30/04/2010

The Bad & The Beautiful (1952)

Vincente Minnelli's The Bad & the Beautiful for MGM is a sharp little Hollywood melodrama about the ascent of ambitious producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) from B-movie chancer to Selznick-shaped big shot.



As revealing as Robert Altman's The Player (1992) about the seamy underbelly of studio life - the casting couches, the press agents, the money grubbing - The Bad & the Beautiful is a fairly predictable rise-and-fall job enlivened by some masterful supporting turns. Lana Turner is inspired as the lush bit-part actress hung up on her late father who becomes a star and excels in the frightening suicide drive sequence where she skids along the highway, heartbroken, as the rain thrashes down all around her in idiot sympathy with her tears. Dick Powell is also very droll as a Faulkneresque author reeled in to write the screenplay for an adaptation of his new best-seller and doomed to lose his Southern Belle wife (a charming Gloria Grahame) in tragic circumstances. Powell, a former crooner who made a swell Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944), repeats his smart-aleck schtick here. Also good value are Barry Sullivan as Fred Ameil, Shields' jilted director, Walter Pidgeon as cheapskate mogul Harry Pebble, Elaine Stewart as a bitchy starlet and Sammy White as Turner's sentimental agent Gus. Ultimately though the picture belongs to Douglas, who is on barnstorming form as the man everyone comes to hate. There's a fun scene in the costume department where he and Sullivan have to work out how best to handle a wretched looking, zero budget feline horror quickie - a nice spoof of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942).

The Bad & the Beautiful picked up six Academy Awards in the same year as Singin' in the Rain but only Turner triumphed among the cast. Perhaps things were all a little too close to home for the big beasts behind the scenes. Minnelli directed a sort-of sequel, Two Weeks in Another Town, to less acclaim in 1962.

20/04/2010

How To Murder Your Wife (1965)


T-T with Lemmon? "I say, good show sir! Absolutely bang on!"

Actually, this silly Sixties comedy is badly dated by its sexual politics, George Axelrod's script appearing to argue, however ironically, for a world without women and propose that the ideal relationship, rather than marriage, is a platonic one between a bachelor and his Man Friday, as only a chap can really understand another chap's priorities. While the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas is indeed a delight, that's surely taking things a touch too far.

As in the playwright and radio scribe's earlier script for The Seven Year Itch (1955), all husbands here are controlled, conditioned and henpecked by wives who overfeed and emotionally manipulate them in order to secure their own comfortable existence at hubby's expense. It's the film's climax that really shocks though, with Lemmon's Stanley Ford mounting an extraordinary "button" defence at his trial for the titular crime (which hasn't actually been carried out) in which he envisages a glorious homosocial utopia entirely free from the meddling influence of Lady Eve, where a man would be able to stay out at his club as late as he likes and then get up at noon the next day to find the coffee ready and waiting courtesy of his loving valet. Heard by a rapt all-male jury, this chauvinist fantasy is greeted with cheers and handshakes all round and Ford is promptly acquitted, despite having pleaded guilty (!), on grounds of "justifiable homicide". The lad then returns home to his lavish pad triumphant, only to find the Italian sex bomb he married accidentally and erroneously confessed to having bumped off waiting for him in bed with open arms, into which he duly dives. So perhaps women do have something to offer after all.

In the interests of appearing not entirely humourless, I'd venture to suggest that it's best to treat all this as a satire of hypocritical misogyny rather than an exercise in it, but the overriding unpleasantness of the theme does rather irredeemably foul the air. Whatever Axelrod's intention, there are still titanic levels of period sexism on show (apparently it's definitely fine to slip "goofballs" into a girl's Martini).


This historical curiosity does have its moments, however, and Lemmon and Thomas do make for an endearing couple, it has to be said. Lemmon's syndicated comic strip hero Bash Brannigan (above) is a neat device and provides for a nicely surreal opening. There's sound support too from Eddie Mayehoff and Claire Trevor as case study couple Harold and Edna Lampson and from Virna Lisi as the wedge between this Manhattan Jeeves and Wooster. Part Debbie Harry, part Michelle Pfeiffer, Lisi is simply electric whenever she's on screen and dances the hell out of an elderly judge under the influence. Also worthy of note is composer Neal Hefti whose light, jazzy score sets the tone well. Hefti is best known for his memorable title theme to the contemporaneous Batman TV series (1966-68) but he also scored The Odd Couple (1968) for Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Director Richard Quine does a decent enough job but the bitterness of Axelrod, who also wrote Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and adapted Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's for Blake Edwards in 1961, sours the whole venture. One suspects that, rather like Stanley Ford, the writer was using his fiction as a creative outlet from his own domestic frustrations.

