Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

It's that time of year again - the third annual Movietone News Christmas Movie post, and this time I thought that, rather than highlight just one or a few titles, I'd give my complete rundown of my favourite Christmas classics.

Gathered below are the essential ingredients for a magical cinematic Christmas. I would suggest that first you stop off for a glass of something warming at Harmonie House, before making your way through the snow to Robby's, where the finest seasonal fare is available all year round, and then settle down by a roaring fire to join me in any of the following.

I should stop here and point out that, for me, the season of goodwill is synonymous first and foremost with the Marx Brothers and Hammer Horror films, purely because of the joyous accident of my first encountering both at Christmastime. So if like me you are fortunate enough that your first glimpse of Santa instantly gets you thinking about Monkey Business or The Curse of Frankenstein, then do please join me here with the Brothers and here with Chris and Peter.

Now, in previous years I've chosen my favourite movie versions of Dickens's Christmas Carol: let me again draw your attention to R.W. Paul's version - a thing of true primitive beauty... (see here), and highlighted a true masterpiece of sleazy British horror tat (here).

Looking back over past posts, however, I find that I've never written anything about It's a Wonderful Life. Not that there's much left to be said, even so: everyone knows it, everyone knows what's great about it, everyone knows the story of how if was little-favoured at first but became cherished on tv because it fell into public domain.
All I can add is that it's worth noting just how much of it takes place before Clarence turns up: like all Capra films it is structured in his patented unequal-thirds: first long and lazy, second snappy and magnificent, third unduly hurried. That it is his style seems inarguable - it transcends mere screenwriting credit. Not sure if it's a good thing or not: sometimes it works very well, sometimes - Mr Smith for instance - I really do find myself feeling a little short-changed by the haste with which it pays off our initial investment and says goodnight. Nonetheless, Wonderful Life is an interesting watch indeed if you imagine you have no idea of just what kind of a turn it's going to take at the halfway mark. Are we genuinely engrossed in Bailey's story, or are we just looking for the things Clarence will exploit when he finally shows? My own feeling is that the first half does contain some truly beautiful moments: the dance floor opening into a swimming pool, the scenes by the old house, in particular. It is precisely because we do feel we are watching a perfectly charming and satisfying film in its own right in this section that the finale plays as magnificently as it does. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!

Next, Jimmy Stewart takes us neatly to Bell, Book and Candle, a witchy comedy set in Greenwich Village, pairing Jimmy with Kim Novak for the second time in a year; and what a relief to see them having fun after Hitchcock's doomy, good-but-surely-not-as-great-as-they-all-claim Vertigo. This one feels a bit flabby like most late-fifties Hollywood, and certainly does not play as delightfully as Rene Clair's I Married a Witch, to which it looks back, or a really good episode of Bewitched, to which it looks forward. Where it scores over both however is in atmosphere, both witchy atmsophere and Christmassy atmosphere. It looks amazing, as does Novak, in beatnik fashions and frequently barefoot. But what is it with her and those drawn-on eyebrows? She looks like Mal Arnold in Blood Feast.
It also has a great support cast, including Elsa Lanchester as the obligatory dizzy witch, kind of like Samantha's Aunt Clara, and a bongo-playing Jack Lemmon, just on the brink of stardom.
Lemmon takes us to probably my favourite Christmas movie of all: The Apartment (which I discuss here). The combination of mordant, cynical observation and tremendous heart makes this one just about unique, with one of those all-time great movie endings on which Wilder so prided himself, and his films' customary attractions of flawless script and performances. He also has Fred MacMurray play a bastard for the second time: no other director saw beyond his lovable goofy exterior to show us what he might really be capable of. Jack as CC Baxter is the kind of role Fred might have played in the thirties; it brilliantly underlines the point that Mr Sheldrake is what Baxter might so easily turn into. But he doesn't, thanks to Shirley's radiant Miss Kubelik and Wilder's unwavering belief in the redemptive power of empathy and compromise.
Incredibly, I watched White Christmas for only the second time in my life this year. (I discussed my first encounter with it here).
No room for Wilder's cynicism here, not even Capra's hesitant social realism - but it's no great loss with this cast and these songs, such painterly Technicolor and Mary Wickes hanging about on the margins.
I always thought that Holiday Affair and I had a strictly private love affair: it's reassuring to see from the blogosphere that this unusually flab-free Howard Hughes delicacy is steadily growing in popularity and acclaim. With a bit of luck we could be in on the birth of a Wonderful Life-style renaissance, with future generations noting with glib condescension that there really was a time when nobody seemed much to care for it at at all. It certainly deserves it: it is that good. Yes it's basically cute, but there are some real surprises and great moments - like Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey making antagonistic small-talk while Janet Leigh is out of the room, and the bombshell moment when Mitchum interrupts Christmas dinner to say that Leigh should leave her fiancee and marry him. The cast are great: Leigh was never prettier or more charming, Mitch is delightfully warm and laid back, Corey is, as ever, quietly faultless. In general, this is a sharper, infinitely more rewarding watch than any reference book currently allows.
And here is Janet to wish you all a cool yule:
.And, apropos of nothing much, other than the fact that it's my blog and I can basically do what I like, here's Fay Wray doing likewise:
.And finally, two films that are not explicitly Christmassy, but for some reason always seem to me suffused with a distinctly seasonal kind of magic. In some ways even more that the above, they suggest themselves to me as the perfect accompaniment to a Christmas afternoon. Coincidentally, they both star Joseph Cotten.
The Magnificent Ambersons (which I discuss in detail here) is many things. For one, it has always seemed to me by far Orson Welles's best film, studio interference notwithstanding. It is an immensely involving, moving and good-hearted meditation on the relentless march of time, and just the thing for pondering on with memories to the fore and familiar things all around. There is also, of course, that superb snowy sequence to underline the seasonal mood.
And then there's Portrait of Jennie. It's the essence of Hollywood at its most perfect: its every asset and its every excess; the most dazzling, absurd, delirious, intense and beautiful product ever of its golden age, when transcendence was achieved so simply they took it for cheap sentiment. None of this makes sense, and all of it distills emotion with the knowing mass-appeal of a Hallmark card. But was there ever a film more haunting, beautiful to look at, and moving, despite your every fibre screaming that it is sheer manipulative gibberish...?
Jennifer Jones, unconvincing but mesmerising, Ethel Barrymore, charm distilled, the great David Wayne, and Cecil Kellaway, the plain-clothes Santa. The visual texture. The music. That finale. That strange song...
Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows...
There has never been another film quite like it. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it lately, give it a try this Christmas.
.Well, that's it. Movietone News is shutting down now for Christmas. Thanks for all your support. See you next year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

