Saturday, August 29, 2009

Two sisters tag

Elizabeth over at Oh By Jingo, Oh By Gee! has tagged me with the following questions, each one a bone of contention between her and her sister.
I wish I knew people I could have these kinds of debates with...
1. Do you like Greta Garbo?
Yes, I do, but she's not in my top twenty stars, nor are any of her films to be found among my very favourites (except possibly Grand Hotel - and then mainly for the Crawford/Lionel Barrymore/Beery bits). It may be simply that I discovered Dietrich first. BBC-2 showed a very comprehensive Garbo season on Wednesday nights when I was about twelve, and I was impressed but not floored. Neither was my youthful ardour goaded over much - a far cry from Destry Rides Again!
2. In Buster Keaton's MGM films, do his gestures and his plots resemble those of Harry Langdon?
Intriguing! My first answer would be no, which is only to say that the thought has never struck me independently before. But now you say it, do I think there's anything in what you say? - yes, possibly. Though I think your sister makes a good point that the performance inevitably changes when you switch from pantomime to dialogue acting. This got me thinking about some of the others. Even Stan Laurel's talkie persona is notably different from his more demonic silent self, and he was one of the least affected. Chaplin knew the change would be so fundamental it would be dangerous to even try. Harold Lloyd becomes more shrill, a little more irritating perhaps; his relentless go-getter energy seems more opposed to the society he is trying to infiltrate; he seems more of a pathetic character somehow.
So the characteristics of Buster that you identify as different could well be the inevitable result of trying to adapt to a new medium; and things like increased pathos and docility could just be the curse of MGM: the studio that hated great comedians so much they kept giving them contracts just so they could destroy their careers. Much as I like Langdon, I can't really see a performer of Buster's stature consciously finding inspiration in him. So, finally, I think I side with your sister after all.
As a side-note: I've never seen a Langdon talkie. What's he like?
3. Who is your favorite director of silent dramas?
There aren't many of whom I have seen more than one film, so picking a favourite is perhaps unfair. Griffith is an exception, but I find his films more to be appreciated than enjoyed. I loved The Wedding March (guess why) but don't know any other Von Stroheims. So with The Crowd and The Big Parade under his belt, it has to be Vidor - unless the majority of DeMille's silents count as 'drama', in which case, obviously...
4. Do Harold Lloyd's movies (movies, not shorts) drag along?
No! Well, maybe some do, but not the ones I've seen: they all zip by in my estimation. In fact, I always thought that Lloyd's work was distinguished in particular by its pace, far more than that of many another silent comic, in that it was essentially urban, and timed to the rhythms of the twenties, the department stores and the tram cars and all the other frenetic diversions of new-fangled city living, whereas Chaplin's and Keaton's films are much more bucolic and nostalgic. Even when Lloyd does rural - The Kid Brother, for instance - there's always a sense that the world depicted is one coming to an end, and that Lloyd's character, however gauche and ineffectual he may seem at first, is ultimately in his resourcefulness and energy an agent of that change. Chaplin is always an outsider, Keaton a supreme individualist, but Lloyd is the spirit of his age. This might to some degree account both for some of his great popularity, and for the cooling off in the public's esteem that saw him lose his hold in the thirties. The Freshman is one of my half-dozen favourite comedies of all-time. I vastly prefer his features to his shorts. I also love his talkies. And the fact that he had a lookalike brother called Gaylord.
5. Who made better silent shorts, Mack Sennett or Hal Roach?
Don't know. I would say that, for me, they were much of a muchness as far as silent shorts go; perhaps I would lean slightly towards Roach, but only because his were on their way to finding those characteristics that become definitive of his sound shorts, which I vastly prefer to the silent work of either. I think both are fascinating, wonderful, essential chapters in American film history, but for laughs I'll head for Below Zero, or for that matter to Sennett's sound shorts with W.C. Fields - quite possibly the funniest films ever made.
6. Is Al St. John a genuine heavy, or a baby heavy?
[Elizabeth explains: "This is based on the idea of the "Baby Vamp", which was the character of the girl who was vampish, but not a vamp. My sister doesn't really quite believe Al St. John is a genuine heavy because he doesn't have the crazy facial hair, and because he isn't quite so muscular as some of the other heavies (such as Noah Young or Eric Campbell). However, I'm firmly convinced that Al St. John is actually a heavy, moustache or no. He's too diabolical to not be one.]
Hmm. I'd hate mine to be the casting vote on this, because I'm not overly familiar with this chap. But from the brief acquaintance we have struck up here and there, I would lean strongly towards baby heavy. Unless I've seen an unrepresentative sample of work, Eric Campbell could kick his ass, no problem.
7. Do you like 1920s musicals?
You mean there's some other kind? No, I do like musicals from other eras, but less and less the further away from the twenties you go. Twenties popular music is one of my absolute favourite sounds in the world, not just the songs and performers themselves but the actual noise of it, the exact nature of the instrumentation and recording. I like thirties music very much, forties a little less, fifties a lot less, sixties and onward not at all. So my taste in musicals inevitably marches in step with this prejudice. I mean, even Singin' in the Rain sounds compromised to me: I love it, of course, but if they are going to have a twenties setting and use vintage songs why not make them sound vintage?
8. Do you like Al Jolson's movies?
If you mean: do the movies live up to the talents of the man, or are they a good substitute for seeing him on stage, I guess not really, but they'll certainly suffice until science comes up with an alternative. If you mean: do you like that man in those movies, do you like this man Jolson, then yes; he was the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. I mean, who else comes close? Michael Jackson?
(By the way, anyone heard Mel Brooks's impression of Al Jolson making a phone call to Irving Berlin on his 2000-Year-Old-Man album Two Thousand and Thirteen? It's brilliant, and if you're in two minds about Brooks, it'll make you a fully paid-up convert.)
9. Who is your favorite animal star? She says Asta from "The Thin Man" movies, but I like the monkey in "The Cameraman".
I have many. Mut in A Dog's Life gives one of the best all-round performances by an non-human animal, even though accounts in the Chaplin archives reveal that they got him drunk for one scene. But for comic ability, based on natural talent rather than artificial stimulants, I think the prize has to go to Charley Chase's dog in Mighty Like a Moose, specifically the moment in which, as the result of comic contrivance too convoluted to go through here, he ends up wearing Charley's false teeth.
Thanks, Elizabeth, this was great fun!