18/04/2010

The Naked Truth (1957)


Not a porno - I'm afraid - but rather another Terry-Thomas vehicle of excellent vintage. This time our man stars as Lord Henry Mayley, one of several celebrity victims being targeted by smooth tabloid blackmailer Nigel Dennis (Dennis Price). The villain is planning to launch a new scandal sheet entitled The Naked Truth that will feature outrageous stories about an anonymous person on one page with a flattering and apparently unrelated biography of the guilty party on the opposite, thereby heavily implying that the outrage concerns the named grandee without actually saying so and thus neatly circumventing libel laws. A clever ruse by Dennis, the Star editor who hides out in a rickety barge on the Thames, but he hasn't counted on his prey, including Mayley, novelist Flora Ransom (Peggy Mount), model Melissa Right (Shirley Eaton) and camp "Scottish" TV personality Sonny MacGregor (Peter Sellers), joining forces to thwart him...

Released in America as Your Past Is Showing, this is a decent caper somewhat let-down by the irritating Goon Show mugging and lame accents of a hyperactive Sellers in his familiar "master of disguise" mode. Everyone else involved successfully settles on one comic persona but Sellers tries out a whole boxful without coming close to raising a laugh, inadvertently outing himself as a performer too clever for his own good in the process (I'm afraid I simply have no patience with the man). The original trailer tried to use this as a selling point but the naked truth is that Sellers* is consistently out-classed in every scene he appears in with Thomas, Price or Mount. Director Mario Zampi and scriptwriter Michael Pertwee, who had previously combined for 1951's very uneven inheritance comedy Laughter In Paradise plus three others and would make the woeful Too Many Crooks together with Thomas two years later, soon let things get out of hand with some farcical business involving a body in a trunk, a jail break and a blimp escape over the Atlantic. However, Dennis's plot is a cunning one (Sid James once tried something similar on Hancock's Half Hour with a rag of his own called Blabber Mouth) and there's plenty to enjoy, not least some excellent comic turns from Joan Sims, Miles Malleson and particularly Georgina Cookson as Thomas's wry wife.

Here's another nice bit from Kenneth Griffith (a character actor who went on to a career making political documentaries about the IRA and Northern Ireland), playing Sellers' exasperated valet and actually offering a rather pertinent critique of his co-star.


*To his credit, Sellers was nothing if not self-aware and spoke interestingly about his preoccupation with mimicry and impersonation in 1980: “As far as I’m aware, I’m nothing. I have no personality of my own whatsoever. I have no character to offer the public. I have nothing to project... When I look at myself I see a person who strangely lacks what I consider the ingredients for a personality. I can see personality in other people but I can’t see any in myself. One feels that perhaps through playing so many characters one becomes a sort of nil on one’s own account.”

13/04/2010

School For Scoundrels (1960)


Don't play cards with Satan. Or tennis with Terry-Thomas. "Hard cheese, love fifteen!"

Ian Carmichael stars as Henry Palfrey, a nice guy sick of finishing last after being routinely patronised at work, duped into buying a clanking heap of an ex-colonial jalopy by two "Winsome Welshmen" and in danger of losing out on April (Janette Scott), the girl of his dreams, to fellow clubman and rotten bounder Raymond Delauney (Thomas). In a bid to reverse his fortunes, Palfrey enrolls at the Mephistophelean Dr Stephen Potter's (Alastair Sim) "School of Lifemanship" at Yeovil to learn how always to win the upper hand in any given situation without actually cheating...

This splendid British one-upmanship comedy was credited to Robert Hamer of Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) fame, although his last film as director was actually largely completed by the unacknowledged Cyril Frankel after Hamer sadly succumbed to the demon drink during shooting. Similarly, the screenplay, based on a series of spoof self-help books by the real Stephen Potter, is credited to brash American producer Hal E. Chester and Patricia Moyes but was in fact largely written by actor Peter Ustinov before being revised by the blacklisted US scriptwriter and exile Frank Tarloff at Chester's request (the producer an "infuriating" man to work with, according to Carmichael, though he did mortgage his Hampstead house just to ensure the film had sufficient funding). All participants though deserve the honours for School For Scoundrels, a very pleasing film indeed with an amazingly rich supporting cast that includes Dennis Price, Peter Jones, John Le Mesurier, Hugh Paddick, Irene Handl and Hattie Jacques in small cameos, many of whom had appeared together with Carmichael and Thomas in the Boulting Brothers' Private's Progress (1956), Brothers In Law (1957), Lucky Jim (1957) and I'm All Right Jack (1959) and all of whom hit their marks perfectly.


