Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Never mind the quality, spare me the length

There is one thing that film folk do superlatively well these days, and that’s put together a trailer.
Time was, trailers simply told you what film was on the way and who was in it, with a couple of highlights to whet your appetite. Today, the trailer is an art form in its own right; one I’m happy to admit is going through its creative golden age. The trailer now is a mini-movie: exciting, superbly edited and scored and – best of all – including every single plot twist and development except the ending (which you can usually guess).
Those of you who remember Super 8 home movies will recall those wonderful seven-minute distillations of feature films that somehow managed to tell the entire story of Taste the Blood of Dracula or Bridge on the River Kwai in the time it takes to brown a tray of onion rings. Until you’ve seen Taste the Blood of Dracula cut to the length of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in black and white and with no sound, you simply haven’t seen it at all.
Modern trailers have something like this expertise to them, and it makes them a godsend to people like me, who still nurture the guilty feeling that they should be paying some kind of attention to new movies but can rarely find the stamina to actually sit through the damned things. Now there is no need – I just go every now and then (usually when Drew Barrymore has something new out) and watch the trailers.
The only new films I’ve seen this year in old-fashioned full-length format are Music & Lyrics and Becoming Jane, but in the new, time-saving trailer format I’ve seen Premonition (a bit predictable but with some effective moments), Notes From a Scandal (characters in the grip of crises they have caused themselves and richly deserve, saw this one twice; it dragged a bit the second time), Meet the Robinsons (cartoon in the new Disney tradition: noisy, unfunny and with hideous computer-programmed animation), I Want Candy (grim British farce dedicated to the proposition that the adjective best describing the pornography industry is ‘madcap’; this one had the audacity to claim itself “proudly” presented by “Ealing Studios”) and many more.
The great thing about doing it this way (apart from the obvious boon of not giving over ninety minutes of valuable sleeping time to I Want Candy) is that as well as picking and choosing movies, you can also pick and choose cinemas. This makes it more of an event, and helps to take the sting out of enduring Broken Flowers or V For Vendetta.
So here I am at the Royalty, Bowness (“Cumbria’s Biggest Screen!”). This gorgeous three-screener was originally built in 1926 as a combined cinema, theatre and dance hall. The loss of the latter two functions provided the room for the extra screens, but authentic décor is retained throughout, and there are charming posters on the foyer wall of the line-up of films and performances on two sample weeks in the late-thirties. An authentic atmosphere is maintained throughout, right down to the splendid illuminated clock next to the screen and a real usherette that comes down the aisle and stands at the front with a tray of ice-creams strapped round her neck. I haven’t seen that since the late seventies.
It is just as handsome on the outside, looking – as old cinemas tended to do - considerably smaller than it actually is, and beautifully maintained in its original style. And needless to say, the location – within sight of Lake Windermere – could scarcely be improved.
Even the most rotten film would benefit from such surroundings; Becoming Jane, which was not bad at all, was a positive pleasure. The cinema is presently refurbishing: look sharp and you can get an old cinema seat for a mere tenner. I would have done so myself, if not for the obstacle of getting it back to London on the train.

Monday, March 26, 2007

With Stanley in Ulverston

To Ulverston on the Stan Laurel trail: this small, unprepossessing Lancashire town is not only the spot where one of the most original comic talents of the twentieth century first peeped from under the blankets, it is also home to the world famous Laurel and Hardy Museum, which in the very best traditions of British eccentricity is not a museum so much as a disordered cave, product of the best kind of amateur enthusiasm, blessedly free of even the suspicion of tourist attraction professionalism or visitor-friendliness, and with nothing whatever to guide the novice into the world it obsessively celebrates. Basically, if you’re not a Laurel and Hardy fan, you’ll be out, blinking into the sunlight and gasping for fresh air, in about five minutes. If you are a Laurel and Hardy fan, ask your friends to meet you outside in about five hours.
Laid out in a mad jumble in three windowless rooms is approximately ten rooms’ worth of ephemera, with photocopies alongside priceless original documents, junk and treasure, fascinating rare photographs, letters and artefacts happily co-existing with articles cut out of the TV Times. All walls and ceilings are papered with cuttings and posters, and two life-size wax figures hold court in a corner. (You can have your photo taken sat in front of them for a quid: ask the chap at the desk for a bowler.)
There is no order anywhere. Some items are labelled, usually in handwriting or perhaps typed, often hanging from one remaining staple, others are left to speak for themselves, which many of the more mysterious among them plainly do not. Things are piled in front of other things, frequently the more commonplace in front of the rarer and more intriguing. A huge sign from the nearby Stan Laurel Inn is almost completely obscured by a pile of cardboard boxes. Loose bits of paper, that had once been stuck or stapled somewhere, have come to rest contentedly upon the nearest level surface.
