyscraper), we find the two down on their luck lion tamers about to jump out the window. There then follows a fairly bleak exchange as they discuss the best technique for killing yourself. Woolsey won’t jump as he feels that his partner’s jumping skills aren’t good enough and will only accompany him if he can get it right. One gets the impression that this is a regular ritual for the characters. Though not massively funny it’s a good example of how direct Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedy is, as they attempt to defy social airs and graces. There is very little of the comic business associated with other double acts, nor is there the heavily laboured vaudeville routines of many of the early sound comics. They display a confidence with the camera and generally don’t mess about, approaching situations and ideas head on and hoping for the best.
The doorbell rings and pulls them back off the ledge. It is a doctor, who looks at their lions and after proclaiming one of them dead (it's not, it just looks dead), decides that the lions need a vacation in Africa, and kept out of drafts. The boys meet up with the film people, the lions vanish and the film starts proper. However, before they leave there is time for a quick musical number in the hotel lobby (which looks slightly under rehearsed and suffers from some obvious cuts and over dubs) and a very funny gag involving the African tribesmen that for some reason are waiting in the hotel. The film producer remarks that they need to get to Africa as “the natives are getting restless” as the camera cuts to the tribesmen aimlessly milling around the lobby looking bored. Well, it made me laugh…
Thus far, there is nothing too risqué, but luckily the sheer silliness of the ideas keeps the film from ever getting dull. However, once we reach the jungles, it’s obvious that the dialogue gets a bit more adult, only because of the regular jumps and clicks in the soundtrack. Despite this, a few gems do survive almost intact. A reference to the “virgin trees” gets the response “Huh! They look pretty wild to me!” Later on during some chitchat between Mrs Martini and Woolsey, Martini mentions her gown and asks him “Do you think it’s becoming?” at exactly the moment that one of her shoulder straps falls down. He fires back, “It’ll be coming off any minute now!” About the only other surviving moment of adult humour is Robert Woolsey’s response to his partner’s disappearance during the night “You’ve been streetwa…sleepwalking again!” From what I’ve seen of the scripts, that’s the tip of the iceberg, but those censors really went to work on the picture, almost with religious zeal. As is usually the case in these situations, once they get the scissors out they just can’t stop.
Luckily however, So This Is Africa does not rely wholly on innuendo for its laughs. There are a number of very imaginative comic scenes in the film, most of which work well, but which are really not taken to their full potential. What struck me about the best scenes, and indeed most of the film itself was the sense of boredom with many of the clichés of cinema. The movie has fun with genre and narrative staples with an almost cynical resignation. One scene sees Wheeler, Woolsey and Mrs Martini (played by Esther Muir) engage in a spot of big game hunting. The three of them stand next to an obvious cheap jungle set as Woolsey shouts “Get that alligator!” We cut to really grainy stock footage of an alligator in the real jungle and back to Bert Wheeler shooting it with nonchalant ease. Next up, “Look! A wild panther!”, as this time we cut to the same grainy stock footage but this time amusingly of a giraffe. Bert shoots it anyway. Finally the cry is “A rhinoceros is charging us!” to which Bert responds, (after the stock footage, of the right animal this time) “I’m sorry, I haven’t got any more bullets”. The footage then runs backwards, letting Woolsey say melodramatically “We’re saved! He’s in reverse” Despite being a well deserved sending up of cheap jungle pictures, the way Wheeler and Woolsey play it is absolutely stunning. They say each line as if they where reading it for the first time with the most wooden delivery imaginable and in essence sending up their own picture for the very same flaws. It’s at once very modern (or post modern, if you like) and very funny, with a free wheeling sense of mischief that is largely absent from comic movies of the era.
Another interesting scene happens later when the boys and Mrs Martini begin discussing important plot points with each other but after saying each line we hear their internal dialogue in voice over. The voice overs start out quite conventionally but then get increasingly bizarre. Esther Muir is the absolute star or the scene in saying her line then turning to her right and staring off camera with determined concentration and furrowed brow as her internal monologue declares “This is a strange interlude” Bert Wheeler’s inner voice responds “Lies, lies, lies! I cannot stand this constant lying. Oh, I wish I were free of all this like a bird, like a bee, like a balloon!” For no apparent reason Robert Woolsey’s inner voice chips in with “Little does she know that she’s my sister’s mother’s father’s brother’s black cat’s niece. Say yes you weasel, say yes or I’ll brain ya!” The idea eventually comes to a head when Wheeler and Woolsey find that they can hear each others thoughts and start a fight in their minds. Needless to say each line is said with over the top melodrama and a far away look off camera. The scene is fantastic and again pokes fun not only at the clichés of film drama, film acting and cinematic language but also the tawdriness of the film itself. The scene, and the previously mentioned one both stand out because the performances from the players descend into parody and seemingly exist apart from the narrative flow of the movie itself. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Either the scriptwriter (Norman Krasna but I’d imagine that the script went though a number of hands before it was finished) or Wheeler and Woolsey themselves had some real frustrations with movie making to vent or people were enjoying themselves just a little too much on set whilst shooting the film. Regardless of motive, the scenes present interesting comic ideas and a rare example of truly irreverent humour. Never have I seen a Hollywood film of the era where the cast appear to be saying so openly that they don’t in any way take what they are doing seriously.
