31/08/2010

The Big Heat (1953)

You know instantly that any film that opens with a close-up of a .38 revolver isn't going to end well and The Big Heat doesn't. A cop reaches for the gun and blows his brains out seconds later.

Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is assigned to investigate this suicide and suspects the dead man's widow, Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), of suppressing a note. Bannion meets with the late Officer Duncan's mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green), only to learn that she's been bumped off soon after. Warned off pursuing the matter further by the corrupt and compromised men upstairs, Bannion believes local mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is the cause of it all and confronts him at home. Soon afterwards Bannion begins to receive death threats but ignores them for the sake of the case. Finally Bannion's world is shattered when his loving Stepford wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister) is killed by a car bomb that was meant for him. Distraught, Bannion insults his smug and cowardly superiors and turns in his badge, preferring to go it alone rather than work within the confines of a system he considers terminally corrupt. Now a civilian avenger on a “hate binge”, Bannion encounters Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), moll to Lagana's sadistic henchman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who feels sorry for him and appreciates his saving a dice girl from Stone's cigar burns. However, their friendship means a cruel and unusual punishment for Debby before Bannion can finally nail Stone and Lagana for good.

Fritz Lang's film was adapted for the screen by former crime reporter Sidney Boehm from a Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern. It's a great fit for Lang, who gets to explore a favourite theme – the thin line, easily blurred, between cops and crooks, good and evil. The Big Heat presents a nightmare world of brutal violence in which the fictional town of Kenport is ruled by an all-powerful crime syndicate whose members spend their leisure hours lounging around a poker table alongside police commissioners, city councillors and judges. Homicide detective Bannion's only isle of solitude from the sea of vice all around him is his perfect fifties home – a domestic idyll where his cute daughter Joyce (Linda Bennett) is free to build block castles while he and his resourceful wife share sips of beer and fried steak. The intrusion into this suburban paradise – first by an obscene phone call and then by the fatal bomb – is too much to bear. These three little kittens lose a great deal more than their mittens and it's this devastating tragedy that causes Bannion to snap and ignore his colleague's warning that, “No man's an island Dave. You can't set yourself against the world and get away with it.” He removes himself from society to stalk the night as a trenchcoated vigilante, only to find, much to his surprise, that there are a few good people he can depend on after all – folk like Debby Marsh, the crippled lady at the wrecking yard, Lieutenant Wilkes (Willis Bouchey) and his brother-in-law's old army buddies. Lang told an interviewer in March 1953 that he considered Bannion, “a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity and the H-bomb,” and perhaps this is why. He is not only incorruptible himself but his cause sparks the community into action against the hoods and crime lords.

The coffee scalding scene above is rightly remembered as the most shocking act of violence against a woman on the American screen since Cagney mashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy (1931). However, it is only one of several such cruelties against females in The Big Heat, the others being the murders of Lucy Chapman and Katie Bannion and Vince Stone's bullying of the croupier girl. Women in Boehm's script are either maternal saints like Katie or fallen sinners like Lucy or the blackmailing Mrs Duncan. Debby Marsh must die to earn her revenge against Vince Stone and does just that, her hideous scars temporarily concealed by a mink collar as she hits the ground shot – a Two-Face redeemed. Another female presence in the film is that of Lagana's mother – an austere portrait of whom hangs in his office, looking down on her son's shady deals with an approving eye. His admiration for this “great lady” and his first appearance, in which a henchman in a flannel bath robe and silk pyjamas lights him a cigarette in bed, make less than subtle suggestions about Lagana's “aberrant” sexuality. A touch of homophobic propaganda there - if you want to lead a good, clean American life, don't get into organised crime. Those boys get up to all kinds of nonsense.

Ford and Grahame would be reunited in Lang's next feature, Human Desire (1954), an adaptation of Émile Zola's novel La Bête Humaine (1890), previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938 starring Jean Gabin.