Two new films in a week - somebody stop this man!

Ah, you know me and new films. Can't get enough of 'em. So in the past week I've seen two - count them - two films released this year.
Actually Pranzo di Ferragosto seems to have been released last year, but it's taken until now to reach East Finchley. I went to see it for a number of reasons.
Firstly, because it's Italian. Since we started regularly holidaying there a few years ago I have become totally obsessed with Italy. It's my favourite country by a mile, I love almost everything about it, and even the not so good bits are absolutely fascinating, and unique. So when an Italian film turns up at my local I'll always go and see it because even if it's nothing special it will be steeped in the atmosphere of my favourite country.
Second, it's only seventy-five minutes long. I have always maintained that no story cannot be told in ninety minutes (just one of many thousands of reasons why I'd rather chew my balls off than watch Inglourious Basterds - sorry, Lolita) but rarely since the thirties has anyone had the discipline and taste to let one clock in at 75. It's the perfect length - it doesn't feel long and it doesn't feel short.
Third, it has a U certificate, but it's not for kids. This is an insane novelty for us. Over here the U, equivalent of the American G, stands for Universal and basically means it's okay for anyone to watch it. It doesn't mean it's a kids film, but in practice the only films that ever get U certificates are kids films. Unless they're Italian it seems, where charm can still be bankrolled.
Even with all this going for it, however, I didn't actually know what I was going to get. It was impossible to guess what it was going to be like, because the British distributors have given it a bland title (Mid-August Lunch) and a poster that makes it look like that cinematic equivalent of slow death from disease: the quirky American indie breakthrough sleeper. Gianni di Gregorio looks like David Lynch on the poster. (The poster also warns us, despite that U certificate, that it contains scenes of people smoking. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Anyone hear jackboots?)
Even prepared, as I was, to get something out of this no matter what, I was not expecting seventy-five quite so perfect minutes of total and blissful vindication.
Basically, if you love that feel that Italian cinema has, the beautiful rise and fall of those voices, the architecture and the attitude, if you never tire of Visconti's Ossessione or or Fellini's Cabiria or Antonioni's L'Avventura or Argento's Profondo Rosso, drop whatever you're doing even if it involves the use of dangerous industrial machinery (sorry, I'm trying to get a job designing London theatre posters) and track down this glowing, beautiful thing.
Let me sell it some more.
There are five main characters in this film. One of them is a middle-aged man. The other four are women in their nineties. The supporting characters are a few more middle-aged men and the beautiful city of Rome. That's it.
It's about this guy who lives with his aged mother, and the relationship between them is beautifully realistic; no silly extremes, just real, day to day ups and downs. It's set mainly during the day Romans traditionally leave for the beach and the entire city closes down. Because of his mother he must stay in the city, and he is also left to care for the aged relatives of his landlord (he hasn't paid his rent) and doctor (he can't afford to pay for his consultations).
That's basically it, and it's the most engrossing and delightful thing you'll see this decade. Gianni di Gregorio, the lead actor, also wrote and directed it, and it was shot in the exact apartment he shared with his own mother. All of the old ladies are non-professionals, one is his aunt, one a family friend and the other two came from an old people's home. All four are sensationally good. The ending is so right, so real, and yet so triumphantly warm and hopeful I wanted to stand and cheer.
Not least because we had just endured the trailer for the latest identical to all the others piece of British horseshit, this time calling itself Fish Tank. What a contrast. ("Dark and gritty drama about a girl on a council estate trying to escape her loneliness through her love of streetdancing." Mmmm, yes please!) Nasty gobby people yelling at each other in depressing surroundings, with big heavyweight critical endorsements of course. Some ding-dong from Elle magazine calls it profound. You can always rely on Elle to know profundity when it sees it. They also call it 'uplifting', which is British film critic code for 'after ten minutes you'll want to cut your throat slowly'. What it actually is, of course, is despair-porn, the eroticisation of the underclass by the comfortable media class elite, a kind of patronising prurience which they think, by some impenetrable alchemy only they can rationalise, makes them worthy and useful. To hell with the lot of them. We love you, Italy! We love you, Italian cinema!

Clips from one of my favourite Italian movies, Rosselini's Viaggo di Italia turn up in Broken Embraces.
Funny thing about Almodóvar. When he was in his prime and I went to see new films all the time I had no interest in him at all. Now that watchable films are rare, and his seem to be at least that, and my local cinema is only down the road, I wander along out of habit. The odd thing is that I still have no desire to seek out the back catalogue, so I have a very false picture of him. I've only seen three, all at the cinema and none more than once: Talk To Her, Volver and now Broken Embraces. As usual; pretty interesting, pretty engrossing, pretty pretty. Penélope Cruz, whom I have never sought out but seems nonetheless to be in every film I see at the cinema these days, grows on me a little more. Angela Molina from Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire is in it very briefly, to me at least almost unrecognisable.
It held my attention easily enough while it was on. Parts of it were striking, a lot of it was colourful, it was long, it moved at a uniform pace and it just sort of wandered by - like the circus leaving town.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