After these post modern shenanigans, the plot wheezes on to its inevitable conclusion. We meet the prerequisite Dorothy Lee replacement Raquel Torres, who does a good job with what she’s given but who, let’s face it just isn’t Dorothy Lee. Torres is part of a tribe of ferocious Amazons that (in another censor troubling idea) “love men to death at night”. The boys are captured by the tribe and are awaiting their fate worse (or better) than death when they are “saved” by a wandering tribe of Tarzans, who arrive in formation to take their mates. We last see Wheeler and Woolsey as they are dragged off by a couple of Tarzans to begin domestic life (they happen to be dressed as women as part of an escape plan) The whole chaotic mess ends with a caption declaring “Only a Year Later” where the pair, still in dresses busy themselves with washing clothes. They turn around to reveal a baby on each of their backs – have they by some freak of nature, been impregnated by their male kidnappers? No, of course not, (although in the original script who knows!) as a couple of jungle girls come to help them. Robert Woolsey gets the last line, “Boy! That’s Africa for you!” as the whole troubled production comes to an end.
Of course, we can forever wonder what the uncut version of the film would have been like. From what I’ve read of the script it’s certainly racier but it doesn’t sound particularly obscene, even for the times. Perhaps the problem was the sheer quantity of the innuendos and scantily clad women. Where most films would make just a couple of oblique sexual references, So This Is Africa shovels a constant barrage of veiled filth at the unsuspecting viewer. It’s interesting that the lobby card at the top of the page describes Wheeler and Woolsey as “sexplorers”, and perhaps this overt and open attitude to sex and more importantly, the marketing of the film in this manner lead the censors to get cold feet in a hurry.
At the end of the day, I can only judge the movie on what remains, and what remains is a pretty decent little comedy. It doesn’t have the rough, almost low budget charm of the team’s previous RKO features but is does have some very bold comic ideas and a genuinely anarchic spirit. Wheeler and Woolsey may lack the free form absurdity of the Marx Brothers at their best but the pair have a disarmingly irreverent view of the world where things seem at once real and earthy but equally ridiculous and trivial. So This Is Africa displays this spirit in spades and though ultimately there’s not many hints of it being a great lost masterpiece, it’s a miracle it exists at all so for that we should be thankful. Now can everyone check their attic tonight for that missing print of Convention City?
Tuesday, 30 August 2011
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
What it comes down to is Myrna’s long rise to the top. It’s amazing that she had made almost 80 film appearances and been in movies almost a decade before getting her big break as a star in her own right (and all before she was thirty). Not for her the instant stardom and hype of a new Broadway or European import. Nor did she arrive on screen with a fully formed persona. In comparison to my two other favourite leading ladies, Joan Blondell and Kay Francis, Myrna certainly took the long road to fame. Blondell and Francis were from virtually day one at the top of the bills with more or less the screen persona they would become famous for already established (Kay Francis moved from villainous roles to the more sympathetic leads, but her almost patrician bearing remained essentially unchanged) In contrast Myrna Loy pulled herself up from the chorus lines, moving into bit parts and minor featured roles, then slowly rising to secondary leads and eventually to emerge miraculously as a star in her own right. On this journey she played all manner of exotic and frankly ridiculous characters, which really makes the eventual creation of the well known Loy persona positively miraculous. One would have expected a degree of schizophrenia and uncertainly about playing herself as a leading actress after constantly having to don silly wigs and pretend to be people of undisclosed foreign origin for so many years.
However, for me part of the fun of Myrna Loy is to watch her as she travels from studio to studio, clawing her way up the ladder of fame, gaining experience and trying to make the best of often awful material and bad casting. The strange thing is that she’s not one of those actresses who steals the show in a minor role, and from viewing her early parts there is often, in truth little glimmer of the talent and charisma that was to come. In fact her early films are really only interesting if you are aware of what she would eventually become. If for example she had (heaven forbid) died or retired before 1931, I feel few would be writing about her much today other than for features about forgotten starlets. Even right up until her breakout performance in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934, she was still to be found as an occasionally solid yet uninspiring female lead (Vanity Fair and Consolation Marriage, are both particularly bland parts for her). Maybe all she needed was the chemistry that William Powell provided her to truly find her feet? Possibly, but that’s a thought for another day…
As I said, the fun is to be found in seeing the debonair and delightful Miss Loy we all know and love thrust into the most ridiculous of roles. Thanks to her early tag as a go-to for exotic parts, (something she would not really fully shake until taking on the part of Nora Charles in The Thin Man) even as late as 1932 she was still donning oriental makeup to look Chinese, exotic and ultimately evil. Sadly, many of her early sound films do not seem to exist any more (and, to my eternal shame never having seen any of her silent films – call myself a fan?? – I can’t comment on those either) and though I’ve managed to get hold of the majority of her pre-fame appearances though there are still some elusive gaps (and here’s the usual empty plea – anyone got The Great Divide, Evidence, Isle of Escape, Under a Texas Moon, Skyline or Body and Soul to name but a few? I’ll gladly swap any of them for my cat). Moving on…
Some random highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view) from her early work include –
The Squall (1929) – Myrna plays Nubi, a gypsy girl with a large dark frizzy wig and accent of the “You feelthee peeg!” variety. It’s actually a pretty decent movie for a film where the top three key words on IMDb are “Gypsy”, “Hungary” and “Farming”. She enlivens the proceedings considerably by doing quite a lot of seductive writhing, which is more often than not a good thing in my book. Especially in films about Hungarian Gypsy farmers.
