Saturday, December 20, 2008

A choice of humbugs

Last Christmas I offered the seasonal classic Dont Open Till Christmas (sic) as my recommended yuletide movie.
This year I've decided to suggest a couple of the lesser-known variations on Dickens's Christmas Carol, if by any chance you are thinking of giving Alastair Sim a miss.
"Nothing like a Dickens Christmas!" says Mervyn Johns in Too Many Christmas Trees, my favourite episode of The Avengers (and a fine support to the main feature). I'm assuming that you do make it your business to watch at least one version of this season-defining tale every year?
In our house, it is usually not Sim's, however, gold standard though that ultimately remains, but a much less well known mid-eighties production with George C. Scott as Scrooge, a fine British support cast and atmospheric location shooting in Shrewsbury that we make ritual reaquaintance with. It's probably the most useful adaptation for any mildly reluctant newcomers.

Also recommended is the BBC version from the seventies (notable for cramming the whole story, without ill-effect, into fifty minutes, for its interesting use of drawn backgrounds somewhat in the manner of Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke, and for the presence of John Le Mesurier as Marley's Ghost and dear old John Ringham as one of the charity gentlemen).

Then there's the musical version by Leslie Bricusse called Scrooge which looks a treat but pales by comparison with the revised stage version that toured Britain in the nineties with the great Anthony Newley in the lead. Here we have Albert Finney made up old: not the same thing at all.
The thirties Hollywood version is a surprising misfire; an MGM superproduction, it displays few of the qualities of Cukor's David Copperfield, which it seeks to emulate, and gets much wrong. Gene Lockhart as a roly poly Bob Cratchit is only the most obviously crass of several bad decisions.

Of the many newer versions, the one everyone loves is the one with the Muppets: I though it was okay. There's at least one other musical version, with Kelsey Grammar realising just in time what Dickens knew and any of us could have told him: that the true meaning of Christmas is, of course, Jennifer Love Hewitt. Made for American tv in 2004 it often resembles the version Bill Murray's character is producing in the funny-ish Scrooged, with its misjudged sense of period and crazily anachronistic ghosts, but I sat through the lot because it has Jennifer Love Hewitt in it, and I'm only human.
..........A picture of Jennifer Love Hewitt. Because it's Christmas.
But if all these strike you as excessively familiar, here are two extraordinary adaptations, both closer in spirit (and in one case in fact) to Dickens's age than our own. Modern versions try hard to recreate the iconography of the original illustrations but it's always a visible effort, regardless of whether that effort be successful or not. The two films I have selected don't merely revive the true Dickens flavour but seem to have it embedded; they are steeped in it like a pudding steeped in brandy.
Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901) must at first seem a strictly novelty suggestion; nobody would seriously propose it to someone looking for a good adaptation of the book. Plainly, four incomplete minutes of a silent film that only ran for eleven minutes in the first place could never be anything of the sort. Nonetheless, I offer it to you not in jest, but on the assurance that it will transfix and transport you, especially if you are familiar with the life and work of its creator, R. W. Paul, Muswell Hill's maverick genius and innovator of early cinema.
This haunting little production, of such naivety yet such authentic charm, is played out in front of a series of painted backcloths that occasionally ripple in the breeze (all Paul's productions were filmed in an open air studio making use of natural light), with some nice special effects as Marley's face and the various visions are superimposed over the main image. (One clever means of condensing the story is having all the visions revealed to Scrooge by Marley's Ghost, thus dispensing with the other three spirits and much exposition.)

It is available on two DVDs from the British Film Institute. If it is Paul and his amazing world of early cinema that most intrigues you, then pick it up in the 2 DVD set of Paul's surviving works, all of them fascinating, many of them beautiful. (If you've got any money left over, pair it with Silent Britain, a documentary that, among many other treats, features a good section on Paul and visits the site of his studios.)
Or if it is the story itself that attracts, go for the gorgeous set Dickens Before Sound, a mesmerising compilation of early adaptations embracing shorts, full features, a documentary and even lantern slides. The highlights include a beautiful 15 minute chapter of The Pickwick Papers (The Honourable Event, 1913), the 1922 Hollywood Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney and a 12 minute documentary from 1924 called Dickens' London, which features ghostly superimpositions of Dickensian figures on contemporary scenes of the original locations, unsurprisingly looking far closer in spirit to the age of the novels than our own. For personal reasons of proximity, my favourite bit is the shot of the Spaniards' Inn off Hampstead Heath, name-checked in The Pickwick Papers (as well as Dracula and Dennis Wheatley's first novel The Forbidden Territory.) There can be few better accompaniments to the season.
But look out too for Scrooge (1935), widely available on public domain budget labels (albeit usually in a shortened version). Made just sixteen years before Sim, and only three before the Hollywood version, it seems lifetimes older, far closer in spirit, and even technique, to Paul's version. It's a talkie, though, and a highly theatrical one, and that feels right somehow too.
.The star is Sir Seymour Hicks, who also wrote the screenplay, a genuine Victorian and one of the last great actor-managers, who first played Scrooge on stage in 1901 (aged 30) and about 2,000 times thereafter, as well as in a silent film in 1913 (sadly not included in the BFI compilation).
The atmosphere is sinister from the first; the Old City here is not remotely jolly but dank, foggy and cold. Beggars lurk menacingly in doorways, barking dogs strain at the leash as Scrooge passes. ("Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him," Dickens writes, "and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”")
No other version makes Scrooge's office and living quarters seem so dusty, mildewy and grimy. Ostensibly candlelit rooms are not brightly detailed in the manner typical of early talkies but illuminated indistinctly with a murky glow; Hicks himself has dirty, disordered hair and a vaguely unclean appearance.
There are many beautifully composed images; in particular one of the carol singers outside Scrooge's window, with Scrooge visible by candlelight within, looks like it has leaped straight to the screen from a nineteenth century engraving. There are some gorgeous cityscapes and exterior sets filled with life and detail, and while the plot is not tampered with there are frequent imaginative deviations and additions, not least a peculiar sequence which juxtaposes Scrooge eating a meagre meal in a seedy tavern with a royal banquet and a gathering of paupers lit atmospherically outside.
Against these many strengths must be weighed the occasional eccentricity, most notably the decision to make Marley's Ghost invisible ("Only you can see me," he says to Scrooge), so we don't get to see his chains and cash boxes.
Both of these films, I suppose, are for confirmed fans of the story; neither is fully satisfactory to anyone unfamiliar with the original and it's true that neither of them have Jennifer Love Hewitt in them. But both are striking as pieces of cinema, as adaptations, and as ghosts of Christmas past.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Imagine being lucky enough to take “White Christmas” for granted!

The Phoenix, which claims to be the oldest continually operating cinema in Britain (there are other claimants to the title, I understand) is small, friendly, and, best of all, a two minute walk from my front door.
For that, I'll happily put up with 360 nights of pretentious independent cinema a year, so long as the rest of the time they continue to do the sort of thing they did last night: a 9pm showing of White Christmas with free sherry and mince pies.
A reassuringly large crowd turned out for it, too. I'd never seen this relic before: I need to be in the mood for this kind of musical and only occasionally am, plus I'd read all the reviews that assured me it was an at best pleasant, completely unexceptional product of Hollywood's fifties decline.
What a treat it turned out to be! Bing Crosby confirming yet again that as well as a voice he really did have something special as a screen presence (though God knows what it was: it certainly defies sober analysis), and Danny Kaye confirming yet again what a superb all-rounder he was, albeit cursed, like Donald O'Connor, to have entered the industry a decade too late for anybody to know quite what to do with him.
The first film in VistaVision, the titles proclaimed, taking us right back to that moment when Hollywood began advertising its desperation with wide screens and three hour biblical epics and polaroid glasses. But behind the half-filled canvas and the distorted picture was an entirely old-fashioned enterprise, filmed in that scrumptious, thick Technicolor that made every frame look like it had been painted on to the screen.
All in the studio, too, before the real locations fetish gripped filmland and consigned the movie lots to oblivion (it predates that fifties innovation at least). Everything, from a 1945 war zone to the snowy Vermont resort that fills the screen in the final number, was movie makebelieve, conjured from plywood and plastic by the industry's last great craftsmen. What price realism against this? A charming and simple story, lovely lead performances, heroes like Grady Sutton and Sig Ruman and Mary Wickes in support, great Irving Berlin numbers. How long it has been since I have been so delighted by a film which I had never seen before, and of which my expectations were by no means high.

