Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Snapshot # 5 - Ladies' Man (1931)

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

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

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

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

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of Catherine the Great and her lover the statesman Grigory Potemkin (I love how 30s films continually throw in these historical references assuming their audience knew full well that they were talking about.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Three's a Crowd (1927) - The Unmaking of Harry Langdon, Part 1

It’s not often that watching a film for the first time leaves me with a range of conflicting thoughts and emotions but Three’s a Crowd did exactly that. The thoughts and emotions in question stretched from shock and confusion to awe and admiration regarding what exactly I had just seen. And what exactly did I see? Well I’m still not entirely sure, but after mulling it over I thought that I’d make an attempt to share my thoughts on Harry Langdon’s much maligned directorial debut.

Rather than subject the world to another extra long movie review, I’ve opted to split this into a couple of shorter, more manageable parts, and I’ll start off here by looking at the background of the film and the story of its making, and its role in the subsequent unmaking of Harry Langdon. Three’s a Crowd, long unavailable for general viewing was released by Kino on DVD (as a double feature with Langdon’s follow up The Chaser) in 2008 and I’d heartily recommend picking it up. Simply put, regardless of critical opinion, Three’s a Crowd is unlike anything else Langdon or indeed any of his contemporaries would ever attempt.

To say that Three’s a Crowd is a polarising movie is a bit of an understatement. The film, its production and subsequent fallout has inspired fierce debate for decades. For the most part, the general critical consensus was that Harry Langdon’s first directorial effort is an artistic disaster, an ego driven misstep of such magnitude that it cost the comedian his career. Split from his collaborator Frank Capra, Harry Langdon was out of his depth and proved once and for all that he needed others to create the comedy for him. As a result of this tide of opinion, there is so much baggage attached to any viewing of the movie that it is often hard to see it untangled from its difficult genesis and the decades of critical mauling.

So I decided to finally watch this most unloved of movies and see for myself. After not laughing much in the opening ten minutes, I feared the worst and began to feel a dreadful sinking feeling. Were the critics right all along? Did Harry really just not understand his own character? Slightly worried, I kept watching but with my expectations lowered and now hoping for at best an amiably average little effort.

It took a short while for the movie’s dreamlike atmosphere to take hold, but once its fog of discord had seeped into my mind I was completely under its mesmeric influence. I went back and watched again from the beginning but now with my eyes open and a new found understanding. Far from the unfunny sentimental nonsense I was told to expect, Three’s a Crowd is an astonishing work of singular genius, and one of the finest and most misrepresented movies of the silent era. Once you get over certain expectations and start to realise what Langdon is trying to achieve, there are few superlatives that can do the film justice. It is nothing less than a masterpiece.

However, before we get to that, let’s review the events that led up to the making of the film and the received wisdom that gives it such a bad reputation. In brief, Harry Langdon started late in movies (he was almost 40) but within two years of his screen debut in 1924 had found a winning formula working for Mack Sennett in creative union with director Harry Edwards, writer Arthur Ripley and gag man Frank Capra. At the height of his fame and influence he signed a six picture deal with First National and took the team with him, promoting Capra to director. The first three movies of the new deal (Tramp, Tramp Tramp, The Strong Man and Long Pants) were very successful and represented the commercial peak of Langdon’s career (and perhaps his most consistently funny work). Popular with critics and moviegoers alike, Langdon was being hailed as a real threat to Chaplin’s crown. Everything was fine for a while but during the production of Long Pants, the cracks in the team began to show.

It seems that Capra and Edwards disagreed over the pacing of Long Pants, and Langdon sided with Edwards. Differing in comic philosophies with Capra, the rift culminated in Langdon firing Capra, leading to a very bitter public dispute that cast Harry in a poor light to the public and press. He decided to go it alone and directed the three remaining pictures of the contract himself (though his collaboration with Arthur Ripley continued). These three (Three’s a Crowd, The Chaser and Heart Trouble) were box office flops and First National did not renew the contract. With the coming of sound Langdon was out of work and declared bankruptcy. He had gone from being a top box office star in a major studio to working on poverty row in the space of a year and his reputation never fully recovered.

That’s the basic story as it is told in most accounts of film history, and that narrative exists due to a number of reasons. Firstly, upon being fired Capra, in order to salvage a burgeoning directorial career apparently vented his frustrations to the media, thus giving Harry Langdon the air of a man who was difficult to work with and egotistical. After Harry’s subsequent movies flopped, his prophecies appeared to hold weight despite the truth being slightly more complex. However, what really tarred Langdon with the brush of failure was a number of statements made by Frank Capra in the intervening years, after Langdon’s death in 1944

Firstly there was film critic James Agee's hugely influential feature in Life Magazine in 1949, entitled ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’. It is now regarded as a seminal article and responsible for a great upsurge in interest in silent comedy at a time when many of its old stars had been all but forgotten. Frank Capra was a key interviewee, and when asked about Langdon noted that, “Langdon was almost as childlike as the character he played” and that when things went wrong in his career he “never did really understand what hit him”. This conceit that Landon was but a clueless puppet in the hands of the long suffering and hard working creative staff tasked with the unenviable job of coming up with something for him to do remains to this day. The fact that in a separate interview, Mack Sennett agreed with the notion entrenched it in critical history.