June Duprez: Say a prayer for Dr Watson

I was watching The Brighton Strangler again the other day. (Once or twice a year I get the urge to re-acquaint myself with this peculiar little semi-classic; you know how it is, I'm sure.)
As always, I was struck by the fact that I knew virtually nothing about its beautiful, somewhat feline British star June Duprez, and by the fact that her career, which had seemed so promising, appeared to abruptly come to an end just as she was reaching her peak.
Did she die young, marry and retire, or what?
This time, I decided to find out...
Born in 1918 (during an air raid), she was the daughter of Fred Duprez, an American vaudevillian who had made his professional home in Britain during the 1930's. (He played Groucho's role in the British stage run of The Cocoanuts and is very funny as the studio mogul in the Crazy Gang's Okay For Sound [1937]. The following year he accompanied Will Hay to America for his oddball co-production Hey! Hey! USA [1938], and suffered a fatal heart attack, at the age of fifty-four, on the ship coming back home.)
June got her big break from Alexander Korda, who gave her four big roles between 1939 and 1940: The Four Feathers, The Spy In Black, The Lion Has Wings and The Thief of Bagdad. The latter production was moved to Hollywood after the outbreak of war, and gave June, who is photographed beautifully throughout in Technicolor, her first taste of the film capital. The film was a huge success and June opted to stay in America and give Hollywood a try.
Why did her career not take off as expected? Not for want of anything in her performances or screen presence. Incredibly, her agent made the elementary mistake of setting her per-picture salary far too high for a largely untested actress, with the result that she received a fraction of the work she merited, and never made the impact on audiences that she she should have. And with that one simple, infuriating error of judgement an entire career was stalled.
According to this excellent Powell & Pressburger site "at one point she was so impoverished she nibbled on dog biscuits, which she covered with marmalade."
"Whenever you see a Sherlock Holmes movie, say a prayer for Dr. Watson," June has been quoted as saying. "Because if it hadn't been for the kindness of Nigel Bruce and his wife, I just don't know what I'd have done in Hollywood. They kept me circulating socially when I was stagnating professionally. And the times they gave me dinner!
"But the very worst part was the men out there. I spent few minutes at a Barbara Hutton party talking with David O. Selznick. Later that same night he appeared at my door, and when I wouldn't let him in, he broke my window.
"Another time, on a warm day, I had my apartment door opened and in walked Harry Cohn - right into my house. I'd never met him. I didn't know who he was, even when he told me. When I told my agent that I nearly had him arrested, he told me that such a thing would have ruined me. Me! I had been assured that I was the prime contender for the lead in Sundown, the part that was to be the making of Gene Tierney, but after that horrible scene with Selznick, it was never again mentioned... Do you wonder why it's called a jungle?"

She is worth looking out for in three Hollywood movies, however. Cary Grant and director Clifford Odets overrode studio objections to cast her in None But the Lonely Heart (1944); she considered the result her best movie appearance. She's also splendid as the female lead in Rene Clair's And Then There Were None (1945), one of the best and most under-rated Hollywood films of the forties, and by a million miles the best ever film of an Agatha Christie novel.
And then, of course, there is The Brighton Strangler (1945), a decidedly minor but still bafflingly little-known melodrama with a lovely Christmastime setting and a strange and rather splendid set-up: an actor who has been playing 'the Brighton Strangler' on the London stage is conked on the head when the theatre is hit during an air raid, loses his memory and comes to believe that he is the real strangler. So he travels to Brighton and begins murdering totally innocent strangers unfortunate enough to serve as surrogates for the characters in the play.
Because the murders are really not his fault the film has a somewhat black comic edge, never more pronounced than when he attempts to explain his motives to the people he is about to kill and they, naturally enough, don't have a clue what he's talking about.
June, in military uniform a lot of the time, is relaxed and charming, as is John Loder as the strangler, another jobbing Brit in Hollywood who turned up just about everywhere but never quite made it.
. June later moved to New York, where she appeared on Broadway, then to Rome for a time, before finally returning to London, where she died in her sleep on August 17, 1984.

Polls Closed! Thinking Caps Quiz Results

Here is the positively final results rundown for the thinking caps quiz:

1. Favourite Humphrey Bogart film in which he doesn't play a gangster or a private eye: To Have and Have Not
2. Favourite appearance by a star in drag: Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby
3. Favourite Laurel & Hardy film: Sons of the Desert
4. Favourite appearance by one star in a role strongly associated with another star: No winner
5. Thirties or forties star or stars you most think you'd like, but have yet to really get to know: Jessie Matthews
6. Favourite pre-Petrified Forest Bette Davis film: Of Human Bondage
7. Favourite post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford film: Johnny Guitar
8. Favourite film that ends with the main character's death: Tie: Waterloo Bridge and King Kong
9. Favourite Chaplin talkie: Monsieur Verdoux
10. Favourite British actor and actress: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr
11. Favourite post-1960 appearance by a 1930's star: Tie: Boris Karloff in Targets and Joan Blondell in Grease
12. Dietrich or Garbo?: Dietrich
13. Karloff or Lugosi?: Karloff
14. Chaplin or Keaton?: Keaton
15. Favourite star associated predominantly with the 1950's: Tie: James Dean and Montgomery Clift
16. Favourite Melvyn Douglas movie: Ninotchka
17. The box-office failure you most think should have been a success: It's a Wonderful Life
18. Favourite performance by an actor or actress playing drunk: James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story
19. Favourite last scene of any thirties movie: Tie: City Lights and King Kong
20. Favourite American non-comedy silent movie: Tie: Sunrise and The Big Parade
21. Favourite Jean Harlow performance: Dinner at 8
22. Favourite remake: No winner
23. Favourite Orson Welles performance in a film he did not direct, not including The Third Man: The Long Hot Summer
24. Favourite non-gangster or musical James Cagney film: One, Two, Three
25. Favourite Lubitsch movie: To Be Or Not To Be
26. Who would win in a fight: Miriam Hopkins or Barbara Stanwyck?: Barbara Stanwyck
27. The two stars you most regret never having appeared together: No winner
28. Favourite Lionel Barrymore performance: Tie: It's a Wonderful Life and You Can't Take It With You
29. Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard or Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour?: Lamour
30. Which one thirties film from each major studiowould you save from burning?
Paramount: Duck Soup
MGM: No winner
RKO: Top Hat
Columbia: Mr Smith Goes To Washington
Universal: Tie: Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein
Warners: Angels With Dirty Faces
Thanks to the following for taking part:
Amanda at A Noodle in a Haystack
Angela at Golden Strands and Silver Strands
Elizabeth at Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee! and Flapper Flicks
Hart Reaver
Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Juliette at Some Parade
Lolita at Lolita's Classics
Meredith at Or maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax
Millie at Classic Forever
Mykal at Radiation Cinema!
Panavia 999 at Stuff
Thea at Kinetografo
Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70
Weepingsam at The Listening Ear