Last of the Duanes (1930) – Myrna Loy did a number of westerns in this era, which isn’t quite a shocking as say, Louise Brooks in a western but is still an initial “huh?’ moment. Okay, she’s not quite a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl here, in fact the opposite, the appropriately named Lola Bland, but she gets to be evil (the caucasian type this time). Which swiftly leads us to…
Rogue of the Rio Grande (1930) – Another western but this time one of those all singing, all dancing borderland and bandits type of affairs. Myrna gets into the spirit of things a bit more here playing Carmita, a saloon girl with dubious morals and even more dubious accent, though she redeems herself by dancing a mean tango. So mean in fact that she literally has men fighting over her on the dance floor. Ole!
The Devil to Pay! (1930) – This is one of a number of films where Myrna Loy sports blonde hair. I say hair in the technical term. It is hair, just not her own hair. Nonetheless, like appearing in westerns, Myrna Loy with platinum blonde hair just isn’t right, but each to their own. I once overheard a woman at the museum at Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, MS say that she only collected pictures of the young Elvis with his natural light brown hair and refused to have anything to do with him when he dyed it black. I though that was rather odd and a severely limiting condition to put on your hobby, but I’m sure it made her very happy. In that spirit I hereby declare that I am only going to write about Myrna Loy’s films where she doesn't show her legs. No other ones. Ever.
A Connecticut Yankee (1931) – Probably the real undiscovered gem of her early appearances, this Will Rogers vehicle goes all out to bring the viewer into the imaginary court of King Arthur. It’s full of castles, knights, wenches and jesters and all the trappings of medieval Merrie Olde England. In the middle of this is a delightfully sly Myrna Loy as the evil Morgan le Fay. Apart from the fact she looks absolutely stunning in her slinky frock and assortment of matching headdresses, as she spars with Rogers and plots her diabolical schemes there is for the first time a real and noticeable glint her eye, a stirring of the subtle touch and delicate delivery she would ultimately become known for. The whole film is incredibly silly and for once it seems she is aware of this, and the good dialogue gives her a previously unseen screen presence. Luckily she would swiftly follow this up with her marvelous turn in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, which although brief brought promise of definite potential in her given the right script.
Thirteen Women (1932) – Of course, after a couple of well-received performances, the studios must have started to pay attention to her, so what did Myrna end up doing next? How about a sinister half Asian, half Indian with strange hypnotic powers out for murderous revenge? Okay! Myrna has black hair, darkened eyes and upturned eyebrows to make her even more evil in a movie which has the decency to at least mention that she has been pushed into her killing spree due to racial intolerance, while sadly playing up as many stereotypical clichés as possible. Luckily, by this time in her career Myrna Loy was an actress with an upward progression, a gal going places so surely it was an unfortunate blip on the way to fame. Her next film would put her right on track…yeah, right on track.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – Well, maybe not.
I could go on, but the point is that when you watch any of Myrna Loy’s pre 1934 movies, you just never know what you are going to get. Sometimes she’s just scenery dressing, sometimes she has good parts, and other times you feel she is being used as the butt of some studio producer’s joke. A glance at the previously mentioned The Films of Myrna Loy reveals a whole host of tantalizing Loy stills from forgotten movies and it makes you realize the sheer variety and absurdity of the roles she had to play in order to get to where she could have some control over her own career.
Another great thing about Myrna Loy is her brilliant autobiography Being and Becoming, which combines a pleasing level of detail (she makes sure to have a reminiscence of every movie she worked on, no matter how obscure), some outspoken opinion (Ronald Reagan’s ears must have been glowing when it was published) and a surprisingly honest account of her own flaws, mistakes and regrets. In terms of her early career, what is admirable is her never say die attitude whilst being passed from studio to studio and being offered ridiculous and demeaning roles. She charts her determination to succeed in Hollywood whilst avoiding the casting couch and the other all too familiar pitfalls, and to emerge with her morals and ethics intact. The title of her book is due to her misappropriation of a Matthew Arnold quote, which she remembers as “Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and becoming”. In terms of the narrative of her life the phrase rings true, but it is equally appropriate to describe her emergence as one of the great film stars of the golden age. She was not given her stardom, or groomed for a place at the top; neither was she the favourite of any producer foisted on the public, or ushered into Hollywood with months and months of press hype. She earned her place through hard work and by gaining the experience in her chosen field so that when her opportunity finally came she grabbed it with both hands and showed Hollywood, and the world what she had to offer.
In an era that has lost sight of the hard work it takes to succeed in any occupation, where stardom has lost its currency and a generation has grown up thinking fame is something to be handed out, not earned, Myrna Loy's example becomes all the more important. She needs to be remembered as an actress, a star and most of all as a decent hard working and principled woman who succeeded in a pretty rotten industry and emerged with her dignity (and sanity) intact.
Oh, and before I forget, Queen of Hollywood, Perfect Wife and Thin Man. Told you it couldn't be done.
Thursday, 7 July 2011
Sunday, 3 July 2011
Where Transatlantic differs from the aforementioned film and its imitators is that unfortunately we are not treated with an all-star cast. Here we have to make do with an actor early in her career (Myrna Loy), a B picture star in the middle of his (Edmund Lowe), some solid character actors (John Halliday and Jean Hersholt) and some whose careers ending up being brief and unfulfilled (Lois Moran and Greta Nissen). But no matter, for it’s off to sea for, as a press release described it, “thrills let loose in a super-whirlwind, on a gigantic ocean greyhound. Love and dalliance, intrigue and millions…a supreme creation of heart gripping suspense.” What’s not to like?