We all have an important job to do

This Christmas sees the release of what looks set fair to be the most appalling film ever made by humans.
It's called Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps you recognise the name.
Perhaps you may have read, or seen, something of the title character before.
Well, if you want future generations to have similar recollections it is vital that you stand up and say enough is enough. No longer can the talentless squirts of modern filmdom piss on the heritage they plunder without being answerable to we, its self-elected custodians.
Because if this monstrosity is allowed to pass unimpeded into the culture then nothing and nobody we love will ever be safe again.
You must do everything in your power to ensure that this film fails. But not just fail: it is not enough that it does disappointing business. It must belly-flop. It must disappear through a crack in the earth, leaving just a faint, foul smell where once it wallowed. It must make Ishtar, Waterworld and Hudson Hawk look like respectable minor hits.
If you have any regard whatsoever for the notion that cinema has a duty to show at least a soupcon of respect for its literary sources; if you have any affection whatever for Sherlock Holmes and his cinematic legacy, then please - do not under any circumstances see this film. Plead with everyone you know to do likewise. I don't care if Jude Law does things to you. Do not go even out of morbid curiosity. Every box-office dollar, every filled seat counts. You wouldn't have voted for Hitler out of morbid curiosity as to what the Third Reich might actually, rather than theoretically, have been like. Theoretically was plenty enough.
But if you have the least doubt, take a look at this trailer. It's all you need.
Admittedly the omens look good. The retakes were done in response to bad preview feedback, and if it's disaster we're after there are few safer hands for it to be in, directorially speaking, than Guy Ritchie's. But hope is not enough.
Let's go to work.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Over the top...

Thanks so much to Meredith, of the always fascinating L.A. La Land (go here for one of the best things I've ever read about poor, lovely Elizabeth Short) who has bestowed an Over The Top Blog Award upon Movietone.
Assuming that being over the top is a good thing in this context, we are pleased as punch to accept.
However, the rules insist that I answer a series of questions with only one word each.
So here they are without any further ado...
Where is your phone? Banished
Your hair? Departing
Your Mother? Indefatigable
Your Father? Consummate
Your favourite food? Curry
Your dream last night? Indescribable
Your favourite drink? Vino
Your dream/goal? Self-sufficiency
What room are you in? Bedroom
Your hobby? Agoraphobia
Your fear? Stamp-collecting
Where were you last night? Whitechapel
Something that you’re not? Guilty
Muffins? Where?
Wishlist item? Calabash
Where did you grow up? Plymouth
Last thing you did? Fret
What are you wearing? Out
Your TV?
Your pets? Forthcoming
Friends? Tolerant
Your life? Self-parodying
Your mood? Apprehensive
Missing someone? Everyone
Something you’re not wearing? Well
Your favourite store? Here
Your favourite colour? Plaid
When was the last time you laughed? Today
The last time you cried?
Your best friend? Imaginary
One place that you go to over and over? Freedonia
Facebook? Raincheck
Favourite place to eat? Mouth
Now to pass the award on... As always, I shall refrain from tagging anyone else tagged by Meredith at the same time as me - but that still gives me license to pester Monty, Lolita, Mykal, Maggie, Elizabeth, Amanda and Casey.
(I'll wait and see how many of them spot their names before sending out invites...)
If any of you'd rather not spoil the purity of your most excellent sites by indulging in the questionnaire, feel free to either a) post your responses in the comments below, or b) tell me to take a running jump and simply accept the award with no strings attached. (Not sure if I'm allowed to do that, but what the hell. All the same, I'd love to see what you come up with...)
Thanks to you all, and thanks again, Meredith.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Six reasons to be grateful for Richard Todd

