30/03/2010

Coney Island (1917)


These days, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is primarily remembered for the Virginia Rappe case that ruined his career. This is a bitter injustice because Arbuckle was a gifted comedian and director with a luminous screen presence and because he was acquitted of any wrong doing. Nevertheless, that sordid affair continues to tarnish his good name. It's perhaps worth recounting once more so that the many glaring holes in the case for the prosecution can again be exposed.

As the story goes, Rappe, an aspiring starlet of 26, died from peritonitis and a ruptured bladder after attending a drunken party hosted by Arbuckle at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on 5 September 1921. Rappe's decidedly suspect friend, Bambina Maude Delmont, told detectives investigating that the comedian had violently raped Virginia, causing her death. Arbuckle protested his innocence and insisted that his only time alone with the girl had been spent trying to revive her after she had passed out drunk. The suspicion that it was all a set up by Paramount head Adolph Zukor, in revenge for the overworked Roscoe's refusal to appear on a studio publicity tour, was glaring even then.

Arbuckle's arrest was immediately pounced upon by the powerful yellow press of the era, orchestrated by media baron William Randolph Hearst, who smeared the fat man with lurid insinuations that he had crushed her beneath his almighty bulk and violated her with a champagne bottle in frustration at his own impotence. The tabloids meanwhile painted Rappe as a virginal innocent, soiled and abused by a Hollywood playboy out of control and accustomed to Bacchanalian orgies and decadent Jazz Age living. She was anything but, of course, having slept around prodigiously and undergone a series of backstreet abortions for the sake of her career (leaving her with damaged reproductive organs) and who was suffering from chronic cystitis, which would only have been aggravated by the excessive amount of bootleg hooch she had consumed on the night in question. Hearst's press machine ensured that Arbuckle was persecuted by its Christian Right readership, who saw the clown as a symbol of Hollywood vice and made his life a misery, even tearing down movie screens in theatres where his films were being shown. The tycoon himself later admitted with a dark chuckle, "Fatty sold me more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania."

After three farcical trials for manslaughter, further complicated by some shaky testimonies from several witnesses for the prosecution (including Rappe's no-good boyfriend, director Henry Lehrman) and the temporary disappearance of a bell jar containing Rappe's internal organs following an autopsy, Arbuckle was eventually acquitted with a glowing endorsement from the foreman of the jury:

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him... The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success, and hope that the American people will take the judgement of 14 men and women who have sat listening for 31 days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

Despite his victory, Arbuckle's films were still banned by the Hays Office and he found himself blacklisted, a sacrificial lamb to the growing "Clean Up Hollywood" movement. Thereafter he was able to direct a handful of pictures under the pseudonym "William Goodrich" before dying of a heart attack in 1933, his final years spent in isolation, a divorced, alcoholic morphine addict still dreaming of a return to the limelight in spite of the ordeal he had suffered at the hands of a hostile press and public.

I realise I'm contributing to the perpetuation of the Rappe story here but the big butterball's case still needs to be heard so that his reputation can be restored. Author Jerry Stahl wrote a sympathetic novel about the sad life of Roscoe Arbuckle in 2005 entitled I, Fatty, which is well worth checking out.

Anyway, here's Roscoe as he deserves to be remembered, capering about at the beach in ladies' clothing with his old pal Buster Keaton, a two-reeler written and directed by the "Prince of Whales" himself. A decent comic outing and a useful historical document of Luna Park in its prime, an "Electric Eden" that opened in 1903 and used to attract 90,000 visitors a day before it burned down in 1944.

29/03/2010

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

Last night Paul Merton's Weird & Wonderful World Of Early Cinema was on BBC4 and provided a brilliant introduction to the silent era in Britain and France, from the Lumière Brothers' first demonstration of the moving image in Paris in 1895 to the rise of Hollywood after the Great War. Especially illuminating was the tragic story of early superstar Max Linder, who would shoot complete comedy shorts in a single day based on real incidents that happened to him (a kind of better-looking Larry David of the belle époque), and that of stage magician turned sci-fi auteur Georges Méliès.