The real surprise for us was Vera-Ellen (above), who actually figures prominently in quite a few MGM musicals (including On The Town) but who I only really knew from Love Happy, the Marx Brothers' reviled but entirely painless swan song (in which she alluringly performs the 'Sadie Thompson number'). We were struck by two things about her: the incredible dancing talent, which made her relative obscurity seem completely inexplicable, and her almost impossibly thin waist. She seems not just thinner but considerably more than five years older than the fleshy, healthy girl in Love Happy.
She was, sadly, prematurely aged by anorexia, before the condition had been diagnosed, and apparently wears high collars throughout the film to disguise its effect on her neck. Such a shame, because she's terrific; vivacious, a great dancer, and in some shots a dead ringer for her childhood friend Doris Day.

It just seems incredible now that there was ever a time when a film such as this could be taken for granted.
Most film guides written by reviewers who were alive when it came out are pretty sniffy about it. Hollywood's decline was going at full speed by 1954, but films like this remind you it was still way nearer the top than the bottom (or, as we call it, The Dark Knight).
Imagine the luxury - the sheer, decadent luxury! - of being able to turn your nose up at a film this gorgeous!
Truth is it is nothing special - so long as you're looking backwards and contrasting it with Singing in the Rain or Dames or The Gay Divorcee. But view it with a fifty-year breeze blowing in the opposite direction and the situation looks very different indeed. Christ, what a tumble we've taken!
It takes a truly perverse imagination (or one so enslaved to contemporaneity as to be thoroughly blinkered) to be unable to recognise the cultural decline of the West, or to imagine how it could have been swifter, or more extreme and precipitous. But films like this, unlike memories, cannot be challenged or denied. Their testimony cannot be altered or twisted or misquoted or misconstrued. They preserve and thus they indict, and their very gentleness hides their revolutionary power.
No wonder the stormtroopers of modernity try so hard to pervert their simplicity and mourn their absent cynicism. Time Out, London's weekly waft of rotting consensus, calls it "pornographically soppy" and "as sickly-sweet as an eggnog tsunami", fantasises what it mysteriously terms "harmless misogyny" and, with giveaway poverty of reference, describes Kaye's artistry as "incessant, proto-Jim Carrey clowning". They know the truth as surely as we do: that in the road travelled from Irving Berlin to The X Factor, the fall of the Roman Empire had nothing on us.
Hence their desperation. Hence the smell they give off.

Fascinating to listen to the other audience members leaving the cinema: trying to come to acceptable terms with the almost guilty happiness the film gave them, attempting to rationalise the dim awareness that if every night at the movies was something like this, they'd miss out on nothing at all. But headed back for all that to the world they know best, the film's powerful shot of sheer warmth and pleasure already half-forgotten, or filed away, or filtered through that cultivated irony that keeps the truth from cutting too deeply, but still, still, with a strangely happy heart, and those wonderful songs going round and round and round.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Laurel & Hardy Iconoclasmfest!

I have many favourite Laurel & Hardy films.
There are far fewer, in fact, that don't qualify as favourites. I can't honestly put my hand on my heart and say that there are any I don't like at all.
Nonetheless, there is a top drawer and a bottom drawer, and part of the purpose of this post is to nominate the following for the top drawer:
Unaccustomed As We Are (1929), Berth Marks (1929), Men O'War (1929), Jitterbugs (1943) and The Bullfighters (1945).
In so doing, I am not, emphatically not, denying masterpiece status to Going Bye-Bye or Helpmates or Pardon Us or Below Zero or Pack Up Your Troubles or just about any other of the great products of Laurel & Hardy's classic period.
They are all transcendent, heartbreaking, beautiful things. Though I'll admit that Way Out West and The Music Box seem to me somewhat smaller than their reputation, certainly I would quarrel not with the bestowing of masterpiece status on the likes of Sons of the Desert, Blockheads and Our Relations.
Nonetheless, these five neglected films from the two neglected ends of their career in talkies do seem to need a little extra help, and so I shall be putting their case below.
On behalf of Stan and Ollie themselves I am assuming no case needs making. Stan Laurel, perfectionist and ideas man, Oliver Hardy, superb interpretive actor (and fully Stan’s equal as a comic presence) produced in collaboration a unique comedy – alternately incredibly subtle and incredibly broad – seemingly as without precedent as it is without inheritors.
The appeal of few other comedians is as hard to define, or to convey to those unfortunates not already spellbound. Sheer professionalism has a lot to do with it, natural chemistry a lot more, a happy ability to inspire warmth and goodwill in their audience still more again, but on top of all that is that final layer that defies analysis: like Morecambe and Wise their material is by no means consistently strong yet in both cases that is somehow beside the point, the point being the men themselves and the world they create in front of you, and invite you into.
I love their earliest talkies; most writers on the duo view them as at least inferior, if not actually disastrous like those we will arrive at shortly. They were stars in the silent era, and many traditionalists insist that this was when they did their best work. But sound added a necessary finishing touch. Indeed, with the ambiguous exception of W. C. Fields (ambiguous because, though he made some silent comedies, it was only really in the sound era that he became a star comedian rather than comic actor) they are the only silent comics to have been actually improved by the transition to sound. Others may have weathered it with varying degrees of success, only Stan and Ollie derived benefit. This was due mainly to the happy accident of their both having not only pleasing voices – Ollie’s with the tang of Old Southern gentility, Stan’s rootless with just the ghost of Ulverston behind the curtain – but also voices that seemed to match their personae.
Yet from the first they clearly vowed to take on the talkies and master them, not reluctantly accommodate them. Their very first sound film, delightfully titled Unaccustomed as We Are shows this determination and succeeds brilliantly: already the film is filled with sound jokes involving off-screen action. At the end Stan falls down the stairs out of shot, and the joke is conveyed not visually but with a massive crash symbolising some horrendous calamity we cannot see.
This is a wonderful example of the team's domestic horror films, later reworked in Blockheads, with Ollie naively bringing Stan home to dinner on the assumption that his terrifying wife will instantly warm to him. It has a sharpness to it that would be smoothed out as the formula became fixed; it also has Thelma Todd as the neighbour who ends up in a packing case in her underwear.
Provided the joke and the comedians are funny in the first place, I have a soft spot for single jokes being relentlessly milked for all they're worth. This technique reaches perfection in the generally unpopular Berth Marks, which spends most of its running time in a cramped sleeping compartment with the duo as they attempt to get undressed and go to sleep. Like A Perfect Day, another of their one-joke movies, it leaves some audiences tense and irritated, but anyone who finds pleasure in the endless repetition of Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer should get the point, and if you are on its wavelength it becomes one of those dangerously hilarious films that don't leave you enough breathing space between laughs, and leave you beetroot-hued and gasping, often in a crumpled heap some distance from the chair you were sat in.
My favourite of all these early shorts is Men O’War which combines glorious jazz age settings with some fine slapstick in a row boat and one of the team's best dialogue sketches: the soda fountain routine. Stan and Ollie are entertaining two girls and only have enough money for three drinks; the idea is that Stan will refuse a drink and he and Ollie will secretly share. But every time Ollie attempts to pull of the deceit ("Soda... soda... soda... and my dear Stan - what will you have?") Stan requests a drink. Again, the joke lies in repetition, in this case the repetition of a single misunderstanding despite more than adequate attempts to correct it each time. Confused, Stan simply cannot grasp that he should turn the drink down; Ollie for his part does not expect the true situation to become clear no matter how often he summons Stan away, remonstrates with him, and goes through it all again.
These films were all made at the Hal Roach studios, which provided exactly the right creative environment for the team to flourish throughout the thirties. What happened in 1940 is sometimes blamed on sheer bad luck, sometimes on friction between Roach and Laurel, and sometimes on the Faustian lure of the Hollywood sell-out. Whatever the actual motive or cause, the team left Roach in a superficially advantageous move to Twentieth Century Fox; they would also make two films for MGM, who had distributed their Roach films.
The results were a basically inferior crop of films made without sympathy for the team’s methods, or in many cases much awareness of their style, in which Stan soon learned he was expected to take no creative part other than as an actor.
And yet, I watch these films a lot, and there is fun to be had here, though few of the standard books on the duo have anything but venom for them. Doug McClelland’s Golden Age of B-Movies makes an affectionate case for The Big Noise, often said to be among the worst of all, but over-eggs the pudding somewhat by trying to downgrade the Roach films, which he reckons “can often be annoyingly repetitious and long-winded”.
Finally, the right book did come along: Laurel and Hardy from the Forties Forward by Scott MacGillivray. It's the ideal introduction for reluctant fans to the slim but definite pleasures of these final efforts; he never tries to hail then as neglected masterpieces, or even hint that they might surpass any of the Roach work, but he does make much of the received wisdom on them seem unnecessarily severe and carping, and sends you back to them with fresh eyes and perspectives.
I certainly think there is a good compilation waiting to be made from the highlights of these films, and two at least, Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters seem to me to need no special pleading at all.
Certainly, they are not as fine as Sons of the Desert. Certainly, they attempt to reshape Laurel and Hardy to fit the mould of a very different era of comedy: the slicker, brasher, more wisecracking forties style, radio-influenced, typified by Hope and Benny and Bud and Lou. I once wrote, in defence of these films, that "though not a patch on the Roach films they are still eight Laurel and Hardy movies out of a total that is finite and can never be increased: maybe you can be cavalier with statistics like that, but I say any Laurel and Hardy film is better than one fewer Laurel and Hardy film".
But I've just watched Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters again and I think I want to go further. Both have faults, but both are fine comedies with many great scenes in each, and neither disgraces the duo in any way. I hereby elevate them to front rank status.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Cukor Touch

