Friday, February 23, 2007

My Oscar predictions


Hatred of the Oscars unites all true film buffs. This indecent orgy of back-slapping, vanity, inanity, insularity, self-absorption and cultural poverty becomes more intrusive every year, seemingly in direct proportion to the rate at which the work it celebrates grows less and less worthy of even passing interest. (Be honest: have you ever seen a more boring list of nominations than this year’s sorry crop?)
‘Twas not ever thus, of course. The original Academy Awards in 1929 were issued light-heartedly, in less than an hour, in a room that held two hundred people. The judges were studio heads and producers, the idea cunningly conceived by Louis B Mayer on the grounds that directors and stars were more likely to make the kinds of films he wanted them to if they competed for a few tacky statuettes every year. It was all very small-scale, modest and inherently self-mocking.
How could it not be, when all it ever amounted to was one small group of high flyers in the same industry commending and congratulating each other? How can it be a badge of objective quality for a film to be a big Oscar winner when the people pocketing them are the same people dishing them out? How about some independent assessment of the kind demanded of every other business and service in the western world?
In the golden age, when Hollywood really did have something to shout about, the awards were characterised – as were the principal players – by modesty, restraint and good humour. Peter Bogdanovich’s terrific book Who The Hell’s In It? records conversations in which Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant expressed their exasperation with the pomp, self-adoration and remoteness from reality that was coming increasingly to characterise the bash:
“Nobody took it all that seriously… it was swell if ya won because your friends were givin’ it to you, but it didn’t mean this big deal…” (Jimmy)
“There is something a little embarrassing about all these wealthy people publicly congratulating each other: ‘… we know you’re making a million dollars, now come up and get your little medal for it!’” (Cary)
And this was in the seventies! It’s hard to imagine just how ghastly it would all seem to them today.
There are encouraging signs that our attitude towards this farce, in Britain at least, is mutating rather healthily into that bemused fascination that characterises our take on the Eurovision Song Contest; a kind of mocking incredulity to be found nowhere in any of the other participating countries. The appalling behaviour of the pampered princesses involved is now the reason most often cited for tuning in.
This is good, but the notion that the awarding of an Oscar still carries some objective weight as assessment lingers still. Come on, folks! How does one really decide that one acting performance is better than another? If all the nominated stars had played the same role it would still be totally unscientific, but in what kind of madhouse can one take seriously decisions as to whether Richard Burton makes a better fist of playing a New England history professor than Paul Scofield does of impersonating a real life sixteenth century statesman? Where is the slide-rule they use? How ridiculous to compare Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Goodbye, Mr Chips solely on the basis that they all happened to be made in 1939! This sort of thing can be fun, but there’s something a bit unpleasant about taking it seriously.

Monday, February 19, 2007

For a really good laugh, visit Stonehenge


Is the sight of Bela Lugosi taking his hat off funny?
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You may think not, but it brought the house down when the National Film Theatre showed The Black Cat (1934) a while back. And I was struck yet again by the obsessive need modern audiences seem to feel to mock old movies.
Even at the NFT, where one might have expected something like respect for cinema history, the same chorus of men and women squawking like parrots forms the unofficial soundtrack to anything more than ten minutes old.
The interesting question is why they do it, since clearly – and let’s be in no doubt about this whatsoever – they do not genuinely find it funny. It is pseudo-laughter, the kind we rustle up when someone we don’t wish to offend tells us a joke, and it is done for the same reason: on the assumption that it is the done thing. Somewhere along the line even sensitive audiences have bought the myth that the correct attitude towards old cinema is one of condescension. Its purpose is to send a signal, to say to one’s fellow audience members: I am sophisticated, I am modern, I may or may not love this stuff, but it’s beneath me, and I am unable to forget that at any time.
Just about anything in an old film is potentially good for a raucous screech, even Bela Lugosi taking his hat off. But the top 5 sure-fire laugh-getters are the following:

1. People behaving considerately, romantically or politely to each other.
2. Old-fashioned clothes, cultural references or figures of speech.
3. Moderate or restrained violence, and anything that is designed to be frightening or eerie.
4. Clear enunciation and the assumption of a shared culture.
5. People not having sex with each other.