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thinking Caps Quiz: Statistical Breakdown (sort of)

So heartened was I by the response to my thinking cap quiz (see post below) that I decided to spend an indulgent hour idly collating the results, to see what interesting examples of convergence, divergence, passion, indifference and out on a limb eccentricity might emerge.
So far, the following fine folks have taken part:
Amanda at A Noodle in a Haystack

Angela at Golden Strands and Silver Strands

Elizabeth at Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee! and Flapper Flicks


Juliette at Some Parade

Lolita at Lolita's Classics

Meredith at Or maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax
Millie at Classic Forever

Mykal at Radiation Cinema!

Panavia 999 at Stuff

Thea at Kinetografo

Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70
Don't worry if you'd like to do the quiz and still haven't: it will just give me another glorious excuse to draw up lists of the answers and monkey around with the results.
Anyway, here's what I found.
Question 1:
Favourite non-private eye, gangster or Moroccan nightclub owner Bogart film was To Have and Have Not, with a late show of support from Amanda (joining Elizabeth and Millie) beating off its previous rival In A Lonely Place (Lolita and Mykal). Juliette later wished she'd gone for Lonely Place, but wish don't cut it. To Have and Have Not it is.
Question 2:

On the issue of stars in drag, nobody went for Jack or Tony in Some Like It Hot, perhaps from the fear (expressed by Millie) that it was too obvious an answer. So instead we have eleven different answers from eleven participants, with men dressed as women beating women dressed as men six to five. Juliette cheated by making up a fictitious actress ('June Preisser') in a fictitious film ('Sweater Girl'). (She also once tried to convince me there was a Liza Minnelli film called The Sterile Cuckoo. Yeah, right.) The judge's favourite was Elizabeth's - Roscoe Arbuckle in Coney Island (1917) - because I liked the confident way she wrote "How could it be anything else?" after it.

Question 3:

The Laurel & Hardy split did not fall neatly across the gender tracks as I anticipated, with Elizabeth in particular springing to their defence and Mykal in particular pulling the trap door by claiming to loathe all comedies. In the event, the ones I was expecting to sweep the board - Big Business (Samuel Wilson), Sons of the Desert (me) and The Music Box (Meredith) - showed up only once, Millie went for flat-out dislike, and Lolita nominated "their commercial for wooden products" (Tree in a Test-Tube). So the winner turned out to be the early sound short Men o'War, nominated by Angela and myself.

Question 4:
'Favourite star in a role strongly associated with another' proved another eleven-participants-eleven-answers question, but the judge wishes to single out for especial praise the chutzpah of George, who suggested Alan Arkin as Inspector Clouseau, and the innate good taste of Mykal, who opted for Zandor Vorkov
as Dracula in Al Adamson's majestic Dracula vs Frankenstein.

An equally divergent crop for Question 5: the star you're least familiar with but think you'd like. Eleven participants racked up nineteen suggestions, but the only duplication was of Jessie Matthews by George and me, and then only because I read George's answers before doing mine.
Others that managed all or almost all different suggestions were Question 8 (favourite film that ends with the main character's death; though I suppose Waterloo Bridge has it: one of Juliette's three suggestions, it tallied with Angela, who quite frankly would watch a film of Vivien Leigh putting up wallpaper and not feel short-changed), Question 15 (favourite actor or actress most associated with the fifties; although Lolita's vote for James Dean tallies with one of Millie's three choices I'm disallowing it because he was a big girl, and my choice - Jane Russell - could have turned him into mashed potato with just one withering glance: sorry, the judge's decision is final), Question 19 (favourite last scene of a thirties film, with me and Elizabeth helping City Lights - the best last scene of any film ever - to a two-vote victory), Question 22 (favourite remake; no clear winner: King Kong got two votes but it was once for the '77 version from George and once for the 2005 from Mykal, however Meredith's vote for the 1998 version of The Parent Trap deserves at least acknowledgement), and Question 27 (most longed-for non-existent co-starring performers). The latter understandably brought forth eleven entirely separate answers, though it was interesting to note that while male-female combinations (Elizabeth, Millie and Angela) and male-male combinations (George, Samuel Wilson, Mykal) took three votes each, a slightly greater number voted for two girls (Amanda, me, Meredith, Juliette), which seems to me only right and proper. Lolita, true to form, offered up a threesome with Katherine Hepburn, Robert Montgomery and Kay Francis, under the indulgent directorial eye of George Cukor. Which would have been the judge's choice, but for the utterly charming suggestion from Elizabeth, via her mother: "Buster Keaton and Lillian Gish together, in which they do nothing but blink their great big cow eyes at each other."
Questions 6 & 7:
These, I have to say, surprised me. On the matter of pre-Petrified Forest Bette, Amanda abstained, Meredith went for Parachute Jumper "simply because her Alabama accent is absolutely adorable", George for Three On a Match because it was the only one he'd seen, ditto Mykal and Of Human Bondage ("and she was too cute by half"), Millie ("I'm not a huge Bette fan") chose 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing because she'd "always been fascinated by her hair in the trailer" and Elizabeth declared flatly "I don't like Bette" and didn't vote at all. In the final count, Mykal reluctantly helped Of Human Bondage to a three-vote win, but nobody who voted for it seemed that enthused: Lolita liked Bette's performance ("she's almost creepy, and yet sad, and yet... very creepy") but thought the film "wasn't great", while Samuel Wilson's vote was for "Of Human Bondage, I guess." Still, democracy's democracy, and three half-hearted votes for Of Human Bondage outweigh two certain ones for Ex-Lady (Angela and I).
Post-Mildred Joan Crawford proved equally unenthusing, with Meredith and George both going for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? because it was the only one they'd seen, and Elizabeth ("I tend to avoid post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford; she got a little too weird for me") and Millie ("REALLY don't like Joan Crawford's acting") both opting out entirely. So again, despite a committed pair of votes for Johnny Guitar from Samuel Wilson and Juliette ("I just adore seeing gals in westerns"), Lolita's third vote for Baby Jane gets it the prize.
Question 9:
Mykal doubted the existence of any Chaplin talkies, Millie and Amanda didn't vote and George put an exclamation mark after suggesting A Countess From Hong Kong, but as expected, this settled down into a straight fight between The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, with Verdoux winning, with three votes (Samuel Wilson, Juliette and Lolita) to its rivals' two apiece.