And what is causing this super whirlwind of thrills? Well, since you ask, Edmund Lowe stars as likable rogue Monty Greer, a man on the run hoping to start a new life at the destination of the voyage. On board he meets wealthy banker John Halliday and his long-suffering wife Myrna Loy. Halliday’s character Henry Graham is infatuated with Greta Nissen’s nightclub singer Sigrid. Monty attempts to solve the problematic love triangle whilst also helping father and daughter Lois Moran and Jean Hersholt when they too get sucked into the drama. Add in a robbery, a couple of betrayals and an attempted murder and everything is swinging on the high seas.
The film opens with a beautifully fluid tracking shot where the camera takes in all the various details of the hustle and bustle as the ship leaves port. We follow a crowd of happy people rushing from the pier to the gangplank and finally on board the liner. The camera surveys a wedding party, heaps of confetti, crowds pushing and laughing, brass bands playing, porters unloading luggage (including a confused dog accidentally on the luggage conveyor that looks like Asta), flashbulbs clicking and much more. Once on board, goodbyes are said, as relatives hurriedly leave the ship and lovers make tearful goodbyes. A gong is sounded, lots of feet click past, a steam horn blows, a man in a monocle and top hat waves a fond goodbye to the shore and the ship leaves in a cloud of confetti, music and shrieks. As an aside – when did this sort of thing stop happening? And why did it stop? Sea travel in the 20s and 30s, at least in the movies, looks like the most wonderfully romantic way to travel. What went wrong?
Anyway, the brass band fades and is replaced by the endless dull whirring and grinding of the giant engines as we pan down to see the faceless workers below decks tirelessly feeding the great cogs and pistons, like a shot out of Metropolis or Asphalt. The whole opening sequence lasts seven and a half minutes and is astonishing in its combination of pace, editing, storytelling and detail and perfectly captures the romance, industry and drama of not only ocean travel but the film to come. It’s the type of economic cinematic shorthand that seems to be a lost art these days.
Despite the aforementioned drama not quite living up to this introduction, the cast give it a good try. We are quickly introduced to Billy Bevan’s knowing steward Hodgkins, who in case we missed it tells Edmund Lowe that, “No two crossings are the same. The ship is like a little world…with all sorts of people bundled together…shaking hands and making friends and loving each other and hating each other…” Right, well that’s the premise sorted out then. Amusingly, Bevan continues to trot out the speech at various points in the film (including the final scene of the movie) until Lowe virtually knows it word by word and looks visibly pained each time he has to endure it. This is a clever ploy to not only milk some humour from the situation but it also acts as a knowing wink to the audience, highlighting that we all know such words are in themselves trite and cliché, much like the plot
We then enter the sad world of Myrna Loy’s Kay Graham, who stands by as her husband flirts openly with Greta Nissen (doing a sort of cod-Garbo Scandinavian showgirl floozie). It turns out that Loy knows Lowe from an earlier encounter in Havana five years before, wearily remarking “I was certainly young then, I didn’t know what real happiness was”. It’s a strange thing that they have the 25 year old Myrna Loy play a supposedly middle aged woman. I guess the idea could be that she’s actually young but just worn down by her husband’s philandering but she plays the part with the resigned and restrained poise of a much older woman. Anyway, whatever is being attempted it doesn’t quite work as Loy is plainly too young for the role. This mis-casting was probably another reason why she quit Fox shortly after shooting Transatlantic since they obviously had little understanding of her ability or idea of what they wanted to do with her. In her autobiography, Loy remarks that Fox had triumphantly attempted to re-brand her as the “Revamped Vamp” then proceeded to give a mixture of unsuitable roles, of which this surprisingly was one of the better ones. In the end they got bored and started giving her vamp roles again so she left.
A later highlight of the movie is, once the murder plot is in full flow, a gripping chase through the engine rooms. The ship hits a storm, although everyone continues with their partying - well it is 1931, (including Nissen vamping it up in a top hat, this time trying her best Dietrich). The storm then gets worse and the beat of the jazz music gets faster and faster, cleverly mirroring the drama on the sea and also the escalating trouble below decks. The chase itself is beautifully shot with angular jets of steam randomly spraying out and combining with the glowing heat of the engines (and contrasting nicely with the storm outside). This casts eerie pulsing shadows that loom in and out of the deserted bulkheads as Lowe and the hoodlums tussle amongst the unblinking steel and iron of the machines. As if to emphasize the overwhelming presence of the machines even the sound of the final and lethal gunshot is masked by the endless pulsing of the great engines. The glimpses given of this metal underworld, despite being brief are the moments that set this movie slightly above its peers and an underlying theme such as the dominance and reliance on the machines perhaps could have given the film a slightly more unusual tone. The cinematography and art direction certainly give the situation an inhuman, oppressive feel. As it is these glimpses give Transatlantic an almost European mood at times, despite the comparative everyday nature of the above deck melodrama.
