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.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Arthur Lowe: The greatest actor ever?


I blush to admit it now, but until recently I was of the view that Dad’s Army belonged in the second drawer of television sitcoms. This is the one above ‘delightful ephemera set in a living room that goes through into the kitchen’, but below the ones with something Important about them. This latter was more or less empty but for the black and white Steptoes and the first series of Reginald Perrin, and compared to these, Dad’s Army seemed delightful but insubstantial.
Let us agree that it is cheap and cheerful, and that parts of it are visibly under-rehearsed and under-budgeted. Many would certainly argue that it was a reactionary response to the immense cultural changes of the late sixties: a retreat into an idealised past which it gently mocks but always prefers to contemporary reality, nostalgia as anaesthetic.
Did Perry and Croft spend their careers bottling harmless nostalgia for Middle England? It may once have seemed so. Now their work seems to get richer and deeper all the time, and it is looking as though they did not so much shy away from reality as turn their backs on it, and that posterity has vindicated the decision.
Perry & Croft are the odd-pair-out of sitcom’s three great writing duos. In Dad’s Army they chose to completely ignore the social comment and growing realism pioneered by Galton & Simpson and carried on by Clement and LeFrenais, and drew on nothing else that was fashionable or conventional in television at the time. It was one of the last products of the great BBC variety tradition, which encouraged us to think of the tv set as a little theatre on which players parade for our amusement, not as a separate medium with its own rules and conventions. Dad’s Army is written for this little theatre. Contrastingly, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is written for television. It has more in common with Play For Today than any kind of pre-television comedy.
Perry & Croft preferred to close their curtains to the belching chimneys and, holding fast to the vanishing definition of comedy that goes something like “the art of providing uplift through the depiction of amusing situations and characters”, looked to the great days of music hall (in which Perry, in particular, was steeped) and British comedy cinema of the thirties and forties (especially Will Hay) for the style they wished to duplicate.
Rather than hiding in the past, I now think that they were using the past to provide the correct backdrop for all that they thought most important in British comedy, and perhaps most in danger of being lost in the sixties shuffle. They came to praise tradition, not to bury it, and while this can be seen as the ultimate reactionary gesture, it has to be remembered that to anti-modernists nostalgia is far from an aimless, wishy-washy kind of attitude but a potent and galvanising force. To abandon the promise of sixties radicalism and to run, as early as 1969, in the exact opposite direction of cultural traffic is in itself a meaningful gesture, certainly not one made in ignorance of the cultural trajectory and momentum of the times. If Perry & Croft really could see the game was up this early then they, surely, are the radicals.
So they set to work. They got the right casts, wrote the right words and slowly it all started slotting into place. It was not welcomed by the BBC and even the public took their time, yet it has turned into a living thing, as well as a repository of lines and characters who endure as Sherlock Holmes or Pickwick or Gulliver do, independent of their eras and sources.
One of their great innovations for establishing a beloved rep company feel was the ‘You Have Been Watching’ endings, with the actors coming out one by one for your applause. (Imagine yourself looking at the monitors in the studio audience, the applause your own, perhaps increasing in volume or vigour for a particular favourite; James Beck, say.) Notice also how it forces awareness of an interesting tv convention: as at the end of a theatrical production, we applaud the featured players in contractually arranged star order, yet in the exact opposite order that they would take their bows on stage, the biggest star first instead of last. Why the difference? And how did they do it at the end of the Dad’s Army stage show?
One thing that dates the show is the large number of other members of the platoon who never do anything, other than loiter, stone-faced through the most ridiculous slapstick, mutely observing the antics in the front row. They have neither names nor personalities, they don’t talk, nobody talks to them and they don’t talk to each other. With the exception of Colin Bean’s Private Sponge - just occasionally brushed a crumb or two of exposition from Zeppo Marx’s dining table – they never have a single line of dialogue.
It is a typically unrealistic, theatrical, un-Play For Today, Perry & Croft kind of solution to a problem of logistics: the number of soldiers in a platoon is greater than the comfortable maximum of speaking parts in a sitcom. So artificial a solution would be deemed unacceptable today, in fact I’m not sure they much cared for it at the time. I suspect it is another example of how Perry & Croft ignored the conventions of their chosen medium in favour of those being evoked.
Corny old jokes are an inevitable side effect of this process. The humour is whimsical and gentle, even wistful, but shot through with sexual innuendo, slapstick and corn. That the writers thrived under each other’s influence is obvious: Croft was BBC insurance against Perry’s inexperience and penchant for dawdling whimsy, yet Croft without Perry is efficient but heartless, in the manner of ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Are You Being Served? Together their work acquired a natural balance that seems effortless. Here is a typical case of Perry gentility building and yielding to the Croft knockout punch:

Godfrey: The world’s gone mad. When I was a young man, some of we young blades decided we’d have a really good night out. We went to London; saw the show at the Gaiety Theatre. Then we had a really good slap-up supper, four courses, with wine. And then we all sailed home in hansom cabs. And do you know? We still had change left out of half a sovereign. (…)

Jones: Well I don’t think prices are too bad. Young Pikey and I went into the Rosemary Café in Eastgate the other day for lunch, didn’t we? You know what we had? We had brown windsor soup, we had whalemeat cutlets, we had mashed potatoes, swedes, tapioca pudding and a cup of tea. Ninepence. Mind you, it wasn’t very good.

Pike: I was sick.

Brain Versus Brawn is a fine example of the mix: beautifully observed character comedy in the first scene, in which Mainwaring is poignantly upstaged at a gala dinner, then some blistering slapstick in an extended sequence in which the platoon attempt to mount and drive away a fire engine; minutes pass in the attempt, all the characters are given a chance to shine.
The episode in which Mainwaring leaves Wilson in charge of the platoon while he has his ingrown toenails removed is an odd one. It’s like Croft has gone away and left Perry in charge of the programme. He returns (Mainwaring, that is), hobbling about on crutches with bandaged toes that he must frequently extricate from the path of heavy-booted feet, to find Godfrey wearing a nose-shield, Pike with a machine gun in a violin case and Fraser nursing a pregnant mouse.
Discipline is soon restored, but there remains the problem of the vicar, who has also joined the platoon in his absence. Mainwaring, and Croft, reassert themselves in the following dialogue:
Vicar: I asked myself: ‘Could I stand by and watch my wife being raped by a Nazi?’ ‘No,’ I said to myself, ‘I couldn’t’.
Mainwaring: But you’re not married.
Vicar: I have a very vivid imagination.


They are in many ways among the most unpredictable of writers: each episode of Dad’s Army has a different feel, and you never know quite what you are going to get from week to week. The cast, too, occasionally seem to belong in different shows. Some of the performances are so broad – Bill Pertwee’s, for instance – that it’s like a revue when they’re on. Clive Dunn is another. He’s brilliant, really brilliant (oh, the moment in The Honourable Man when he 'does cobblers') but he’s always Clive Dunn.
Other performers are routinely prone to breaking the fourth wall (as these buffoonish actor chaps say) with wrongly delivered or remembered dialogue. (Often, it must be said, when they have very little to learn.) This kind of spell-breaking would be impossible today: any fluffed lines are either taken out in the editing or more likely lead to the scene being aborted there and then in one of those no-longer-amusing Denis Nordern-type moments. But Dad’s Army, like a lot of older comedy, is full of occasions when the fluff actually ruins a joke, but the old troupers carry on like they were taught to, and the production team do likewise. It’s reminiscent of those old 78’s made by the great music hall stars, issued complete with false starts, coughs and errors.