To say of any director that what one remembers most in their films are the performances may seem a backhanded kind of compliment, but George Cukor was happy to be known as the consummate actor’s director, especially noted for his skill in getting the best from often temperamental actresses. Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow all repaid his sympathetic attention with some of their finest work. He once explained that he preferred to watch actors’ faces, as opposed to directors who like “showing doorknobs being turned, things like that.”
He was also one of Hollywood’s subtlest and most literate directors, with an especial gift for perfectly pitched dialogue scenes and for preserving the essence of plays and novels. His David Copperfield (1934) remains the best Hollywood ever did by Charles Dickens, and while he wasn’t quite able to turn Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer (combined age: 82) into Romeo and Juliet (1936) it is hard to imagine any other director in town capable even of trying.
His confidence in juggling large star casts was first evidenced in Dinner at Eight (1933), a sublime attempt to recreate the all-star success of Grand Hotel, distinguished in particular by a superb comic performance from Jean Harlow. This rare talent for keeping fragile egos happy without disrupting the fabric of ensemble narratives made him the ideal choice for The Women (1939), which manages quite miraculously to show Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine all at or near their best. By the same token, there is no doubt that the vivid spectacle so ably handled by Victor Fleming in Gone With the Wind (1939) would have carried far less emotional weight if Cukor had not been there first to coax and encourage so complete a performance from Vivien Leigh.
He directed Garbo twice and Joan Crawford four times, but the actress with whom he was most fruitfully associated was Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn’s brittle, prickly style only occasionally translated into box office, but Cukor, more than any other director, was able to bring out her more vulnerable and human facets without ever compromising her authority. He also underlined her versatility by casting her in literary adaptations (Little Women, 1935) sophisticated comedy (Holiday, 1938) and such unclassifiable oddities as Sylvia Scarlet (1935) through much of which she is disguised as a boy.
Adam’s Rib
(1949) is the best of her co-starring vehicles with Spencer Tracy and arguably Cukor’s last masterpiece, but their finest collaboration of all is The Philadelphia Story (1940), with Hepburn’s Tracy Lord an unforgettable mix of ice and fragility and Cary Grant and James Stewart similarly responding to Cukor’s touch by contributing performances that combine their customary qualities with new found nuances and subtleties. With Cukor, even such seasoned supporting players as Roland Young and John Halliday, who couldn’t give a bad performance if they tried, manage to raise their game a notch and turn in their finest work. Watch it again and you will notice that not only do the three stars have great scenes separately and all together but also in every combination of two. The same applies in The Women, which stages a menagerie of star performances as a series of attractive pairs and trios.
His best work is additionally characterised by an unfussy precision in all technical details. Camera placement, set dressing, lighting and composition are always as unobtrusive as they are perfectly judged. For Cukor good direction is invisible, the director who announces his presence with showy technique and effect without meaning has failed in his job. Something like Gaslight (1944), for instance, essentially a barnstorming melodrama quite unsuited for him, becomes in his hands a thing of sheer elegance, sumptuously detailed and magnetically performed by Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and, safe in his hands, the untested Angela Lansbury.
As with several of his peers, the collapse of the studio system left him with little option other than safe, expensive ‘prestige’ films. Glossy handling, big budgets and attractive stars were not enough to turn My Fair Lady (1964) or The Blue Bird (1976) into projects worthy of his gifts, though his instinctive rapport with actresses did coax some nice work from Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love (1960). Under the circumstances it hardly mattered that Rich and Famous (1981) was a basically unsuccessful update of Old Acquaintance: the point, surely, is that it was made at all, and that the 82 year old Cukor was still around to make it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Irving Brecher, Hail and Farewell!

He wrote for the Marx Brothers and lived to see South Park. Now that's what you call living through a whole lifetime of entertainment.
No wonder he's died. Wouldn't you?
Irving Brecher was the only man to ever get solo writing credit on a Marx Brothers movie. He was also a good friend of Groucho's and, if rumours be believed, an occasional stand-in for him in MGM publicity photos when the man himself was elsewhere. As you can see, they do look sort of similar. (He's the one on the left.)

Brecho, who also wrote lots of proper films including Meet Me In St Louis, was 94. I'm not going to get sentimental and claim that either of his efforts were great Marx Brothers films; in fact Go West gets my vote as the worst, and by a pretty safe margin.
But Brecher is not the man to blame. For one thing, one man in a room on his own is simply not how great Marx scripts get written: they need the energy of noisy collaboration, the escalating invention that comes of great writers coming up with toppers, then topping the toppers, then topping the topper that topped the topper.