However, just in case anyone missed this character assassination, Frank Capra wrote his autobiography in 1971 and went into more detail regarding his views on Langdon’s artistic demise. His autobiography goes to great lengths to show how he was right and Langdon was wrong, and that Harry Langdon and his ego brought all his troubles on himself. The main tenant of his argument is that Langdon never understood his own character, or indeed his own comedy and could only be successful if guided by the safe hands of someone who did understand, like Frank Capra. According to Capra, at a screening of rushes at the Sennett studio, Arthur Ripley thought Langdon’s performance was so bad that he was beyond help and that “only God can help an elf like Langdon”. Capra claims that this became the basis for the character of Langdon’s successful years, an innocent fool out of step with everyday life, for whom his only ally is God. And there you have it - the hopeless vaudeville comedian was successfully moulded into a box office star by following the strict instructions of Capra and Ripley, and when he decided he didn’t need them, his career instantly derailed.

This theory has been successfully demolished by critics and historians such as Walter Kerr,  Joyce Rheuban and David Kalat but still persists (indeed, Langdon’s imdb bio repeats the old story). Capra’s account of things completely ignores the fact that Langdon had been a hugely successful vaudeville star for years who brought a clearly established character with him when he broke into movies in 1924. Langdon had already been making shorts for 2 years before Capra even joined Sennett, thus making the story about viewing early Langdon rushes impossible to have happened – out of 21 Langdon movies at Sennett, Ripley received his first credit on the 13th and Capra on the 15th. Virtually every part of the Langdon character was in place by the time they arrived, but what Capra did eventually bring to Harry Langdon’s work was a sure directorial touch, some needed focus and a clear sense of what was commercially popular.

Not to say that the new narrative should be all about bashing Frank Capra and his legacy. Capra’s success and career speaks for itself, and his role in Langdon’s downfall has really no bearing on his own movies and talent. What has to be brought to task is when his statements don’t match the facts, and when these facts can be readily evidenced on the screen. It’s understandable that Capra was angry and bitter at being fired by Langdon and as they say, history is written by the victors. However, it comes of as especially churlish to kick a man when he is down, and from his position at the summit of Hollywood’s hierarchy, that is exactly what Capra did to Harry Langdon. Also, what rubs people the wrong way is the fact that Capra essentially sets himself up as the man pulling Langdon’s strings, that much like Langdon’s screen persona, the real Harry Langdon was a hapless bystander as Capra orchestrated his success. Leo McCarey attempted the same thing in his later years too, insisting that Stan Laurel knew nothing about comedy and claiming all the credit for the creation of Laurel and Hardy's best work, regardless of the facts. Sadly, while people take McCarey's words with a pinch of salt, Capra's are often still treated as gospel.

What Three’s a Crowd proved is that without Capra, Langdon felt he was free to explore his comedy without the same commercial consideration. Ever the populist, this was something that Capra could not conceive of, and therefore in his head it was wrong. Even Capra’s central idea of ‘God is his only ally’ was rejected by Langdon, as for him his comic persona is so far removed from reality, and so wretched that even God openly abandons him. It’s an idea of startling daring and resulted in Harry Langdon creating a film of immense beauty, a dreamlike parable of despair that is so far removed from what his silent comedy contemporaries were delivering that it shocked audiences into confusion.

So there I was, watching my DVD of Three’s a Crowd and struck by the notion that firstly, the film wasn’t really that funny, and that secondly Langdon the director seemed to have no concept of editing (several scenes just lasted far too long). After ten minutes I realised that I was falling into the trap of all the audiences that watched it in 1927 and beyond in that my expectations did not match the delivered product. As I mentioned previously, I stopped the DVD and thought for a moment about what I’d just seen (something that I appreciate cinema audiences would never have the chance to do). Three’s a Crowd is not a comedy in the traditional sense, it’s a dark comic experiment that serves as manifesto for Langdon’s daringly abstract, absurdist view. I started again, with a glimmering of knowledge that this was something a very different and a bit special.