In other words: the fact that people once were allowed the luxury of finding George Zucco frightening, spoke clearly, were nice to each other, and didn't dress exactly the way we do. The poor saps. By laughing at this we are saying: aren’t they silly? Weren’t people ridiculous back then? How incomplete they are! How much better to be around now.
This is not merely daffy, it’s also a bit sad, and something like whistling in the dark in its desperation. I must confess that I find the sheer complacency of it all quite baffling. Presumably these people have windows; perhaps they simply don’t look out of them very often.
And isn't it a strange kind of historical chauvinism that permits the notion that a film like The Black Cat is 'old' and 'dated' - as if two thousand and seven were a lower number than one thousand nine hundred and thirty-four? The Black Cat has the virtues of youth: innocence, eagerness to please, naivety in the best sense. It is the dim excesses of modern cinema, its cynicism and mean-spiritedness and complete ephemerality, that are hopelessly dated. In 1934 the modern world was young, the movies were young, and the unthreatening simplicity of a film like The Black Cat stands for the lost youth of an old, tired industry. No wonder our only recourse is to feign amusement.
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fffffffffffffffffff I don't know about you, but I'm chuckling already.
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As a film buff, this all leaves me out in the cold somewhat. Obviously, I stopped going to ordinary cinemas many years ago, partly because the films are rubbish, partly because cinemas now look like shopping malls and smell of plastic, and partly because it's best to avoid situations that involve being stuck in a dark room with a random sampling of twenty-first century humans. (Don’t get me wrong: I like humans, just not in the dark.)
Now, even rep cinemas are denied me. I can only go to the NFT to see comedies; anything else is just too painful. Incidentally, I did write to the NFT to see what the official position was on this phenomenon and whether a sensitive announcement should be made before old films to remind audiences that they will seem dated, but they are works of art deserving of the utmost respect, and that they are really no funnier than old paintings, music or books. Otherwise, we may as well stop showing them, because they are not going to stop getting older. And you'll never guess what happened next. They didn't bother replying.
So how about this? If you are one of those people so happy with the modern world that the very fact that the past existed at all is enough to reduce you to tears of mirth, why not go and visit Stonehenge? It’s really, really old, it no longer serves any function other than an ornamental one, and the people who built it a) put their hearts and souls into it, and b) didn’t have mobile telephones. You’ll be in stitches.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The wonderful Mr Malleson