Méliès was born in 1861, the son of a luxury shoe maker who shunned the family business to work as a conjurer at the Theatre Robert-Houdin in the French capital. After seeing the Lumières' camera in action, Méliès rushed out to establish his own studio and began making films that featured clever illusions and tricks created by experimenting with double exposure, cutting and rewinding. Using elaborate painted sets akin to those of the city's music halls, Méliès was a true pioneer who played a key role in the evolution of cinematic technique and the medium's storytelling grammar. He also had an acute sensitivity for the sort of blockbuster spectacle audiences would be attracted to. Specialising in horror and science fiction and inspired by late Victorian visionaries Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, his most famous film remains A Trip To The Moon (below), which starred acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère and the Châtelet ballet. As fantastic as this is, perhaps even more extraordinary is the later Tunneling The English Channel (1907), which predicted the advent of the Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel.

Sadly, after more than 500 films, Méliès' career collapsed with the onset of World War I. He went bankrupt and was forced to sell his back catalogue to Pathé in 1913. An early setback had come when Méliès planned to release A Trip To The Moon in America, only to find that Thomas Edison's representative Al Adabie had secretly copied a print of the film after bribing staff at a London cinema and had already released it in the US without permission - an early and particularly devastating case of film piracy on behalf of the revered inventor. Later reduced to running a toy stall at Montparnasse train station in Paris, Méliès became so embittered that he dug a hole in his garden, filled it with what remained of his priceless reels and memorabilia and torched the lot. However, he did live long enough to see his films reassessed and acclaimed and to receive the Légion d'Honneur before finally passing away in 1938.

Amazingly, a colour print of A Trip To The Moon was unearthed in a French barn in 2002 in which each frame had been meticulously handpainted by a large female work force a century earlier. The world greeted its restoration and re-release with the same excitement and anticipation of its premiere at a Paris fairground and the film continues to inspire affectionate parodies and homages in everything from Futurama (1999-) to The Mighty Boosh (2004-).

24/03/2010

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

When distinguished senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) steps off the train at Shinbone station with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), local reporters at the Star are astonished and clamour to find out the reason for his visit. Stoddard explains that he's in town for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), an old rancher friend from the wilderness years before the territory was granted statehood. Pressed further, Stoddard recounts the story of his arrival in Shinbone as an idealistic young graduate on the Overland Stage (recalling Stagecoach, 1939), his savage whipping at the hands of local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his attempts to establish the rule of law. Scorned by the conservative Doniphan, who insists that the only way men like Valance can be brought to justice is at gunpoint, Stoddard persists in his liberal efforts to civilise a town where the marshal (Andy Devine) is an ineffectual coward and both the doctor (Ken Murray) and newspaper editor (Edmond O'Brien) are incorrigible soaks. Stoddard sets up a legal practice and an informal schoolhouse while washing dishes at Peter's Place, a steak joint run by kindly Swedish immigrants (Jeanette Nolan and John Qualen). There he falls for head-strong waitress Hallie, whom Doniphon is also in love with. Soon Stoddard finds himself nominated as the territory's delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood, much to the chagrin of Valance who challenges him to a duel. To the surprise of everyone, Stoddard kills Valance despite his inexperience with a gun and distaste for violence. Hailed as a hero but wracked with guilt, Stoddard enters the world of politics, only to be confronted by Doniphon who reveals his own role in the shooting that made Stoddard's name.