Secondly, a great Marx Brothers film needs energy from the performers, and by the time they made At The Circus and Go West the boys were almost completely devoid of enthusiasm, spontaneity and improvisational spark. They just go through the motions, so that even Brecher's best lines don't get the treatment they deserve.

Most importantly, and not coincidentally, these films suffer from the MGM effect. MGM was where great comedians went to die; they simply had no idea about comedy, and no qualms about enforcing that ignorance on the comedians they hired. The Brothers had found something approaching a kindred spirit in Irving Thalberg, the young maverick who saved their careers with A Night at the Opera, but when he suddenly died during production of A Day at the Races they were left to the mercy of Louis Mayer, who hated them.

MGM were literal about everything; everything had to be explained, nothing could be funny for the sake of it. They understood nothing of comedy characterisation, and set about ruining the Marx screen personae with the same zeal they wielded to finish Keaton and would soon use to poleaxe Stan Laurel.
The Paramount Marxes were spirits, ideas floating on air, with no more substance than the sum total of the words they said and the things they did. At MGM they're wacky. They're funny fellows. Chico is an obtuse simpleton with a meaningless foreign accent, Harpo is a figure of puckish near-pathos, and Groucho is a funny conman, a wisecracking incompetent sporting - in both Brecher movies - an obvious and repulsive wig.

These are the problems Brecher inherited along with the commission and it should be said that, especially in At The Circus, he makes a far better job of it that we have any right to expect. Look past the MGM sheen, and Groucho's wig, and Harpo's sneezing, and there's plenty to enjoy. It's an under-rated film, not far below the standard of A Day At The Races, its somewhat over-rated predecessor.
The scene where Harpo and Chico search the strongman's room is vintage stuff, as is the final image of the orchestra floating obliviously out to sea; the Groucho-Dumont scene is good enough, and there are a couple of good moments in the gala dinner - Groucho counting the heads and musing on the unlikelihood of getting seconds, and stalling for time with "I'll have another cup of coffee!", the film's equivalent of "and two hard-boiled eggs".

I also like the scene with the midget and the cigars. So what if it's out of character? So was the tutsi-fruitsi ice cream sketch in Races. At this stage of the game, I say if it's funny be grateful for it. The days when you could afford to be picky about this sort of thing were long gone by this point. Likewise, the slapstick finale may well be a cruel misuse of the team's true talents, but it's good fun.

So no, Irving Brecher did not write great Marx Brothers movies. But as James Agee wrote of A Night In Casablanca: "It is beside the main point to add that it isn't one of their best movies; for the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of."
My sentiments exactly. Irving Brecher, hail and farewell.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The LFF and other good reasons for not going anywhere near a cinema

How often do you go to the movies these days? I used to go all the time, and while it was rare indeed that I saw anything I thought genuinely worthy of seeing again, very little actually put me off coming back. Now I look at the listings, keen to at least keep my hand in, and the decision has gone from what would I most like to see? to what would I like to see at all? to what can I bear to see? The answer is very, very little and the result is that whole months now go by when nothing other than a Sunday afternoon rep show gets me inside a cinema, though inside a cinema is still my favourite place to be.
Movies have always been bad sometimes. Indeed, they've been mostly bad since at least the fifties, perhaps even the forties. But now they're unendurable. They fall into two categories - silly and serious - just as they always have. But now the silly ones are taken seriously, which means they take themselves seriously, which means they are unwatchably pretentious. And the serious ones are even worse.

The London Film Festival rolled by again this month. Every year it gets worse. Think cinema speaks in many voices? Look at the highlights of the LFF catalogue this year:

Opening Night Gala: Frost/Nixon
The Times Gala: W
Centrepiece Gala: Waltz With Bashir
("One night in a bar, an old friend tells film director Ari about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs... The two men conclude that there's a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon war of the early eighties... this tremendously powerful anti-war movie, presented in the form of an animated documentary... Drawing parallels between Nazi death camps and the refugee camps in which Palestinians were housed and persecuted in Lebanon...")
Tiscali Gala: Che (Part 1 & Part 2)
("A tale of idealism, tenacity and sacrifice, it illustrates why he remains a potent symbol of idealism and heroism around the world.")
Time Out Special Screening: Hunger
("... a work of outstanding boldness and beauty... to be applauded for reminding us in brilliant, uncompromising fashion of the lived experiences of a period of our recent history that is often shamefully forgotten.")

Nixon was a bastard, Bush is a moron, Israel is like Nazi Germany, Che is a potent symbol of heroism, Irish Republican murderers were treated inexcusably by the authorities. If that's not enough divergence of opinion for you, the festival also has The Baader Meinhof Complex, the sexier side of terrorist murder, and a couple of hilarious talks and conferences.
One is called 'The Ethical Problem of Violence on Film'. The blurb opines:

From Bonnie & Clyde and Dirty Harry to Reservoir Dogs and Irréversible, violence in film has traditionally divided both critics and audiences - not to mention the MPAA and the BBFC - in their opinions of what is acceptable and what is not. Film-makers arguably have an ethical and moral responsibility and sometimes walk a fine line when trying to represent genocide, war and other brutal acts of violence on screen, without being exploitative.

Even if such subjects had anything to do with the standard content of debates about screen violence, which of course they do not, why exactly do "film-makers arguably have an ethical and moral responsibility... when trying to represent genocide, war and other brutal acts of violence on screen, without being exploitative". How pompous has cinema become in a hundred years? The point of cinema is take a nickel from a sucker on the assurance that you will take away his cares for two hours. That's it. It's a business, one that once prided itself on giving value for money by providing the best entertainment humans could produce. Now it is a back street enterprise, either a seedy peep show in which you can watch folks being tied to chairs and tortured (in 3-D now!) or a draughty lecture hall echoing to the undergraduate whining of attention seeking show-offs.

Even more hilarious is 'Cinema under George W. Bush: Eight Years of Attack and Counter Attack':

With the US Presidential election just days after the end of this year's LFF, we thought it appropriate to analyse the impact that George W. Bush and his administration have had on US and world cinema over the past eight years. Since the World Trade Centre attacks, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the overall war on terror and the treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Bush's actions have inspired many film-makers to voice their opinions cinematically.
After Fahrenheit 9/11 opened the floodgates, a deluge of responsive films followed, representing every possible point of view. But recently, films like Lions for Lambs, Redacted (both in LFF 2007), In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss have not been fully embraced by US critics, and similarly themed films that have dealt directly with the issues, have only scored well at the box office if they take a principled stand against terrorism.
After years of filmic reflection on the direct effects of US foreign policy on other countries as well as their own, there seems to be an increasing trend amongst US film-makers like Alex Gibney and Kelly Reichardt (both of whom have films in this year's Festival) to analyse what is happening to the collective psyche of their own country. Perhaps this can also be seen, in some way, as a more subtle effect of the Bush era. We bring together a select group of film-makers and social commentators to explore this fascinating topic.

They "only scored well at the box office if they (took) a principled stand against terrorism"! Some people just don't want to learn, do they? I sometimes think these common clay types really don't deserve the geniuses they keep from the necessity of working for a living. Talk about ungrateful!
There is nothing more frustrating than idiots who don't know they are idiots because nobody is willing to tell them. If only it were possible to convey to these people how utterly irrelevant they are to just about everybody in the entire universe, how their drivelling 'insights' are unheard by all but the tiniest clique of people who agree with them anyway, how the only thing more ludicrous than the presumption that "US film-makers like Alex Gibney and Kelly Reichardt (both of whom have films in this year's Festival)" have the right "to analyse what is happening to the collective psyche of their own country" is the suggestion that they have the competence to. It makes you want to stand on your seat at the NFT and proclaim:
I have no idea who US film-makers Alex Gibney and Kelly Reichardt (both of whom have films in this year's festival) are. If I ever find out who they are it will be accidentally. I will never, ever need to know who they are, and my life will not be enriched one jot if any such awareness comes to me unrequested. They mean nothing to me. Without seeing any, I know what their films will be like. Without hearing any, I know what their opinions will be. They and their work do not conform to any definition of 'film' or 'film-maker' I endorse or cherish. And I will not sit down until you show a Laurel and Hardy film.