Next time, we shall look at the film itself and marvel at its many wonders…

Friday, 29 May 2015

Cancel My Reservation (1972) - The End of the Road for Bob Hope's Movie Career

The last time I wrote about Bob Hope, it was after watching his modest cinematic debut in the 1934 short Going Spanish. At that time, though a stage veteran the fledgling screen comedian was understandably not quite the character we grew to know and love. As his birthday has rolled around again, perhaps this time it is only fitting we now look at Bob’s movie swan song 1972’s Cancel My Reservation, some 38 years later. Bob Hope had a career as a lead screen comedian in five different decades (and as a top TV comedian for a further two), was a box office attraction for around 20 years and made dozens of very good and very funny movies, but by any means of looking at it, Cancel My Reservation is not one of them. However, he was still a big star, was never out of the public view and for the most part remained a much beloved comedian, but by 1972 Hope looked tired, bored and out of touch.  So what went wrong?

When he made Cancel My Reservation, I’m sure Hope had no idea that it would end up being his last cinematic effort despite the project being a troubled one. The script actually started life as a serious adaption of Louis L’Amour’s western novel 'The Broken Gun', which Bob Hope had taken the option on. Perhaps the rights were about to expire but rather than wait for the right adaption, the gritty western plot was shoehorned into a comic murder mystery. Part of this change seems to be an issue with funding, as Hope had to get NBC to throw in some of the costs (to add to his own financing) when United Artists passed on the project, and their insistence on the picture being a comedy complete with star cameos effectively closed the door on any serious dramatic pretentions Hope may have had. Rather than a change of direction for him, it ended up being just another day at the office.

The film itself is typical of many comedies of the era: fast paced, bright coloured, plenty of good looking girls, stereotypical stock characters, a lazy script and a half hearted attempted at either sending up or jumping on the counterculture or hippy bandwagon. For comedies of the late 60s and early 70s, it’s as if the twin spectres of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In are omnipresent, and the movies can’t resist the urge to reference such things as flower power, or 'women’s lib' and the watchword is decidedly 'wacky', all set to a groovy sounding pop soundtrack. The movies attempt this without really understanding what it is they are trying to do or who exactly their audience should be. Cancel My Reservation doesn’t sin nearly as much as say, Skidoo, but it does have the 'desperate to be hip vibe' of a Don Knotts or later Jerry Lewis movie, with all the zany hi-jinks one would expect. At least Hope’s earlier efforts had the saving grace of Phyllis Diller to liven up proceedings and keep him on his toes, regardless of poor scripts.

In the movie, Bob Hope stars as a talk show host who shares his show with his more popular wife, played by Eve Marie Saint. The strain on their relationship causes him to go for a rest in the Arizona desert without her where he gets mixed up in a murder and a plot to take land from the Native Americans. There is nothing wrong with the plot itself but the script is so uninspiring and tired, and despite some good performances the words just have no weight and even fewer laughs. Luckily there is a decent cast with Eva Marie Saint as Hope’s wife being the definite highlight. She has a great chemistry with Bob, and brings some real charm and stability to the movie as she attempts to patch up her relationship and solve the mystery. Familiar faces like Ralph Bellamy, Keenan Wynn and Forrest Tucker also keep the movie rolling along but don’t really add anything. Even a young Anne Archer doesn’t save it, sadly providing only window dressing. However, there is a faint glimmer of the old Hope in a scene where Bob is told he could face hanging if convicted of murder. He then dreams about his lynching as an angry mob lead him to the gallows and put a noose round his neck. As he does is usual hammy pleading for help then we see none other than Bing Crosby laughing in the crowd saying "Help you? Who do you think bought the rope?". Other faces in the crowd reveal themselves to be Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson and bizarrely, John Wayne (who says "I'd like to help you but it's not my picture!"). The dream sequence ends and we are back to reality (and NBC are kept happy), but it was a nice little reminder of times past and for long time fans the last chapter in the Hope and Crosby screen friendship.

In the end, Cancel My Reservation is a pretty bad film, but thankfully not his worst. However, the sad fact remains that despite obviously being committed to maintaining a film career in the 60s and 70s, Hope’s efforts were lacklustre. The problem was due to a number of issues, both off screen and on.
Firstly and most importantly, television was Hope’s main source of income and visibility and that’s what took up most of his time from the mid 50s onwards, which is when the quality of his movies start to decline. Part of this decline can be attributed to the end of his long term working relationship with Paramount, who obviously knew how to use him effectively, though the problem is equally the end of the studio system and the stability it brought. I’d say the last truly great Hope comedy is 1954’s Casanova’s Big Night, and he followed that with two mainly dramatic roles in Seven Little Foys and Beau James which pushed him out of his comfort zone to interesting effect. After that flurry of interesting mid 50s projects, things were never quite the same again.

