26/11/2011

Follow The Boys (1944)



George Raft, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, Arthur Rubenstein and The Andrews Sisters all in the same film? It happened.

Raft stars as vaudeville clown turned Hollywood musical star Tony West who takes it upon himself to organise entertainment for serving US troops following the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. Alienating his pregnant wife and co-star (Vera Zorvina) in the process, West tours the country's army camps with such luminaries as Welles, Dietrich, Fields, Rubinstein, Joan Blondell, Dinah Shore, Sophie Tucker, Carmen Amaya, Andy Devine, Nigel Bruce, Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan plus band leaders Louis Jordan, Freddie Slack and Charlie Spivak and a good time is had by all.

Welles and Dietrich's magic turn is a definite highlight of this back-slapping Universal variety ensemble, but so is Fields' boozy pool routine (an echo from 1934's Six Of A Kind) and Jordan's lovely rendition of 'Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?' for an audience of black servicemen from the back of a flatbed truck in the rain. The cruel-looking Raft can certainly bust a move when he wants to and makes for a determined lead in this worthiest of patriotic tribute films but the narrative about his neglected home life, which is used to tie everything together, seems oddly overdone. The decision to kill him off at the end when a Japanese sub torpedoes a navy carrier with the Andrews Sisters on board in mid-song is a particularly heavy-handed touch. We get it. The guy's a hero. All the stars who gave up their time acted commendably (though in publicity terms, it has to be said, they had little choice) but somehow you can't help feeling that the soldiers themselves are being forgotten here amidst all the self-congratulation. There are no real characters among the men and women in uniform and no alternative voice. As such, Follow The Boys from director Eddie Sutherland and producer Charles K. Feldman stands as an uncomplicated record of this peculiar footnote to showbiz history. It's unabashed propaganda but none the less interesting for that.

19/11/2011

The Lady Eve (1941)


Henry Fonda's clumsy snake-spotter and brewery heir Charles "Hopsie" Pike falls for Barbara Stanwyck's manipulative card sharp Jean Harrington (taking out a waiter in the process) aboard an ocean liner from South America in Preston Sturges' excellent screwball comedy. Rather like Cary Grant's Dr. Huxley in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Pike is a bookish, retiring academic type caught up in the affairs of a female whirlwind, this time the manipulative Harrington, in league with her professional gambler father (Charles Coburn) to swindle the rich and stupid at the card table, who accidentally finds herself in love with Charles for real. However, when he uncovers the truth about her choice of career, the befuddled ophiologist storms home to his family's country retreat in Connecticut, heartbroken. She follows him, angered by the snub, posing as a member of the English aristocracy named Lady Eve Sidwich and eventually marries poor, confused Charlie after convincing him that she is in fact Jean's twin.


Here's a very fine moment early on in which the seduction truly begins. Stanwyck is sensational throughout and again uses her shapely ankles to entrap a man, just as she would in Double Indemnity (1944). Fonda's naive Adam is here rendered entirely helpless and would almost certainly say yes to any suggestion she'd care to make, prohibited apples or otherwise.



Paramount's The Lady Eve was based on a short story by Monckton Hoffe entitled 'Two Bad Hats', which was very nearly its title and Joel McCrea, Fred MacMurray, Madeleine Carroll and Paulette Goddard were all slated to star at various stages of pre-production. As delightful as those performers are, Fonda and Stanwyck make for a strong pairing and, as is so often the case with Sturges, the supporting cast are a real highlight. The director had an extraordinary gift for finding the right people and giving them funny things to do, like having the oinking Eugene Palette sing and clang steel cloches together as he becomes increasingly impatient for his overdue breakfast. Or having William Demarest as Pike's suspicious minder Ambrose "Muggsy" Murgatroyd creep past the dining room windows spying on Lady Eve in silhouette before tumbling head first into a flowerbed. Or having Fred and Ginger regular Eric Blore dressed up like The Penguin, complete with monocle and top hat, roaming the country club set posing as a knight of the realm in deliciously villainous style. You can see why the Coen Brothers admire Sturges so much. His slogan for Pike's Ale ("The Ale That Won For Yale") could have come from the same marketing department that cooked up Dapper Dan's pomade.

12/11/2011

Private's Progress (1956)


Taking its title and loose gist from William Hogarth's satirical series of paintings A Rake's Progress (1732-35)*, which chronicle a young novice's rise and fall from worldly innocence to corrupt experience, this was the first of the Boulting Brothers' own string of questioning comedies, a lampoon of the British military based on a novel by Alan Hackney. Private's Progress proved hugely popular upon its release, revealing an enduring taste for wartime capers among UK audiences a full decade after hostilities had ceased.

As with its follow-up Brothers In Law (1957), the period's favourite everyman Ian Carmichael stars as a bumbling naif called into an unfamiliar environment and caught out by its peculiar rules and disciplines, making a right old hash of things until he is taken under the wing of a waggish Richard Attenborough. Here, Carmichael's Stanley Windrush is a conscripted undergraduate from an eccentric but well-to-do background appalled by the poor food and hard physical routines of barracks life and demoted to private after failing an officer's exam. Posted to a holding unit, Windrush is suddenly called up to serve under his uncle as part of a top secret assignment known only as "Hat Rack", a job for which he seems suspiciously under-qualified.