Question 10:
Favourite British actor and actress brought forth a record 25 votes, with the gongs going to Deborah Kerr for the ladies, who romped home with three votes (George, Samuel Wilson and Meredith), and for the chaps, with two votes each, a tie between wheezy Robert Donat (Juliette and Millie), Cary Grant (Amanda and Meredith) and Charles Laughton (me and Samuel Wilson). And Laughton wins because I voted for him and what I says goes. The judge also acknowledges the excellent taste of Millie (who included Dame May Whitty among her record eight choices) and Elizabeth (who plumped without rival or hesitation for George K. Arthur because of his "Gussie Fink-Nottle lisp").
Question 11:
Favourite thirties star in a post-sixties role was almost a three-way tie between Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton and Joan Blondell. But Keaton drops out because he was nominated for two different appearances: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by George and an episode of The Twilight Zone by Elizabeth. So that just leaves Karloff in Targets (me and Samuel Wilson) and Joanie in Grease (Angela and Lolita) duking it out... and I suppose this time I should let the ladies have it. The Good Taste Award to Meredith, however, who chose Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds.
Questions 12-14:
The either-ors generated less controversy than I expected. Dietrich took Garbo with a convincing seven vote victory (despite Elizabeth claiming to come from "a family of Dietrich-despisers", Lolita voting Garbo against her every instinct because she is "my country girl" and a disgruntled George at first opting for either Diebo or Garbrich, and only settling on Marlene after a coin-toss). Lugosi bested Karloff (and oh, how that would have pleased him) by the same margin (with Juliette giving her vote to Bela on the unusual grounds that he is the more debonair). Chaplin and Keaton went 50-50 (5 votes each and one abstention), but I suppose Stone Face has it, because while there was a general feeling of 'I love them both', Keaton got a "no hesitation" from George, and Lolita started off saying Chaplin but then panicked and refused to confirm it.

Level-pegging on Questions 16 and 17, with Ninotchka (Meredith, Lolita and George) sharing the favourite Melvyn Douglas film trophy with Mr Blandings (Amanda, Elizabeth and Millie) and seeing off The Old Dark House (Samuel Wilson and me), and Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life arm-in-arming for best box-office failure, with a sneaky one vote each from Meredith, Angela going for the wonderful old Building and Loan and Millie for Rosebud.
Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story proved Question 18's most popular drunkard (with Lolita, Angela and George all offering to help keep him upright and get him home safely), though the judge is respectful of the fact that Juliette said the magic words Una Merkel, and Gig Young managed a vote each for two different films. I just can't believe nobody voted for Arthur Houseman.
Question 20, favourite non-comedy American silent was a walk in the park for The Big Parade (me, Angela and Elizabeth), with nothing else getting more than one vote other than Sadie Thompson, part of Lolita and Juliette's multiple answers.
But Question 21, favourite Jean Harlow performance, proved a tie between Red Dust (me and Meredith) and Dinner at Eight (Angela and Elizabeth), and with Mykal confessing to having never seen one and never intending to ("Hate the woman"). I suggest a look at Beast of the City (incidentally Juliette's choice), or failing that Red-Headed Woman (Lolita's) - we'll get that man converted.

Orson Welles picked up three actor-only votes for The Long Hot Summer in Question 23, though Millie hoped nobody was watching her at the time and Juliette split her vote with Three Cases of Murder, a British film that only she and I have seen since its release in 1955. Amanda deserves praise of some sort for choosing The Muppet Movie. But the judge's decision is final, and the winner is the pissed out of his skull Paul Masson champagne commercial voted for by Lolita, in which he begins each aborted take with the same guttural howl of existential despair, but then somehow segues it into a rambling speech about the merits of Californian champagne. This tops anything in Citizen Kane for me.
George and a shared vote from Millie helped One, Two, Three claw its way to a two-vote victory for a non-dancin', non-shootin' Cagney at Question 24. Angela, Amanda, Meredith and Elizabeth all declined this one, with Elizabeth adding the information that, as well as Dietrich despisers, her family is also "a society of Cagney haters", opining that his dancing "hurts to watch".
Question 25 split Lubitsch fans - formerly one, small happy family - into snarling factions of To Be Or Not To Be supporters (Meredith, George and Millie, the latter of whom reckons to have seen it 33,269 times: three times more than I've seen Abbott & Costello In The Foreign Legion), Ninotchka devotees (Elizabeth, Samuel Wilson and George again, a potentially useful peacemaker between the two camps), and rabid Trouble In Paradise obsessives (Mykal, Lolita and Juliette). Actually there was very little passion - I'm just trying to big it up - and Juliette's, like George's, was a split vote, so the judge gives it to To Be Or Not To Be on the grounds that Carole Lombard is foxier than Garbo. Though actually I voted for Design For Living with Miriam Hopkins ...
and that brings us to Question 26: The Big Fight
First, let the record show that as far as votes are concerned, Stanners KO's Miriam eight to three