Richard Todd, the great British actor who for some reason tends to get left out of the shuffle whenever the talk drifts to great British actors, died this week at the age of ninety.
Here are six great reasons for remembering him - starting with the one we're all agreed on.
1. He was Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955).
Todd is most remembered for his stoic heroes in British war films, and this one remains among the most popular as well as famous of its breed, in part because of the manner in which it celebrates both sides of the British war effort: invention, represented by Michael Redgrave’s eccentric inventor Barnes Wallis who devised the revolutionary bouncing bomb, and bravery, represented by Todd’s Wing Commander Gibson who, together with the men of 617 Squadron, was entrusted with the task of using it to flood the Ruhr dams and destroy the adjoining Nazi industrial complexes.
Viewed dispassionately today, the dramatic sweep of the film is perhaps fatally compromised by the transparency of its climactic special effects, but the final scene in which Redgrave and Todd meet after the mission - the former confessing that had he known how many pilots would not return he would never have instigated it, and the latter assuring him that not one of the lost men would have turned it down had they known the outcome - remains quietly moving in the best British manner, and is an acting triumph for Todd every bit as much as Redgrave.
And speaking of the war...
2. Like my grandfather, he served in the British 6th Airborne Division during World War 2, and was one of the first British officers to land in Normandy on D-Day.
Interestingly, in the film The Longest Day he played the officer in charge of my grandfather's mission: the taking and securing of Pegasus Bridge, a vital arterial link between the coast and Normandy proper. In reality, he was the officer from his battalion who made contact with the character he plays in the film. As historian Stephen Ambrose puts it in his book on the events of that day: if the Pegasus Bridge mission had failed, D-Day would have failed. So thanks, grandad; thanks, Richard.
3. He's brilliant in Never Let Go (1958).
.Anyone who doubts his range should seek out this sleeping gem among sleazy British crime films. Todd, with Morrissey quiff and glasses, plays a meek and wimpy perfume rep, kicked out by his smug boss after he misses too many appointments with clients. In order to be more reliable he pours all the money he has into a Ford Anglia, only to have it stolen by a teen gang under orders from a sadistic minor gangster played, equally well and against type, by Peter Sellers. After the police prove useless, he slowly finds the courage to take the matter into his own hands, and the surprisingly brutal film ends with a massive fist fight between the two main characters that leaves Todd looking like a crushed grape, but the victor. It's incredibly stirring and compelling stuff that failed at the time simply because it was ahead of its time. It not only anticipates Straw Dogs, but pretty comprehensively cocks its leg over it too.
4. He worked with Bette Davis, Dietrich, Hitchcock, Michael Winner and Pete Walker.
He was Sir Walter to Bette's Virgin Queen, and co-star with Dietrich in Stage Fright, perhaps Hitchcock's least-seen film of all. Winner cast him in his fascinating Big Sleep remake, and the best of his two jobs for Walker is as the wily publisher in House of the Long Shadows, the maestro's delightful take on Biggers's Seven Keys to Baldpate. Though remembered almost solely for its historic teaming of Lee, Price, Cushing and Carradine, Todd is just as important an ingredient, and he carries the film in its opening scenes, before the horror boys show up.
5. He did odd stuff, too.
However associated he may be with berets and stiff upper lips, there's no getting around the fact that he was happy to report for duty in some very strange places. Pete Walker is far from the most disreputable name he worked for.
He's Sir Basil in Harry Alan Towers's weirdsville remake of Dorian Gray, takes a small part in that strange Dennis Hopper film among strange Dennis Hopper films Bloodbath, and an unbilled cameo in Blood Bath, this time the 1966 Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman horror film. He's also in Number One of the Secret Service, one of Lindsay Shonteff's excruciating James Bond spoofs, and the man who chops his wife up and wraps up the bits in brown paper, only to be killed by them when they come supernaturally back to life, in Asylum.
And one perhaps better forgotten:
6. He was the original choice for James Bond, but had to turn the role down due to other commitments.
The thought of this great, ideally suited star in Dr No, in place of that oaf Connery, is almost too heartbreaking to contemplate.
.Richard Todd, 1919 - 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

Someone remind me again: What exactly ARE the rules that Nicole Kidman won't play by?