Overall, this European feel is achieved by the tight direction of William K. Howard, a director whose work I’m not too familiar with (I’ve seen The Power and the Glory which is excellent and Evelyn Prentice which is pretty good). In her book, Myrna Loy was certainly pleased to work with him saying, “I admired his meticulous methods, and his films retain an original quality derived from them. He had respect for me and my work, which pleased me no end”. Of course, in Transatlantic he is ably assisted by the phenomenal cinematography of James Wong Howe and the Oscar winning Art Direction of Gordon Wiles. The combination results in some set pieces that belie the poor script and lack of star power the movie was given and at times hint at something fairly ahead of its time. Sadly, like in many other movies made quickly by the studios I’d guess that there just wasn’t the opportunity to take any complex ideas about mood, lighting and deep focus to their artistic conclusions so I suppose we should be thankful for what we have.
All in all Transatlantic is a mixed bag. It’s not Grand Hotel, but then again it doesn’t have to be. There are no standout performances, though Billy Bevan is excellent and Edmund Lowe is very appealing and shows some depth with a difficult and under written character. However, Myrna Loy is miscast and actors like John Halliday and Greta Nissen despite their talents come across as types rather than people (Halliday is really just Lewis Stone, Nissen is Garbo or Dietrich depending on the scene). With Fox, the lavish production of MGM just isn’t there and the script is merely acceptable, but behind all these faults lie some truly great cinematic flourishes, from the amazing opening scene to the shadowy climax.
Ultimately, Billy Bevan’s tired old speech about people loving and hating each other comes to fruition, not only in terms of the central characters, but also in terms of it’s cliché value, as highlighted by a passenger muttering on his way out that it was a ”horribly dull voyage, don’t you think?” Though perhaps the unknown guest was right, in true melodramatic fashion, some passengers are changed forever, some are unaffected, and in the end the vessel emerges from the storm triumphantly as it ends one voyage and readies itself to start another, with it’s new cast of characters. Ah, the romance of travel…
Friday, 10 June 2011
Getting back to Dorothy Lee, she like many of her contemporary early sound stars faded somewhat as the 30s marched on and her vivacious, permanently peppy brand of song, dance, comedy and romance was lost to the world. For me, she is every bit as big a star as those who came after her. Watch any of her routines with Wheeler and Woolsey and you will see a brand of entertainment that you just want to wrap your arms around and hug! Cute as a button and with bags of talent, Dorothy Lee was a character that could only shine in the pre code era of exuberance and fun. Movie highlights of the last few months – Passion Flower (1930) – Well, not exactly a highlight but interesting nonetheless. This fairly creaky melodrama of infidelity has the usual story of a happily married man (Charles Bickford), lured from the arms of his loving wife (Kay Johnson) by a cruel temptress (Kay Francis). I was quite looking forward to this one but the presentation was so flat and lifeless, as director William de Mille frames everything with a static matter of fact view that gets virtually nothing out of its talented cast. The movie was a MGM production, and all it shows is that in many respects in 1930 they were lagging somewhat behind their competitors First National / Warners and Paramount in terms of making exciting and relevant dramatic pictures. Even Kay Francis, still in her home wrecker phase, doesn’t get the chance to enjoy the freedom of the pre code spirit. In comparison to the similar role from First National's A Notorious Affair earlier in the year, Miss Francis is a very restrained seductress. Another problem is that the leading man Charles Bickford just isn’t suited to the role. He’s too gruff to be a sympathetic leading man, and better suited to a more action-orientated scenario. Kay Johnson is fine but really doesn’t leave much of an impression. If nothing else, the film shows how much of a star Kay Francis was this early in her career. She looks striking (she’s immaculately dressed as usual) and though she doesn’t exactly steal her scenes (the direction is so sluggish that just making it through to the next scene is a victory for cast and viewer) but she’s plainly got more screen presence and charisma than any of the other main players. Even the usually excellent Lewis Stone is reduced to mere wallpaper, and the presence of Zasu Pitts as a morbidly depressed landlady isn’t as funny as it could be. Passion Flower is definitely worth seeing, but really only as a comparison to other more exciting films being made as the time, and for confirmation that in 1930, Kay Francis was one to watch. East Side of Heaven (1939) – Lately, I’ve begun to better understand what a huge ‘king of all media’ figure Bing Crosby was in the 30’s and beyond. I think these days, his influence on modern society (and especially music) is largely overlooked. Indeed, Bing Crosby the movie star is almost taken for granted – Christmas musicals, Road pictures, singing priests and little else. There certainly seems to be more to his acting career than that, but a lot like Elvis Presley in the 60s he was also guilty of churning out films to meet the demand of his public. Recently I was listening to a Lux Radio Theater from 1937 where Crosby is announced for the following week to rapturous applause and female squeals (the only other person I’ve heard get a reaction when announced was Jean Harlow, possibly due to the rarity value of her appearing on the air). You just don’t associate Bing Crosby with teenage screams, but in the pre Sinatra age his singing must have hit the spot. Anyway, this particular Crosby movie of the month features none other that Joan Blondell and is actually rather good. Crosby plays a singing (obviously) taxi driver who finds himself with a baby to look after and a whole lot of trouble (you can basically fill in the gaps of the plot yourself – it involved lots of baby hiding, a confused girlfriend and a kidnapping). The big surprise is how good Crosby and Blondell work as a team in their one and only film together (incidentally, in the aforementioned Lux episode - 'She Loves Me Not' broadcast November 8th 1937 fact fans - , Joan Blondell was also Crosby’s co star and they share the same chemistry on radio). In fact, it’s almost like old times for Joan, who by 1939 was winding down as a featured star. Of course, with Bing being the main draw, she was never to have the chance of a great screen partnership (luckily Dick Powell was still around to supply that) but there is definitely a rapport between the two stars, though possibly five years too late… My Life with Caroline (1941) – Ronald Colman gets to show his exquisite comic timing once again in this unjustly neglected farce. Colman plays a long suffering husband who, to keep his marriage intact lets his flighty wife (Anna Lee) think she is having an affair. In fact, Colman is actually pulling the strings by manipulating his wife and her new beau (Reginald Gardiner) in order to wreck the affair and send her running back to him. As is usual with these sorts of films, the plot is somewhat more