It is not just the writing that we run the risk of taking for granted in Dad’s Army. There is, in particular, one performance that should, I think, be recognised both as the culmination and the perfection of a particular kind of British comic acting. It’s so good you can’t see the strings and levers; you miss the skill and the confidence of it. This performance is of Captain Mainwaring by Arthur Lowe.
If a performer is so good they never let you down, sometimes you stop seeing what they do. A sitcom performance that is utterly convincing in its recreation of a recognisable personality type tends to be recalled, and enjoyed, as the character itself, as if it’s someone we know. It’s an ironic tribute. For it is as actors that we recall those who fluff their lines, or get the emphasis wrong, or in some other technical way remind us of the artificiality of what we are watching. It is as actors we recall those whose technique is sufficiently distanced from realism by design that we are never allowed to forget it is a comic performance. And it is as actors we recall those who impose a pre-existing comic personality on to a role, so that it never takes on life independently.
But Mainwaring never surprises us because he never does anything out of character. We get used to Lowe’s excellence, we become ungrateful, we stop seeing how constantly inventive he is, how every line and gesture is separately hilarious, yet so carefully absorbed within the overall performance that never for one second do we get the chance to sit back and think of him as Arthur Lowe, the comic actor, in a cold BBC studio in 1973. He’s Mainwaring, always. We get the effect and see none of the mechanics. He’s just too good.
As an actor, we do not want him to have any personality distinct from that of his creation. This is presumably the reason why a whole bunch of divergent testimony as to his character and habits tends to be tidied up at the end of books and documentaries as the general understanding that Lowe and Mainwaring were basically interchangeable. How could they not have been? We never sense consciousness of performance in what he does, except maybe when he is given physical business, ending up with his hat and glasses askew. Then, perhaps, the actor shows through the skin, but certainly in dialogue and gesture he is peerless.
Even his catchphrases always, always work. Every single ‘you stupid boy’ pays its way; it works even when it is audaciously used as an episode punchline (When You’ve Got To Go). It’s not even true to say he doesn’t fluff lines. He does, fairly often, but always from deep within the skin of his man. Even if they did keep stopping for retakes back then, chances are they wouldn’t have bothered with Lowe’s.
There’s an exchange in The Honourable Man that illustrates perfectly how in Perry & Croft performance and script can often combine to produce something unique in its effects, and shows how a lesser actor may have actually earned a more generous response.
It’s a typical Perry and Croft situation: broad and foolish, yet still genuinely poignant. Mainwaring, jealous that Wilson has received a title, has contrived to send him off on motorcycle practice so as not to steal his own thunder during the arrival of a Russian dignitary. There’s a bit of motorbike slapstick from John Le Mesurier’s stand-in, then an exchange of comic dialogue so funny, and played so perfectly, that I’ve watched it many times without even realising it is a joke at all.
Mainwaring is at the ceremony, and some representative of army top brass asks him who is in charge of the platoon in Wilson’s absence. “Lance Corporal Jones,” he replies. Is he reliable? “Oh, yes – first class man,” says Mainwaring.
Such is the perfectly-judged arrogance of the man that he is far too busy inwardly congratulating himself for getting Wilson out of the way to think for a second about the question he has been asked or the answer he has given.
Think of all the stupid things you have seen Jones do, because they are all things that Mainwaring has also seen Jones do. And yet so pleased with himself is he, and so proud of his men, and so irrationally certain of his prowess at moulding them into a fighting force, that the question of Jones’s competence is instantly, unthinkingly dismissed with “Oh, yes – first class man.” It is a moment that cannot be improved, and it is so funny, it doesn’t get a single laugh.
In a documentary on Perry and Croft the BBC did many years back, Bob Monkhouse spoke of the value of lines that are not gag lines but are funny precisely because “that is what the man would say.” This is an example of exactly that, but in fact, a lesser actor may have been able to get a bigger laugh with it. All they would have to do is nudge us into noticing it, by comically overplaying the line, bringing the absurdity out more clearly. But Lowe never steps outside of the material in this way. (His exact opposite in this respect, and I think you’ll see I’m right even as you instantly recoil from the prospect of admitting it, is John Cleese as Basil Fawlty. I know we’re supposed to go around saying that Fawlty is one of most beautifully judged characters in sitcom, but you only have to imagine Leonard Rossiter in the role to see how this enormously likeable programme could be improved.)
Arthur Lowe did more than Dad’s Army, of course, and he was by no means confined to variants on the Mainwaring character, certainly not in the first half of his career. I get the feeling that he could have done anything at one time. He could certainly sing, and he appeared in West End musicals. What seemed to lead him definitively into petty authority figures were the genetic accidents of bad eyesight and premature baldness that marked his card as surely as any casting director. That rich brown voice added the final layer of conservatism to the persona, and the Gods spoke. As surely as for Clive Dunn, his physical appearance dictated the range of characterisations he was offered. But he's good in films; several for Lindsay Anderson, a pompous critic who has his head sawn off by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood, adding immeasurably to the fun in No Sex, Please - We're British and, with Ian Carmichael, a fine alternative to Naunton and Wayne in Hammer's very pleasant remake of The Lady Vanishes.
And he is wonderful in a charming albeit unhilarious ITV series called Bless Me, Father in which he is a grouchy, if quietly mischievous, Roman Catholic priest. He affects a convincing Irish accent throughout the three series, and while you may initially enjoy it because you're expecting Mainwaring in a dog collar, it slowly dawns on you that this is, in fact, a very different, equally beguilling characterisation. After a few episodes it really does seem like two different men, in whose company you feel equally happy. The closest to it in sitcom is, I suppose, the aforementioned Rossiter, who created in Perrin and Rigsby two totally different characters, each in their own totally different way two of the greatest acting performances of all time. It still amazes me the way people prattle on about Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, as if either man could have come within a mile of the things Rossiter was capable of. Yet such is our odd sense of judgement on these matters we tend to feel that the fact that Rossiter was hilariously funny as well as brilliant detracts from rather than adds to the seriousness of his talent.
Lowe may have lacked the range and unpredictability of Rossiter, but still it could be that Mainwaring is the best-written and realised character in sitcom history, and I urge you to take any episode at random and really watch this man at work. And consider the material with which he is working.
For those with eyes and ears, Dad’s Army offers a wealth of insight into class, era and society, just as Will Hay and the Carry On films and Tony Hancock do. The period setting is a blind because the scripts are not putting any contemporary spin on the material: the comedy in Dad’s Army is only fractionally racier and more impudent than that which was genuinely enjoyed in the war years; it is exacting pastiche rather than parody.
Because the dominant tone is celebratory rather than deprecatory, it is easy to pigeonhole it as safe, cosy humour, in which the occasional sharp line or observation is more than made up for by the equal likelihood of seeing Pike being marched through the streets with his head stuck through a detached stretch of park railings, or Jones falling into a threshing machine and emerging without his trousers on. But this in itself is a political gesture to post-Python sensibilities. Already the signs are obvious that it is a programme that will outlive even its most vaunted peers. It seems effortless because it isn’t. Nothing else has as much claim to the top drawer, or to a drawer all its own. And at the very heart of its special greatness is the peformance of Arthur Lowe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bad Films I Love: Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?