29/08/2010

Kiss Them For Me (1957)


Cary Grant, Lief Erickson and Jayne Mansfield in Stanley Donen's film of Frederic Wakeman's 1944 novel Shore Leave for 20th Century Fox. Previously adapted for Broadway by Luther Davis, Donen's film of the same source is a weird, uneven hybrid of Second World War comedy and issue drama - odd given that the same filmmaker was so comfortable in similar territory when he directed Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in On The Town in 1949. The plot concerns three decorated US navy pilots who are granted four days leave from bombing the South Pacific. They shack up in a plush suite in San Francisco's Fairmount Hotel and plan to spend their leisure time chilling out, sipping “Stingers” and scoring big time with any suggestible females who happen to take advantage of their open door policy. However, they've hardly had a chance to plug in the jukebox or make a start on trashing the place before the festivities are interrupted by a fastidious manager, army bureaucrats and the odious Eddie Turnbill (Erickson), a shipyard tycoon who wants the boys to make a series of rousing, morale-boosting speeches to his workers. Southern rube Mississip (Larry Blyden) and aspiring congressman McCann (Ray Walston) are game but Lieutenant Commander Andy Crewson (Grant) is exhausted and jaded with what he regards as cynical propaganda duties and shameless profiteering, preferring instead to pursue Turnbill's elegant fiancée (model Suzy Parker) and give Shore Patrol a run for their money.

Grant's experience shows here and his portrayal of a charismatic born leader suffering under the strains of undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress is highly affecting and a skilful variation on his familiar comic persona. His cool performance is one reason to persist with Kiss Them For Me (which must have seemed dated the day it was released) and co-star Jayne Mansfield is another. A one-woman riot with a healthy awareness of her own inherent ridiculousness, Mansfield was the sort of busty blonde starlet who made Marilyn Monroe look quietly understated. Her megawatt sex appeal is particularly well-matched here with Nathaniel Frey's gormless Chief Petty Officer Ruddle. Ever since her tragic demise in a car crash in 1967, this subtlety-free pin-up has remained a cult figure and been made the subject of several musical tributes, particularly in the punk era. Perhaps the most interesting of these is this bhangra-inflected 1991 effort from ageing goths Siouxsie & the Banshees, which takes its title from the Donen film. Somehow it's difficult to imagine the formidable Siouxsie Sioux getting stuck into this confused, late period Cary Grant vehicle with a packet of Digestives and her feet up but I suppose it takes all sorts.

27/08/2010

Track Of The Cat (1954)


Oh dear. Track Of The Cat is an absolutely god awful, bum-numbingly boring Western in which Big Bob Mitchum heads out into the deep snow of the Colorado mountains in search of the titular “black painter” that has been picking off his cattle. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Well that's only the half of it. While bully boy Mitchum is out hunting the unseen feline, his dysfunctional family are busy thrashing out an unbelievably tedious and clichéd psychodrama of epic proportions, screeching at one another across the kitchen table and airing long-cherished resentments about mother's loveless religious zealotry, pa's boozing and young Harold's (Tab Hunter) reluctance to stand up for himself. Voice of reason Teresa Wright (so good in Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt, 1943) wanders around as an old maid sister imploring people to overcome their repressions and express themselves while Harold's girl Gwen (Diana Lynn) lusts after Mitchum's manly insolence and urges the meeker brother to fight his own battles. Sensitive middle sibling Arthur (William Hopper) meanwhile is slain early on by the panther but it's a good hour later before the quarrelling Bridge family have gotten it together enough to bury the poor bastard, so absorbed are they in their own angst. Yea gods. Anthony Mann can't have lost much sleep.

The turgid sub-Tennessee Williams/Ibsen bickering aside, the mountain-top ranch setting and snowy locations shot by William H. Clothier in “Warner Color” are unusual and occasionally very beautiful while Roy Webb's score carries more than its fair share of the dramatic burden. It was clearly an off day for the costume department, however. Mitchum and Hopper look absurd in their winter coats – the former's being a thick red hunter's jacket with a black Charlie Brown stripe across the middle, the latter's a furry cow hide duffle coat complete with hood. Two obvious Christmas presents if ever I saw them. When Hopper gets killed, Mitchum adopts the cow coat for himself and bobs his way down the mountainside in snowshoes and the spectacle of his wading gait is utterly ridiculous. It should be tragic when the big man realises he's lost his lunch box but his blubbing is less than convincing and the scene in which three timely gusts of wind blow out his last matches one by one is laugh out loud funny. So too is his burning of the volume of Keats he finds inside his late brother's coat pocket. Yeah, take that Keats. 'Posthumia' my arse. And the final insult? There is no cat. All we get is some off-screen growling and a couple of POV shots, including one in which the hapless Hopper recoils in horror as he is mauled to death. When the previously spineless Tab Hunter (inevitably) bags the blighter with his rifle, we don't even get to see the body. Just some predictable cod-mystical pidgin English jibbering from Joe Sam (Carl Switzer), the ageless Injun who looks unfortunately like Keith Richards with a hangover. Come on guys, this is 1954, the golden age of B-movie schlock. Couldn't you at least have rented a stuffed one?