complicated than my brief description would allow. Interestingly, it’s mainly told by flashback, with Colman looking straight into the camera and talking to the viewer whilst recounting the story. This gives an odd sense of whimsy to a tale that played wrong could look to be in dubious taste. Although the film has an excellent cast (dependable types like Charles Winninger and Gilbert Roland), and a great director in Lewis Milestone (there’s some wonderful camera work, including a long tracking shot through a ski lodge at the start that’s very impressive) it’s Ronald Colman who holds it all together buy somehow making his character sympathetic and funny rather than manipulative and cold. I have no idea why it’s not a better known movie other than the fact that Ronald Colman is largely out of favour these days. I guess I’ll just have to sing his praises until more people notice! Old Time Radio Highlight – This time I haven’t been listening to much Hollywood related radio but I need to mention the show that has really helped to get me through some tough times (and they made some films so it’s kind of relevant) – Lum and Abner. At first when I listened to the show I was confused by the characters and didn’t really find them very funny but as I made my way through each of the 15 minute episodes I slowly realized why the characters were so beloved. Like Amos n’ Andy they used the short episode time and daily frequency to build up a whole world of living characters engaging in their own soap like dramas. With Lum and Abner, because so many of the episodes still exist, I have started to really get the sense of them living in a real community (sadly the gripping comic soap opera of Amos n’ Andy is a little more difficult to follow due to the lack of existing shows) where the rural humour is gentle and subtle. In time, the characters have slowly come into focus, so that now I really do feel (like millions of listeners all those years ago) that they are my “ old friends down in Pine Ridge”. It’s difficult to fully explain their appeal, but listening to them has a soothing, calming effect on the soul, like slipping off into a dream. I find myself walking down the road or out shopping and quietly worrying if Lum is going to manage to convince the townsfolk that he’s innocent of whatever disaster has befallen him this week. I think that’s quite impressive for a radio show about a way of life half way across the world and separated by over 70 years. In Lum and Abner, Chester Lauck and Norris Goff created two truly universal and gentle characters that continue to make me very happy. I’m currently up to 1942 right now and although there is another decade to go, I will miss my two friends when I get to the end of the shows. That’s all for now, as I draw a line under my past misfortune and get back to the business of watching movies. I have a huge backlog so I better get started. Thank you to anyone who has followed this blog up until now or even taken the time to occasionally read it, and I hope I can give you something worth reading in the months to come. Until next time...
Tuesday, 26 April 2011
From there I started to seek out his appearances and enjoyed his comedic turns in The Bride Came C.O.D and The Male Animal as well as his excellent and under appreciated skill with dramatic parts in movies such as Blues in the Night, The Hard Way and of course Mildred Pierce. I’ve since found him a difficult fellow to categorize – not quite a leading man, yet far more than a character actor; a natural comic yet an accomplished actor. He was popular in film, radio and television yet is not quite forgotten but not well remembered either. Despite this, I feel his real talents lay in out and out comedy that required his trademark double takes and a healthy dose of physical comedy. To that end, you really can’t do better than The Good Humor Man. The picture belongs solely to Carson and for once is built around his character without the need to have him play off against the likes of Dennis Morgan or Doris Day (not that that's a bad thing either). Carson plays Biff, a big-hearted ice cream salesman who in reality is really just a grown up kid. He’s a favourite of the local children and is a member of their Captain Marvel fan club. In fact the whole movie seems to be a massive advertisement for Fawcett publications and Good Humor ice cream.
What immediately struck me when watching the film was how despite a solid cast, a seasoned director (Lloyd Bacon) and a good writer (Frank Tashlin), the art of making comedies by 1950 had kind of been lost. The script is good and contains lots of excellent ideas and gags but as soon as we are introduced to Biff, his persona and his ultimate goal (to win the heart of his girl, played by Lola Albright), the film moves awkwardly into a murder plot. This, of course was the formula for most 40s comedies, as if merely presenting an amusing character being funny wasn’t enough for an audience. It occurred to me that Harold Lloyd (for example) could have made a whole film about an ice cream seller trying to win the heart of a girl. In fact he pretty much made a whole career very successfully using that basic simple formula. What happened to comedy films in the 40s that simply exploring comic situations wasn’t enough? But I digress…
The Good Humor Man starts out looking like it is going to be one of those old style comedies with some rather well observed gags as we establish Carson’s character as he goes about his daily rounds. There’s a nice moment where a cute dog approaches him and begs for an ice cream. When he gets it, the dog runs off and we pan to a large pack of different sized doggies all waiting for their free ice cream too (cue double take!). Carson is shown not only being kind to (and exasperated by) animals, he also helps a kid out with some money and in case we don't believe his good intentions, is shown picking up litter! He then meets up with the local kids and their Captain Marvel fan club in their meeting hut, all decked out in capes and cool club t shirts that would doubtless go for an absolute fortune on Ebay these days. Carson uses his membership of the club to get close to the kid brother of his sweetheart, and the young lad, seeing a kindred spirit sympathizes with his plight. Ironically the cad that is stopping this love match is played by none other than George Reeves, giving in retrospect a little bit of a Captain Marvel versus Superman vibe (if Superman had turned evil, that is)
The film perfectly sets up the premise and the main character, and in true old school fashion, goes on to show a little vignette of the life of a Good Humor man. This involves Carson having to bring an ice cream to a man working at a furnace. Of course the ice cream keeps melting, and to add to the problems, Carson needs to keep his uniform pristine for a big date after work. The situation of worked out wonderfully with perfect timing from Carson, with his big eyes and bendy mouth constantly looking to the viewer for help as he gets further and further into trouble. It’s a lovely scene expertly written by Frank Tashlin, the sort that as previously mentioned was becoming quite a rarity by 1950 (except perhaps in Tashlin’s own films). Carson gets stuck inside his own van and when released has been turned into a human Popsicle. In a rather absurd pay off to the scene the six-foot iceman is then floats away and is promptly washed down a storm drain. Why? Who knows?