The other line that made me laugh out loud was the one about the deluge of post- 11th September films "representing every possible point of view".
Oh, yes. I remember those.
No wonder real people have no alternative than to go see Batman movies. My local Odeon has special senior citizens afternoons where pensioners can enjoy a movie at reduced rates with free tea and biscuits. What's this week's offering? The Dark Knight. What else? Watch this and shut up, wrinklies. It's our culture or nothing.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Living History: Mary Carlisle

I wrote here, following the death of Anita Page, that I would try to highlight all the living screen stars of the thirties (and perhaps forties) I could find, every criminally untapped first-hand resource, with real, living memories of what it was like to work under the studio system, on the sound-stages, and with the directors and moguls and fellow stars of Hollywood's golden age.

It's not as if there are scores of them out there, so why are they not being interviewed at vast and fanatical length, on film and in print? Soon enough, they will all be gone.

Let's start, then, with Mary Carlisle, a thirties starlet of whom much was predicted but little that was momentous materialised, save that very thing this strand intends going out of its way to emphasise the value of: a routine career in movies, in the most amazing place, at the most amazing moment, the movies will ever know.

Born in 1912, Mary was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1932 (thirteen starlets chosen from all the studios by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as the most likely candidates for future stardom). The picks of Mary's year, 1932, feature in a delightful Hollywood on Parade short, in which the girls are stood in a line and, as in a beauty pageant, each is asked a single, fairly inane question. (Some, notably theatre-trained Gloria Stuart, are clearly not having a good time.) It has to be said that the WAMPAS predictions were rarely accurate, and Mary proved to be one of the majority from whom the anticipated superstardom was withheld. (Of her year, only she, Stuart and Laurel & Hardy co-star Dorothy Layton are still alive.)

The WAMPAS stars of '32: Mary's on the left of the trio in the front row, Gloria Stuart and Ginger Rogers are standing at the back; name the others, I dare you.

Her screen debut was a memorable walk-on in De Mille's Madam Satan as Little Bo Peep in the zeppelin costume parade. More bits and walk-ons followed, in Frank Tuttle's This Reckless Age, Passion Flower with Kays Francis and Johnson, and Grand Hotel (as honeymooner Mrs Hoffman).
In her WAMPAS year she took featured supporting roles in a number of pre-Code eye-openers for MGM, Fox and several independents, including Night Court with Walter Huston and Anita Page.
From here, she drifted into the (often) college-based musical comedy revues made definitively (but not exclusively) at Paramount, typically showcasing the likes of Crosby, Burns & Allen and Jack Oakie. Mary was the foxy blonde partway down the cast list in College Humour, Saturday's Millions (both 1933) and several other Crosby pictures through the thirties, and the lead in the indies The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1933) and Girl o' My Dreams (1934). She was also made welcome in frantic, lowbrow comedies like Should Ladies Behave? (1933) and the boxing comedy Palooka (1934) with Jimmy Durante and Thelma Todd.
All of this should have been enough to catapult her into the big league; she was certainly attractive, her round, slightly sleepy face a likeable mix of Todd, Harlow and Toby Wing. Instead, though she was often to be seen in major studio releases she was never able to break out of supporting roles, showing up behind Lionel Barrymore and Mae Clarke in MGM drama This Side of Heaven (1934), and Ralph Bellamy and Fay Wray in Once To Every Woman (1934). MGM paired her with Una Merkel (they play switchboard operators) in a charming second-feature (Murder in the Private Car [1934]), but her daily lot seemed fixed as fourth-billed ingenues or decorative support to comics (Will Rogers in Handy Andy, Wheeler & Wolsey in Kentucky Kernels [both 1934], Jack Benny in It's In The Air [1935]).
Through the thirties she remained popular without ever becoming a genuine star. Sensing that the majors would never come to her rescue, she came increasingly to accept the overtures of the Poverty Row studios, where smaller films at least offered larger roles, and for a few years at least she was able to successfully combine featured work for the independents with support work (and the occasional musical comedy: she's terrific in the Preston Sturges-scripted farce Hotel Haywire [1937]) for the majors.
At the time this decision, also made by many another star both before Carlisle and after, smacked of desperation, now - with the patina of charm that all thirties films possess - many of these cheapies make for a fine hour and five minutes of entertainment. (Which do you prefer - the demeaned Lugosi that hangs around Universal's back entrance looking for scraps in the likes of Night Monster or Black Friday, or the imperious one that lords it at PRC and Monogram in The Devil Bat and Bowery at Midnight?)
So what if the sets are cheap and the film-making perfunctory? It's great to see Carlisle finally get the camera's undivided attention in the spooky mystery One Frightened Night (1935) and the PRC horror Dead Men Walk (1943). She also did some good, pacy B-thrillers for Paramount: Tip-Off Girls, Hunted Men and Illegal Traffic (all 1938) and a couple of Republic westerns.
But she was losing enthusiasm by the end of the thirties, and after a support role in a Dorothy Arzner ballet drama (Dance, Girl, Dance [1940]) she made only another three movies, two for PRC and one for something called Pine-Thomas Productions. The PRCs are an odd pair: Baby Face Morgan (1942) is best (if hardly clearly) described as a non-gangster movie, with another thirties wash-up, the likeable Richard Cromwell. Her last film of all, Dead Men Walk, is a fascinating vampire film with George Zucco at full speed as twins, one good (and bald) one vampiric (and wearing a wig), and Dwight Frye, unrecognisably at the end of his tether, shortly before his death the same year. Mary does the screaming heroine as well as anyone on the Universal lot; perhaps she could have gone on a few more years in this mode... Instead, she gracefully bowed out.
As I said at the outset, it is not a career studded with great roles or great movies. But it is a full career, it is a life lived at the heart of Hollywood, at MGM and Paramount and RKO and Columbia as well as at Republic and PRC. It is a career full of interest, as the less linear and cosseted ones so often are. Doubtless she has much to tell us, if we will only listen.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Hallowe'en!

The Munsters' favourite holiday has come round again.
Here to help you celebrate are five recommended movies, in increasing order of scariness, to add the finishing touch to the day.

1. I Married A Witch (1942)
Rene Clair, French master behind Le Million, came to America in the forties and by some oversight was actually given worthwhile things to do. This could be the most delightful Hollywood comedy of the forties, with Veronica Lake in the role she was born to play: a Salem witch putting the hex on aspiring politician Fredric March. First class whimsy, with Lake at her most iconic and front-rank support from Cecil Kellaway, Susan Hayward and the great Robert Benchley.

............. Veronica Lake: What Hallowe'en was invented for

2. House of Frankenstein (1944)
A convenient quick fix of Universal monsters: in the space of one hour and eleven minutes mad scientist Boris Karloff and hunchback assistant J. Carrol Naish break out of a lunatic asylum, strangle George Zucco and steal his travelling Chamber of Horrors show, revive Dracula (John Carradine) and set him loose on a killing spree, discover the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange in the first of his Karloff-equalling three turns in the role) frozen in blocks of ice, thaw them out and set them loose on killing sprees. At the end Naish gets thrown out of a window and Karloff is sucked down in a bog. But I'm telling you the plot. Plus a surprise appearance by Sig Rumann, blustering foil to the Marx Brothers who enjoys the peculiar distinction of playing a senior medical expert called in to expose a patient with fake symptoms in no fewer than four totally separate and unconnected movies.