Track Of The Cat was experienced director William A. Wellman's second crack at a Walter Van Tillburg Clark novel, after shooting The Ox-Bow Incident with Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in 1943. Wellman's adaptation of Clark's 1949 novel Track Of The Cat was scripted by A.L. Bezzerides and produced by actor John Wayne and Robert Fellows. I understand the novel has a good revenge-of-nature theme going for it, in which the cat represents Joe Sam's spirit guide taking vengeance on the Bridges for claiming land that isn't theirs, but the film completely fails to dramatise this. Or indeed Mitchum's realisation that his hunter has become the hunted. Or his death, in which he falls into a ravine while running away in a mad fit of panic and cowardice, which is way too abrupt and anticlimactic after the painful slowness of the ranch scenes. To be fair to the director, there are some interesting technical flourishes on show, like having Arthur's funeral shot from the perspective of a body lying within the hillside grave. Beulah Bondi is also very good, if somewhat repellent, in her role as the holier-than-thou matriarch (she usually played Jimmy Stewart's mother on screen), while Englishman Philip Tonge deserves a mention for trying to inject a touch of levity into proceedings as the dipso dad with half bottles of Scotch stashed all over the house. Peter Biskind once observed that, “Shaving scenes in Westerns are always an index of the degree to which civilisation has taken hold.” When Tonge picks up a razor in his first scene, this civilising ritual acts as a red herring to wrong-foot the audience and those around him – his retired miner is all wilderness and pain beneath the sozzled surface.

23/08/2010

The Vampire Bat (1933)

Bargain basement studio Majestic Pictures Inc. produced this cheapo horror to capitalise on the popular screen pairing of British thesp and noted swinger Lionell Atwill with Fay Wray, the “scream queen” the big ape would fall for in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong (1933). Atwill and Wray had starred together at Warner Brothers in Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) so while the latter film was in post-production Majestic moved quickly to knock out another vehicle for the duo, calling up Universal to rent out their German village set from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) plus the interiors from that director's more humorous The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton and Melvyn Douglas. Douglas must have stowed away in one of the Universal delivery trucks as he appears here too as the sceptical hero in love with Wray.

The finished Vampire Bat, directed by Frank S. Strayer, concerns a series of mysterious deaths by blood letting in the German town of Kleinschloss. The superstitious locals suspect a plague of vampire bats to be responsible for the spate of pierced jugulars but rationalist Inspector Karl Brettschneider (Douglas) thinks otherwise, pointing out that vampire bats are native only to South America, an inconvenient truth rarely admitted in Gothic schlockers of this sort. An angry mob soon rounds on local simpleton Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), a jabbering nitwit with a fascination for bats, but Brettschneider remains unconvinced. The doc called in to act as coroner, Otto von Neimann (Atwill), meanwhile continues to promote the vampirism theory and pins the blame on Herman. But what is this man of science really up to? What is that pulsating bath sponge thing he keeps in the bell jar? Why is he secretly trying to hypnotise people? And why does he insist on drinking strong coffee at 10pm every night? Only Karl and his girlfriend, von Neimann's lab assistant Ruth (Wray), can find the answers.


Hardly original but with plenty to enjoy, Strayer's film is a real “talkie” in the most literal sense. There's very little action to speak of beyond the scene in which Herman is hounded to his death by torch-wielding villagers (shot on location in the caves of Bronson Canyon, the same location as Phil Tucker's Robot Monster, 1953) and even then his staking occurs off camera. The Vampire Bat consists instead almost entirely of scenes in which the actors pace up and down the creaking old house exchanging theories - with varying degrees of subtlety. Atwill, Douglas and Wray all do their schtick nicely enough but Lionel Belmore as the bürgermeister serves his lines with more ham than a supermarket deli. Maude Eburne does provide a very welcome change of tone in the comic relief slot as Wray's hypochondriac maiden aunt Gussie. Dwight Frye meanwhile was a noted character actor of the period who specialised in horror and had appeared in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) as Renfield opposite Bela Lugosi and also pitched up in both Whale's Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). He died in 1943 aged just 44 after suffering a heart attack on an L.A. city bus but was later “immortalised” in 1971 as the misspelt subject of Alice Cooper's song 'The Ballad Of Dwight Fry'.

19/08/2010

Laughter In Paradise (1951)

Here's a great overseas poster for Italian Mario Zampi's British-made inheritance comedy Laughter In Paradise starring Alastair Sim, George Cole, Fay Compton and Guy Middleton. Alas, the poster's a good deal better than the finished film.