With his lifetime NBC television contract, Hope had to come up with material for regular specials, and with the pressure to deliver laughs and ratings, this understandably took up most of his time and energy, making movies his secondary focus. Another problem with the later movies is that, ever willing to make a buck, Bob started to have a financial stake in his vehicles rather than just be a contract player. Rather than improving the quality of the movies, this seemed to only impede the creative process. Various accounts relate the struggles directors, writers, actor and producers had with Hope’s constant script changes and complaining, with on set problems being a regular feature of the later films when not paired with a director who could deal with his working habits. Indeed, director Paul Bogart apparently checked himself into a hospital to recover from the stress of working with Hope on Cancel My Reservation and vowed never to work with him again. This sort of atmosphere doesn’t really sound particularly conducive to making comedy, and it shows in the finished product.

Another problem, which is always the one that puts me off his later movies, is the change in Hope’s screen persona. The classic Bob Hope character of the cowardly Lothario, the pompous, fast talking yet well meaning fool worked so perfectly for decades that the sudden change in the late 50s to eliminate or tone down most of these characteristics removed the heart from his movies. The character was so good that Woody Allen based a performing career on him (Saying recently, “Bob Hope? I’m practically a plagiarist”). Something happened along the way though, and the cowardly likable goof version of Hope was replaced with a more realistic version of the television Bob Hope, a middle aged man who did real things and spat out a never ending line of tired quips as he went along. This Hope, rather than being a comic everyman (of sorts) became a family man, a hen pecked husband, or a business man who just said funny things rather actually being funny. I realise that Hope felt that he was getting older and probably couldn’t get away with his traditional character, though I’d argue that age is no barrier to the actions of a clown. However, I have a suspicion (as much as I hate to acknowledge it) that ego had a part in the decision as he just doesn't seem too keen to send himself up as he got older. If you see Hope on chat shows from the 60s onwards, he’s a lot more serious and guarded than he was in the 40s (though he’s still pretty cagey in the early interviews I’ve heard) and at times fairly grumpy. It all comes from being a very rich man with a lot of responsibility and a lot of power. He just doesn’t seem to try as hard as he used to because there is nothing left to prove. In a sense he stopped being Bob Hope the comedian and became Bob Hope the media personality.

It’s no wonder that the people who constantly knock Hope always do so with reference to his persona as seen on television at the height of the counter culture years in the 60s and 70s. He is seen as a kind of comic representation of the Nixon administration: patrician, middle aged and out of touch. Personally, I don’t think Hope really changed too much in himself (he seems to have always been a nervous, insecure performer even to the end), but his position changed. Like anyone with that amount of fame and money, it’s difficult not to live in a bubble of sorts and to be protected from what is glaringly obvious to the outside world. The fact that Hope during this period continued entertaining the troops and doing his charity work speaks volumes about the measure of the real man, but his public persona became rather frosty and distant and it rubbed off on screen in his movies. The likability factor that made audiences laugh but still sympathise with him had faded somewhat.

Nevertheless, Bob Hope seemed comfortable making his TV shows and becoming a familiar if unspectacular fixture on the small screen. From what I’ve seen of his specials, the quality depends very much on the guest star, but most of his material is often painfully thin. Unlike Jack Benny, Hope seemed not to pride himself on the quality of his writers, but on the topicality of his one liners. This worked for what it was, but in the big picture he failed at creating the television legacy that Benny (or even George Burns) managed where each appearance built on the next to create a lasting and well loved narrative.

Nevertheless, despite the critical, financial and artistic disappointment of Cancel My Reservation, Hope persevered with the idea of making movies. He spent the rest of his active career looking for the right vehicle but never got the script that suited him. It seems he almost got there with the legendary but unmade Road to the Fountain of Youth which would have reunited him with Bing Crosby for one last hurrah but was sadly interrupted by Bing’s death. Whether that would have made it to the screen and whether it would have actually been watchable or his equivalent of Mae West’s Sextet we will never know. He also tried and failed to make a movie about the life of Walter Winchell, a project he sat on for so long that he finally became too old to star in it. Apparently he was interested in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys as another vehicle for him and Bing, but Simon turned him down thinking quite rightly that their personalities would swamp the material (not to mention the fact it was about two old Jewish comedians).

No doubt there were many other attempts to find a film comeback but it never materialised. I remember even in the early 90s reading an interview with him where he said he still hoped to have one last film role before retiring completely. It’s a shame it never happened, as with the right writer (preferably not one of his staff) the still active and fairly sharp Hope of that era could have done something truly memorable, just as George Burns had managed before him. As it was we had to suffice with a few cameos and the TV movie A Masterpiece of Murder, which on paper sounds great but is just as unmemorable as Cancel My Reservation.