Believe it or not, the battery that starts Norma Shearer's motor car also curls Norma's hair. This curling iron saves the trouble and expense of sending a hairdresser on location trips...
And Anita Page has found the perfect solution to damage to cars caused by sandy shoes after a trip to the beach: For twenty-five cents she bought this shoe brush and attached it to the running-board. Just the old door-mat brought up to date...
These are just two of a selection of Motoring Beauty Hints brought to you by Photoplay Magazine back in the thirties.
You'll have to find out for yourself how Jean Arthur has solved the problem of how to wear a floppy hat in an open roadster.
When you immerse yourself in old movie fan magazines, as I have been doing lately, you enter just this lost world; one far more lost, far deader in comparison with its modern equivalents, than that of the movies themselves. It is one where the stars - playing parts every bit as much as when on screen - attempt to ingratiate themselves with their public by pulling off the daunting juggling act of being unapproachable icons of perfection and swell ordinary folks at one and the same time. It's a relationship of mutual need: the magazines need the stars and the stars need the magazines, and both are concerned with grasping and retaining the fickle attentions of the voracious American movie fan.
The magazines are sheer fantasies for the most part, and give no fairer a picture of what life in Hollywood was really like than Hollywood Babylon does at the other extreme. But the contrast between magazine publicity pieces then and now is striking indeed.
They've always sold illusions, untouched by reality or even the pretence of it. Both present the hallowed object of desire in the light best tailored to their public's tastes and aspirations. But there is a humility to the old star pieces, even when celebrating their conspicuous wealth and consumption, quite alien to the preening aristocracy of the modern Hollywood firmament. Long gone are the days when an interview with an actress would consist of a heartfelt thank you to all her fans for keeping her in a life of luxury followed by a recipe for meatloaf.
A bit of swanning about is one thing, I guess. But I might be more warmly disposed to modern film stars if they didn't insist on taking themselves so damned seriously.
The cover star of GQ magazine this month is Nicole Kidman, an Australian actress who - it would be folly to deny - scrubs up rather nicely, but who seems to suffering from the delusion that she is some kind of artist making a deep and meaningful contribution to the cultural history of her species. That she is able to do all this while still wearing underwear in artistically-arranged disarray is all the more tribute to her, but still, I'm confused.
"Give me risk, danger, darkness..." she says on the cover, above a headline reading, Nicole Kidman Still Won't Play By The Rules.
What does this mean? I know what Motherhood - What It Means To Helen Twelvetrees means. I know what Why Girls Fall In Love With Robert Taylor means, what Career Comes First With Loretta and Joan Grabs The Bennett Spotlight and How I Keep My Figure by Betty Grable all mean... but I'm buggered if I know what these rules are that Nicole still won't play by.
Perhaps the article itself will enlighten me. Nope.
Nicole Kidman cuts through the leaden darkness like an apparition. It is immediately apparent why so many directors have tried to capture her powerful physical presence on film... her sex appeal radiates almost exothermically. Even at 42 her skin is as white as ewe's milk, her eyes wickedly blue, her features raised, taut and coltish... Perhaps, I wonder, Nicole Kidman only feeds off sunlight to survive? Or admiration? Or men's wanton souls?
Okay, whatever. It has always been the interviewer's lot to absurdly romanticise their subjects, and this big ninny eulogising Nicole's wickedly taut and exothermically coltish ewe's milk is not really so far from the acres of adoring purple once lavished on Errol Flynn, or Gable, or Garbo.
But there is an unmistakable arrogance here, a lack of reciprocation that was never tolerated in the golden age. (The old magazines are full of warnings, or 'advice', to cocky stars: What's the matter with Lombard? asks Gladys Hall in Modern Screen; Watch Your Step, Ann Dvorak! warns Delight Evans in Screen Book.) Nicole couldn't care less about the box-office success of her films, she opines, as if she has some pre-ordained right to keep making them regardless of whether anybody wants to go see them or not, as if she bestows her majesty upon us not at our invitation but by some cinematic variation of the divine right of kings.
Robert Taylor put his name to a lament in Modern Screen entitled "Why Did I Slip?", asking his fans why they have forsaken him. Though presumably ghosted like virtually all such articles of the time, its plaintive humility is touching:
What are the contributing factors that cause a star to fall? Do you get tired of his face? Is it a question of bad stories? How much does adverse publicity have to do with it?... Don't think we stars don't realise when we begin to wobble. We don't soar around with our heads blandly in the blue while our feet are walking the plank... In my case it may well be said that I skidded because I'm not a fine actor. I know I'm not.
And so on, for paragraph after agonising paragraph, until you just want to scoop the poor sap up in your arms, plant a big smacker on his forehead and feed him warm broth with a spoon.
But now listen to Nicole reflecting on the facts that her last two movies were hugely expensive commercial disasters and that she has not made a commercially successful film in nearly ten years:
To be honest with you, it's never been important to me... I have very avant-garde tastes - that's just what I'm drawn to . Sometimes that means working on tiny, often unheard-of artistic endeavours, sometimes it means working with the likes of Baz on movies like Australia or Moulin Rouge which make big, bold, epic statements. I was raised on art and literature, and things that were left of centre... I make films that aren't everybody's cup of tea, I realise that. I get it. But that's where I am. If I were a painter I certainly wouldn't be painting for the masses. And I'm unwavering on this. I want to take risks... I like existing in an uncomfortable place artistically... I hope my life will be a mix of extreme love and bold artistic choices. I've never wanted to be safe. I've never chosen safe relationships. And I've never chosen safe films.
Ah yes! Who among us can forget the wanton avoidance of safety that led her to play the love interest in Batman Forever? The left of centre, masses-be-damned risk-taking of bold artistic choices like the remake of The Stepford Wives? Or the sheer danger of the Bewitched spin-off?
Forgive me while I rush back to My Wartime Morals, by Bonita Granville.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No Orchids for Miss Travers