3. Night of the Demon (1957)
Genuinely spooky British horror film, made seconds before the Hammer revolution by the director of several of the best Val Lewton films. A most persuasively eerie atmosphere, a fine, literate script and Niall MacGinnis beating even Charles Gray to the title of cinema's best ever Satanist as Julian Karswell, leader of an English devil cult and expert on dancing witches ("They do dance; I've seen them!")

Paulette Goddard done up like a cat in a publicity photo with an at best tangential relationship to the films being discussed. I anticipate no complaints.

4. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
The most enjoyable sequel to an acclaimed original which, nonetheless, only really works once. This, the first after a long lay-off and the odd diversion that was Halloween III: Season of the Witch plays far better, though saying that is the kind of heresy that can get you burned at the stake. Good ranting from Donald Pleasence and one of cinema's most convincing ever child performances from Danielle Harris, who later turned up fully grown in Urban Legend and that fucking awful Halloween remake.

5. Suspiria (1977)
Argento at his most hallucinatory: as always, great so long as you know what you're getting. A German ballet school staffed by witches is the excuse for hysterical violence on insanely saturated Technicolor stock, dream logic and just about passable dialogue and plotting. This has one of his better casts, including Jessica Harper from Stardust Memories as the Little Red Riding Hood heroine and Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, no less, as the witches, but it is the visuals and pounding score by Italian prog-rockers Goblin that are the heart of the show. Ideal for traumatising any young trick-or-treaters who come to your door in the mistaken belief that we live in America.

Monday, September 15, 2008

At last! A film about a duchess or something

When did things start being 'about' other things?

By which I mean, when in everyday speech did things first become routinely described as 'about' things, and just as importantly 'not about' other things, as in "it's not about you, it's about me!" or "this isn't about your career, it's about our marriage"?
My memory puts it not much earlier than 1990 or so, round about the same time that "she said" mutated into "she was, like", the origins of both probably to be found in the weird, quasi-naturalistic scripts of the tv programme Eastenders. If I'm right, it must qualify as the most ubiquitous anachronism in modern film and drama. No period is too distant, no speaker too formal, for things or situations to be about or not about other things or situations.

Now we have Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire doing it. But then, so much currency has been made of this film's parallels with more recent experience that it could be deliberate. Other common anachronisms in which this film likewise indulges most certainly are.

It is obvious that certain everyday aspects of distant history are now so remote from common experience that they have to be ignored by modern dramatists simply so as to make sense to modern viewers. But it is less widely acknowledged, but just as clear, that certain aspects of the contemporary worldview are deemed so essential to our basic sense of ourselves as humans that they must be grafted on to all historical narratives, willingly sacrificing verisimilitude to avoid the hoots of derision that would arise from characters not conforming to them. Shouting at each other in public is an example of this, and all other manifestations of the inability to control emotions, impulses or desires, and keep thoughts and opinions private. Ditto sexual promiscuity, the free granting of sexual access at the initial stages of courtship and swearing.
We know from old television that even as recently as the 1950's the middle classes spoke with the kind of cut glass precision that would now be laughed off the screen even if uttered by, say, a Victorian aristocrat. Joanna Lumley is about as posh as even the poshest historical characters are now allowed to sound.

Something else we insist upon is conformity to contemporary standards of physical attractiveness, not in women so much as men. The oily-quiffed Roman centurions of the Tony Curtis era may strike us as hilarious now, but still we insist on having 18th century characters ripping off their shirts to reveal the kind of absurdly deformed bodies that speak of many a long and narcissistic hour in those temples of Hitlerian perfectionism known euphemistically as 'health clubs', as if the basically sedentary life of the average Whig aristocrat, massive banquets and long days of attending to business interspersed with the occasional mannered dance and stag hunt, could possibly leave him with the pectoral definition of an Action Man doll.
The Duchess is basically the usual sort of thing. It's not much better or worse than the others, barring one brilliantly directed scene in which Keira Knightley's hair catches alight at a party. But I still lost interest fairly quickly: it's basically the usual story of idiots ruining their own lives and the lives of others in an ever-widening circle of selfishness and emotional incontinence. Such twerps were comparatively rare in the eighteenth century, that greatest of all centuries, but rest assured: if any existed at all, we of the twenty-first will find them and make celebratory movies about the messes they made.
The other thing you have to quickly come to terms with about this film is that it's about Whigs, whom years of reading Johnson have conditioned me to view as essentially comic figures, like Jehovah's Witnesses. No doubt there were greater and lesser ones as there are in all clubs, but still I hear the Doctor snapping impatiently at my magnanimity: "They are vile Whigs, and there's an end on't!"
The earlier parts are interesting, and there are some very good chilly meal scenes, filmed in longshot with the characters at either ends of an absurdly long table. But it all got pretty silly by the end, with the characters yelling at each other in public and staggering about weeping. No doubt the sequence of events is historically accurate, but as to the character motivation: I just don't believe it.

But still, it's Keira. Some say her best performance yet, and quite possibly so. Who cares, really? It's Keira. Let her give any kind of performance she wants, I say. Have her come on reading her lines off sheets of paper; see if I care.

"The quickest way to bond with another woman is to ask them what they think of Keira Knightley."
Straight up: I heard two women saying this as they walked past me in Muswell Hill the other day. I didn't get to hear what the adhesive opinion would inevitably be, but from the tone of voice I'm guessing it's not favourable. The review of this film in The Spectator takes issue with "her distracting quirks, like the pout, and the way her nose pinches in at the end when she is about to cry."
Who does it remind you of? This talk of mannerisms and affectations, coupled paradoxically with boundless fascination in the print media, endless close-ups on screen, and the general ability to open just about any film purely on the strength of what Variety used to call 'the femme ticket'?
It's Bette Davis. Keira is not Bette Davis, of course. But then, who is? So she'll do while we're waiting.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Arthur Askey: He showed symptoms of being able to amuse

Arthur Askey's autobiography reproduces the following review of an early stage appearance:

Mr Arthur Askey is a very short man with red hair and a pair of very large horn-rimmed spectacles... He showed symptoms of being able to amuse in a way of his own... He did not dance, but looks as if he could.

Not the most auspicious critical hurrah ever penned perhaps, but there have certainly been worse, and it's more or less right in its essentials: he was a very short man with red hair and glasses, he could dance, after a fashion, and those symptoms of being able to amuse would soon develop into a full-blown case of delighting several generations.
Physically, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey is a quite amazing specimen: five foot two, with slicked-back hair that falls in lanky curtains when the comedy gets physical and round glasses set in slightly abnormal, undeveloped features; he looks pale and misshapen, covered in liver spots and freckles.
But when he’s in flight, your eyes never leave him; he knows how to play the imagined cinema audience as surely as he commanded a live one.

Today, I suppose, he is most famous for being the man who sings “The Bee Song”, and other less instantly hummable comic numbers. (Of all his comic songs, my favourite is “All To Specification”, an ode to jerry-built housing:

Our bathroom’s rather small but really all that we require,
The plughole’s always bunged up so I poke it with a wire,
We’ve got two taps marked HOT and COLD but one of them’s a liar
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!
The gable-end fell down today and messed things up a bit,
The builder he came round and said, I knows the cause of it,
The bricks ain’t had no mortar on, they stuck them on with spit
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!)