You know him, even if you think you don’t.
If you’ve ever watched a British comedy film or a Hammer horror, chances are you’ll have come across this cherubic king of the two-minute cameo. He is never the star, though he appeared in nearly a hundred films. He leaves all the hard work to Peter Cushing or Peter Sellers and then, usually about half an hour in, he comes on, steals the show, and goes again.
Yet he was much more than a mere eccentric old man who wanders on in the middle of horror films. After abandoning his original plan to become a schoolteacher he achieved a considerable reputation as actor, playwright, screenwriter and translator. He worked for Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Michael Winner and Paul Rotha.
Neither was he the cosy pillar of the establishment that his image – and the generally imperialistic nature of his major screenwriting assignments – would suggest. Despite celebrating British history and values in such scripts as Nell Gwyn (1934), Rhodes of Africa (1936), Victoria the Great (1937) and The First of the Few (1942) he was a prominent member of the anti-conscription movement in the First World War, an outspoken pacifist and part of that band of woolly liberal intellectuals that surrounded Bertrand Russell. He sat on the advisory council of the Masses Stage and Film Guild, established by the Labour party in 1929 to bring great cultural works to the working classes.
He even sent his children to Russell’s appalling experimental school, where discipline was outlawed and children not obliged to attend lessons if they didn’t want to: barbarism and savagery soon held sway as the great sage watched placidly from his tower.
Russell also, as was invariably his custom with close male friends, struck up a long-standing affair with Malleson’s first wife, actress Colette O’Neil. (The two had only married under pressure: they were both advocates of co-habitation and sexual freedom. Yes, this is Miles Malleson I’m talking about.)
My favourite Malleson anecdote is the one about him coming out of an early performance of Look Back In Anger, the worst play ever written, ruefully shaking his head and mumbling "But bad manners isn't social criticism..." Quite a few chickens came home that night.
All of which surely points to a biography screaming to be written, yet for all of his achievements and the variety of his gifts, this is ultimately his greatest talent: when you’re watching a Hammer film and Miles Malleson comes on, you smile.
Malleson was Hammer’s jolly old man: a beaming, sweet natured, white-haired elf. His inimitable style and perfect timing made him an unlikely but definitive component of the studio's formula, and a bit of their magic died when he made his last appearance in 1962. (He retired from acting, due to failing eyesight, in 1965 and died, aged 80, in 1969.)
Luckily for us, Malleson was around when it was still felt that audiences needed occasional comic relief from the intense terror generated by the sight of Christopher Lee in a long cloak. His job in Hammer films, then, is to come on at half time like the gatekeeper in Macbeth, and lighten the mood. The early Hammer films are forever stopping off at inns to eavesdrop on the rustic chorus, and the studio kept a rotating pool of actors on its books solely to play this assortment of drunks, innkeepers, layabouts and poachers, men like Harold Goodwin, George Woodbridge, Michael Ripper and such occasional guest yokels as John Laurie and Lionel Jeffries. They were all superb but Malleson was king, and his little cameos of good cheer retain their charm even now when, like the songs in a Marx Brothers film, they no longer serve a necessary dramatic function.
Malleson was never to be found in disreputable taverns at Hammer, he is usually cast as a professional man, albeit one of considerable eccentricity. (His last Hammer appearance, as the cabbie in The Phantom of the Opera [1962], is as downmarket as he got.) In Dracula (1958) he is a top-hatted undertaker who does drum-rolls on the coffins and laughs as he tells the story of a mourner who slipped on his steps and died. (“He came to pay his last respects and he remained to share them – oh yes, very amusing it was.”) His face, a gift to any cartoonist, never relaxes its vast, contorted smile. When Malleson laughs his eyes disappear and his mouth outgrows his face.
If you’ve seen Dracula with a live audience you’ll have noticed that while much of the horror receives the de rigeur ignorant laughter now expected of sophisticated audiences, and later comic relief involving a blustering toll-gate keeper is met with impatience, when Malleson comes on the change in reaction is unmistakable. The sophistication of his playing leaps the years, and the laughter is warm and genuine.

His best role for Hammer (and his largest) was the befuddled Bishop Frankland in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). In his first scene (of two) he keeps mentioning sherry until the hint is taken and a glass proffered: he ends up having two. (“Now that you mention sherry, do you know I think I might like a glass.”) The plot would have us believe he is a world authority on spiders and insects, but it is hard to credit the man we see crawling about on a flight of stone steps trying to scoop a spider into his hat with the capacity for scholarly study. Dressed elegantly in a black tail coat and top hat, he audibly creaks when in motion.
His second scene is a beautiful duet; he is matched perfectly with Peter Cushing’s Holmes, the one all business and laser focus, the other dancing pirouettes around him, offering sherry and drifting off on vague tangents. First mistaking Holmes for the workman come to mend his immobile telescope, he is delighted when Holmes does the job himself and couldn’t be happier when the telescope’s sudden fluidity of movement causes him to swing it too forcefully, smashing a window. Unaware that Holmes has left the room while his attention is fixed on the comings and goings of his neighbours, director Terence Fisher cuts to a beautiful long shot as Malleson does a full 360 degree turn, extends both his arms at right angles from his body, pauses, looks at the camera and says “Well! He’s gone!”