From here on, the murder mystery kicks in and the rather charming comedic episodes come crashing to a halt in favour of a second rate film noir pastiche. That’s not to say that the film loses it’s way, as luckily the characters (and Jack Carson’s central performance) are drawn so well that they remain engaging. It’s just that it’s all been done before (mostly by Bob Hope) and for the most part done better. What potential the movie had a comic vehicle is somewhat hampered until the climax. Carson still manages some nice moments though, in particular his discomfort at being seduced by the film’s femme fatale. When asked if he reads comic books, his innocent yet triumphant “Of course I do, everybody does!” is a rallying call to all young at heart dreamers.
The final scene takes place in a school and features a big showdown between Carson with his Captain Marvel fan club and a bunch of mobsters. On its own the scene is a tour de force example of the work of Frank Tashlin with its manic energy, silly visual gags, ridiculous props and camera tricks. It’s simultaneously very funny and really rather irritating unless I’d imagine you are a big fan of Tashlin’s work (I can take him in small doses). However, there are some great ideas as the fight works it’s way through the different rooms of the schoolhouse. The music room sees trombones, harps and cymbals being used as weapons (again, this scene is probably something Lloyd and his contemporaries could have developed into a couple of reels). In shop class Carson fights off the mobsters with saws and rulers until inexplicably an unruly buzz saw escapes and chases people round the swimming pool like a shark! The kids arrive to save the day (and in a nice touch, so does the ice cream loving doggie from the beginning!) and chant the Captain Marvel code word as they dispatch the villains.
Naturally the whole thing ends up with a massive custard pie fight (what else?) and much speeded up camera work. Proceedings are enlivened by the appearance of a donkey in a Captain Marvel outfit and more of the ice cream loving dogs. Come on, who can't resist a donkey in a cape?! By the end there is so much going on and the music has reached such a frantic crescendo that I felt like I needed a quiet sit down in a darkened room to recover from it all. It’s certainly a well built sequence but sadly very far removed from the gentle character comedy of the opening scenes. However, it was 1950, so what else could you expect? The film is certainly a mish-mash of ideas and styles, but luckily it’s all firmly held together by Jack Carson playing perhaps his quintessential comic role.
I always wondered if The Good Humor Man was ever considered a pilot for a series of Jack Carson films. Certainly, his unique comic persona was arguably never distilled better, and a series of vocational comedies exploiting this character (even written by Frank Tashlin) could have been very interesting and probably funny too. Sadly, it was not to be, but Jack Carson continued on with his career after The Good Humor Man and enjoyed many, many great moments, both comic and dramatic until his untimely death in 1963. I hopefully will continue to catch him unexpectedly in films, lending an air of assured quality to each production and despite often playing the bad guy, remaining one of the screen’s undeniably likeable personas. And by the way, don’t forget your Captain Marvel fan club secret code word – “Niatpac Levram!”
Wednesday, 6 April 2011
In more recent years we kept going to the cinema, but mostly to see the latest blockbusters. I found that my dad had less and less time for the classic films, finding them hokey and old fashioned, instead being impressed by modern special effects and editing (though still complaining that there were no new stories). We’d still go out of our way to see a revived classic though mostly it was me dragging him, and he was always interested in whatever new epic was coming out of the Far East. Sadly, other than that I remained disappointed that he liked nothing better than watching a Steven Seagal movie on late night television. In a way, it was at least refreshing that he chose to embrace the present and the future rather than clinging to memories of the past. It's something I still try to keep in mind when I get too wrapped up and dogmatic about certain eras or artists.
As I said at the start, please forgive my rambling reminiscence but I felt that it needed to be said. My dad sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago and despite my mixed up emotions and memories and his flaws as a person and as a parent, I’ve been thinking long and hard about his influence on my life. I’ve come to the conclusion that my love of films, and especially classic films is really his lasting gift to me. I also realize now that my golden childhood was far from golden. I have happy memories of our times together as a child, but as an adult I now understand that the television was only being used as a baby sitting tool, as a mere pacifier. In all the time watching television and going to the cinema, the choices were always his and my opinions meant little. The films were an excuse to avoid his parenting duties and talk to me.