With one abstention (me: too close to call), Miriam picked up only two votes. (Elizabeth thought she "looks meaner".)
Just compare that to the confidence oozing from the Stanwyck camp:
Meredith - "Barbara Stanwyck hands down. Don't mess with Brooklyn, boys and girls. No one slaps her around unless she wants them to."
Juliette - "You kidding? Well, Bette shook Miriam around, and Barbara could totally take Bette, so it’s Barbara Stanwyck by a mile-- and she wouldn’t even break a sweat. She wouldn't have to put a doorknob in her glove for it, either..."
Samuel Wilson - "Don't know why Hopkins is even in competition."
But Mykal, the other Miriam supporter, is entirely confident he's backed the right mare:
"Stanwyck was all talk and no walk. Hopkins was the velvet hammer! For those answering Stanwyck – Pffft. Whatever."
My own feeling is that what we're seeing here is partly support for Stanners, rather than an impartial assessment of form, and partly a misjudging of Miriam based largely on mid-thirties and later performances, especially Old Acquaintance, in which Bette gives her a good hiding and she just stands there and takes it. Mykal, I suspect, is coming at Miriam from a pre-Code direction, and thinking of her spunky, feisty brawlers; her cockney prostitute in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and trampy nightclub chanteuse in 24 Hours. This was the Hopkins I had in mind, the one that Bette's biographer Charles Higham calls "a pretty, blonde, ruthless bitch: hard-bitten, mean-tempered... She would fling herself into a chair, spread her legs wide as a stevedore's and throw down martinis as though they were lemonades... She was jealous, consumed with hatred, petulant, self-pitying, coarse, bloody-minded."
Tell me that girl can't take on poochy little Ruby Stevens!

Questions 28 and 29: You Can't Take It With You wins the favourite Lionel Barrymore role title with a decisive four votes (Meredith, me, Juliette and Elizabeth), with Meredith calling his household "the greatest fictional family ever created" (technically true, since the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based partly on fact) and Dottie beating Paulette as best Bob Hope gal by a narrow five to four (despite George's assertion that "the correct answer is Jane Russell").
Which brings us - and not before time, you say - to the thirtieth and final question: which thirties film from each of the six majors would you save from the blazing inferno that consigns all else to non-existence.
No other question found the participants quite so blatant in their resorting to subterfuge. Mykal opted to save the entire Universal horror sequence and leave MGM, Paramount, Columbia, Warners and RKO to fend for themselves. (I do see where he's coming from, though.) Amanda left Paramount to the flames while she dashed back into RKO for some more Ginger Rogers. George claimed his tears would work as a sprinkler system. Angela thought she could get out of Warner Brothers with a Busby Berkeley box-set. Then there are those who refused even to try. I don't want to name names. Elizabeth. And Millie, who chose to daydream about being rescued by burly firemen while her country's cinematic heritage went up in choking black smoke. Tut-tut.
Nonetheless, a few patterns emerged from the inferno. Though no single film appeared more than once for Paramount, MGM or RKO, the Marx Brothers nonetheless figured thrice in the Paramount bag, with me retrieving Animal Crackers, Lolita braving the flames for Monkey Business and Meredith risking life and limb for the sake of Duck Soup. Likewise Ginger (with and without Fred) dominated the RKO haul, with The Gay Divorcee (me) and Top Hat (Amanda and Meredith), Stage Door (Juliette) and the illegal saving of Bachelor Mother and Vivacious Lady by Amanda when she should have been at Paramount. Cecil B. DeMille did well too, with me opting to let Madam Satan represent thirties MGM for all time, and Samuel Wilson granting The Sign of the Cross the same privillege at Paramount. But at Universal, Warners and Columbia a greater degree of consensus emerged, with me, Juliette and Lolita all choosing to save Lugosi's Dracula - a surprise victory over two-voters Frankenstein (Meredith and Samuel Wilson) and one-voter Bride of Frankenstein (Angela), while at WB both Lolita and Juliette emerged with blackened faces and Baby Face in their satchels. At Columbia, however, it was Save Frank Capra Day, with three votes for It Happened One Night (me, Lolita and Angela), one for Mr Deeds (Samuel Wilson), and one for Mr Smith (Meredith). Amanda rallied to the Howard Hawks cause with Only Angels Have Wings, and Juliette was still trying to choose between Mr Smith and His Girl Friday when she passed out with smoke inhalation. "Don't judge me," she begs. Shall we?

STOP PRESS! (12/8/9)
New entries from Thea and Panavia999!

To Have and Have Not consolidates its ascent of the Bogart pile thanks to a fourth vote from Thea; Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (Thea and Lolita) and William Powell in Love Crazy (Panavia and Meredith) now distinguish themselves among the stars in drag and raise the men-as-women to women-as-men ratio to eight to five; Thea gives Sons of the Desert an equal lead for Laurel & Hardy, added a fourth vote to Of Human Bondage for Bette and raised Johnny Guitar to joint-leader for Joan.
Thea's levelling vote for Limelight in the best Chaplin talkie was cancelled by Panavia's extra boost for Verdoux.
In the either-ors, both added knockout punches to Dietrich's and Keaton's victories, Thea added to Lugosi's - Panavia abstained but that didn't help Karloff any - and the Dottie-Paulette ratio was preserved by one vote each.
For Melvyn Douglas, Panavia's vote for The Old Dark House brought it level for a moment with Ninotchka and Mr Blandings, but Thea saw Ninotchka to unequivocal victory (and did likewise for Citizen Kane for favourite flop.)
Both voted for Dinner at Eight in the Harlow category, making it the clear winner. Thea's Cagney choice, Man of a Thousand Faces, coincides with mine and makes it joint-winner with One, Two, Three, and a vote each for To Be Or Not To Be and Trouble In Paradise turns the Lubitsch category into a two-horse race, consigning Ninotchka to the also-rans.
I've a feeling Thea's vote for It's a Wonderful Life gives it neck and neck status with You Can't Take It With You in the Barrymore category, and while Panavia - at last! - joined the Hopkins team for the big fight, Thea's siding with Babs did nothing to halt her lead in the polls.
Finally, in the last question, Thea went to RKO for King Kong rather than anything with Ginger Rogers in it, but both upped the Capra quota at Columbia (Mr Deeds for Thea, Miracle Woman for Panavia) and reduced Dracula's supremacy at Universal, with a levelling vote for Frankenstein (Thea) and Bride of Frankenstein (Panavia).
Panavia also pointed out, quite rightly, that I had callously let Fox go the wall when listing studios.