After aged practical joker Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith) croaks while setting his nurse's newspaper on fire, his heirs gather for the reading of the will. Each stands to inherit £50,000 on the condition that they complete a specific task tailored for their personal improvement. Miserly old maid Agnes (Compton) must spend a month working as a housekeeper, mild-mannered Deniston (Sim), an author of penny dreadfuls under various pseudonyms, must get himself arrested and spend 28 days behind bars, meek bank clerk Herbert (Cole) is instructed to execute a hold-up and despicable cad Simon (Middleton) has to marry the first woman he meets. Simple.

The trouble here is that the script by Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies is too elaborate and requires that the film be split into four separate story strands of varying degrees of interest. Agnes's Scrooge-like redemption from trout-faced harpy to reformed character is touching enough but seems to belong to another film entirely while Middleton is simply very unappealing as a society parasite and poser living beyond his means with the aid of an ever-resourceful Jeevesian butler. Terry-Thomas must have been otherwise engaged. A shame really as there's some wonderful dramatic acting on show from Sim, Eleanor Summerfield and Joyce Grenfell in a weird love triangle. Summerfield is the adoring secretary who dutifully taps out Deniston's cheapo novels with titles like Death & The F.A. Cup, The Bank Bandit and Blood Lust and believes in this compromised middle-aged fool (Sim had previously played a hack writer in Ealing's Hue & Cry, 1947), while Grenfell is the judge's daughter and army stalwart who is finally running out of patience with the man she has been engaged to for a decade without ever quite managing to drag to the altar. The almost wordless scenes in which a nervous Sim attempts to shoplift from a department store and toss a brick through a display window are masterclasses in expressive acting. The end of the film, however, in which all four characters admit how much they've learned from their experiences (urgh) and then laugh hysterically at the news that their never was any money in the first place because the deceased died flat broke, was very ill-advised. Hearing laughter after an hour and a half of this meandering mess just feels strange and unnerving.

Some points of interest in Laughter In Paradise include another early appearance by Audrey Hepburn (to go with her briefest of turns in The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951), a late one by actor Ernest Thesiger as Endicott, the reader of the will (a thesp whose career high point came in James Whale's Bride Of Frankenstein, 1935), and an all too brief one from Griffith. The Welshman, instantly recognisable from his prominent nose, bushy brows and bulbous eyes, famously played the Lord High Steward in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) and Professor Welch in the Boulting Brothers' Lucky Jim (1957) before going on to greater things in America with bit-parts in Ben-Hur (1959) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971). John Laurie as the wild-eyed Scots hypochondriac Gordon Webb was a late replacement for Stanley Holloway and his performance is an early variation on his Private Frazer character from Dad's Army (1968-77) while the lively soundtrack comes from Stanley Black, who also scored Zampi's The Naked Truth (1957) and Too Many Crooks (1959) and Charles Crichton's The Battle Of The Sexes (1959). Laughter In Paradise was remade by Duncan Wood in 1970 as Some Will, Some Won't with Ronnie Corbett, Dennis Price, Leslie Philips, Arthur Lowe, Wilfred Brambell and the eternally optimistic Summerfield again. Sim, Cole, Summerfield and Thesiger would find themselves reunited later in 1951 when all four appeared in Brian Desmond Hurst's definitive Dickens adaptation and Christmas favourite, Scrooge.

16/08/2010

The Green Man (1956)


Jill Adams, Terry-Thomas and George Cole causing havoc at the front desk of the Green Man hotel in Newcliff where they believe Alastair Sim's hitman Harry Hawkins has planted a bomb for the benefit of pompous, philandering MP Sir Gregory Upshott (Raymond Huntley). One of many enjoyable British Lion collaborations between the production team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and star Sim, The Green Man was based on the film-makers' stage play Meet A Body (1955) and marked the directorial debut of cameraman Robert Day - the latter receiving uncredited assistance from the more experienced Basil Dearden, who had worked at Ealing on a string of old Will Hays comedies and, perhaps more notably, on The Captive Heart (1946) and The Blue Lamp (1950).

The Green Man opens with a wonderful voiceover from Sim and a flashback to his school days in which he explains how a prank involving an electrically-charged pen and ink well backfired on a cruel headmaster with fatal results and led to Hawkins beginning his career in professional assassination. We see him on various assignments from his glory days, apparently targeting only arrogant and deserving bigwigs ("those overblown balloons who just cry out to be popped"), including one in which he rubs out a Latin American dictator visiting a football stadium by placing a ticking explosive inside the match ball. Fabulous.