One suspects Fisher had a particular fondness for Malleson, just as James Whale did for Una O’Connor. In Brides of Dracula (1960) he comes close to letting him shuffle off with the film’s proper atmosphere. Again paired delightfully with Cushing (here as arch vampire hunter Van Helsing) he is a hypochondriac doctor in a startling blonde toupee who dismisses vampirism as superstitious nonsense but is happy to immerse his head in a bowl of noxiously steaming quack remedies. Straight man Cushing does the seriousness and grim portent while Malleson makes inane suggestions and attributes the vampire’s bite marks to an over-fond pet dog. His interplay with Cushing is especially amusing for the manner in which his character treats Van Helsing as his intellectual peer, while the latter is merely indulging an ally he clearly finds buffoonish and tiresome. Only Malleson is blind to the implications of Van Helsing’s attitude toward him, and continues to discuss matters of which he knows nothing in hushed professional tones. (“I might even put your specialist’s fee on my own little account!” he chirps delightedly.)
While Cushing talks gravely of vampires to the headmaster of the girls’ school through which one is prowling, Malleson is clearly visible in the background, fumbling about at the headmaster’s desk, stealing our attention simply by picking things up and putting them down again, gazing distractedly at books and looking around the room. It is probably the humblest, most inadvertent bit of scene stealing in film history, but I challenge anyone to recall what Cushing is actually saying.
He pops up in one or two other interesting places, too, such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Here he is the elderly porn enthusiast who enters his local tobacconist’s and asks to see some “views”. The proprietor produces an album of soft core photos from under the counter, Malleson makes approving noises as he leafs through briefly before asking “How much would the lot be?” And he brings just the right blend of eccentricity and eeriness to the role of the ominous hearse driver/bus conductor in Dead of Night (1945). (“Room for one inside, sir…”)

Malleson is always exactly the right man for the job; his scenes are funny not because he is given funny lines but because he is a superb interpretive actor who has been given lines that are exactly what his character would say. That’s why it is easy to believe that these parts were written with him in mind, or even were largely improvised. That we no longer actually need him to lighten the mood in horror in films that now seem uniformly charming and innocent only adds to his appeal. Stripped of his actual function, his performances are pure indulgence. And still, when he appears, forty years after he made his last film, we smile.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Give Chan a chance


Unsurprisingly, the arrival of six Charlie Chan films on DVD in MGM’s splendidly named Chanthology box set has met with little enthusiasm from the film press. Most of them ignored it altogether, despite it being the first ever official release of Chan movies in Britain, and in gorgeous quality transfers, too.
This is not just because the films pre-date Star Wars, though obviously that has a lot to do with it. Chan, Mr Wong (Boris Karloff) and the Japanese Mr Moto (Peter Lorre) are problematic figures today, relics of an earlier age in which it was traditional to cast western actors in oriental roles (usually those with a long-standing reputation for playing unusual character parts, often in heavy make-up).
Chan, by far the best-known of the three, has in fact come in for some pretty savage batterings in recent years: Ken Hanke’s invaluable Charlie Chan at the Movies documents these objections, but points out that the presentation of a Chinese hero, a super-smart detective who outsmarts not only the villains but the usually slow-witted white cops who share his investigations, was in fact a considerable step forward in the presentation of a race hitherto used primarily as exotic villains. (Warner Oland, the first and finest Chan, though in fact Swedish, had cornered the market in just these roles, appearing as Fu Manchu and General Chang in Shanghai Express.)
To this we could add that the films also gave significant supporting roles to authentic Chinese-American performers (Chan was invariably aided in his adventures by one or more of his fourteen children, and various other Chinese characters are encountered in usually positive contexts throughout the series.)
Further, it is not immediately obvious why Oland playing Chan should be more offensive than, say, Albert Finney playing Hercule Poirot. All acting is, after all, impersonation, and early Hollywood had encouraged the notion that the test of great acting was to assume roles as far from the actor’s real self as possible (hence the extraordinary acclaim lavished upon Paul Muni.)
The real problem is not that a Chinese actor is not playing the role; it is the underlying knowledge that a Chinese actor would not have been allowed to play the role. But is even this true? When Boris Karloff tired of playing Mr Wong, Monogram handed the final film in the series to Keye Luke, well known as Chan’s Number One son, Lee. The public stayed away, but it is interesting and notable that Monogram made the experiment all the same.
The Chan series began at Fox, with Oland in the lead and benefiting from good B-picture art direction, writing and supporting casts. (Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Rita Hayworth, Ray Milland and even Virginia Cherrill, Chaplin’s blind flower seller, are among those who appeared alongside such peerless B-picture perennials as C. Henry Gordon, Douglas Dumbrille, Halliwell Hobbes and Henry Daniell.)
Even by the standards of a detective series, the pleasures of a Chan film are incredibly formulaic: there is the mystery killer revealed by Chan at the end (usually by gathering the suspects in a room and slowly explaining the plot to them all), the elaborate murders (often mysterious in themselves, and frequently relying on trickery, gadgets and concealed doors and weapons) and Chan’s own endless supply of aphorisms (“murder without bloodstain like Amos without Andy: most unusual”). They remain among the best film series of golden age Hollywood: unpretentious, witty, atmospheric and often ingenious in their convoluted plots.