Ah, yes: Anthony Newley. And ah, yes but even more so: Hieronymus Merkin. How small can a minority be before you have to find a new word to describe them?
An experiment: Take everyone in Britain and say 'Anthony Newley' to them. The majority, I suspect, will not know who you are talking about.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them for an opinion. The majority, I suspect, will not have one.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them what it is. The majority, I suspect, will express more than typical distaste.
Then take the minority who like him, whittle that down to the extreme minority who love him, and ask them what they think of Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).
The majority, I suspect, will say it's terrible.
That leaves perhaps the smallest minority of all time. But nice to meet you, all the same.
.
I've had a thing for Newley ever since I saw him as a guest star in the tv series Fame and instantly recognised an entity utterly different from his surroundings. I asked my mother who he was and learned he was an old singing star with a spectacularly false performing style. I was hooked from then on.
We who love him understand why others find him so grating, yet are transfixed by the very qualities that others find so repellent. (People who like Barbra Streisand must be in the grip of something similar.) With his massive eyebrows, gurning facial expressions and flapping hands, his is one of the most uninhibitedly weird stage presences ever. Ditto his tremulous voice, alternately howling and confiding, with Hollywood schmaltz suddenly giving way to glass-cracking cockney. The songs, many of which he wrote, are odd mixes of old-style crooning, obscure jokes and gloomy introspection. He did movies, Broadway and Las Vegas. There was nothing he could not do, and all he did he did uniquely. I saw him live only once, as Scrooge in the Bricusse musical: no performer on any stage has ever impressed me as much.
.
For years I dreamed of this notorious film, an alternately self-worshipping and self-excoriating autobiographical art house musical extravaganza, starring the great man, written by the great man, produced and directed and scored by the great man, with his wife playing his wife, his kids playing his kids and Milton Berle playing the devil, in a wild and overblown mix of allegorical fantasy, X-rated sex scenes and rousing musical numbers. It was after a decade and more of imagining it that I finally got my hands on a copy - how could it not disappoint? The answer: somehow. For against all the odds it did not. It is everything they say, and more, more, more.
. Hieronymus Merkin is undoubtedly the most controversial project with which Newley was ever associated. Slated or dismissed out of hand even by his staunch supporters and, to the rest, one of the great, bona fide disasters of film history, for Newley fans it is frequently criticised as pretentious, overblown, cynical and tasteless.
Yet it is also, inarguably, a work into which Newley poured an awful lot of himself, not just in terms of the level of commitment required of an actor-writer-songwriter-director but also in the often searingly revealing autobiographical elements of the screenplay. If you like the guy you simply have to accept that, whatever reservations you have about it, it is clearly a magnum opus, one of the most serious, revealing and personal works Newley ever created.
Parts of it are indeed naïve, and others try too hard to impress; nonetheless it's a remarkably ambitious and confident leap into yet another field of creativity for Newley.
It's essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand the man behind the music, and it's unlike any other film Hollywood has ever made. What on earth did Universal make of it when he showed it to them? On what pretext did he get the gig in the first place? Hollywood really was flailing in the late sixties: it is a mark of just how much Easy Rider had walloped the place that projects like this and Myra Breckinridge and The Last Movie and Zabriskie Point and The Seven Minutes even got a hearing, still more a green light. Yet even in such company, it is Newley's film that emerges, triumphantly, as the weirdest, least fathomable, most preposterous. It's fantastic, in every sense.
And it’s got terrific music. The songs in Merkin are as great as any he ever wrote and performed, mixing serious autobiographical lyrics with tunes to set you whistling for days as only he could. From ‘Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am’ (a jaunty confession of indiscretions past and predicted, with Newley merrily hailing himself as outsinning Dracula and Jack the Ripper), to the simple and incredibly poignant ‘Lullaby’, and from the haunting, indeed disturbing ‘Sweet Love Child’ to the raucous ‘On the Boards’, the film displays something like its creator’s full range of mood and expression in the medium of popular song.
When Newley the director finds visuals to match the music the film can be stunning: witness Merkin at the top of a mountain bellowing ‘I’m All I Need’.