In the end it doesn’t really matter how Bob Hope’s film career wound up. People will love or loathe Hope largely depending on what version they saw of him while growing up. I’m lucky that I grew up knowing little of the real man in the 80s and 90s while watching his classic movies on television with no preconceived notions. Now having seen all the stages of his career I still think he’s great and I find something to enjoy in every decade and medium. Woody Allen said recently that he's always having to defend his love of Bob Hope to people (though the way it's going a future generation may have to spend  more of their time defending their love of Woody Allen to people but that's another thing altogether...). It's sad that people forget the good times and concentrate of the out of touch elder statesman of comedy that Hope was in the 60s, 70s and beyond. Unlike Jack Benny he never managed to become universally loved by each successive generation, or adapt to new challenges like George Burns but I'd still like to think there are plenty of people out there that realise how good he was and how important a comedian he was. On its own, Cancel My Reservation isn't that great a film, but as part of a 38 year cinematic legacy it's not too bad, a small piece in a much bigger and funnier picture. Despite the ups and downs of his standing with the public and the quality of his films, Bob Hope brought a lot of laughs to this world and did a lot of good, and that's something I hope is never forgotten.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Snapshot # 4 - He Was Her Man (1934)

What is it about? : Safecracking ex-con Flicker Hayes double crosses the gang and goes on the run to sleepy fishing village Santa Avila. With him is Rose Lawrence, a down on her luck girl who wants to put her past behind her and marry simple fisherman Nick and settle down. As the mobsters approach, Rose finds herself attracted to Flicker and having second thoughts about the wedding.

The Call Sheet : James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Victor Jory, with Frank Craven, Sarah Padden, Harold Huber, Russell Hopton and John Qualen

Behind the Camera : Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Screenplay by Tom Buckingham and Niven Busch, Cinematography by George Barnes, Art direction by Anton Grot.

Snapshot Thoughts : He Was Her Man is one of the last gasps of the pre-code era, sneaking in mere months before the Hays Code came into effect. As a result we see a lot of the usual tropes of what we know as pre-code cinema, though played with perhaps slightly less conviction and perhaps a hint of uneasiness. James Cagney, as Flicker Hayes is a largely unlikable character who wrestles with his own smugness for most of the movie as to whether he should let Joan Blondell’s Rose into his life or just use her like he does everyone else. It all plays out with a muted sense of doom and downbeat realism that would all but vanish within the next year. As ever, the characters are not so clean cut, with everyone having some sort of shame or compromise in their closet. Flicker is a criminal so low that he double crosses his fellow gangsters for his own amusement then runs away to avoid the consequences. Throughout the movie he uses the people around him to protect himself, and even when his noble side emerges it’s linked to his self preservation. Rose, for all her dreams of married respectability, met her prospective husband while selling her body to make a living. She flatly states. he was “a guy in town for a good time. The bellhop introduced us. Figure it out for yourself”. It’s the chance of escaping her past and present, rather than love or commitment that pushes her toward marriage. Even the one supposedly good character in the movie, fisherman Nick is not without fault. Most glaringly, if he is such a pious hard working family man (he even lives with his mother) why was he visiting ladies of ill repute in cheap hotels? The whole sorry situation just adds up to a portrayal of a broken society, crippled by the Depression with lonely people desperate for any sort of comfort or solace in the darkness. It’s the drama between the principle characters that provides the most interest in the movie, alongside the timing of the film’s release, and the muted performances of the leads, giving He Was Her Man the nostalgic glow of the end of an era. It would be a long time before movies would be as adult as this.

Star Performances : Despite putting in a committed performance, James Cagney just isn’t displaying his usual magic in this movie, so the star performance honours have to go to Joan Blondell. It must have been difficult to be one of James Cagney’s leading ladies as he’s such a force of nature, an unstoppable firecracker of movement on the screen that it was difficult for anyone to keep up with his electric presence. Joan Blondell, probably more than anyone got as near to being his perfect screen partner, complementing his hyperactivity either with a peppy energy of her own or by a simple look of big eyed charm. They appeared together in seven films, of which sadly this is the seventh. Despite working together so often and having an obvious chemistry they are rarely thought of as one of the great movie partnerships. Great screen partnerships require a give and take and a sense of equality but when working alongside Cagney, I’d imagine just trying to keep up was the main concern. Overall, I’m not a massive fan of Joan’s more restrained performances (of which this is one), as her big eyes and round face give way to a kind of lost puppy dog look that gets a bit wearing. For example, in Union Depot the initial promise of her world weary character gives way to just standing around in the later parts of the movie. She just seems more comfortable playing a character that does something about her problems, rather than submissively giving in to them. She plays a similar sort of role in He Was He Man but thankfully she has a bit more to do and she manages to make the most of what was probably on paper another world weary victim role. She certainly saves the part by injecting bursts of emotion in key scenes and her simmering passion and confusion ensures she is just as much a focal point as Cagney. Though in the end, it’s so difficult to criticise a Joan Blondell performance as she’s just so likeable, and this movie despite its flaws is no different.