Now in semi-retirement, living the sedate life of a watchmaker in Turnham Green, Hawkins has nevertheless been buttering up Ms. Marigold (Avril Angers), secretary to Cabinet minister Upshott, in order to learn the politician's movements on a particular evening so that he can whack him on behalf of a shady Middle Eastern syndicate. His meticulous plans begin to unravel, however, when Marigold becomes suspicious and insists on seeing Hawkins in person for an explanation – a demand complicated by its coinciding with his regular Friday afternoon chess game with local policeman Sergeant Bassett (Cyril Chamberlain). Thinking quickly, Hawkins dispatches his assistant Angus McKechnie (John Chandos) to switch the name plaque on his house, “Windyridge”, with that of his neighbours, “Appleby”, so that Marigold will be diverted to the wrong residence where she can be disposed of by McKechnie. A farce ensues involving a body in a piano, a gauche vacuum cleaner salesman (Cole), the girl next door (Adams) and her stuffy radio announcer fiancé (Colin Gordon, who previously appeared with Sim, again as a BBC employee, in Folly To Be Wise, 1953). Can these muddled amateurs work out what's going on and get to the south coast in time to thwart Hawkins before he can blast Upshott? The clock is ticking...

On seeing The Green Man, Pauline Kael wrote of Sim that, "It is unlikely that anybody in the history of the cinema has ever matched his peculiar feat of flipping expressions from benign innocence to blood-curdling menace in one devastating instant.” A scene in which he flatters a trio of spinster musicians, pretending to be transported into throes of ecstasy by their playing in a bid to hurry them out of the hotel's drawing room so that he can execute his plan, is a great case in point. T-T, as always, provides some stiff competition in the scene stealing stakes, however, and said of his lugubrious co-star, "You never knew exactly what he was going to do and neither, I felt, did he!" Cole and Adams are also very charming as the panicky suburbanites out of their depth on the killer's trail - she in particular deserving credit for being so game, imitating Marilyn Monroe and being required at one point to strip to her underwear to provide an ill-justified dash of minor titillation. Something for the chaps, what what?! It's clumsily handled and very Fifties.


Harry Hawkins may find himself behind bars at the film's close, but Gilliat and Launder clearly expect us to side with this eccentric murderer rather than the preposterous posers on the right side of the law he makes a living doing away with. That might sound subversive but think of Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) and given the choice between Hawkins and the impatient, authoritarian snob Sir Gregory, it seems only natural to favour the former. The nervous girl the Honourable Member is attempting to lead astray, incidentally, was played by Eileen Moore, Cole's then-wife, while Arthur Lowe also has a small but crucial cameo as a radio salesman.

13/08/2010

Horse Feathers (1932)


Director Norman Z. McLeod and actress Thelma Todd reunited with the Marx Brothers at Paramount after Monkey Business (1931) for Horse Feathers, their fourth feature, an inspired college football satire that would inspire all other university-set features to follow from A Chump At Oxford (1940) to Animal House (1978). Also returning were writers S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (a New Yorker wit and a cartoonist respectively) plus song writing duo Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the latter pair contributing perhaps my favourite song of all time from Groucho's inaugural speech, 'Whatever It Is, I'm Against It', an immortal anthem for contrarians everywhere.



As always, Groucho takes the lead, here playing Professor Quincey Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, an institution that has failed to win its annual football game against hated rivals Darwin since 1888. On the advice of his student son (Zeppo), Wagstaff heads to the local speakeasy (password: “Swordfish”) to sign up two ringers. Instead, he recruits Baravelli (Chico), an iceman and bootlegger, and Pinky (Harpo), the local dog catcher, by mistake. Wild puns and chicanery ensue, during which the boys attempt to woo Zeppo's cougar beau (Todd), kidnap the real football stars (who are naturally much tougher than Chico and Harpo) and take to the field for one of the greatest sporting scenes in movie history. Harpo tosses banana skins around to slip up would-be tacklers, attaches the ball to his palm with elastic and romps to victory on a horse-drawn dustman's chariot to score the winning touchdown in the final minute. Grid iron has never looked so accessible to an Englishman. As writer Stefan Kanfer explained it, “Here college football is the Brothers' metaphor for American business - the incessant meetings, the hypocritical praise of sportsmanship, contrasted with the vicious attempts to win at any cost.” The match also serves as a parody of formulaic sports melodramas and is, in this respect, several decades ahead of its time.