She has a rather more exotic air than your average British actress: there's something of Cat People's Elizabeth Russell about her ("moia sestra?"); there may even be a trace of Gale Sondergaard there... It was obvious that a cinema as provincial, sober and pragmatic as Britain's would have trouble coming up with appropriate things for her to do.
So while she maintained a constant presence in British films for over ten years between the late thirties and the late forties, albeit usually in the second female lead, Linden Travers never quite achieved the stardom that was predicted for her.
Indeed, it may well have been the very obvious streak of steel beneath the elegance that made her difficult to comfortably cast in a decade with far more use for English roses than wicked ladies.
For a time she almost looked set to make a career out of playing second fiddle to Margaret Lockwood, supporting her in four films, including the Gainsborough melodrama Jassy (1947, in which she also had to share the audience’s attention with Patricia Roc).
Perhaps most famous of their joint ventures, made when both were ingénues, is Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Made in 1938, and the tenth of Linden’s two-dozen films, it showcases Lockwood as the perky, plucky heroine, but anyone who has seen the film will have no difficulty recalling Travers in the smaller but equally memorable role of ‘Mrs’ Todhunter, mistress of Cecil Parker’s incognito politician.
Florence Lindon Travers was born in Durham in 1913. The talented child of a talented family (her younger brother was the British actor Bill Travers) she excelled in drama, painting and sketching and from an early age declared an interest in appearing on stage. Her debut was in rep in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1933 and within two years she had secured her first West End lead in Ivor Novello's Murder In Mayfair.
The same year she made her film debut halfway down the cast list of Children in the Fog (1935), and for a time alternated film and stage roles, often playing a mistress, femme fatale or ‘designing woman’, just as frequently ingénue roles in light comedies.
Carol Reed provided her first real chance to stand out on screen with a small but attention-getting role in Bank Holiday (1938). Her stint with Hitchcock followed, then another for Reed: The Stars Look Down (1939). In all three, Lockwood had taken the lead.
For some reason she then found herself as female lead in a succession of star vehicles for British comics: Tommy Trinder in Almost A Honeymoon (1938), George Formby in South American George (1941), and - wonderfully spooky - in Arthur Askey’s best film The Ghost Train (1941). Here, and briefly, we get a hint of how good she would have been in proper supernatural horror film... Though she's great fun in Edgar Wallace's The Terror, still it's such a shame she wasn't cast in Dead of Night.
. Though she made a number of impressive appearances in forties films, she was rarely given a solo chance to shine. She stood out, despite comparatively limited screen time, in Christopher Columbus (1949), as the all-too understandable reason why King Ferdinand is too busy to give Columbus an appointment, in one of the four stories making up Somerset Maugham’s Quartet (1948) and in The Bad Lord Byron (1948) as one of the poet’s many admirers.
That same year, however, came her most important lead, one of her few true starring vehicles, and her own personal favourite.
She had, in fact, first played the role on the London stage in 1943 and so was a natural choice for the film version. The film was No Orchids For Miss Blandish, and it is, alas, not a title that means a hell of a lot to most people these days. In 1948, however, it was a sensation.
One review called it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever shown on a cinema screen.” According to the Observer, it had “all the morals of an alley cat and all the sweetness of a sewer”, while the Sunday Express reviewer hailed it simply “the worst film I have ever seen.”
Brief Encounter it most definitely is not, though probably the most shocking thing about it today is the fact that so controversial a production now merits nothing more prohibitive than a PG certificate on DVD.
It was nothing new, either, being the same basic set-up as in Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, filmed sensationally (in both senses) with Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake. But that had been pre-Code, of course - Hays had held sway for some time when Travers's little nasty showed up, and how it was that the supposedly genteel British cinema came to produce a thriller about a sadistic gangster who kidnaps an heiress for ransom, then forces his attentions on her until she responds by becoming his willing lover, demands some explaining!
Among many British cinemagoers enduring the hardships of the war, a certain cynicism had become fashionable in the movies, typified by the voguish, hard-bitten heroes of American noir. The harsh realities of the conflict had made the world suddenly seem a lot less innocent, and bred a desire for less innocent entertainment. As a result, the censor felt inclined to lower his guard and if necessary avert his eyes somewhat in the interests of morale. The Gainsborough melodramas, such as The Wicked Lady, are one obvious example of this new policy, aimed as they were at the newly emancipated female audience, and filled with sex, sadism and heaving bosoms.
At the end of the war, with servicemen returning home to everyday life, it was noted that the novel of No Orchids by James Hadley Chase, a typical sexy pulp thriller of the sort that had been produced in their millions during the war, had been by some margin the most popular book among members of the armed forces. A film version seemed an obvious money-spinner and, in a way, would serve almost as a reward to those coming home: something they certainly wouldn’t have seen before they left. The film, unsurprisingly, was a smash hit, despite the horrified objections of critics neither prepared for nor willing to overlook its unprecedented harshness and sexual frankness.
. With the shock and controversy now only a memory, the chief value of the film today is as a reminder of just how fine an actress Linden Travers was. Her performance, shading from fear, through revulsion and on to uninhibited desire, is unlike anything else in forties British cinema.
Sadly, this most promising portent of greater glories proved to be not only her last lead role but also one of her last screen appearances of any kind. After Don’t Ever Leave Me (1949), supporting Jimmy Hanley and Petula Clark in a partial spoof of Miss Blandish, she retired from full-time acting to devote herself to her family.
Though she did make a few subsequent appearances on television, she mainly devoted her creative energies to painting and drawing, opening the Travers Art Gallery in Kensington with her sisters Alice and Pearl in 1969. After the death of her husband she travelled the world for a time, spending many months in Africa and India before finally settling in St Ives, Cornwall, where she resumed her painting, studied psychology and psychotherapy, and became a qualified hypnotist. (She certainly had the eyes for it!)
It was in these idyllic surroundings that she died peacefully in 2001 at the age of 88.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