One room is converted into a cinema where, in real ex-cinema seats beneath a sagging ceiling papered claustrophobically with hundreds of posters and clippings, you can stay as long as you want while a non-stop programme of Stan and Ollie classics gavottes before you. We saw Them Thar Hills, Tit For Tat and Helpmates and could have stayed for dozens more: all included in the entrance fee of just three pounds.
If any subject deserves this kind of tribute, it is surely Laurel and Hardy. Something about their art inspires the kind of unpretentious, uncerebral love on which an enterprise like this is founded, it trades not in history or analysis but sheer affection, and reflects the life’s work of a man who collected anything and everything associated, however tangentially, with Stan and Ollie, then laid them out in the manner of a vandalised Egyptian tomb awaiting discovery by likeminded Howard Carters. His name was Bill Cubin; he died, sadly, in 1997, but the museum is maintained as a family tradition by his daughter and grandsons.
You are not bothered by guides or attendants, or people dressed up, thank God; you are simply left to your own thoughts and devices as you wander from one thing to the next, your eye caught first by this, then by that, while the blissful sounds of the films themselves drift in from the screening room. One dark day, perhaps, it may be bought out and turned into a serious business, run for profit, with clear layout, less sepulchral lighting or perhaps even windows, no dust, hands-on activities for the kiddies and all the exhibits behind glass. Until then, enjoy it as it is, and ever should be.
Stan's childhood home is nearby, still with its original satellite dish and PVC door. It's worth a stroll, though the irresistible mental image of the archetypal Stan, derby-hatted, loping around the corner to the accompaniment of Marvin Hatley’s Cuckoo Song on his way home for tea is, alas, a merely whimsical one: he lived here only for a few years, and was in any event in America by his early twenties.
It was there, in sunny Los Angeles, not here in dark, satanic Lancashire, that he traded a lot of boyish enthusiasm and the greasepaint in his blood (the birth certificate in the museum lists his father’s profession as ‘comedian’) for true originality and ensuing immortality, first on stage – with Chaplin in the Karno troupe – then in the movies, where a series of not wildy noticed solo vehicles led to an accidental partnership with stooge and ‘heavy’ Oliver Hardy that blossomed into perhaps the most creative (and harmonious) working relationship in Hollywood.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Lost World

I am often asked what my favourite films are, by people who rarely allow the necessary four or five hours needed for a partial reply.
Truth is, I love hundreds and hundreds of films, including whole filmographies and genres, and I could never reduce this list of loves to one, or ten, or even twenty titles. But when asked to name one type or style or genre of film that I love above all others, I would plump for Pre-Code movies. At which point the questioner usually looks blank and remembers a previous appointment.

Pre-Code movies were once the best-kept secret in Hollywood history and are still unknown to the vast majority of moviegoers; an entire era located between the silent years and the classical Hollywood talkie cinema. It is bounded by the mass-conversion to sound among Hollywood studios in 1929 on one side and the institution of the Hays Code in 1934, which tied Hollywood films to a strict code of censorship and gave rise to the common image of old movies as almost comically prudish and inoffensive, on the other.
Though the Hays Code was at all times strictly speaking voluntary and self-imposed, and although it in fact existed throughout the pre-Code era, it was in the years 1933-4 that Hollywood finally bowed to increasing pressure from moral groups and vowed to pay more than mere lip service to the rules it had drawn up some years before. From hereon, all scripts would be submitted to the Hays office for censorship, and all completed movies would be further scrutinised for objectionable elements that somehow slipped through.
But in the pre-Code movies - that is to say Hollywood talking cinema 1929-33 - the Code was basically ignored, and films were made which dealt in a frank and adult way with subjects that would become taboo from 1934 onwards.
The emphasis was on modern situations and people, frequently contrasted with a rapidly fading old order, whose folksy, traditional values (celebrated in the post-code movies) stand in opposition to the views of the central characters. At the same time, these are not the modern kind of tedious, ‘kids-know-best’ movies but rather morality tales that cast just as disapproving an eye on modern manners, though the heroines are usually shown to be good girls beneath the surface of frivolity, sexual adventurousness or inadvertent criminality.
The cast of characters represent their era frozen in aspic. Hays inadvertently cast a veneer of timelessness over post-code cinema, but pre-Code shows us a vivid, real world of gigolos, good time girls, ‘modern youth’, male secretaries and working women, the idle rich, boozers and brawlers, aesthetes and outsiders, tramps and ‘forgotten men’.