James Cagney puts in a good performance despite playing a quieter and more restrained version of his usual screen persona. He skilfully runs a fine line between making the audience identify with Flicker as the hero of the movie whilst reminding us that he is not to be trusted. As the movie progresses and we naturally expect him to soften, Cagney’s use of body language and facial expressions keep us on our guard. Even in a comparatively minor film in his canon he gives a master class in screen acting. There really is no such thing as a lazy Cagney performance, he can never be accused of phoning it in. Other notables in the cast include Frank Craven as a duplicitous informant, Harold Huber and Russell Hopton as a convincingly mean pair of hit men and regular John Ford character actor John Qualen in a charming part (and one that for once doesn’t require him to be Swedish!) as a taxi driver. If you are particularly eagle eyed you can also see Billy West, former silent screen comedian and Chaplin impersonator in a one line part. I always get a kick out of seeing Hollywood veterans, all with storied careers of their own appearing in small parts in studio movies. Billy West doesn’t do or say much, but it was nice to see him get a pay cheque.

Technical Excellences: Actually not much to recommend in terms of technical innovation. As ever, Lloyd Bacon turns in a solid job at directing (is there such a thing as a badly directed Lloyd Bacon movie?) but in this case there’s not much to set He Was Her Man out from the crowd. There are some nice locations used in the film, shot in Monterey, California but even they are not used to their full potential. Rather than the fishing village seeming like a safe place hidden away from the outside world, it merely looks like any other Hollywood coastal location. So all in all, a solid yet uninspiring job done behind the camera. In fact, there was so little to inspire visually that I actually got a bit excited when there was a screen wipe used. I like screen wipes.

The Sublime: Joan Blondell’s character, Rose spends the first half of the movie supposedly torn emotionally over whether to marry the kind and dependable fisherman Nick, who she doesn’t really know or love, or flashy criminal Flicker, who she finds herself growing more attracted to. As a result of this mental confusion, and also the fact that the part is woefully underwritten, she doesn’t really do much other than do her best to look worried. The problem is, due to the script we are never too sure what she is thinking. She could be wondering who she really loves or worrying whether she left a pie in the oven; it’s all a bit vague. Thankfully there is a wonderful scene late in the movie where everything becomes clearer, and more importantly you can see that Joan Blondell, far from her usual bright and breezy screen persona has the acting ability to not only overcome poor material but also to convey great emotional depth. In order to save her from the two hit men, Flicker decides to tell her he was using her all along and was never going to take her with him when he left (which isn’t too far from the truth). The scene is played in medium shot, with the reaction from Joan (mournfully stating “I understand…I understand everything") in close up. In her close ups, Joan Blondell gives an unbelievably intense stare that conveys her hurt, disappointment and acceptance all at once. He leaves and she stands alone in the house, completely broken but managing to convey a sense of release also. She picks up her suitcase and makes her way back to her room. It’s one of the best bits of acting I’ve seem Joan do, at once vulnerable and tragic yet tinged with the inevitability of it all. Of course, the fact that Flicker has just unknowingly saved her life adds meaning to scene but she plays it beautifully. It seems that at about the time she made the movie, Joan was going through quite a lot of pretty heavy stuff in her own life, and perhaps her trials added to the emotional experience she could draw on for the scene.

The Ridiculous: The movie is played straight and as such everyone gives solid performances, and the script though under developed is treated with reverence. The only vaguely ridiculous member of the cast is the one residing on James Cagney’s top lip. Yes, Cagney sports an anaemic moustache in this movie and it’ distracting to say the least. He just looks so odd with facial hair, there’s an inherent wrongness to it. Like a clean shaven Clark Gable or Ronald Colman, or an unshaven Cary Grant, it’s just not right seeing Cagney with a moustache. It changes him from a no nonsense tough guy to a slightly oily con man (which is perhaps the point). Maybe it did suit the part, or maybe Warren William wasn’t available. Who can say?.

Is it worth watching? He Was Her Man is a very entertaining film despite its flaws. On one hand it’s the epitome of a solidly made B picture from a studio like Warners in the pre-code era. Star driven, with a fast pace and short running time, it does its job of diverting the attention from everyday matters. The plot, while fairly slight, has a genuinely surprising resolution which keeps you guessing (and just when you wonder what’s going to happen at the end, it suddenly becomes all about ice cream! Really!) Visually and artistically it’s nothing out of the ordinary, yet the whole effect is eminently satisfying. In my very first blog post a few years ago, I talked about how I was more interested in the films that slip through the cracks of  the well known film star filmographies. He Was Her Man is exactly that, a solid James Cagney and Joan Blondell film that never gets talked about, by a director that never gets talked about. Not great, and by no means bad, just entertainment in its purest form. If you want to see such a movie, and find who indeed was her man, this one is for you.

Random Quote: “Deus Meus! I forget the ice cream! It will melt!”