A surprising film for John Ford to have made this late in his career, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson) was shot on the Paramount sound stages in drab black-and-white, rather than on location in Glorious Technicolor. The lack of colour might have helped hide Stewart and Wayne's wrinkles in the lengthy central flashback sequence and the decision to shoot on the lot might have saved a considerable portion of the budget but Liberty Valance nevertheless seems deliberately and determinedly old-fashioned. In the age of TV cowboy adventures, Anthony Mann's angsty, psychological horse operas and with Sergio Leone just around the corner, Ford turned in a consciously nostalgic, even "retro" picture (although such a modish, post-modern term would probably have made him spit). Perhaps most similar to My Darling Clementine (1946), Stewart's lawyer here is a more bookish, intellectual cousin to Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp, a man who, like Tom Doniphon, still believed the best way to clean up a rotten town was with a badge and a six shooter. Both film's also feature boozing quacks, although this is a less signifcant role here than Victor Mature's earlier Doc Holliday. Ford appears to be pointedly rejecting the contemporary psychodrama Western in Liberty Valance, stubbornly sticking with straightforward men-of-conviction and his usual themes of heroism, romantic melancholy and the passing of time. As the later Shinbone Star editor Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) says at the film's conclusion, "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has exceptional character actors in every part. Stewart does well with another role post-Vertigo (1958) that dares to question his familiar, morally upstanding persona (his professional reputation and marriage appear to be based on a lie) and Wayne has rarely been better than as Doniphon, a deeply sad man whose life is defined by his failure to adapt to changing times. There's no place for his brutal ways in the New West and as soon as Stoddard teaches Hallie to read, Doniphon loses her forever and is left behind. The subsequent scene in which he drunkenly burns down the ranch house he has been building for her, realising that all is lost, is downright heartbreaking. This was Wayne's last film with Ford, who apparently never left off bullying him on set, mocking his star's stalled football career and failure to serve in World War II by repeatedly asking him, "How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?" Nice.

Of the supporting cast, Woody Strode is also very moving as Doniphon's trusty right-hand man Pompey, a non-stereotypical black character who endures his segregation from Shinbone's saloons and election meetings with stoical dignity. O'Brien does well in the Thomas Mitchell part of sozzled journalist Dutton Peabody, Devine is very amusing as quivering glutton Link Appleyard and John Carradine almost steals it with his cameo as Major Cassius Starbuck, a very hammy orator indeed. Lee Marvin is, well, Lee Marvin, chewing the scenery and washing it down with deep-dish apple pie. The fact that one of his henchman is played by Lee Van Cleef from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) tells you how close all this was to the rock 'n' roll era of Clint Eastwood and the Spaghetti Westerns.

Here's Stewart and Wayne posing with the mean old bastard on set and, below, Gene Pitney's rollicking theme song, written for the film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David but never used.


Gene Pitney - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.mp3

23/03/2010

It Happened One Night (1934)


Two of the best-looking people in history bicker, squabble and fall in love on the road in Depression-era America. Frank Capra's It Happened One Night is very much the sort of work Will Hays was talking about when he paid tribute to the Hollywood Golden Age of the thirties by declaring:

"No medium has contributed more than the films to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolutions, riot and political turmoil in other countries... Historians of the future will not ignore the interesting and significant fact that the movies literally laughed the big bad wolf of depression out of the public."

It's all here: great chemistry, great support ("The name's Shapeley and that's the way I like 'em!") and plenty of laughs from a script by Capra and Robert Riskin. Perfection. Here's Clark Gable's know-it-all newspaperman being well and truly humiliated by high society runaway Claudette Colbert after waxing lyrical about the proper way to hitch-hike in a famous scene that would be parodied a million times, perhaps most memorably by Stan Laurel in Way Out West (1937).



P.S. According to legendary Looney Tunes director Fritz Freleng, Tex Avery and Robert McKimson got the idea for Bugs Bunny after watching Gable munch carrots in It Happened One Night. A case of one cultural icon spawning another. Also, you can hear a great radio dramatisation of the story from the Lux Radio Theater, in which Gable and Colbert plus Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns reprise their roles for a 1939 Cecil B. DeMille production.

20/03/2010

The Fatal Glass Of Beer (1933)

Here's Bill Fields again as Mr Snavely in a Mack Sennett-produced comedy short for Paramount - one of four excellent quickes they made together, the others being the rather naughty The Dentist (1932) plus The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933). The stagy delivery and crappy props here are deliberate as the film is intended to be a spoof of the "Yukon melodrama", apparently then popular with vaudeville audiences. Who even knew such a genre existed, let alone that it was well enough known for Fields to bother sending up? The Fatal Glass Of Beer is essentially a damn silly riff on the parable of the Prodigal Son and Fields' recurring line, "And it ain't a fit night out for man or beast!" seems to have passed into the language. Fields himself certainly gave it another airing in the ludicrous stage play his travelling repertory company puts on in The Old Fashioned Way (1934). Songwriters Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin also lifted it for the title of a 1936 piece recorded by Sidney Bechet. Sadly, the equally funny, "I think I'll go out and milk the elk", never inspired a hit record. The joke about using a small dachshund as part of dog sled team, its little legs too short to reach the ground, may have been borrowed from Buster Keaton's 1922 short The Frozen North, directed by Fields cohort Eddie Cline, but who's counting?


