27/02/2010

International House (1933)


"Hey, what kind of a hotel is this? Quarantine! Foreigners! Scratchy fountain pens!"

I've alluded to the great W.C. Fields a few times before on these pages but never featured one of his films - a gross oversight on my part in dire need of correction. The man is without question my all-time favourite comedian and the fact that he's no longer popular (and apparently in danger of being forgotten altogether, if my generation is anything to go by) sums up everything that's wrong with this rusty slop bucket of a universe, although Fields himself wouldn't be in the least bit surprised at the cards he's been dealt.

W.C. was born William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia, 1879, growing up in grim poverty before running away from home, sleeping rough and eventually finding work as an ice man. At 14, and after five years of solid practice, he got his first job as a juggler at the Plymouth Park amusement arcade in Norristown, Pennsylvannia, before moving on to Fortescue's Pier in Atlantic City, where he juggled and "drowned" in the ocean every afternoon before being rescued by lifeguards - a ploy the management thought might help draw a crowd. Fields kept on moving, washing elephants in a New Jersey circus before entering vaudeville in New York and touring Europe at 21. Here he played a royal command performance at Buckingham Palace alongside the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and appeared at the Folies Bergère in Paris on the same bill as Charlie Chaplin and Maurice Chevalier. Continuing to tread the boards back in the US for many years after, Fields finally got his big break at the age of 36 in the Ziegfeld Follies Of 1915, the same year he was invited to try out his carefully cultivated stage persona on screen for the first time in the silent short Pool Sharks (1915). A nine year movie hiatus followed - during which he continued to work for Florenz Ziegfeld and starred in Dorothy Donnelly's comic play Poppy at New York's Apollo Theatre - which only ended when Fields was invited to appear alongside Marion Davies in Janice Meredith (1924). Next, D.W. Griffith's employed him for a brace of films in 1925, That Royale Girl and Sally Of The Sawdust (Poppy retitled), which allowed Fields to further develop his pompous con-man act. His alternate everyman persona in turn was fleshed out in 1926 when he made It's The Old Army Game with Louise Brooks. By the time the talkies came around, Fields had established himself as a reliable turn at Paramount where he had a run of trademark outings including It's A Gift (1934), The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935) before decamping for greater freedom at Universal and excelling in The Bank Dick (1940) and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941).


In many of his films, Fields played a scowling, cantankerous windbag under siege on several fronts - henpecked by a vicious mother-in-law, a strident spouse with social pretensions and sniping children in his own home, scorned by "respectable" society out on the street - his only consolations a doting teenage daughter and a regular nip of "red milk". His stock character (usually labouring under an unwieldy name like Egbert Souse, Larson E. Whipsnade or Cuthbert J. Twillie) affected courtly manners in company, telling verbose, fanciful anecdotes to anyone who would listen but otherwise spent his days sucking down roach killer in a saloon or back room somewhere, dreaming up wild get-rich-quick schemes to escape the monotonous drudge of provincial small-town America, epitomised by sleepy Lompoc in The Bank Dick. The old fraud collected unusual place names and esoteric, antiquated words to roll around in his trademark orotund drawl and knew how to accentuate his portly physique with outlandish period costumes. Tight waistcoats, stained spats and straw boaters with the crown torn through were particular specialities. For a middle-aged man with a formidable gut, Fields was an extraordinarily graceful performer who could turn the clumsiest of pratfalls into a balletic tumble or roll of no little elegance. Harmless, everyday inanimate objects presented him with a world of material, an inexhaustible obstacle course of things to trip over, climb up, fall into, misplace or ruin. "Let him try to play golf, and sticky paper promptly wound itself around his club. A snooze on the back porch was turned into a nightmare by the milkman, the telephone, an insurance salesman, and the brat upstairs," as Arthur Knight put it.


As good a physical comedian as he was, Fields also had a complex, fully-formed moral outlook with which to underscore his often very poignant or even sad characters (1934's You're Telling Me! is a prime example). Inspired by English literature's great comic novelists Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens (it's no accident that he found critical acclaim playing Wilkins Micawber for MGM), Fields distrusted his fellow man, regarding him as inherently preposterous, riddled with hypocrisies and labouring under absurdly out-of-whack priorities. Though he famously hated children and dogs, Fields nevertheless harboured huge sympathy and understanding for the young and less fortunate. His satire was always reserved for the greedy, arrogant and sanctimonious. "A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money," he once observed, while André Sennwald wrote of him in the New York Times in 1935, "Mr Fields is a great comedian because he traffics in high and cosmic matters relating to man's eternal helplessness, frustration and defeat." A lush he may have been, but a lush with a great deal of hard wisdom beneath all that huckstering, braggadocio and bluster.