Special mention should be made of the fact that in the 'favourite film that ends with the main character's death' category, Thea went for King Kong, while Panavia provided separate answers for films in which the main characters are a man, a woman, a man and a woman, a man in a western, a child and a donkey.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thinking caps on, please.

The questionnaire I got from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule
via Allure has been tempting some of you but others have balked at all the corny, old-fashioned modern films included. I sympathise.
Here, then, is my brand spanking new self-devised classic questionnaire, devoted almost entirely to the thirties and forties.
I COMMAND everyone to have a go, either in my comments or in your own blogs and let me know...

The following have so far posted responses on their own blogs:
Meredith at Or maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax
Elizabeth at Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee!

Millie at Classic Forever

Lolita at Lolita's Classics

Juliette at Some Parade

Amanda at A Noodle in a Haystack

Panavia 999 at Stuff

So, thinking caps on (or ask Clara for a lend of hers if yours is at the cleaners) - here goes...
1. Your favourite Humphrey Bogart film in which he doesn't play a gangster or a private eye. (Oh, and not including Casablanca either.)
2. Your favourite appearance by a star in drag (boy-girl or girl-boy).
3. Your favourite Laurel & Hardy film; short or feature, or one of each. (This will sort out the men from the boys - or perhaps the men from the girls.)
4. Your favourite appearance by one star in a role strongly associated with another star. (Eg: Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Grace Kelly as Tracy Lord, Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates...)
5. The thirties or forties star or stars you most think you'd like, but have yet to really get to know.
6. Your favourite pre-Petrified Forest Bette Davis film.
7. Your favourite post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford film.
8. Your favourite film that ends with the main character's death.
9. Your favourite Chaplin talkie.
10. Your favourite British actor and actress.
11. Your favourite post-1960 appearance by a 1930's star.
12. Dietrich or Garbo?
13. Karloff or Lugosi?
14. Chaplin or Keaton? (I know some of you will want to say both for all of the above. Me too. But you can't.)
15. Your favourite star associated predominantly with the 1950's.
16. Your favourite Melvyn Douglas movie.
17. The box-office failure you most think should have been a success.
18. Your favourite performance by an actor or actress playing drunk.
19. Your favourite last scene of any thirties movie.
20. Your favourite American non-comedy silent movie.
21. Your favourite Jean Harlow performance.
22. Your favourite remake. (Quizmaster's definition: second or later version of a work written as a movie, not a later adaptation of the same novel or play.)
23. Your favourite Orson Welles performance in a film he did not direct, not including The Third Man.
24. Your favourite non-gangster or musical James Cagney film or performance.
25. Your favourite Lubitsch movie.
26. Who would win in a fight: Miriam Hopkins or Barbara Stanwyck? (Both in their prime; say in 1934 or so.)
27. Name the two stars you most regret never having co-starred with each other, and - if you want - choose your dream scenario for them. (Quizmaster's qualification: they have to be sufficiently contemporary to make it possible. So, yes to Cary Grant and Lon Chaney Jr as two conmen in a Howard Hawks screwball; no to Clara Bow and Kirsten Dunst as twin sisters on the run from prohibition agents in twenties Chicago, much though that may entice.)
28. Your favourite Lionel Barrymore performance.
29. Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard or Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour? (See note on question 14.)
30. You won't want to answer this, but: there's been a terrible fire raging in the film libraries of all the major studios. It's far too late to save everything. All you can do is save as much as you can. You've been assigned the thirties. All you'll have time to drag from the obliterating inferno is one 1930's film each from Paramount, MGM, RKO, Columbia, Universal and Warners. Do you stomp around in a film buff's huff saying 'it's too hard, I can't choose just one' and watch them all go up in smoke? Or do you roll your sleeves up and start saving movies?
But if the latter: which ones...?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Smoke Thickens ...