Oland, an alcoholic and eccentric, was at work on his seventeenth Chan film when he simply walked off the set and never returned. He was eventually discovered to have returned to Sweden, where he suddenly died of bronchial pneumonia. (The script, with Lee Chan still on board, was hastily revised and shot as a Mr Moto film.) But Chan soon returned, in the brasher form of Missouri-born Sidney Toler, who went on to give twenty-two likeable but technically much less impressive performances in the role. (Unlike Oland you can often see Toler giving occidental performances, he’s in Laurel and Hardy’s Our Relations for instance.)
When Fox abandoned the series after the first batch of eleven, Toler acquired the rights to the character himself, and set up shop at Monogram. If he had wished to give the impression of business-as-usual his hopes were soon dashed by the studio’s reduced budgets, dim supporting casts and far less inventive plots. (The characterisation of Chan, in particular, loses all distinctiveness in these later films, and the stories are often bland.)
The six titles in the Chanthology are the first six from this Monogram period. They are a pale shadow of what had gone before, and with Chan a controversial figure already, they could do more harm than good. In this respect they are further compromised by the decision to make a regular character of black comic relief Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, who keeps improbably running into Chan before eventually becoming his chauffeur. Again, allowances must be made: Moreland is a comic actor, and Brown’s extreme and irrational cowardice is not intended as a racial stereotype but merely part of Moreland’s shtick. Ironically, Moreland was included not to alienate but to attract black audiences: his presence insured the films major release-status in Harlem and other predominantly black territories, where he was hugely and rightly popular. Like Stepin Fetchit, Sleep n’ Eat, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson and other controversial black comic actors of the period, Moreland has a fine comic sense and an enormously likeable screen presence; he always makes the most of what he is given, and he is often given room to do a comic party piece.
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The Mr Wong films, widely available in no-frills budget editions, are actually rather more fun than these later Chans, though not a patch on the Fox originals. Boris Karloff, who had appeared heavily disguised as Fu Manchu in 1933, is a surprisingly restrained lead, tall and thin and refined, and playing the character with little make-up and no trace of a Chinese accent. (We learn he was educated in England by way of partial explanation.) He’s also rather more arrogant and cynical than Chan, whose excessive politeness is typified by his catchphrase “thank you so much”. These are decent little mysteries (two of them were in fact remade as Chan films when Roland Winters assumed the role for six last titles after Toler’s death in 1947) and the Monogram trappings, which on release seemed hopelessly poverty-stricken, have benefited from the passage of time.
The real gold remains in the Fox Chan films, which are now starting to turn up on DVD, complete with lovely original artwork on the packaging, albeit transferred from pretty ropey, fuzzy old prints. Or you can get the lot on E-Bay from a nice man who’ll put them on a dozen or so discs for you: the quality’s actually higher than that of the semi-official releases from Orbit Media, and you can’t quarrel with the price. Thank you so much.