International House, directed by A. Edward Sutherland for Paramount, is not a typical Fields outing but it's still quite a romp. The plot involves a bizarre cavalcade of wealthy investors descending on the titular hotel in "Wu-Hu", China, in order to bid for the rights to a revolutionary new invention, Dr Wong's "radioscope" (a sort of primitive early television that can magically pick up any scene live from anywhere without the need for broadcast stations). Fields crashes the party as steamed clam Professor Henry R. Quayle, landing on the roof in his autogyro after mistaking the Far East for Kansas City (he would later make a similar entrance in his last Paramount appearance, The Big Broadcast Of 1938, another eccentric ensemble, this time crashing down on an ocean liner from a flying scooter). The weirdo cast here includes Bela Lugosi as a temperamental Russian general, Franklin Pangborn as the stressed hotel manager, Stuart Erwin, Sterling Holloway, socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce and George Burns and Gracie Allen (who would be teamed with Fields again in Leo McCarey's Six Of A Kind the following year). W.C. terrorises the front desk, drives a compact car around the corridors as if he owns the place and orders "a bird's nest and a couple of hundred-year-old eggs boiled in perfume" from room service. Fields was often paired with other acts, with decidedly mixed results (see You Can't Cheat An Honest Man, 1939, featuring the chronically unfunny ventriloquist duo Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy from radio's Chase & Sanborn Hour). However, the portmanteu set-up works well here and suits what is essentially one long variety performance. There's splendid, pre-Code risqué humour throughout International House and a great Busby Berkeley parody, 'She Was A China Tea Cup (And He Was Just a Mug)' by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, put on to entertain the guests and duly followed by Fields' calamitous entrance.

A number of other weird and wonderful moments occur in connection with Dr Wong's (Edmund Breese) attempts to demonstrate his machine. He's hoping to catch the Six Day Bicycle Race but instead finds himself watching wacko inventors Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd ("Stoopnocracy is peachy" anyone?) before flicking through a collection of musical acts who together might have comprised the thirties equivalent of MTV. Rudy Vallee croons in his pyjamas, surreally serenading a megaphone tucked up in bed. Child star Baby Rose Marie torches the place up, dancing on a piano and emoting in a style that may well feel queasy to modern tastes, while dapper Harlem bandleader Cab Calloway throws himself around with panache, instructing his boy Al Morgan to slap the stringbass "slightly, lightly and politely." Vallee wasn't too pleased with the idea of being insulted from beyond the screen but it's an excellent gag and Calloway's joyous 'Reefer Man' is a classic example of the jazz drug song.



Amazingly, a small earthquake struck the set of International House during shooting in California and Fields leapt at the opportunity to fake some footage of a chandelier rocking back and forth in order to ensure the film received maximum advanced publicity through the news reels. That's the sort of man we're dealing with here. Way, way ahead of his time and long overdue a revival.
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Rudy Vallee - Thank Heaven For You.mp3

19/02/2010

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)


"Never apologise. It's a sign of weakness."
- Nathan Brittles

Following General Custer's Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, US army captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is ordered to escort two women away from Fort Starke, Arizona, and out of the territory for their own protection as Cheyenne and Arapho braves close in. This is supposed to be Brittles' final patrol before his retirement but the career military man is more than a little reluctant to exchange his uniform for civies and a pensioner's silver watch.


The second of John Ford's cavalry trilogy, bookended by Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon finds Big Duke Wayne on splendid form, playing a full generation older than he really was. The drawling action man is often very funny, as when he embarrasses an upstart young lieutenant into going on a picnic by himself. Wayne's friendship with the even more grizzled and perpetually sauced professional Irishman Victor McLaglen is also touching. McLaglen obviously had huge fun with the raucous fight scene that erupts when he refuses to come along quietly, resisting arrest between drinks.

As always with Ford, there's a wealth of beautifully observed long shots of Monument Valley, courtesy of Oscar-winning colour cinematographer and former lab technician Winton Hoch (whose fine work is perhaps not best served by my choice of black-and-white stills). Despite feuding bitterly with his director during the shoot on location at a Navajo reservation, Hoch does wonders with the towering buttes and canyons of northern Arizona, sometimes achieving an almost impressionistic flourish akin to the smoky, romantic landscapes of J.M.W. Turner (the daring midnight raid that brings the film to its conclusion is one example). However, Ford and Hoch's inspiration was an artist much closer to home, the Western painter and sculptor Frederic Remington.


She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is very much in the spirit of Remington's work, national myth-making on an epic canvas. Ford's film stands today as an uncomplicated historical tribute to the boys in blue and gold who tamed a savage wilderness to make it safe for settlers and democracy as we know it. But while Captain Brittles and Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) may be respectful towards the Native Americans throughout, the Injuns remain very definitely the enemy. The US government's right to take up residence on their land is never questioned by Ford or screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, a New York Times critic turned scribe also responsible for The Searchers (1956), a Ford-Wayne collaboration far more critical of white attitudes towards America's indigenous people. Politics aside, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is a much better film than I remembered it to be, humorous, striking and with an unmistakable undertone of elegaic melancholy for the passing of a vibrant age of heroic masculinity. Lest we forget.