15/03/2010

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)


Frank Capra relaxing on the set of Mr Smith Goes To Washington with his stars Jean Arthur and James Stewart (check out those killer socks!). All too easily mocked these days as "Capra-corn" for its patriotic idealism, Mr Smith actually contains one of the most biting portraits of Washington's political elite ever filmed. Everyone bar Stewart's naive whistleblower and Harry Carey's kindly President of the Senate is compromised, corrupt, cynical or complacent, from Claude Rains' heartbreaking Joe Paine to Thomas Mitchell's soused hack. Hays Office censor Joseph I. Breen objected strongly to the source material, Lewis R. Foster's short treatment 'The Gentleman From Montana' (1937), and advised Columbia against using it, while the banker and film tycoon turned diplomat Joseph P. Kennedy wrote personally to Harry Cohn during production, warning that the project could damage America's prestige in Europe with war on the horizon. It's easy to see why both men were worried so hats off to screenwriter Sidney Buchman for causing them sleepless nights. Washington, however, would soon take its revenge on Buchman, a member of the Communist Party between 1938 and 1945, via the House Un-American Activities Committee, which handed him a suspended sentence and a hefty fine when he refused to name names. Buchman was blacklisted despite a close friendship with King Cohn but would finally return to his Hollywood desk in the early sixties.


Mr Smith's concerns about the corrosive influence and vested interests of lobbying machines like that of Edward Arnold's James Taylor are surely as relevant today as they were 71 years ago. Taylor's bullying, bribing, smear tactics and manipulation are certainly as much a part of everyday political mud-slinging in the 21st century as they were at the time. Perhaps party activists don't run boy scouts off the road any more but that's primarily because they've discovered subtler means of shushing dissent. While Jefferson Smith's quixotic tilt at the hearts and minds of wayward Capitol Hill fat cats might seem more than a touch fanciful to modern tastes, I find it impossible not to cheer him on all the same. Any work of art that dares hold an establishment Goliath to account and demands that it take a long, hard look at itself deserves applause. For me, Capra's films always provide a timely antidote to knee-jerk cynicism, the sort espoused by critic Elliot Stein in his article 'Capra Counts His Oscars' in a 1972 edition of Sight & Sound magazine, in which Stein accused the director of failing to make a significant film after 1935 and instead churning out "fantasies of good will, which at no point conflict with middle-class American status quo values... shrewdly commercial manipulative tracts... [comprised of] philistine-populist notions and greeting-card sentiments". Too heartless. Here we have a conservative filmmaker who unashamedly championed plucky individualism over corporate might, hypocrisy and repressive authoritarianism, which is surely something to be thankful for. And if Jean Arthur's convinced, that's good enough for me.

12/03/2010

The Red Shoes (1948)



Martin Scorsese frequently cites this post-war British ballet melodrama from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger amongst his favourite films and recently oversaw its restoration at the UCLA Film and Television Archive along with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who married Powell in 1984 after the pair were introduced by Scorsese). Having been taken to see The Red Shoes by his father when he was a child, Marty fondly recalls, "What really struck me, besides the provocation of the film, the intensity and the passion of the picture, was the fact that it has more to do with the need to create something... the burning need for art." The great director of Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) says he has returned to The Red Shoes again and again throughout his career: "It is a film I am consistently and obsessively drawn to... So many moments, so many conflicting emotions, such a swirl of colour and light and sound."

After a build up like that, I wish I felt the same. The Red Shoes is certainly very beautiful indeed. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff's work has been well served by the loving care of the restorers, who have brought out the best in his sumptuous, dreamy Technicolor palette. The Covent Garden, Monte Carlo and Paris sets are exquisitely vibrant with a shimmering, velvety feel to them and the central 17 minute 'Ballet Of The Red Shoes' is rich and strange enough to bring the film to life, with help from some stirring accompaniment by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. But beyond spectacle, The Red Shoes is disappointingly stagy, precious and overlong. Studio head J. Arthur Rank refused to give it a proper premiere when it first appeared and one doesn't have to be a complete philistine to appreciate his misgivings.