A man is alone from the day he's born
To the day that they close his eyes.
And if anyone tells you anything else,
He's telling you a pack of lies.
I need no God, I believe no dreams,
And it seems that I've always known
That we laugh and cry,
That we hope and sigh
And we live and we die
Alone

The song, like most in this collection, exists in a variety of versions, and while the expression of atheism in the soundtrack version is clear enough other recordings go even further (‘There is no God, and if any poor clod thinks otherwise he’s a fool…’).
As with Newley’s theatre work these songs of great immediacy and appeal are inserted into an audacious allegorical framework, which here takes the form of the recollections of an entertainer undergoing a mid-life crisis. This many-layered structure begins with Newley/Merkin telling the story of his life to his family on a beach next to an enormous pile of ephemera relating to events in his life. This then leads into reconstructions, songs, fantasies and deviations, frequently interrupted by other sequences that fictitiously depict the film itself being shot, argued over and changed even as we watch it. The result is a mess of bizarre imagery and strange ideas, shot through with autobiographical reminiscences of Newley’s/Merkin’s marriages, career, fantasies, fears and even specific events such as the death of his first child.
This is not to say that Newley was altogether happy about the film being viewed in this way; in promotional interviews he went out of his way to stress that it was not an autobiography, merely a personal fantasy informed inevitably by what he called the flotsam and jetsam of his life. Such protestations must ultimately ring hollow in the light of the work itself, however, and in particular the film’s take on what was at the time his ongoing marriage to Joan Collins would on its own have given him ample reason to want to distance himself from the film’s naked honesty. (Joan Collins has cited the film as contributing to their break-up.)
It is hard, also, not to detect at least as much self-doubt as hubris in Newley’s delightfully bizarre attempt to describe the film to a BBC interviewer in 1969:

It is not an autobiography… I guess it’s more like a poem, really, in as much that a lot of it is pantomime and visual. And don’t be put off by the ‘pantomime’; I can’t think of any other word to describe the sort of thing that Charlie Chaplin did, which was just pictures. It’s a musical too; it has music to it. It’s a story with music is what it is but that’s so dry. But that’s what I’d like people to call it.

But a later suggestion in the same interview showed how thoroughly Newley viewed the techniques of European art cinema as a means of unfettered personal expression:

I think the movie is moving into a much more personal area…I’d like to be part of that brigade of men who create pieces for the cinema, and direct them and sometimes appear in them, that are very personal things. You probably couldn’t have made them twenty years ago.

Parts of the film seem almost too honest, too painful, too cruel. The occasional excesses of style and lapses of taste also suggest inexperience, unchecked by any collaborator with the talent and influence to hold him back. The film is deliberately confusing and bizarre, and in sequences such as that in which Merkin confesses to his love of underage girls (and again in the number, cheerfully described as utterly irrelevant within the film itself, about a princess who falls in love with a donkey) the lack of a more sober collaborator is especially apparent.
But what the film occasionally lacks in discipline it more than atones for in sheer invention and idiosyncrasy. As always with Newley, it is his total confidence that strikes you first. After all, it’s not like he’d directed a film before, and here, suddenly given total control over a project as writer-director-star, he has done anything but play safe.
His influences are obvious, often embarrassingly so, but he never tried to keep them a secret, admitting freely at the time that the film was his bid to join the pantheon of European auteurs that included Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and – a reflection of the times - Claude Lelouch (whose reputation for total autonomy Newley especially envied). Taking Fellini’s love of theatrical fantasy, Antonioni’s moody chops and Bergman’s poetic symbolism, Newley blends all three and adds dashes of his own gifts: good jokes, great songs and a sense of genuine melancholy; a kind of painful nostalgia.
The film’s biggest fault – for audiences other than those who simply don’t like Anthony Newley and for whom the experience of watching it will be one akin to that of physical torture – is that it is impossible to achieve a clear understanding of what kind of film it is unless you’ve lived exactly the life Newley himself did. The allusions to and recreations of British music hall and variety would have meant very little in America, and the reflections on the Hollywood showbiz scene would have had similarly little resonance in Britain. As for the bit with him watching a clockwork doll of himself getting it on with a Playboy centrefold... it's a toss-up as to who would understand that least.
It's a film for an audience that didn’t exist, or if they did existed in such small numbers as to make the film a suicidal proposition at the box office. Not only that, but most people simply don’t like Anthony Newley, and wouldn't have turned out no matter what he'd come up with. Pitched in part to the kind of people who like musicals, in part to the Easy Rider counterculture, in part to those who like foreign art films it satisfied none but those who like exactly what Newley likes: arty images and old show tunes, heavy sentimentality and deft irony, experimentalism and old-fashioned showbiz, music hall jokes and meditations on the meaning of life.
That's Newley himself, and me; anybody else?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Last Page?


Sometimes it is only when somebody dies that you realise they were still alive.

A while back I wrote that the death of Fay Wray ended a chapter of Hollywood history: the last really important star to have worked in Hollywood's golden age after apprenticing in silents had gone.
Now it seems that the lovely Anita Page had been with us the whole time - until now.