11/02/2010

Un Chien Andalou (1929)



What is Un Chien Andalou about anyway? Is it a serious attempt to capture and visually articulate dream logic? An allegorical mood piece about a man's sexual desire frustrated by systematic authoritarian intervention? A parody of conventional Hollywood narrative? Nothing more than the juxtaposition of a series of arresting, entertaining but ultimately meaningless vignettes? A step-by-step, how-to guide in engineering controversy for budding surrealists? Or is it, in fact, a long misunderstood public information film about the the importance of paying attention when shaving and always washing your hands after picnics?

Naturally, I don't have the answer. A veritable horde of bearded academics, intellectuals, philosophers, art historians, film buffs and fishmongers have spent a good portion of the last century agonising over the meaning of this bizarre little reel and still no one seems any the wiser. The teasing clues - stigmata, pubic hair - ultimately lead nowhere. In the end, it hardly matters. What is certain though is that this 16 minute short, based on the dreams of two Spanish chancers named Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, remains entirely unforgettable and an explosive bid to redefine the very idea of committing images to celluloid. You simply can't get the eyeball slicing scene or the ant-covered hand out of your head once you've seen them and some film-makers, like David Lynch, have never wanted to. Buñuel was perhaps attempting to throw some light on the matter when he wrote a short "Statement" for Film Culture magazine in 1960:

"The screen is a dangerous and wonderful instrument, if a free spirit uses it. It is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams, emotions and instinct. The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious, so profoundly is it rooted in poetry. Nevertheless, it almost never pursues these ends."

Buñuel and Dalí were to reunite in 1930 for a further feature-length sound film, L'Age D'Or, before the former went on to true cinematic greatness with unnerving, symbolic works like Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Diary Of A Chambermaid (1964). Dalí's only other major contribution to the silver screen was another famous dream sequence, this time experienced by Gregory Peck in the middle of Alfred Hitchcock's Freudian thriller Spellbound (1940). Otherwise the man apparently dwindled away the rest of his career in quiet obscurity, sadly preoccupied with melting clocks, lobster telephones and other such nonsense. I can't imagine any of it ever caught on...

It's Buñuel, incidentally, holding the razor while Dalí appears as one of the confused priests being dragged along. Buñuel apparently filled his pockets with stones before the Paris premiere of Un Chien Andalou in order to pelt any members of the audience who had the temerity to boo. Anyway, without further ado, pray dim the lights and draw the curtains for Un Chien Andalou, the first film to be broadcast in its entirety on Faded Video, courtesy of those bed-wetters and oddballs at Google who make such wonders possible.



Weird, eh? Also for your further sensory delight, check out this classic Pixies track in which a screeching Frank Black references the film and declares himself to be an Andalusian dog. OK Frank, whatever you say...

Pixies - Debaser.mp3

02/02/2010

Klondike Annie (1936)


A curiosity but, ultimately, a wasted opportunity. Klondike Annie is a toothless, innuendo-free Mae West vehicle in which our heroine assumes the identity of a late Salvation Army sister aboard a ship to Alaska and finds herself preaching atonement to the hookers, sailors and gold rush prospectors of the frozen north. Yes folks, you read that right: Mae gets religion.

This one must have sounded clever when it was first pitched but the end result is a Sister Act (1992) for the thirties - unfunny, nonsensical and utterly compromised by the homespun Midwestern morals then being enforced on the motion pictury industry by "good taste" czar Will Hays. Surely not even the jug-eared former Postmaster General can have believed Mae's conversion would mean anything to audiences and what was a bad idea to start with ends up utterly bogus in execution. Two scenes given the red pencil treatment included an early one in which Mae murders her cruel Chinese master Chan Lo (Harold Huber) to escape his clutches and an even more macabre one in which she paints the face of the dead woman on board ship to resemble her before switching identities, a plot point that West biographer Charlotte Chandler noticed alligns the film with Michaelangelo Antonioni's preposterously pretentious existential road movie The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson.

As for the finished Klondike Annie, well, quite what Raoul Walsh was up to behind the megaphone is anyone's guess, he being the action man responsible for The Thief Of Bagdad (1924), High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949). One upside is ugly Irish beefcake Victor McLaglen, who proves good value as a horny ship's captain in love with West. "You ain't no oil painting but you're a fascinatin' monster", she tells him. Mae later admitted to Chandler that the reason McLaglen got the gig was "because I'd been eating too much... He was not only tall, but big and bulky, so he was great for the part of Bull Brackett and he made me look petite." Here's another redeeming feature, a scene that finds Mae's Frisco Doll strumming the blues in fine style.


One extraordinarily unlikely fan of West's was British novelist Graham Greene, who was sent along to review the film upon its release by the Conservative political magazine The Spectator. "One cannot but pay tribute to a personality so outrageously suggestive to the middle-aged. I am completely uncritical of Mae West: I enjoy every one of her films... It is with sorrow, therefore, that I have read unfavourable notices of her latest picture", Greene wrote, before going on to defend the film's satirical sense of fun and praise McLaglen's "dumb dog" performance.