Regardless of his real motivations, it was still time we spent together and it gave me a chance to soak up his enthusiasm and knowledge for something he enjoyed. I know now that a television is a bad parenting tool and that as great as movies are, they can’t take the place of actually having a proper relationship with your father. Despite all this, I still loved him, and I knew that he meant well. Perhaps he found it difficult to know how to relate to me, or perhaps he really was selfish and not interested in my opinions. The truth, as usual is probably somewhere in the middle, but without ever realizing it he gave me a life long interest that continues to give me huge pleasure. So in a way, he will still always have an influence on me, albeit an unintended one. And as the years go on, I hope wherever he is, he realizes that each time I step into the company of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, despite everything, I will think fondly of him.
Normal service will be resumed next time.
Wednesday, 9 February 2011
Wednesday, 26 January 2011
Thursday, 13 January 2011
So what is it about Kay Francis that stirs such ardent fandom? Personally, I’m not entirely sure as I’ve always found it very hard to explain her to friends what exactly it is that makes her special. In fact, such an explanation usually results in blank looks and and impression that they feel a bit sorry for me. After all, she was a good but not great dramatic actress, only a handful of her films are remembered or revered today (Trouble in Paradise and at a push In Name Only), her image is that of a clothes horse, with its implication of style over substance, and her fame was comparatively brief (and included a few years of decline). Yet there is something about her that makes her special.
Of course, she had a striking look that although not traditionally ‘pretty’ gave her an instantly recognisable, iconic image. Additionally, her ability to project elegance and sophistication through her wardrobe not only struck a chord with contemporary audiences and continues to set her apart from her peers today. For example, show anyone a studio picture of her from the 30s and the reaction is usually 'wow!'. But there’s still something more to her than her image and look. Any number of 30s actresses could take a good photo or effortlessly wear the latest Adrian creation (though arguably only Kay Francis could get away with some of the more outlandish 30s fashions – and especially the hats!).
For me, discovering Kay Francis was a slow, cumulative process. It was by chance that she appeared in a succession of films that I watched on television, in the days when such things used to be on regularly. Jewel Robbery was followed by Raffles and Cynara, and then finally the penny dropped when I watched One Way Passage. This strange dark haired woman with the air of tragedy was oddly mesmerising. I found myself not watching the likes of William Powell and Ronald Colman (the reasons I was watching the aforementioned films in the first place) and rather, wanting to see more of their mysterious co-star. The next film happened to be Mandalay, and finally I had a Kay Francis film where she was the focus (though Ricardo Cortez was pretty good too).
Now, many years later, I have all but one of her films (Anyone out there got Illusion?) and have seen many more of her performances, from the early villainous parts to the gold diggers, nurses, society women and First Ladies of her more famous later pictures. Each time I see her she projects that special aura that only the great stars do (despite the poor quality of a lot of her later roles). Yet she doesn’t initially blow you away the way that Joan Crawford or Bette Davis might, rather her softly spoken manner and her aloof elegance sort of creep up on you like a warming fog.
Off the top of my head, my personal Kay Francis highlights include:
Her very, very under rated partnership with William Powell. They have such an easy chemistry that seems to bring out a much darker and serious side to Powell’s character. All there films together are worth watching but One Way Passage is their masterpiece as a team. Nobody but nobody does ‘two weeks to live’ tragedy like Kay Francis!
I love the fact that she’s so evil in her early roles, and it’s something that I wish she would have had the chance to continue later on. I’ve previously written at length about her deliciously camp man-eater turn in A Notorious Affair, but one should also seek out Dangerous Curves purely for the preposterous idea of casting Kay Francis as a trapeze artist, resplendent in sequins and tiara. What’s more, she’s an evil trapeze artist!
She always worked well with Ronald Colman and shows some real depth as the wronged wife in Cynara. It’s probably a precursor to many of her later ‘women’s’ picture roles and she plays it very well. This was definitely the part that grabbed my attention when I first started to watch her films. She has a great skill in holding your attention without diverting any of the focus from the story or her co-stars.
Sadly her later films don’t always make the best use of her talents but The Feminine Touch shows her as a fairly adept light comedienne, with some really good interplay with co-stars Van Heflin and Don Ameche. Another favourite from this period is The Man Who Lost Himself, an unfairly forgotten minor classic with Brian Aherne. Though no longer the focus of her films, she still brings style and glamour to each part as well as an easy charm. In many ways she was the perfect actress for the glamorous 30s studio style and often fits uncomfortably into the starchy 40s. However in the above two film the warmth and wit of the old days just about survives intact.
Again I find that this brief sketch doesn’t adequately sum up Kay Francis’ charms. To me she represents much of what I like in a female movie star with her shimmering, elusive and unpredictable persona. Though recognisable as a glamorous and beautiful film star, her performances don’t pigeonhole her into a particular type the way many others do. For this reason, the main appeal of Kay Francis lies in watching her films. At the very beginning of my blog I mentioned that I find the lesser lights in the filmography of a star the most illuminating and important, as they reveal the small details and transitions in an actor’s style and career. So it goes for Kay Francis; rather that a handful of overplayed, iconic performances, we are left with dozens of smaller films, each interesting and each different, and in turn each able to add a small part to the jigsaw of her career. For me the jigsaw may never be complete and to be honest I’m no further forward in explaining her appeal. She’s just a wonderful, entertaining, stylish and endlessly fascinating star. I guess I’ll have to get used to the blank looks.