The film's failings are no reflection on the performers, however. Professional ballerina Moira Shearer is as engaging an actress as she is a dancer - those tears are real - while Anton Walbrook as Lermontov has the kind of urbane, casually cruel screen presence you just don't get with today's leading men. The famous ending, though - in which Shearer's heroine is so torn between her husband and her work, love and art, that she runs away in full costume and flings herself from a balcony into the path of an on-rushing train - is so hysterically overblown as to be more comic than tragic. Without wishing to trample on a much-cherished favourite here, I have to say it reminded me of Oscar Wilde's notorious put-down of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Originally a screenplay written by Alexander Korda for his future wife Merle Oberon, The Red Shoes combines a fictionalised account of the real-life encounter between Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev and his British protégée Diana Gould with the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairytale from 1845. In Andersen's story, a peasant girl, Karen, tricks her stepmother into buying her the (enchanted) red shoes only to end up doomed to dance herself to death as punishment for her vanity. Much gorier than the ballet performed in the film, the fairytale concludes with a desperate Karen visiting an executioner to have the shoes chopped off, only for her bloody, amputated feet to carry on dancing and bar her entrance to church. Lovely.

04/03/2010

Alice In Wonderland (1903)


To mark the release of Tim Burton's highly unnecessary new 3D version of Alice In Wonderland (2010), the BFI National Archive has restored the first ever filmed version of Lewis Carroll's much abused 1865 classic, directed by Percy Stow and Cecil Hepton 107 years ago. The film was long feared lost after Hepton went bankrupt in 1924, but an original print fortunately resurfaced in 1963 in a Hove cinema's neglected store room. Some scenes were damaged beyond repair but the surviving nine and a half minutes are excellent and well worth a trip down the rabbit hole to the BFI's website for some clever theatrical effects.

Some other notable screen adaptations of Alice include Norman Z. McLeod's 1933 version, featuring Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Baby LeRoy and Edward Everett Horton, and Walt Disney's justly celebrated animation from 1951. Stage director Jonathan Miller produced a famous black-and-white, animal-free version for the BBC in 1966 starring his fellow Beyond The Fringe alumni Peter Cook and Alan Bennett, as well as future knights of the realm Michael Redgrave and John Gielgud plus Peter Sellars, Wilfred Brambell, Michael Gough, Malcolm Muggeridge and young Python Eric Idle. Indian sitar king and friend of the Beatles Ravi Shankar wrote the score, giving Carroll's work a smart post-colonial twist. Another British version followed in 1972, this time a musical, with Ralph Richardson, Dudley Moore, Dennis Price and Peter Sellars (again) joining in. Finally, the inevitable porno version appeared in 1976 with Alice In Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy. Sammy Davis Jr played the Caterpillar and Ringo Starr the Mock Turtle in a 1985 US TV movie special that adapted both Alice and Through The Looking Glass in two parts - the same year as Gavin Millar's Dreamchild, which featured gory puppets from the Jim Henson team and a script by Dennis Potter that imagined the elderly Alice Liddell looking back on her friendship with Carroll from 1932. A Kafkaesque Czech Alice (1988) came next, directed by legendary stop-motion surrealist Jan Švankmajer, which was arguably even more grotesque. As Mark Sinker has pointed out in Sight & Sound, Švankmajer used Carroll's work as a political allegory for the approaching destruction of the Berlin Wall, Wonderland here standing for "an absurdist regime about to be overthrown by the disenchanted young." Another lacklustre US TV version appeared on the eve of the millennium with a predictable cast of sporting B-listers that was perhaps most interesting for its deployment of Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts. Richardson of course played a childish but deadly Queen Elizabeth I in the second series of the BBC's historical sitcom Blackadder (1986), her performance in which seems a very obvious influence on Helena Bonham Carter's Queen in Burton's new film. Last and almost certainly least, 2009's rubbish British crime re-imagining, Malice In Wonderland, featuring that grandest of grand theatrical dames, Danny Dyer, playing the White Rabbit as an impatient cockney cab driver. Curioser and curioser...