IT's Elinor Glyn's birthday!

Born today in 1864, she was an English Edwardian novelist, in her mid-fifties when the nineteen-twenties dawned, matronly of build and to the casual observer more Margaret Dumont than Clara Bow.
But Elinor Glyn was nonetheless as seminal an architect of the Jazz Age as Scott Fitzgerald.
She was born of aristocratic stock in Jersey - that's old Jersey, over here, where the cows come from - and moved in distinctly high society circles. Unhappy in marriage, she wrote for something to do and latterly to maintain her standard of living; her colourful romances were published at the rate of one a year and scandalised her contemporaries. In Hollywood, they tallied exactly with the themes and attitudes of the contemporary sex-dramas that De Mille and others were pioneering, and she was happy to take up the offer to cross the pond and write scenarios.
It was she, of course, who coined the term 'it', not as a polite euphemism for sex appeal, as is often claimed, but to describe that more indefinable kind of attraction that rises from the unique chemical nature of certain individuals, and transcends mere personality, charm, sexual attractiveness and similarly measurable characteristics.
Inevitably she was asked just who, in the public eye, had It. Among men, she nominated Gary Cooper, and he was known briefly as the It Boy, but it didn't take. Her christening Clara Bow the It Girl, however, did - indeed it pretty much sealed up posterity for the both of them.

Elinor Glyn is like a phantom hovering over twenties culture. Her work, swooningly idealistic and in many respects oddly out of step with the pace of the twenties, is far less obviously influential to its moment than that of Dorothy Parker, say, or Anita Loos. Her primary innovation was a discreetly heightened eroticism and, more importantly, an unvarnished frankness about her protagonists' desires and motivations. But from this she built a reputation as a kind of elder stateswoman and mascot of twenties emancipation (both female emancipation and youth emancipation). She also became a name to drop. In a delightful musical short called Office Blues Ginger Rogers plays a stenographer lamenting her inability to attract her dishy, brainy boss. The problem is incompatibility of interests and station, expressed in a couplet so joyous it deserves an on-screen round of applause:
He is such a colour-blind bee and I'm a wasted flower,
I'm the type reads Elinor Glyn and he reads Schopenhauer.
Yet it is of just such dilemmas that the typical Glyn romance was forged. Certainly the one about the working girl and the boss's son, that reappeared in Hollywood movies with such ritualistic frequency throughout the twenties and thirties, if not invented by her, was surely to some degree crystallised under her jurisdiction. It is also the basis of her most iconic monument, Bow's film It, only tangentially indebted to her work, but erected as a kind of monument to her, and in which she consents to make a suitably regal cameo appearance as herself.
She would have made a splendid addition to any Hollywood party, and served in just that function for many years, just as she does in The Cat's Meow, Peter Bogdanovich's generally excellent account of the death of Thomas Ince, where, in an inaccurate but charming portrayal by Joanna Lumley, she narrates as well as features in the unfolding mystery.
She died back in London in 1943, in a world that had outgrown hers in just about every conceivable sense.
But she takes a much deserved place in the Movietone News heroes' parade. Happy birthday, Elinor.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski falls foul of law intended for ordinary people