After success in concert parties and variety, his big break came with the BBC radio series Band Waggon, the most popular and anarchic comedy show of the thirties, performed with the impeccable assistance of the great Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, a beautifully stylish performer, later co-writer and star of the impossibly perfect Much Binding In The Marsh.

Purporting to be an account of how the radio series first came to the air, Band Waggon the movie (1939) is a joy because it is basically a revue; like the Crazy Gang’s Okay For Sound it eschews plot and just threads together set pieces and turns from stacks of top, middle and lower variety acts of the time, headed by Jack Hylton and his orchestra. The great Pat Kirkwood (who died on Christmas Day last year) joins Big and Stinker in a splendid number called “The Only One Who’s Difficult Is You” and leads the chorus in a joyous rendition of “the rage of two continents – that crazy number “Boomps-a-Daisy”.”

It’s a totally successful translation of the radio show to the screen, full of the kind of energy and sarky confidence typical of performers who know damned well they’re the hottest thing around just now.
Askey’s unfamiliarity with the process of making movies – in his autobiography he recalls how he turned up for the first day’s shooting having learned only the first few pages of script on the assumption that films were shot in sequence – has no visible effect on his performance, which hums with confidence and energy. And as it is a British comedy film made in 1939, there’s also a haunted castle and Moore Marriott. And an exploding goat.

Askey inherited both Marriott and Graham Moffat from Will Hay, and makes sound use of both, but you always notice when Murdoch’s not around. All three enliven Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940), one of those great hybrid titles like Alf’s Button Afloat, and not a straight adaptation of the play but a kind of riff on it. (That’s Phyllis Calvert, no less, doing the high class clowning as Stinker’s girlfriend – Askey even gets to kiss her full on the lips in drag.)
It was a brave try to launch Askey as a full-fledged movie star, but it was the next, The Ghost Train (1941), that struck gold: it remains Askey’s masterpiece. Odd, because there was really nothing new about it at all: Arnold Ridley’s famous play had already been adapted twice for the screen under its real name, as well as serving as obvious inspiration for two consecutive Hay-Moffat-Marriott films, Oh, Mr Porter! and Ask a Policeman.

It’s not a faithful adaptation by any means: the villains are predictably now fifth columnists, and Ridley’s main character has been split in two to accommodate Askey and Murdoch. But it remains the best version, as well as the spookiest of all the baddies-pretending-to-be-ghosts comedies, thanks to great sets and real atmosphere. The moment when the ghost train rushes through the deserted station rivals anything in The Cat and the Canary, aided by the intense performance of that great British actress Linden Travers.

Some of the best of all British comedy has relied on the surefire formula of one irritating comic stuck in a confined space with an assortment of irritable people: think Hancock in The Railway Journey or its unacknowledged remake The Lift, or Norman Wisdom on the train in One Good Turn. But both are amateurs alongside Askey here: he mercilessly pummels his victims with crass observations, end-of-the-pier gags and groundless good cheer.
The joke is partly that Askey’s faith in his likeability never falters now matter how often his efforts are repulsed, but mainly the fun of the attack itself: Askey’s barrage of quips, impersonations and inane suggestions for passing the time versus the undentable contempt of his fellow travellers, at least one of whom teeters constantly on the brink of doing him serious physical harm.
The one song in the film, Askey’s delightful performance of “The Seaside Band” ends halfway through when the gramophone he is using for accompaniment is thrown on to the line. It is one of the supreme comic performances of British films.

Let’s hope Ridley had a sense of humour because Back Room Boy (1942) remade the story yet again, this time in a lighthouse (the surprise high-class cheesecake coming courtesy of a thin-gowned and soaking wet Googie Withers: British low comedy was an invaluable opportunity for posh leading ladies to kick off their corsets).
But in between came I Thank You (1941), easily the most graceful and satisfying of the Askey vehicles created expressly for him.
It’s a pot-pourri again; basically a sitcom but with several breaks for revue turns from the supporting bill. (Lily Morris, who plays a stuffy aristocrat all through the film steps out of character at the end for a lap of honour rendition of “Waiting At the Church”.) It fudges the decision of what Arthur the film character actually does by making him a theatrical; many of the later films falter in their efforts to account for this essentially impossible personality in reasonable narrative terms. No such trouble here, though: this is – for the last time, really – Askey at the height of his powers.
The first scene, with Askey waking up in Bond Street tube station and singing “Hello To The Sun” must have had an incredible impact at the time – and not even Formby could have pulled it off quite so infectiously. (A fascinating weird joke, too, as Arthur spots a dead ringer for Hitler among those sleeping, and is visibly relieved to discover he has a copy of the Jewish Chronicle.)
It’s also the best-proportioned use of Askey, Murdoch, Moffat and Marriott as a four-man team. There are some good lines for all of them, but more importantly, this is the film in which they really spark visually. They look like a team, not least in a large-scale slapstick scene, strong in both idea and execution, involving tins of brown paint and several dogs.
All this and the sheer joy of Askey and Murdoch singing together at the piano:

I’d share my last penny with you,
I’d split my last farthing in two.
We’ll go fifty-fifty on all I’ve got,
Half of everything is yours.

Then just when you think it can’t get more enchanting, they both tap dance. (Stinker’s really good.)
The film ends with a tube station full of air raid shelterers vigorously joining in with a vicious, incongruously jaunty singalong that goes:

Let’s get hold of Hitler,
String him up on high.
Anyone in favour?
Aye, Aye, Aye!

Part of Askey's appeal through the war years is attributable to the fact that his distinctive comic persona – the inveterate perfomer, irrepressible and irreverent even when circumstances demand sobriety – seemed to symbolise the preferred British attitude to adversity.

A completely inexplicable photograph of Arthur Askey reading Colin Wilson's Origins of the Sexual Impulse.

As already noted, it was back on the ghost train for Back Room Boy, with Moffat and Marriott but no Stinker, and you do miss him, especially when Askey inadvertently draws attention to the loss by conversing with himself. At last the writers have taken the plunge and made Askey a real man in a real world, with things to strive for and a girl to get: the only way from here is pathos, as nervously tried in King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942).
It's not too bad, but it's not vintage either, with Arthur as a weakling soldier who finds heroic reserves of bravery when he wields a sword he believes to be Excalibur. He eventually discovers what we knew all along - that the sword was a prank engineered by his fellow soldiers and his courage was all his own - but in an ending so funny and so right that nobody bothered to point out it totally undermines the entire film, he flings it into a lake, whereupon it is caught elegantly by a woman's arm!

Askey's film decline was inevitable in a sense: he was a revue comic with no business in movies, and we should be grateful that such was the professional excellence of British comedy cinema at this time we have even as much imperishable Askey celluloid as we do. From here, however, there was only one way to go, exacerbated by a foolish desire to launch him internationally, resulting in a pair of garish, pseudo-American odities: Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944), with musical guests aping Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters, and poor Arthur forced to crack wise in painfully obvious imitation of Hope and Crosby.

Wisely, he hurried back to the stage, and then to television, where he triumphed in several series of Before Your Very Eyes in the early to mid fifties. The shows were deliberately under-rehearsed so as to convey an infectious sense of fun, and Askey later claimed they pioneered the now standard television techniques of addressing the home audience, acknowledging the presence of cameras, walking on and off the set, and retaining fluffed lines and corpsing.
The programme's other great innovation was Sabrina (real name: Norma Sykes), a protegee of Askey's with platinum blonde hair, a cute, giggly personality and a pair of breasts that even today retain the capacity to startle and transfix audiences encountering them unawares or for the first time.
Endearingly unprofessional, Askey claimed she was deliberately chosen because "she had a lovely face and figure but could not act, sing, dance or even walk properly."