Watching the films en masse however creates a sense that they are not just a checklist of illicit ingredients – an unpunished killing here, a flash of nipple there – but a different cinematic world, complete and entire, that looks like classical Hollywood cinema and sounds like classical Hollywood cinema but has an ambience that is not just different but antithetical.
Audiences stumbling unawares on one of the more famous pre-Code films – Scarface, perhaps, or Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – can instantly see that it is not quite what they thought an old Hollywood movie was like, though it is very, very similar; it's ever so slightly askew. And while few are as sensational as Freaks or The Story of Temple Drake they all have this sense of difference, so that one can spot a pre-Code film at twenty paces.
Broadly speaking, pre-Code cinema plays against backdrops that are essentially realist, post-code against a backdrop that is essentially escapist. (The Grapes of Wrath seems innovative only in a Code-era context. Pre-Code it would have been seen as par for the course, and perhaps even a little romantic when compared, say, to King Vidor’s majestic Our Daily Bread.)
The films of this era are important for several different and discrete reasons. First, and most obviously, they are of enormous historical value in the window they open onto the earliest days of talking cinema.
We are used to reading that the earliest talkies are now excruciating relics, dull to the point of inertia, with cameras locked in place as pairs of actors recite reams of tinny dialogue while moving from their marks as little as dramatically possible. This negative take was quick to assert itself and has proved almost impossible to dislodge. From the first, Chaplin and others loudly bemoaned the fact that silent movies were just approaching their creative zenith and yet all was to be swept away by films that – for the sole and dubious advantage of recorded speech – necessitated a complete overthrow of established film technique. Poetry had been outlawed and replaced, not even by prose, but merely by dialogue. The camera, once free to go anywhere and shoot anything, must now be in a studio, a fixed and rigid distance from the actors and the microphones. Directors found their creative decisions subject to the practical demands of the dialogue director, a new presence on set, overseeing the sound recording.
The resultant travails were neatly satirised in Singin’ in the Rain but I am happy to report that this common understanding – that pre-code movies are creaking, lifeless antiques - is utterly, utterly wrong.
Of course a deal of stagey, talky dross was produced, as it has been in all eras of filmmaking. But the best producers and directors saw the obstacle of the talkies not as a series of cramps and limitations but as a technical challenge that opened a whole new range of possibilities for their art. So, while these films would be of certain illustrative value to the historian and archivist if the standard line on their technical retardation were true, the fact of the matter is that huge numbers of them are technically brilliant; breathtakingly turning the potential drawbacks of the new technology into strengths in a veritable blizzard of style, invention and experimentation.
Directors like Rouben Mamoulian, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, George Cukor and Cecil B de Mille, all active in silents, were transported to far greater artistic heights by the challenge of early talkies. Their use of dialogue and sound effects, of location shooting and studio trickery resulted in a string of films like Love Me Tonight, Trouble In Paradise, Dynamite and Madam Satan; each a masterpiece, each utterly unlike the cinema that preceded it or that which followed (as the talkies settled into formula, were restrained by Hays, and were standardised by the studio system).
Second, there are the thematic elements and forms of presentation which distinguish them from the films made after 1934, in the period when the Hays Code was enforced more rigidly and from which date the now-mocked Hollywood censorship era begins.
Before 1934, though good taste is still maintained in terms far more genteel than a fully unregulated cinema would be today, there is the freedom to touch upon subjects like adultery, prostitution, rape, murder and such, without any accompanying restrictions on how such elements should be presented. Accordingly, the pre-Code films offer incredibly vivid insights into real-life subjects of their day, are sexually titillating, reasonably violent and forthright in their treatments of adult situations.
Third, pre-Code films are fascinating for their casts. Pre-Code stars fall into a number of categories. First, there are the silent stars that didn’t make it safely to the other side of the river. Here, too, we need to cut through much myth and myth-perpetuation to reach the truth.
The classic image of the silent star ruined by an unsuitable voice is more a studio invention to punish and keep in line their recalcitrant livestock than anything that happened in reality. Louise Brooks, John Gilbert, Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson were flames that burned only briefly on the sound stages, but none of them simply fell out of public favour in the manner conveniently recorded by précis history.
Still, for whatever reason, many top stars did fall by the wayside in the early thirties. But here they are in pre-code vehicles, walking, talking and heading the cast lists for the final few times. It’s like watching ghosts and it can be truly sublime. Forgotten and ‘lost’ stars like Lillian Roth, Helen Kane, Kay Francis, Thelma Todd, Monroe Owsley, Ben Lyon, Lee Tracy, Chester Morris and Richard Barthelmess fill the screen with their confident presence, unaware that the shadows are lengthening all around them.