Gotta love that petition doing the rounds, in which the great and the good of Hollywood (both terms here being used ironically) bemoan the recent arrest of Roman Polanski for some trivial offence he committed thirty years ago and bravely fled the consequences of.
"We are calling every filmmaker we can to help fix this terrible situation," says Harvey Weinstein, Miramax gargantuan and organiser of the petition. "Whatever you think about the so-called crime," claims Weinstein (a jolly, red-faced man who owns a production company that deliberately makes bad films), "Polanski has served his time. A deal was made with the judge, and the deal is not being honoured... This is the government of the United States not giving its word and recanting on a deal, and it is the government acting irresponsibly and criminally."
No, Polanksi hasn't spent the past thirty years inflicting crud like Bitter Moon on the world - you just dreamt that - instead he has - somehow - "served his time". And that's the important point, never mind what outdated, reactionary views you may cling to about "the so-called crime" of raping a kid. "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion," Weinstein continued, presumably as a joke.
"Obviously, my sympathies are with Roman," said Robert Towne, obviously. World-famous international superstar Debra Winger says "the whole art world suffers" when the law deigns to treat their sainted number like mere mortals. Whoopi Goldberg, displaying a depth of perception so vast even Weinstein couldn't get it down in one gulp, assures us that the director didn't really commit rape. It was more, sort of, rape-ish. "I think he's sorry," she explained. "I think he knows it was wrong." Well... okay, Whoopi, so long as he knows it was wrong... I suppose it is a bit rich to expect him to make any further amends for drugging a thirteen year old girl and ignoring her when she asks him not to sodomise her.
Outside of the film industry the BS has been flowing just as freely: French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand is "dumbfounded" by Polanski's "absolutely dreadful" treatment, relating as it does to "an ancient story". According to this chap, "there is a generous America that we love, and a certain America that frightens us. It's that America that has just shown its face." Yep, that frightening side of America that expects its citizens, wherever possible, not to drug and rape children.
Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times shrewdly notes that "at a time when California is shredding the safety net that protects the poor and the unemployed, not to mention the budget of the public school system, you'd hope that L.A. County prosecutors had better things to do" than persecute child-rapists. According to this gold-plated doofarooney, "Polanski has already paid a horrible, soul-wrenching price for the infamy surrounding his actions. The real tragedy is that he will always, till his death, be snubbed and stalked and confronted by people who think the price he has already paid isn't enough."
The real tragedy is not the forced sodomising of a thirteen year old girl, it's the notion that the assailant, after thirty years living the high life in Paris, should now be "snubbed" and even - imagine it if you can - "confronted" by people who think "the price he has already paid isn't enough."
You may be wondering what this "horrible, soul-wrenching price" - you remember: the one he has already paid - is, exactly. According to Goldstein: "Polanski's sins have not been forgotten. He has been barred from returning to the U.S. and prevented from traveling to other countries, including England, because of extradition issues. His career has clearly suffered from his inability to work in Hollywood..."
His career has suffered? Bad karma. Poor man.
And here's Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post (in an article titled "The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanksi"): "he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers' fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar."
Okay, let's recap. He rapes a child, and pays the horrible, soul-wrenching price of notoriety, lawyers' fees, the professional stigma that has led every director in Hollywood to sign Harvey's petition, the inability to collect an Oscar in person, and the fact that Pirates was shit.
"He can be blamed, it is true, for his original, panicky decision to flee," cedes Applebaum magnanimously, but even here she can "see mitigating circumstances, not least an understandable fear of irrational punishment." Irrational, yes. Exactly the word I'd use. I mean, it wasn't like he raped a whole bunch of kids. It was only one. Some perspective here, please.
And why did he have an understandable fear of irrational punishment? "Polanski's mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson, though for a time Polanski himself was a suspect." Undoubtedly the prospect of facing some combination of these things was what was going through his mind when he took the decision to peg it out of America and live it up in France.
The tacit understanding seems to be: if you've had to endure that much horror in your life, the law should show a little more empathy when you start raping kids. There but for the grace of God go I. Who are we, who have never endured such appalling misfortune, to claim that we would be able to resist the urge to rape children, until we have actually walked in his shoes? This is certainly what Mitterrand has in mind when he says that he "strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them."
And when exactly did Polanski become a great director anyway? Until everyone went crazy for The Pianist I always thought he was pretty much an anachronism, a figure with a reputation somewhat akin to Roger Vadim's, with 1960's sensibilities and a constant erection, whose films aspire to a bygone standard of Euro-sophistication somewhere between arthouse seriousness and box-office populism, achieving neither. Even his most celebrated work could have been anybody's. Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown are competent genre stuff if you're in the mood for something trivial, the former distinguished by a few clever ideas and a great cast, the latter saddled with a tv-movie sense of period and an ending so absurdly pessimistic it's like a fourteen year old boy wrote it. What else is there? Well, there's Knife in the Water, I suppose, and the two British ones, which are - what? Interesting is, I guess, the word. The rest is basically a lot of monkeying about by a film-maker with a certain style but nothing whatever to say. He's best by far when he tries least to be somebody: in Frantic, for instance, or Tess.
You can disagree with this, and it seems that many, suddenly, do. But why that means he shouldn't be treated like anyone else when he commits a crime is anybody's guess.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Doctor Blood's Cornwall