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Snapshot # 3 - Union Depot (1932)

What is it about? : Amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy train station, a smart talking hobo in a stolen suit passes himself off as a gentleman and decides to help a young girl get some money for her train ticket. He soon lands himself in trouble with a gang of forgers, the FBI and the girl’s creepy stalker.

The Call Sheet : Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale, David Landau, George Rosener, Frank McHugh

Behind the Camera : Directed by Alfred E. Green, Cinematography by Sol Polito, Art direction by Jack Okey.

Snapshot Thoughts : Union Depot is a typical Warner Brothers slice of Depression life, and as such exudes the usual streetwise attitude and grimy atmosphere. Pretty much everything that makes pre code films so enjoyable are present in some form, but more importantly the movie treats its audience as adults, being open and frank about the realities of life in the big city in 1932. This results in a film with a typically cynical, world weary viewpoint. Our hero, Chic (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a vagrant who steals clothes to pass himself off as someone else, continually lies, has no problem using stolen money and has a less than savoury attitude towards women. All this is treated as an acceptable by product of the environment. Along the way we meet a variety of Depression era stock characters in the titular Union Depot, each given a short vignette that hints at their own inner dramas and conflicts. Some of the more interesting are a grubby pan handler who only wants dollars and no less, a prostitute with money tucked into her stockings, a woman on her way to Reno for a divorce, a girl in tears as she presumably leaves to get an abortion, and a degenerate stalker (complete with black glasses and limp) with a penchant for having dirty books read to him. The list just goes on and on. There is so much detail in the film that it requires multiple viewings to take in every little moment. When this is combined with a tightly plotted storyline driven by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s curiously compelling character it all adds up to an evocative and textured movie experience. In many ways the main plot serves only as window dressing to the real story, the everyday struggles of ordinary, sometimes unsavoury people trying to make a living during the height of the Depression, and all passing through the crossroads of the Union Depot. The end result is never less than entertaining.

Star Performances : Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is definitely the star of the picture, and gives a confident, swaggering performance as hobo turned gentleman Chic Miller. He is at times unrecognisable from his matinee idol image; skinny, wiry, unshaven, sans moustache, constantly chewing gum and with an impassive grin, he is both charming yet deeply unlikeable. His years on the road and being in and out of prison have given Chic the rough edge of a survivor . A testament to Fairbanks' skill with the character is his reaction to Ruth (Joan Blondell) not being the good time girl he was expecting. He shockingly slaps her then berates for not putting out and thus making a fool of him. Yet within minutes, upon hearing Ruth’s sob story he agrees to help her, he smiles and all is forgiven. By the end of the movie, with everything resolved and goodbyes being said, Chic reaches the point where we almost like and admire him (Ruth has certainly fallen for him), though still with a lingering uneasiness that he is being less than sincere. That he manages this feat really shows Fairbanks' natural charisma and ease in front of the camera. Although perhaps better known as an actor from his late 30s films onwards, Fairbanks here proves to be an underrated pre code anti hero. The rest of the cast is the usual line up of stellar character actors including an excellent turn from Guy Kibbee as Chic’s eternally grinning best friend, a chilling George Rosener as the depraved stalker, a small but effective cameo from Frank McHugh as a drunk and the usual blink and you’ll miss them walk ons from the likes of Charles Lane, Irving Bacon and Dorothy Christy.

Technical Excellences: If it's the various minor characters given fleeting appearances that really gives the film its flavour, this is bolstered no end by the stunning cinematography of Sol Polito. Polito was Warner Brothers/First National go to cinematographer during this period and as such really outlined the look and mood of the studio in the pre code era. His work on I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang defined the darkness and cynicism of the era and more of his great work can be seen in films such as Three on a Match, Five Star Final, The Mind Reader and Picture Snatcher to name but a few. Union Depot is no different and in fact probably contains some of his finest work. This is seen particularly in the open scene where the camera enters the station, and floats up and down, focusing on the various people in the depot and their lives and dramas. The camera moves in a fluid, dreamlike way, eavesdropping on each scene then leaving just as it gets intriguing. The shot lasts a couple of minutes and must have been extraordinarily complicated for Polito and director Alfred E. Green to set up but the end result is one seamlessly edited, photographed and directed extended shot of pure cinema. Alfred E. Green deserves some credit too, despite being generally regarded as a journeyman studio director he manages to make the complexity of Union Depot’s busy plot and multiple characters flow very smoothly with a brisk pace. Mention also needs to be made of the location and set work. The depot itself really is the real star of the movie, from the impressively large station to the darkened train tracks shrouded in gloom. Apparently all the locations were massive sets constructed on the Warner lot, and in which case my hat is off to the designer as they look astounding. On a final technical note, the decision to do without a musical score for the movie is a stroke of genius. Instead of incidental music the soundtrack is populated by the noises of people in the station combined with the ever present clanging of the train bells and shunting and hissing of the steam engines, giving the film an almost otherworldly feeling. In an era where sound was used predominantly to record endless dialogue, Union Depot puts its Vitaphone capabilities to creative use.