The late Carmichael makes a fine put-upon lead but certainly looks uncomfortable when required to exercise his newfound "woo-manship" skills on Scott, which is odd as they had already been successfully paired in Happy Is The Bride (1958) and would be again soon after in Double Bunk (1961). Nevertheless, we cheer Carmichael on in his triumphs over the "Swiftmobile" and in the rematch against Thomas. Naturally though, it's the latter who really steals the show - purring after Scott and losing his rag with Carmichael in fine style. As biographer Robert Ross said of T-T, "The curl of the lip, the quivering moustache and the gap-tooted sneer were the stuff of British post-war humour. The immediate post-war era itself was somehow encapsulated in the waistcoat-wearing, sports car-driving chancers whom Terry-Thomas perfected". But let's not forget the glorious Alastair Sim too, who had appeared with Carmichael before in the toothless political satire Left, Right & Centre (1959) and who finds himself fronting an unconventional school once again after his masterful drag turn as headmistress Millicent Fritton in The Belles Of St. Trinian's (1954) and Blue Murder At St. Trinian's (1957). His turning directly to camera to decry Carmichael's "sincerity" and bemoan the swirling orchestral score that accompanies the hero getting the girl is as hilarious an ending as it is surprising. Sim may not be the first to break the fourth wall to engage an audience but rarely has the effect been better done.

12/04/2010

The Quiet Man (1952)


"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade."
- W.B. Yeats, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (1892)

Oirish blarney of the first order. Only misty-eyed Americans could have made this sentimental valentine to the Old Country and thank goodness for us and the Republic's tourism industry that they did. Johns Ford and Wayne reunited once more with usual suspects Maureen O'Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond and Mildred Natwick for the romantic story of Pittsburgh boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne), who escapes to the idyllic Ireland of his childhood after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring. Buying a cottage in remote Innisfree, the "Yank" befriends the locals, becomes a regular at the pub and begins the tortuous Catholic courtship rituals necessary to ensnare fiery shepherdess Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara), much to the chagrin of her brother, local squire "Red" Will (McLaglen)...


Seemingly a big departure for Ford and Wayne, The Quiet Man actually follows a familiar Western structure - a mysterious stranger arrives in town (by train here, as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), falls in love and ends up reluctantly fighting a duel. Little surprise as the script is by Frank S. Nugent, the genre scribe who would go on to write The Searchers (1956). As usual there's plenty of lush cinematography on show from Winton Hoch, who captures a windswept and verdant Emerald Isle of trailing stone walls, brooding hillsides and babbling brooks. Every stereotypical national trope going is out in force (flat caps, cobblestones, chronic alcoholism played for laughs), not least in the person of Barry Fitzgerald's whimsical "match maker" Michaleen Og Flynn, a bowler-hatted leprechaun who spends his days driving oxen and humming 'The Wild Colonial Boy' with a pipe clamped between his teeth. Fitzgerald though (seated below) is an utter joy throughout and the scene in which he greets the sight of Wayne's smashed marital bed with an awe-struck cry of, "Impetuous! Homeric!", is a scream.


Ford's film was a real family affair on set. Maureen O'Hara's two younger onscreen brothers are really her own, while John Wayne's four children feature in the horse racing scene at the beach. Francis Ford, the director's elder brother appears as the formidably bearded Dan Tobin (above, left), as does Fitzgerald's, Arthur Shields, playing the kindly Protestant Reverend Playfair. The chemistry between the leads stemmed from the great friendship between Wayne and O'Hara, this the second of their five films together, the others being Rio Grande (1948), The Wings Of Eagles (1957) McClintock! (1963) and Big Jake (1972).

There are any number of great moments in The Quiet Man. The wild, wordless kiss in the cottage stands out but it's the fist fight between Wayne and McLaglen under the Marquess of Queensbury rules that most people remember. A film generally thought of as a charming melodrama that presents a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of Yeats country, the tragedy that underscores Wayne's character is actually very affecting and crucial to The Quiet Man's appeal. You could do a lot worse than dig this one out next St Patrick's Day.

P.S. Well worth checking out if you like The Quiet Man is Geordie (1955), a hopelessly inept British variation from the Sidney Gilliat-Frank Launder stable based on a novel by David Walker. Attempting to do for Scotland what Ford's film did for Ireland, Geordie tells the story of a gamekeeper's son who grows up to be an Olympic champion hammer thrower. Absolutely asinine but also rather sweet, it stars Bill Travers and Alastair Sim.

06/04/2010

The Butcher Boy (1917)

Here's a little more Buster, Fatty and Al St John for your delectation. Two grocery store clerks fight for the affections of a pretty girl (Josephine Stevens), throw knives and flour around, pour molasses in one customer's hat, scald another with boiling water and then disguise themselves in drag to take the battle to Miss Teachem's School for Girls. That's basically it, bar the welcome return of Luke the Dog, a bull terrier who was one of the great unsung talents of the silent era. This was Buster's first appearance on screen after an early career in vaudeville performing with his parents as the Three Keatons (an act that played domestic violence for laughs in which the child Buster was billed as "the Living Mop" and claimed to be an adult midget to get around pesky child-labour laws) and he nailed his opening scene in one take. Step right up and watch it here folks.