No holiday in Cornwall would be complete without a visit to Doctor Blood, who keeps a coffin there. Actually, he doesn't, but it's just one of the many delightful surprises of Doctor Blood's Coffin (1960) that it is the second part of the title that's hyperbole: he doesn't have a coffin, but the main character is called Dr Blood - Dr Peter Blood, to be precise.
Like The Ghoul, it is one of my all-time favourite British horror films, and like The Ghoul no critic in the universe has anything but the most scornful things to say about it. However, unlike The Ghoul, the low critical standing of which is a complete and enduring mystery to me, I am prepared to accept that in this case my ratio of objective/defensible reasons for liking it to subjective/indefensible reasons for liking it is probably somewhere in the region of 70-30 in subjectivity's favour.
My own affection for the film is due at least in part to its familiar - to me - Cornish backgrounds (though the original script had in fact been set in Arizona). So over the past week or so, we've been tracking them down...
Dr Blood's Village
What is referred to in the film as Porthcarron is in fact the village of Zennor. Here's the first post-credits shot of a car driving into the location, followed by the same road as it looks today.
.Doctor Blood's Local
The sign above right is for The Tinner's Arms, the village pub, which, unusually, is also the building used for the location of the pub in the film. The stone work has been rusticated since the film was made; personally I prefer the 1960 whitewash.
.Doctor Blood's Cottage
Ironically, one of the few buildings used in the film to have changed significantly is the main one: the terraced cottage which doubles as Doctor Blood's surgery and living accommodation. Over the past half-century it has lost its garden wall, most of its flower beds and its porch.
.The following shot of the cottage (on the right) and the white building next to the pub is still easy to locate, even though the latter has lost the blue painted window-frames and doors.

Here we see the scene in which Hazel Court bends down to pick up the morning milk (bending correctly at the knees) being restaged by Angela Levin (who bends at the spine, proving she's no nurse).
.Next, Hazel and Angela walk past the white building next to the pub...

... and on up to the gates outside Hazel's house - try to forget the nasty-looking car, and note instead that the gates Angela is heading for are still the Hazel originals.
.And here's the view back towards the village, shot from the same spot.
.Doctor Blood's Pantry
The exterior of the mine where Blood keeps his paralysed, dead and revived bodies is Carn Galver Mine, West Penwith, still looking much as the good doctor left it. The interior is of course a studio set. Shortly after our photo was taken a busload of Germans arrived at the site, but not being able to speak the language we were unable to ascertain if they were touring Cornish landmarks or British Horror Film locations. Obviously I'd like to think it was the latter.
Doctor Blood's Daytrip
Here we see Angela and myself, as Dr Blood, recreating the sequence in which the crazy quack takes a break from cutting out hearts to accompany Hazel to the seaside, and brag to her about when he was a Group Leader in the Cubs. The cliffs have fallen away somewhat since the film was shot, and the carefree manner in which Hazel skips back and forth over the wall would be virtually suicidal today. We were taking quite a risk, in fact, to provide you with the painstaking accuracy of the second shot, so please appreciate it.
Doctor Blood's Little Stroll
Here we see Dr Blood taking a walk, passing G. F. Morton, the local funeral director, and on, past the church, to the village. The funeral parlour is really Zennor Village Hall. I was hoping to find the old G. F. Morton sign abandoned in a hedge or propping open a gate, but no such luck. In the reconstructions that follow the originals below, I will again be essaying the role of Dr Blood, while the character role of Morton will be taken by my father, Mr S. Coniam.
Doctor Blood's Graveyard
In our reconstruction of the film's funeral scene, note that the fence leading into the churchyard is again the 1960 original. The grave that Hazel is looking at is a prop, but the large crosses in the background are unmistakable in both photos. Unfortunately, Equity rates being what they are, we couldn't afford any mourners, so you'll just have to use your imagination in the first one.
.And finally, at no extra cost, a delightfully-named nearby hostelry not featured in the film, but in which the Doc would no doubt have felt very much at home...

You can find a longer version of this post, and a whole bunch of other peculiar stuff, at my horror movie blog Carfax Abbey.