Other pre-Code stars may be more familiar to audiences of golden age cinema, but there’s something different about them, too. In the pre-Code era, such seasoned supporting players as Reginald Denny, Una Merkel and Roland Young are not merely character actors but dramatic leads. Walter Huston swaggers through several leading roles, a kind of Spencer Tracy cum Lionel Barrymore and a remarkably vigorous, commanding screen presence of a sort the golden era rarely allowed him to be. Watch him in Beast of the City or Gabriel Over the White House and wonder if this is not, in fact, the most accomplished screen actor in American film history.
Miriam Hopkins is a scene-stealing lead, all flesh and fireworks, and a far more serious rival to gritty Bette Davis than the cool and composed Joan Crawford ever was.
Even stars that remained top of the bill in the golden age often adopt radically different, far more ambiguous personae in their pre-Code films.
Dapper and sophisticated William Powell is often foreign, slightly sinister, embroiled in some sleazy intrigue, frequently a high society conman, or gigolo, or lecher. Perfect wife Claudette Colbert is a sexy flapper, with white face, black-red lips and shiny dark hair sometimes in a Louise Brooks bob, playing the field, having trouble with male secretaries, gigolos, lounge lizards, sometimes bumping into Carole Lombard who’s up to much the same game. So is Joan Crawford over at MGM, just moving out of the flapper roles she played in the silents and into girl-about-town issue pictures. Cary Grant is not to be trusted; he’s a wastrel in immaculate dinner clothes, always looking for ways to lead the heroine astray. Ginger Rogers is a spiky, sassy smart aleck; she dances not for joy but to avoid the breadline. Myrna Loy specialises in oriental nymphomaniacs. Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan are swinging through the trees much as you remember them, but there’s something unfamiliar about the revealing two-piece cut of Jane’s loin skins, which Tarzan is not above ripping off entirely for a full-frontal swim.
In fact, these actresses do a lot of swimming, and a lot of bathing, and a lot of stripping down to their lingerie. And once a pre-Code lading lady is in her lingerie, any pre-code director worth his salt knows just the right plot contrivance to keep her that way for the rest of the reel.
The camera is often unashamedly voyeuristic on these occasions; often we will hear the telltale change in audio that signifies a cut-in shot as the camera slides up and down a silken-clad body. They all do it: Jean Arthur, Bette Davis, Clara Bow, Loretta Young, even Jeanette MacDonald. Fay Wray, Carole Lombard and Miriam Hopkins, in particular, seem to have spent the entire 1929-34 period in a more or less constant state of undress. Even at posh MGM it didn’t take much coaxing to get Joan Crawford, Mary Astor or Jean Harlow out of their skirts or into the bath.
At the time, this sort of thing was enough to outrage civic leaders into successfully demanding the rigid implementation of the Code, now it all looks like the end of innocence.
Finally, there are the movies.
Some are famous, most are not, but all are vastly worthy of fresh eyes. Seeing them today is something like exploring a newly discovered country or excavated tomb, and I sense that I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Though largely ignored critically, pre-Code films appear to have a strong and growing following among buffs and collectors. Public domain DVD suppliers on E-Bay do brisk trade in them, brisk enough in many cases to specialise. The home collector will find that many of them are in fact locatable in no other way.
Quality is a hit and miss affair; many discs, though watchable, are derived from the 16mm prints which are in many cases the only available format and, on dismayingly frequent occasions, all that survives. Compound this loss of definition with the fact that many of the copies in circulation are second, third or even fourth generation dupes and the resulting viewing experience is one very far removed from that of the original audiences who sat down in gleaming new theatres to enjoy gleaming new prints.
On occasion, you’ll need a good imagination. Picture the last really mint condition pre-Code movie you saw – Trouble In Paradise, perhaps, or King Kong - and pretend that the Helen Kane or Kay Francis rarity you are enjoying shares its crispness, clarity and lustrous sheen.
To fully savour the pre-Code experience in all its glory one must do a lot of this kind of fantasising: to imagine oneself coming to the film when it was new, when its references and archetypes and stereotypes were current and commonplace, when its trappings were fashionable. The fact that so many of these films are so little known helps immeasurably here. There are hundreds of them available; one need only put a star or director’s name in the search engine and pick from the extensive list that usually results.
The dedicated collector will thus be able to track down a new pre-Code movie at least as often as they would be tempted to see a modern film at the cinema. Do so systematically, with some eye to chronology, and careers can be followed, changes in techniques and practices can be mapped, recurring trends can be isolated and observed in the act of proliferation and mutation.
Thus is created a popular culture parallel universe, where films one has never seen before are released and consumed in exactly the manner of their original appearance, as if Hollywood was somehow making brand new old movies.