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.