Stage success in a farce called The Love Match led to the chance to appear in a film version in 1954: though relentlessly frenetic it was a big hit, and led to another round of movies, alongside uninterrupted popularity in stage and tv.
His last film appearance (in the British sex comedy Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse) came in 1978, and he was still doing the Royal Variety Show in 1980 (at the age of 80). He published his autobiography Before Your Very Eyes in 1975. Entirely unghosted, it mixes the expected fascinating theatrical detail with some surprising revelations and deviations. There's an anecdote about Enoch Powell sending Askey a letter apologising for not knowing who he was when they met at a function, a rant about hooliganism at sporting events, a moving chapter about his late wife’s losing battle with senile dementia, and this about his hatred of horse racing:

I loathe owners, trainers, jockeys, bookies, commentators, punters, betting shops – anything at all to do with racing, except the horses themselves. Having seen the Grand National, it was always my ambition to throw a saddle over Mrs Mirabelle Topham and ride her over the appalling Aintree fences. I think that racing attracts the layabouts from every strata of society and if I were a dictator, I would stop racing of every kind. There is only one motive for the racegoer, and that is how to make money without working for it.

But fate at its cruellest eventually levelled him, and Askey died in 1982.
Since then, his popularity has fallen away, and his reputation is now sport for the ignorant. You may remember the Arthur Atkinson sketches in The Fast Show. Your grandchildren won't.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Horrors enough

The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is apparently the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn. Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.
No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.
Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.

It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.
And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. Coarsened sensibilities both are coarsened and coarsen others, and the ride never stops.

The name of the game now is realism. The killers are real, the killings are real, the pitilessness is real, the gloating over sadism is real, the hopelessness is real.
Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath.
Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

Then, of course, there is The Dark Knight, the essence of modern culture if ever I trod in it: a Batman film passed for twelve year olds in which the kiddies get to enjoy a dead actor playing a ghoulishly made-up psychopath rhapsodising about the pleasures of slow torture and murder with a knife as opposed to a quick shooting, in which guns are pressed to the heads of an abducted child and a mother in front of her screaming children, plus a man in a bat costume with a little pointy-eared mask.
It even managed to briefly rouse the long-dormant pro-censorship camp, with an unlikely new spokesman in the form of Ian Duncan Smith, who wrote letters to newspapers protesting at its 12A rating:
Heath Ledger's Joker... [obligatory praise for this dead actor's hammy and totally uninteresting performance omitted] extols the use of knives to kill and disfigure his victims, during a reign of urban terrorism, laced with torture. It is a relentlessly violent film, filled with dark themes, and as I left I wondered what the board could possibly have been thinking.

Lest he be thought uncool, however, he was however very quick to stress that

I am not complaining about the film: I enjoyed it and thought it very well made.

Bang goes his credibility then. The BBFC responded with a dash of point-missing gibberish (Times, August 5th):

The board maintains that 82 complaints is a tiny fraction of the 4.7 million Britons who have been to see the film. Sue Clark, a spokeswoman for the board, said that the film was at the upper limit of the 12A bracket, but that violence was more acceptable because of the superhero context.The board's website states: "The Dark Knight is a superhero movie and the violence it contains exists within that context..."

There's a scary statistic for you: 4.7 million Britons have seen this film. You're sure to know at least one. As for the board's protestations: good point about the violence existing within a context, that hadn't struck me, but where was the praise for Heath Ledger's brilliant performance or any use of the word 'dark' to approvingly describe the film? Try harder, Sue.

Then, vile unconcern about all this stuff from Carol Sarler in the Times (August 11th), whose blood-boilingly smug one-eyebrow-raised mugshot on her byline sets the tone for the ensuing dreary polemic.
This woman had earlier written a piece about Gary Glitter that had me pondering for some time. Her point was that when a man serves his sentence we presume him to have paid his penance and we either leave him alone and give him every courtesy we would accord any other free man, or else we rethink our entire approach to crime and punishment; there's no middle ground. I couldn't understand for ages why I found it so annoying, since her point was a basically sound one. Then I realised: it was the tone of pleasure articulating this quandary seemed to engender in her, as if she was above the ethical dilemmas of we mere mortals and was looking down and watching us squirm in our moral mazes with benevolent superiority.
That tone, coupled with no new ideas and unbelievable complacency, is carried over here. Virtually every line throws up a fresh howler; the weariness of the arguments is instantly signposted by the piece's title:

Haven't we seen all this before?
We are in the grip of a public obsession with the lifestyle of our young that affects a bewildered unfamiliarity coupled with a prophecy of doom. This, they say, is the end of youth as we know it - yet the truth is the reverse: it is youth precisely as we knew it. In fact, it is hard to think of any apparently shocking story pertaining to the growing generation that does not have a direct corollary with the grown one...
Look at the fuss this week about Batman and the assumed effect upon unformed minds of blades, blood and violence. But wasn't it the same with the gruesome little Chuckie [sic]? And despite the direst of predictions that surrounded Clockwork Orange, there never was an epidemic of tramps being kicked to death in gutters.
“Influences”, of course, have always been the bane of adult life, involving as they do the notion of control beyond our own. Parents of very young girls are up in arms about a doll unsubtly known as Miss Bimbo, who is preposterously shaped and therefore bound to distort - not to mention sexualise - our babies. Yet wasn't the Barbie doll, 50 years old this year, also preposterously shaped?
[A billion or so similar examples making equally self-disproving points omitted]
Knives? Teddy boys carried them. Binge drinking? If you had seen my generation of squaddies at chuck-out time in Aldershot, you'd see scant change now. Drugs? In the 1970s there were an estimated three million people routinely breaking the law by smoking cannabis - and if the names of the substances have changed, their ingestion has not...
The last generation with a genuine excuse for failing to understand its young was that of the Fifties and Sixties; before “teenagers” were invented and before we - yes, we - created the enduring explosions of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Which is why, instead of parents looking to the State to deal with the “problems” of youth, and the State looking helplessly back, both might do better to look into a mirror.Then calm down; after all, the odd hot-air balloon notwithstanding, most of us got there in the end.

Rarely has the phrase "most of us" been so chilling in its implications.
And teddy boys may well have carried knives, but is it the carrying we are worried about or the thirty-plus deaths in London alone so far this year?
And why are A Clockwork Orange and Chucky different problems from The Dark Knight? Why can't they all go together to form evidence of the same thing? They are the same problem - sorry, "problem" - viewed from three different relatively recent points in its history.
This tendency to view a handful of especial causes celebre as isolated and unconnected incidents is sheer ignorance: we're talking about cultural trends - the new low of one film creates the environment in which the excesses of the second are then permitted, so leading to the third, and so on, each with an obvious and inarguable associative effect upon everyday reality.
And as for that epidemic of people being kicked to death in gutters never happening - depends on what streets you live on, Carol. Does the name Garry Newlove ring a bell? Of course it doesn't: that was nowhere near Notting Hill. Stupid question.
So hateful is this kind of smug remoteness from street-level reality, that dares to pontificate about that of which it experiences nothing and to dismiss the alienation and despair that is now the daily lot of so many gentle, decent people, you end up disgracing yourself by thinking: just once, if these things must happen, at least let them happen to someone like that...
Shameful, unquestionably, but such is the anger.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did. Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen. In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose. The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger. You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disemboweled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer. He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."
Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.