WARNING: This post includes photographs of people smoking, and should not be viewed by anyone under eighteen years of age.
More interesting info has come to light relating to the decision made by somebody (or more likely some body) in Britain to change Audrey Tautou's cigarette into a pen in the poster for Coco Avant Chanel (see post below).
First, it has been brought to my attention that the poster has been causing similar trouble - in France itself!
Though the ciggie image has been widely seen on cinema billboards, magazines and tv, it ran foul of the law on French public transport. Metrobus, which regulates advertising on Paris buses and trains is stretching the meaning of a law banning the “direct or indirect” promotion of smoking, intended purely to prevent tobacco advertising, and has insisted that the original image be replaced by a bland pic of Audrey stood next to the male lead. (At least they didn't use the pen.)
But here is an even more shocking example of Metrobus madness.
Kate at Silents & Talkies has alerted me to the above: Metrobus's crass defacement of Tati's pipe on the poster of a major exposition!
This, at least, has caused un petit furore, as reported by the Daily Telegraph's French correspondent Henry Samuel:
The move was decried as ridiculous by both the health minister and Claude Evin, the man responsible for drawing up the tobacco advertising law. He said it shouldn’t be applied when it came to France’s “cultural heritage”...
Yet despite calls to reason from all sides, Metrobus doesn’t see what the fuss is all about and is sticking to its guns with just the sort of absurd administrative rigidity that Tati would have found hilarious...
(The newspaper) Liberation has been vocally lambasting the Tati airbrushing, mockingly wondering why the authorities didn’t take offence to the fact that he is not wearing a helmet, is riding an old-fashioned, polluting vehicle and that the small boy riding behind him is not seated securely.
”Why not go all the way?” it asked. It has a point.
This is all running parallel with the incessant campaign in Britain to have smoking banned from movies themselves.
This is terrifying on two counts: because it would give our political masters explicit legal licence to inaccurately shape how reality is presented in movies, the kind of power we associate with totalitarian governments and one entirely incompatible with democracy, and because it could lead to the censoring or even banning of classic movies, in which all the lovely people pretty much smoked like trains.
There's also considerable irony here, too, because the campaign, like the existence of product placement, assumes unquestioningly that movies do have the power to influence their consumers and encourage imitative behaviours and acts - a notion vehemently denied when the time comes to face off those who object to the cinematic glamorisation of more trivial threats to public safety like murder, rape and torture. Suddenly, then, it is the gauchest and most naive notion imaginable.
This came notably to a head earlier this month when the frankly risible idea of allowing a bunch of attention-seekers to occupy the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in rotation got off to a rousing start when it was hijacked by a protester. Protesting what, you may wonder? The ever-encroaching state and its fascistic intrusions into individual conscience and private life?
Nah. Try again.
Leading the charge in Britain is a sinister organisation called Ash, dedicated to the complete criminalisation of all smoking everywhere.
Its creepy spokeswoman Amanda Sandford recently expressed her approval of an idea to have films in which characters smoke reclassified as 18, the equivalent of the American X certificate. “Where there is a lot of smoking in a film or where actors are making it look cool then I think there is a case for making it an 18,” she has said. (This will of course make Casablanca illegal for viewing by anyone under eighteen years of age. And that's just the first film that came into my head.)
When child wizard Daniel Radcliffe sparked up on stage during a production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus (which would already now be illegal under British law, along with any smoking in an enclosed public place) she warned: “It is regrettable that he is smoking, whatever the circumstances. He is a role model for young people and if he decided to take up smoking in real life that would be of great concern… Even though it is an act, nicotine is highly addictive and he could find himself hooked.”
Hands up anyone else who thinks it would be “of great concern” if Daniel Radcliffe started smoking in real life…
Just you, then, Amanda.
Terrifyingly, though, the idea is catching on.
From Metro, Monday March 17th, 2008:
Films featuring smoking could be slapped with an 18 certificate to stop children being encouraged to take up the habit.
The ban could hit many children's favourites including Walt Disney's 101 Dalmatians, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Pinocchio. The call for the age limit to be raised has come from Liverpool City ­Council which is threatening to overrule the British Board of Film Classification.
It claims research shows that young people are heavily influenced by ­seeing smoking depicted on the big screen.
'The international evidence is that one in two children between 11 and 18 who witness smoking in movies actually experiment with – and therefore start – smoking,' said Andy Hull, of Liverpool council.
As opposed to those hordes of children between 11 and 18 who don't witness smoking in movies. (They would be what scientists call a control group, essential for any such statistical inference to make any kind of sense.)
Incidentally, this is the same Andy Hull - Liverpool’s head of ‘public protection’ - who the year before last decided to tackle the problem of pigeons (Liverpool's second most pressing social menace after smoking) by using computer-controlled ‘robo-falcons.’ These are fibre glass birds of prey that slightly move and raise their wings every so often, and a bargain at just £1850 each, plus £80 for the mounting base and £95 for a ‘rotating arm’, or a mere £3450 for two of them on a 20 foot pneumatic pole.
They may seem expensive. But don't worry. According to Emma Haskell (director of PiCAS UK, an independent advisory body on the issue of bird control), they are also “completely ineffective”.
According to her, “The robotic hawks are almost laughable as a method of control and the cost associated with buying and installing the product...simply cannot be justified.”
So that’s Andy Hull, head of public protection at Liverpool City Council.
Strange days, my friends, strange days.
.................................."Put it out or I'll shoot."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why is Audrey Tautou smoking a fountain pen?

Here's Audrey Tautou in her pyjamas and drawing deep on a Gauloise, enticing pushovers like me to go and see Coco Avant Chanel. (I obeyed her doe-eyed command last night.)
And here she is again in the poster seen in British cinemas: same pose, same eyes, same pyjamas but instead of the fag, a preposterous pen.
Perhaps she's taking a course in something... utopian-idealist censorship in cinema advertising, maybe.
What bothers me about this in particular is that I don't know exactly who has done it, or with how much authority.
For all I know, our beloved government, which seems to pride itself on inventing new laws even more quickly than it invents new offences, may have actually got this on the statute books; a sub-clause perhaps, in the law banning cigarette advertising. (In addition, cigarettes may not be featured in advertising...)
Far more likely, however, is that this is a voluntary gesture on the part of the film company, but in a way that's even more creepy. Because voluntary is not the same thing as unilateral, and it means that somewhere someone has exerted pressure. And I don't know who, or what form of pressure, or how much. The new-morality Kray twins have sent some of the boys round, it seems. (But all in a good cause so OBVIOUSLY THAT'S OKAY - right, everybody?)
Perhaps they should have cut their losses and gone with this weird and misleading American one, which has a kind of sixties, Warhol factory feel about it:
The film itself is a respectable, unsurprising and unsurprisingly handsome trot through a not terribly interesting life-story; painless, very easy on the eyes and schematic to a fault: all it lacks is the cartoon light bulb appearing over her head every time she sees a bale of black cloth or gets her first glimpse of a Breton fisherman's striped shirt.
I was amused to see Benoît Poelvoorde, who had slipped from my consciousness entirely since his face, fifteen years younger and thinner, had adorned many an undergraduate wall back in my university days, pointing a gun at you on the poster for a ridiculous film called C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1993) which at the time had seemed sufficiently controversial to be mistaken for important, worthy and, if you were a student, cool. He's very good in this, however, so all is forgotten (again).
I haven't mentioned Audrey, but it would just be embarrassing blather with all critical sobriety switched off and the full compliment of hysterical adjectives, so I'll spare you.