04/04/2010

Busy Bodies (1933)


It's amazing how often you can watch the same two people doing the same thing over and over again. No matter how many times you see Fred and Ginger overcome their various misunderstandings, complications and entanglements to fall in love and throw themselves around a big white set, they never lose the zing. Similarly, no matter what ludicrous scrapes Laurel and Hardy find themselves in they always make it worth your while. Their partnership too is a kind of co-dependent love affair - the perpetually exasperated Ollie daring to hope that this time things will be different and the frowning, childlike Stan rely on each other to get by in a hard world - as well as a tribute to the joys of ineptitude and unshakeable optimism against all evidence to the contrary.



Along with the likes of the French Foreign Legion-set Beau Hunks (1931) and The Music Box (1932), in which the hapless buffoons find themselves charged with shifting a piano up a steep L.A. stoop, Busy Bodies is one of their best-ever Hal Roach sound shorts. Benefitting from the simplicity of its set-up - the boys doing a day's work at a sawmill - there's plenty of expert pratfalls and a death-defying ending that anticipates Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) and still makes audiences gasp. Two chumps falling over, breaking things and slapping each other with saws will always be funny, the paint brush bristle shaving scene is masterful and you've got to love the fact that their car stereo is a fully-functioning gramophone hooked up to the dashboard.

03/04/2010

Shall We Dance? (1937)

I wish life was actually like this. Fred and Ginger tap dancing in roller skates on a rink in Central Park to the Gershwins' 'Let's Call The Whole Thing Off'. What else do you need?


Having said that, this effortless-looking scene in fact took 34 hours of rehearsal, four days of shooting and 150 takes. Who needs that much hassle every day?

Whatever you think about musicals, the Astaire-Rogers films for RKO are perfect entertainments, their pairing a seminal moment in American art. Budd Schulberg called Astaire "the classless aristocrat", a Depression dandy who showed ordinary shlubs that "aristocracy, talent, style" were not in the blood or exclusive to Europeans but freely available to all - a nice summation of his appeal. Not only were he and Ginger wonderful dancers, they were also fine comedians and always had splendid support from the likes of Edward Everett Horton and professional English butler actor Eric Blore, both of whom are on hysterical form here. Horton running around in a top hat and underwear during a harmless fire drill aboard an ocean liner is priceless, as is Blore's crazed phone call from the "Susquehannah Street Jail". Fred's ropey Bela Lugosi impression as "Russian" ballet star Petrov is also one of the many comic highlights of Shall We Dance?


OK, so the plot isn't one of their best (the gossip and confusion about their marital status could all have been resolved with one press conference) and Harriet Hoctor's ballerina-contortionist act is just creepy but it's still a blast from start to finish. I could honestly watch Fred and Ginger doing their thing from now until the end of time without getting bored. Fred's biographer Peter J. Levinson, author of Puttin' On The Ritz (2009), is right though when he says of Shall We Dance? that, "Puritanism pervades the entire script," the result of Joe Breen's meddling over at the Production Code offices. The censor finally demanded no less than 19 changes to Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano's original screenplay, then called Watch Your Step, feeling that any jokes whatsoever at the expense of marriage or pre-marital sex were too rich for his blood and contravened the sacred Hays Code.


One of the most inventive but problematic set pieces in Shall We Dance? is the musical number 'Slap That Bass', in which Fred throws himself around a spotless art deco engine room aboard the ship, mimicking the repetitive action of the pistons in Chaplinesque style while beaming black workers provide a rhythm section by banging away at the pipes and humming "Zoom zoom zoom." The New York Times dance critic John Rockwell addressed the issue of racism - in this scene and in the blackface, Bill Robinson-referencing 'Bojangles Of Harlem' sequence in Swing Time (1936) - very helpfully when he said:

"Even though it was kind of racist looking, in a way, by doing these numbers you could argue it was part of the process of opening up black culture to mainstream America. The point is that by having scenes like these maybe it's exactly the opposite of what [Astaire] wanted, but it was part of a process of destroying the very world he was epitomising or at least of transforming it."

Here's an interesting production still that captures the collaborative process in action. Standing from left to right, choreographer Hermes Pan, director Mark Sandrich (a trained physicist who had already made The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat with Astaire and would direct him again in Holiday Inn, 1942), Ira Gershwin and musical director Nat Shilkret. In the foreground, Astaire and Rogers are seated beside a grinning George Gershwin at the piano.