She was 98, and had been in movies since 1925; her big break had come in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) with Joan Crawford.
The film inspired the later Our Modern Maidens and Our Blushing Brides, all with Crawford and Page in the same basic milieu but not, interestingly, the same actual roles. The story goes that the two loathed each other (Page accused Crawford of attempting to physically assault her) but you'd never know it from their onscreen rapport.
The three films, made respectively just before, during and just after the Crash, span the full tumultuous period from the dying heights of Jazz Age frivolity to Depression-era austerity; the characters journeying with them from flappers to grafters, party girls to shop girls. This makes the films incredibly valuable social documents as well as magnetic entertainment. (I say a few more words of commendation on the subject of Our Blushing Brides here.)
The obituaries reveal a sharp wit, a strong sense of self-worth and a talent for making trouble. She attributed the success of The Broadway Melody (1929) largely to herself ("I took MGM into the sound era and made them a huge buck"), lived for a time at Hearst's San Simeon castle, was courted by Mussolini with love letters and flowers and, she claimed, had her MGM contract terminated because she refused to sleep with Irving Thalberg.
She had been an asset to MGM, and a lively presence on the lot: Gable was besotted by her ("when I worked with Grace Kelly and looked into her eyes I remembered Anita Page"), Harlow was a close pal. The loss of her contract took the wind out of her sails: she retired, aged 23, in 1933, and made only two more appearances (in 1936 and 1963) before her splendidly trashy comeback in 1996, appearing in Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (2000), The Crawling Brain (2002) and the forthcoming Frankenstein Rising (2008).
The latter sounds incredibly interesting: as well as Page (as Elizabeth Frankenstein), the cast boasts Margaret O'Brien (former MGM child star, from Jane Eyre, Meet Me in St Louis and Little Women) as her daughter, and Jerry Maren (Hollywood midget-of-all-trades, the villainous, cigar-smoking Professor in the Marx Brothers' At the Circus, the gremlin voiced by Mel Blanc in Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore and, inevitably, a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz).

Simply looking at a list of her films reminds you why old movies are so great. Such variety and surprise. She's in While The City Sleeps (1928) with Lon Chaney and the great Mae Busch, as Miss Gopher City in Buster Keaton's first talkie Free and Easy (1930), and the lead in a fine pre-Code oddity, Jungle Bride (1933). Just the titles of these films are enough to make you ache to see them. For instance, she's the straight female lead in a film called Reducing (1931, easily the greatest year for movies, '39 notwithstanding), which turns out to be an MGM slapstick comedy set in a Turkish bath, with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. (Girls are always asking each other if they are 'reducing' in pre-Code movies; it was the preferred term for what we now call dieting.) The film is described by Variety as "rough and tumble hoke comedy addressed to the banana peel sense of humour". Yes please!
God damn the priorities of modern culture!
Here in our midst the whole time had been a real Norma Desmond - a walking store of Hollywood golden age lore and anecdote, someone who was actually there. According to the Times obitutary:

She would get up at noon, was dressed by one of her assistants in remodelled gowns from the 1920s, and would then spend the day watching her old films and talking about the way it used to be.

Why are there not dozens upon dozens of hours of film of her doing precisely that? Why wasn't she on tv every single night? These are the days of reality television. Wouldn't a day eavesdropping on Anita have proved more valuable than documenting the every waking moment of an Australian hasbeen pop singer and a divvy model with a fixed expression of bemused surprise and enormous fake breasts who have somehow managed to never do or say anything interesting ever? History will judge us harshly for this monumental error of judgement and taste. Oh, to have spent an evening with her!

The big question is: how many more are still out there? The newspapers have explicitly called her the last of the silent stars, so I assume we can trust them. (We can on everything else, after all.) But how many stars of the thirties are still around, not being interviewed, not being filmed, not being cherished? I don't know - but I will endeavour to find out. I cannot, alas, go jetting around interviewing them myself - THOUGH IF SOMEBODY WANTS TO FUND ME I CERTAINLY WILL (matthewconiam@aol.com) - but I can at least celebrate them, draw attention to them, and draw attention to the precious wasted resource they represent. So in future I will be scouring the records and profiling all the living stars of the thirties I come across, whenever I come across them.
But it's too late for Anita.