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.