The Sublime: The opening scene just has to be watched, it is a thing of beauty. As I mentioned, the choreography and direction must have been extremely complicated but it flows stunningly well. As the film starts with the Union Depot sign and the sound of a funereal clock chiming the camera starts its journey and we see glimpses of other people's lives: a newspaper seller, a drunk, a man selling wooden duck toys, a brass band, all combined with the rumble of the streets in the background. As we step into the station the camera lifts into the sky and proceeds to swoop down to eavesdrop on a variety of everyday situations played out by the commuters. The snippets of dialogue here are sparkling with earthy wit. A haughty society lady asks at a news stand “Haven’t you a ‘Town and Country’?” to which the man behind the counter replies in a thick accent, “I did, only they took it away from us three thousand years ago”. A sailor propositions a flapper with “C’mon sweetheart, I ain’t like most sailors” to which the girl snaps back, “Then I ain’t interested!”. A starlet on her way to Hollywood clutching a small dog is asked to show some leg by a reporter. She is reluctant but shows an ankle until he says “Think of your public!” and she hoists it up to thigh height! There are so many little moments like this that are beautifully observed that one wonders what Lubitsch or Cukor could’ve done with the material. However, if the movie had their sort of polish, so much of its grimy charm would be lost. As it is, the opening shot of Union Depot deserves to be remembered as one of the cinematic highlights of the pre code era, as it encapsulates everything both socially and cinematically that makes early sound films so evocative and thrilling.

The Ridiculous: Though the movie is generally very entertaining there are a few scenes and details that let it down somewhat. Most perplexing is the scene where Chic mistakes Ruth for a prostitute at the station and offers to "work out a scheme" to pay for her train ticket. Whether Ruth is aware of his intentions is left ambiguous though she does mention that she desperately needs the money and agrees to go to a hotel room with Chic. When they get to the seedy hotel room Chic puts on the mood music but once Ruth realises exactly what sort of arrangement she is part of and starts crying, Chic flies into a rage and slaps her. The scene is well acted in itself but it displays a troubling attitude to women on the part of our hero. He has nothing but contempt for prostitutes, yet seemingly has no problems with using them. Furthermore, when a woman refuses to go along with the ‘scheme’ he loses his temper and complains about how they have made a sucker of him. However, the minute he finds out that Ruth is actually fairly virtuous (though she’s ‘no Pollyanna’), his demeanour changes entirely and he becomes the epitome of charm and ready to help. It’s a worrying attitude, particularly for the behaviour of a supposed hero (or even anti hero), but doubtless one that was (and still is) not uncommon amongst men. This doesn’t exactly qualify as a ‘ridiculous’ moment but it’s one that leaves about as sour a taste as anything I’ve seen in a pre code movie.

Another problem with the movie is its use of Joan Blondell. By 1932 she had graduated to starring roles and had a string of memorable parts behind her, yet here she’s an afterthought. I’m unclear when this was filmed in relation to her other movies of the time but there are moments when her acting is quite stilted and unsure, and lacks the pep of her usual appearances. Even worse, as the movie draws to a close and the mystery is being untangled, she is so incidental to the plot that she spends the last reel either sitting or standing around in silence, with cuts to occasional close ups where she attempts to convey a mix of fear, disappointment or bewilderment with mixed results. In fact for one moment it looks like she has fallen asleep waiting for her next line. So between being slapped about and ignored, Union Depot is not her finest hour. Luckily the movie gives us the gift of Alan Hale to lighten the tone and his truly preposterous German accent, complete with heavy rolling 'r's ("put this young rrrascal behind bars!"). Combined with the fact that it’s difficult to see Alan Hale as anything other than the genial sidekick, he’s the least convincing villain you are likely to find. Sadly, that's not the original intention.

Is it worth watching? Definitely. Aside from the opening shot (have I mentioned that the opening shot is amazing and that you need to see it?), the whole movie just bursts with Warner Brothers' unique brand of pre code ’social realism’. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. does play a troublingly unlikeable character but nonetheless brings rugged charm to the role. Sadly Joan Blondell is completely wasted but at least she is there and though slightly muted, is never less that lovely. However, at the end of the day, the real star is the Union Depot itself, and its ever present soundtrack of bellowing porters and clanging bells. That the film begins and ends with the Union Depot sign emphasises the importance of the location as the only real constant in the movie. Everyone else is just passing through.

Random Quote: "I can't stand a dame who plays me for a sucker. Why only a couple of minutes ago I walked out on a little tramp. The minute I saw you I knew it was a conquest"