The scene in which Groucho takes over an anatomy class taught by the bearded Robert Grieg, the butler from Animal Crackers (1930), was derived from an old vaudeville routine the Brothers used to do in the twenties called 'Fun In Hi Skool'. There's a wonderful line when a secretary interrupts Wagstaff's meeting with two academics by declaring, “The Dean is furious! He's waxing wroth!” to which comes the inevitable reply, “Oh, is Roth out there too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.” Groucho also gets to break the fourth wall and tell the audience during a musical interlude: "I've got to stay here. But there's no reason you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby till this thing blows over." Another fine moment comes when a hobo stops Harpo in the street and asks if he could help him out because he's desperate to get a cup of coffee. Harpo then proceeds to reach into his trouser pocket and produce said steaming cup complete with saucer, which he then hands to the astonished man without spilling a drop. A more problematic scene comes later when Harpo is seen shoveling a whole shelf full of books onto a fire like so much coal into a steam engine's furnace. Some critics have felt this to be an aggressive anti-intellectual statement that has since acquired an unfortunate association with the Nazi book-burnings that took place in Nuremburg four years after Horse Feathers was filmed. I'm not convinced this is really an issue myself as it's as much a part of the Brothers' uncompromising, anarchic brand of anti-authoritarianism as the scene in which Harpo cheeks a traffic cop, tears up his ticket book and then imprisons the bewildered officer inside his dog cart. Whatever it is, they're against it.


The shooting of Horse Feathers (the title an exclamatory phrase meaning “nonsense” or, not to put too fine a point on it, “bullshit”) was put on hiatus for ten weeks while Chico recovered from injury following a bad car wreck – he eventually had to use a stand-in for some of the more grueling stunts expected of him in the climactic football scenes. Groucho meanwhile fell-out repeatedly with Perelman, who didn't care for his improvising over cherished material and almost drowned Todd during the boating scene (a parody of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, 1925). He mistakenly believed her cries for help were a joke and so paddled off in pursuit of the duck humming 'Everyone Says I Love You' while his non-swimming co-star was being rescued by a team of heroic technicians. Oh and the final scene was supposed to have been the boys playing cards while Huxley College burned to the ground behind them but the Paramount bean-counters thought this would prove too expensive so instead we have the cheaper but more outrageous bigamy ending in which Chico, Groucho and Harpo ALL marry Todd. And for people who like spooky coincidences, Harpo wears the number 75 jersey while playing for Huxley in Horse Feathers - a detail that would prove prophetic when he died at exactly that age in 1964.

06/08/2010

Holiday (1938)


Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan, Cary Grant and Henry Kolker in George Cukor's inspired class comedy from 1938, the same year that Hepburn and Grant went wild in Bringing Up Baby. Unlike Hawks' rapid-fire screwball farce, however, Holiday is a less zany and more thoughtful, provocative work that dares question the merits of a life dedicated to the neverending pursuit of wealth and material possessions. Somebody far cleverer than me once suggested that all that distinguishes Shakespeare's comedies from his tragedies is a happy ending and that's certainly the case with Holiday.

As in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Holiday finds the Great Kate and old Archie Leach, “the Man from Dream City” (er, Bristol), tackling high society under the experienced eye of Cukor in a play by Philip Barry adapted for the screen by writer Donald Ogden Stewart (plus Sidney Buchman this time). The story concerns the proposed nuptials between New York banker's daughter Julia Seton (Nolan) and Johnny Case (Grant), an industrious young dreamer with good prospects but few influential friends. At 30 Case is already tired of the rat race, has no particular “reverence for riches” and wants to travel the world in search of adventure and the meaning of it all. This liberating idea hugely appeals to Julia's free-spirited and headstrong sister Linda (Hepburn) but not to the bride herself or their stern Wall Street titan of a father Edward (Kolker). Can Johnny reconcile himself to the life of monied responsibility laid out for him or will he have the courage to break free of social shackles and follow his heart?

Grant's classless misfit in Holiday has been called a “proto-dropout” - his disillusionment, itchy feet and desperation to find out what's on the other side of the hill prefiguring the rebellious instincts of the counter-culture. The painfully conservative Edward Seton feels threatened by Johnny Case's discontent and diagnoses, “a strange new spirit at work in the world today, a spirit of revolt. I don't understand it and I don't like it.” When Johnny tries again to explain his plans in detail to Mr Seton, the old patriarch is horrified and actually labels the young man's doubts and desires “unAmerican,” an early instance of that powerful accusatory word's use a generation before the stranglehold of McCarthyism gripped the States. However, Linda, Johnny and their playroom pals know how to fight fire with fire, gleefully racing around on tricycles, hanging from trapezes, banging on drum kits and greeting their obnoxious cousins the Crams (Binnie Barnes, Henry Daniell) with a fascist salute on New Year's Eve. The same war rages on to this day all over the world.