Carmichael is good value as ever and does particularly well playing roaring drunk (as he would in the Boultings' later Lucky Jim, 1957), memorably cheeking a sentry after a night out on the town and giving his name as "Picklepuss" before falling over, laughing hysterically and stealing the latter's whistle. There's also a priceless look on the lad's face when he realises that he's lost his shorts wriggling under a tarpaulin sheet during a training exercise. However, in an all-star cast featuring such stalwarts as Peter Jones, Miles Malleson, Jill Adams, John Le Mesurier, Ian Bannen, Kenneth Griffith and even a young Christopher Lee playing a Nazi officer, two performances stand out. Dennis Price, for one, is a delight as scheming Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel, hoping to profit from the war by leading an outrageous undercover mission to Germany to recover stolen art treasures before faking his own death and fleeing to South America with a healthy stash of loot and the delectable Adams on his arm. For me, this probably stands as Price's best role after Kinds Hearts & Coronets (1949), which is high praise indeed. The second real corker is, of course, Terry-Thomas in his breakthrough part as the really rather sympathetic Major Hitchcock, a scream in the scene in which he bunks off to the local cinema to watch Noël Coward's stirring naval drama In Which We Serve (1942) only to find that the entire audience is comprised of his own men who are supposed to be out on manoeuvres: "You're all absolute showers!"



The Boultings would reunite many of the key players here to reprise their characters for a sort-of sequel three years later, the trade union satire I'm All Right Jack, which would also give Peter Sellers one of his best-known roles. On the downside, the success of Private's Progress may also have inspired Carry On Sergeant (1958), both of which featured William Hartnell as a no-nonsense CO, and thus unleashed a truly lamentable series of craptacular comedies on an unsuspecting public. You can't win 'em all.

*Another key British comedy of the period, 1960's School For Scoundrels, which again featured Carmichael and Thomas, would also rework the title of an eighteenth century cultural landmark, Richard Brinsely Sheridan's comic play The School For Scandal (1777).

11/11/2011

Left Right & Centre (1959)


With George Clooney's The Ides Of March (2011) currently whipping up Oscar buzz, here's another film from the campaign trail with which it almost certainly has nothing in common. This rather sweet-natured comedy from prolific British Lion director-producer team Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat again stars the redoubtable Ian Carmichael as TV panel show personality Robert Wilcot, star of teatime quiz 'What On Earth Was That?', who agrees to stand as Conservative candidate for the fictional constituency of Earndale in a parliamentary by-election. Wilcot soon becomes disillusioned with the contest when he realises he was only put forward for the nomination by his gleefully avaricious uncle Lord Wilcot (Alastair Sim) in order to ensure publicity for the family's stately home, which the latter has recently opened to the public and converted into a tourist attraction, filling the grounds with funfair rides, a nudist camp and peep show slot machines promising to reveal 'What Ye Jester Saw' and 'Sex in 3D' (which, brilliantly, is out of order, presumably from overuse). Robert's electioneering is further complicated when he finds himself falling helplessly in love with rival Labour candidate Stella Stoker (Patricia Bredin), the Socialist daughter of a Billingsgate fishmonger, much to the annoyance and disbelief of the pair's respective campaign managers (Richard Wattis and Eric Barker), who subsequently join forces to try to fend off the inevitable.

"You'll howl when sex and politics collide head on!" insisted the film's original tagline but actually Left Right & Centre rather abandons the pointed political satire it punts for early on in favour of standard romantic comedy plot contrivances - misunderstandings engineered by self-interested outsiders, confrontations with jealous partners etc. Launder and Gilliat's film opens with a pleasingly ironic narration stating that "every nation, they say, gets the government it deserves" and outlining the key ideological difference between the British right and left accordingly: "Whereas the Conservative philosophy is the exploitation of man by man, with the Socialists it is exactly the other way round". This is followed by a rousing ode to the British electorate in praise of our keen awareness of the important social issues of the day and proud sense of fair play, deftly undermined by images of crowds betting on horse races, jeering at referees and chasing after girls. Left Right & Centre is good on media manipulation - two local rags take entirely opposing angles on a photograph of Wilcot chivalrously carrying Stoker's luggage at Earndale station - and Sim's Lord Wilcot does get to hand his young nephew this astonishing piece of wisdom: "We are all governed by dead ideas but, when it comes to political programmes, an idea has not merely to be dead but to have lost all meaning before it has any chance of being adopted with real enthusiasm." Bold stuff but instead of more in this vein, which could have led to a post-war, pre-Wilson answer to The Thick Of It (2005-), we end up with a harmless and somewhat messy trifle though the result remains a pleasant confection.

Carmichael and Bredin make for a charming item and prove themselves more than game when it comes to fighting it out at the hustings but the premise is pretty unlikely in the first place and, as always when his name appears on the cast list, it's Sim who steals the show here as the delightfully cynical, mercenary and meddling aristocrat, an opportunist far more interested in flogging homemade parsnip wine ("It puts the 'nip' in parsnip!") and counting his day's takings than the competition's outcome. Our man never looks happier than when he's spotted riding around town on the roof of a campaign truck smoking a fat cigar and promoting the paid-entry after-party he's hosting at Wilcot Priory on election night, regardless of the result. His oddly matter-of-fact death at the film's close - killed falling from a step ladder - at least provides one final piece of mischief: despite winning the election, Robert has inherited a peerage by dint of his relative's sudden demise and is thus ineligible to sit in the House of Commons anyway, meaning that the whole business is void and must begin again from scratch. Professional campaigners Wattis and Barker, of different class but otherwise cut from very similar cloth indeed (tellingly, both men share a taste for champagne), are left flabbergasted and squabbling on the pavement as the credits roll but you can't help but sense their exhilaration. This is, after all, what these creatures live for.


P.S. Here's a nice caricature of Carmichael, that perennial underdog, from 1957, drawn by my great uncle Gilbert Sommerlad, whom I've written about before here. Carmichael was appearing in The Tunnel Of Love by Joseph Fields and Peter De Vries at the Oxford New Theatre at the time this sketch was completed.