The presence of the amiable Edward Everett Horton among the cast (reprising his supporting role as Columbia Professor Nick Potter from an earlier filmed version of Barry's play from 1930, which starred Ann Harding, Mary Astor and Robert Ames), helps set the tone. Horton was of course a regular in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films for RKO in the thirties, a series in which the leading man delighted in gently exposing and ridiculing upper-crust pretensions, elitism and snobbery. In spite of his top hat, white tie and tails, Astaire was an Everyman figure with whom audiences could identify and that's very much the angle Grant goes for here. Performing some of the acrobatic tricks and flips with which he began his career in a travelling stage troupe, entering via the servant's quarters, wearing his hair in a messy style and mocking the sheer size of the Seton's palatial Fifth Avenue town house, Johnny Case is “a plain man of the people” who tries to bring a sense of fun into their stuffy lives (something apparently lacking since the death of the creative, supportive Mrs Seton some years before). However, despite its good humour neither film version of Holiday was a box office hit. The play had only just completed its debut run on Broadway when the stock market crashed in 1929 while the plot relies on Johnny's deft handling of stocks and shares. It's possible that Depression audiences felt little sympathy for a protagonist prepared to throw away his comfortable existence so impulsively.

Nevertheless, the cast are all magnificent, especially the vital, childlike Hepburn. Horton and Jean Dixon are lovely as the cheerily grounded Potters (or is that Porters?) and Lew Ayers is heartbreaking as Ned, the frustrated musician and lush younger brother of the family (the actor retaining the same haunted look he brought to Lewis Milestone's epic All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930). Grant said working with Hepburn was “a joy” while she praised his “wonderful laugh.” What a love-in. Without Grant ending up with the right sister though, Holiday might have been one of the saddest weepies ever made.

04/08/2010

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Here's another great pairing of two beloved screen horrors: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a nice adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 short story 'The Body Snatcher' for RKO. The ghoulish duo actually appeared together eight times, this being the last, so they can't have been too unfriendly in spite of Martin Landau's line in Ed Wood (1994), when his Lugosi reacts angrily to being referred to as Karloff's sidekick: "Karloff? Sidekick? Fuck you! Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in hell for all I care!" The real Lugosi would later claim that he'd scouted Karloff for his breakthrough role at Universal, playing the monster in Frankenstein (1931), but how true that is remains obscure. You can read an authoritive account of the two fiends' intertwined careers here.

Their final film together was directed by Robert Wise for producer Val Lewton and tells the story of an Edinburgh doctor, the pragmatic Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who in 1831 employs a sinister local cab driver, John Gray (Karloff), to acquire cadavers for his medical students to dissect (before the Houses of Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, only the corpses of executed felons could legally be used for scientific experimentation). When MacFarlane's protégé Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) discovers that Gray has begun murdering people to order rather than simply exhuming old graves, they realise their £10 "ressurrection man" is out of control and must be stopped.

Karloff is on rollicking form as the smirking cabby who dogs the good doctor's every step, a sort of evil doppelgänger in the manner of Stevenson's Mr Hyde. My old university lecturer, a Scot, referred to this recurring literary device in the fiction of his nation as the "Caledonian antisyzygy", a fundamental schism at the core of the Scottish soul, a national schizophrenia derived from its people thinking Celtic thoughts but having to express them in English and from the nation's tumultuous ecclesiastical and political history - a long war of competing opposites. The battle between temptation and guilt, past and present, is there in the shadowing of Dr MacFarlane by Gray and in the split personality of Henry Jekyll and provides the core of James Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs & Confessions Of A Justified Sinner (1824). Stevenson became interested in this dichotomy theme, most perfectly expressed in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), after hearing the tale of Deacon Brodie (1741-88), a respected Edinburgh cabinet-maker, trade guilds stalwart and city councillor who pursued a life of crime after dark, stalking the foggy sidestreets of the capital by night to rob and steal for the sheer thrill of it. Stevenson's own father even owned furniture made by the hand of William Brodie, whose trial and hanging scandalised the city.

The sickly author also made use of a true crime case in writing 'The Body Snatcher', that of the West Port murders of 1828, carried out by Irish labourers William Burke and William Hare, who began killing lodging-house tenants in order to supply bodies to Edinburgh Medical College lecturer Dr Robert Knox. When they were finally caught and arrested, Hare was persuaded to testify against Burke, who was hung and, ironically, ended up on the slab at one of Knox's anatomy classes. Hare was released from custody in February 1829 and later disappeared while the furore over the crimes increased pressure on Parliament to legalise the donation of corpses for academic study. The character of Dr MacFarlane in the story is said to have been a favourite pupil of Knox while Lewton and Philip MacDonald's script also makes use of another popular historical figure of the period, Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier so faithful that he is said to have kept vigil over his late master's grave for 14 years after the funeral. The dead man's name, incidentally, just so happened to be John Gray.

As for The Body Snatcher itself, it's a solid piece of work that recreates a gloomy Edinburgh well enough with limited resources and benefits from excellent performances by Karloff and Daniell, the latter dubbed by Time Out, "Hollywood's greatest sourpuss." Lugosi is sadly reduced to playing a Portugese servant who unwisely attempts to blackmail Gray and ends up being suffocated after a brawl. Wise later admitted that the role had been shoe-horned in to accommodate the fading star and would simply have been cut altogether had Lugosi not been available. Elsewhere, American actor Wade just gives up on a Scottish accent altogether after an early embarrassment when he completely mangles the pronounciation of "Edinborrow" but otherwise proves a fine hero. Highlights include the dramatic carriage chase through the rain, which makes for an exhilarating climax after the slow building of atmosphere beforehand and the snuffing out of the street singer mid-ballad, which is suitably abrupt.

03/08/2010

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)


"Joan envied Bette's incredible talent, and Bette envied Joan's seductive glamour."
- George Cukor

Famed rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were finally paired together on screen in this camp, lurid psychodrama in which "Baby Jane" Hudson, a deluded former child star (Davis), imprisons and tortures her wheelchair-bound ex-movie actress sister Blanche (Crawford) in their mouldy mansion in suburban Los Angeles.

Davis is utterly terrifying, a violent, alcoholic crone dreaming of trumping her sibling one last time with an ill-advised comeback, refusing to acknowledge that tastes have changed. Caked in make-up, systematically depriving her charge of resources, stealing her fan mail and roasting canaries and rats, Davis's performance must surely have been an important touchstone for every actor playing the Joker since its release. The scenes in which she rolls her beady eyes and cruelly, childishly impersonates Blanche, usually to get what she wants over the telephone, are just chilling. Pure evil. Davis would continue in this vein thereafter, coming to London to shoot The Nanny, another psychological horror, for Hammer in 1965. Crawford meanwhile is more restrained as the perpetual victim, who equally fails to accept reality and see her troubled control freak of a sister for what she really is. Robert Aldrich's film has been called the meeting of Hollywood's top sadist with its leading masochist and perhaps that's what makes Baby Jane such an interesting grudge match. In an industry that too rarely finds meaty roles for mature women, its astonishing to see these two stars playing out such a troubling vision of stunted femininity and generously riffing on their own screen personae in the process.

Baby Jane also has two strong supporting turns of note: the hulking Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, a chancer with oedipal issues of his own whom Jane hires to accompany her twee vaudeville songs and Maidie Norman as Blanche's no-nonsense nurse Elvira, who suspects what's really going on but meets a grizzly end before she can intervene, not unlike Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) in The Shining (1980).


Ultimately, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is (perhaps appropriately) a trashier, post-Psycho sister to Sunset Boulevard (1950). Some of source novelist Henry Farrell's sub-Tennessee Williams insights have dated badly and it is unquestionably a touch overlong. The ending in particular in which Jane drags the half-starved Blanche to the beach to die in the sun feels a little anti-climactic after the operatic nastiness that has gone before. Still, it's bold in its ugliness and remains a macabre, claustrophobic little creep show. This is real horror - Baby Jane is not about monsters skulking in Central European castles, alien invaders, giant bugs or masked serial killers stalking the suburbs - just one person being spiteful to another in their own home. Anyone with a fear of dolls or who has ever been part of a bickering, competitive family will find uncomfortable resonances here. The human reluctance to accept the tragedy of ageing and losing one's youthful looks, of growing old and frail without having realised our most deeply yearned-for fantasies, is also about as universal a theme as you could wish for. The abuse of a disabled dependent by their carer, meanwhile, is another fascinatingly sinister plot point, which would also be exploited to great affect in Misery (1990), another Stephen King parallel.

The California Gothic Baby Jane continues to find a cult following, stereotypically among gay audiences who are said to revel in Davis's savage diva act and the much-mythologised off-screen cat fighting (although biographer Shaun Considine insists that most of the legends are true - Davis really did kick Crawford in the head, for instance, an injury that required several stitches). Whatever, Baby Jane remains endlessly referenced and parodied.