Saturday, February 27, 2010

A stroll through cinema history

Just back from the Cinema Museum in London, which has been hosting a film memorabilia fair today.
Books and lobby cards and soundtracks and Super-8 movies... and, as special guest, none other than the winner of Carfax Abbey's recent Hammer glamour girls poll: Caroline Munro herself.
I'd like to be able to tell you I spent half an hour chatting casually with Caroline, but the embarrassing truth is that I found myself stood right in front of her before I even realised she was there: our eyes met, I did one of those double-takes like Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace, she smiled warmly, and I ran away.
The museum, open to the public by appointment only, is the home of the Ronald Grant Archive, and houses an incredible collection of posters, artifacts, fixtures, cameras, uniforms, carpets, memorabilia and anything else remotely connected with the world of cinema.
The building, not far from the Elephant and Castle, was originally part of the old Lambeth workhouse, and is now all of the once sprawling structure that remains, lost in the middle of a maze-like modern housing estate.
.Many of you will not need telling what this imposing Victorian structure's significance is to the world of the cinema, but if you do, perhaps the names of some of the apartment blocks on the surrounding estate will give you a clue:
.Yes, it was to this very building that the infant Charlie Chaplin was sent, with his brother Syd, after his mother's mental breakdown. Many of his later movies, such as The Kid and Easy Street, draw on his memories of the time he spent here.
Here's some of the great stuff inside:
.Angela auditioning for DeMille
Cinema seat arm-rests
"Stewart Rome, honoured recipient of 133470 votes in 'Pictures Popularity Contest', June 1915."
His real name was Septimus Wemham Ryott, and only Chaplin got more votes in that 1915 poll. By the nineteen-forties he's regularly taking uncredited roles. Between 1913 and 1950, he made over 150 movies. I had never heard of him until this morning. Oh if we could only swap him for Colin Farrell.
Angela took these photos. That's why there's not 400 pictures of Caroline Munro. Or one, even.
Here's some of the great swag I brought home from the fair:
Jaws: I've bought it on Betamax; I've bought it many, many times on VHS, and I've bought it three times (so far) on DVD - now at last I have it on two-reel sound and colour Super-8.
.Programme leaflets for the Stoll Picture Theatre, Kingsway. These were produced purely for information purposes, and designed to be thrown away as soon as they went out of date, just like the forthcoming attractions leaflet for the Vue chain I picked up when I went to see The Wolfman this weekend that didn't even get as far as the car park before I slung it in the crapper.
But just look at these beauties!
The days when you could watch a Laurel & Hardy short sat in a box.
Here's a genuine typed letter from D. Goldenberg, General Manager of the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, dated March 11th, 1931, urging me to see Trader Horn, "the miracle film of the decade":
.Dear Patron,
For the first time, we venture to trouble you with a personal letter about a forthcoming attraction, because we feel that the greatest talking picture made so far... merits our doing so...
To make it, the director, W. S. Van Dyke, who was previously responsible for White Shadows of the South Seas and other successes, took his company of actors and actresses and technicians, 60 strong... into the dark recesses of the African jungle. For almost two years they faced death, from wild beast, reptile, disease and cannibal, daily and often hourly.
Scenes of almost unbearable excitement are included... This is an attraction we can bring to your notice without the slightest fear of your being disappointed...
But this, I fancy, is the find of the day:
An original and mint condition 1953 carton formerly containing one whole pint of Valley Farm's Bing Crosby Ice Cream, "the cream of the stars".
Unbelievably, this incredible item (being shown to you today by our two lovely young ladies Esther and Penelope) cost me just three pounds! That's less than an actual pint of ice cream - one without, what's more, Bing's friendly visage and reassuring signature assuring us of the high quality produce within!
I shall sleep well tonight.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Another Nice Predicament: “Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward” and an interview with Scott MacGillivray

Way back here I mentioned how much I enjoyed the largely reviled films that Laurel and Hardy made for Fox and MGM in the nineteen-forties, after their golden years at Hal Roach.
Received wisdom had drawn attention to the (undeniable) defects of these productions - Stan's loss of creative control, the often unsuitable material and dialogue designed to turn the team into wisecracking clones of Abbott and Costello or Hope and Crosby, the simple fact that they were, and looked, older - to the exclusion of all else, giving the impression, or often as not stating outright, that they were not worth a second of your time. The Big Noise - for some reason - seemed to come in for the most stick, and even found itself included in the Medved Brothers' Fifty Worst Movies of all Time.
The feeling was that, while there was nothing in these movies to entertain anyone, if you were a Laurel & Hardy fan you'd actually enjoy them less than somebody who didn't like the boys at all.
And yet... Perhaps it was because they were simply less familiar to us than the Roach films we had seen dozens of times over. Or perhaps it was just because we have a sweet tooth for great comics in bad films (oh, the hours of joy spent watching the Marx Brothers in Go West, or Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, or those live action intros to the Three Stooges cartoons). But my friends and I found ourselves drawn to these films when they unexpectedly became available on video in Britain. We watched them, and we watched them again, and it wasn't long before we were making arrangements to watch them.
Many, many viewings later, I'm still watching them, and, as I nervously admitted in the earlier post, I'm long since past the point when I realised that I really was enjoying them on their own terms.
Which, if you're a Laurel & Hardy purist, is a bit like saying you prefer Brown & Carney.
But I think these films are the victims of an entirely unfounded prejudice that has magnified their faults, and ignored their pleasures, wilfully and beyond reason.
They are not perfect, and few could really compete with prime Roach product, though I'm not sure why they should have to. But neither are they painful, or demeaning; most of them make for a jolly hour of your time, and at least two (Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters) are good enough to need very little defending at all.
I maintain that a sympathetically-edited compilation of the best sequences from these films would be all it takes to turn their reputation around. Or perhaps a really good book on them...
.I mentioned in my previous post just what a treat it was to finally discover Scott MacGillivray's Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward.
Here at last was a book which took this huge chunk of the team's work, usually dismissed in a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence, and dared to consider it worthy of critical attention. At last, instead of the generalisations first committed to print in the 1960s and never revised thereafter, there was real discussion of the films and their merits; suddenly they were not all one thing but individual titles, some good, some fair, some bad. Suddenly we discovered how popular these films had been with audiences, how there was much more to the story of how and why the boys signed that Fox contract that supposedly left them heartbroken, how Stan had been allowed to direct portions of The Bullfighters and Ollie considered Jitterbugs one of his five favourites of all the team's work.
Even if you insisted you don't like the films, no Laurel & Hardy fan could fail to enjoy reading new things about their work, rather than the same old things, warmed over and rephrased.
Then there are the final chapters, dealing in luxurious depth with such matters as the compilation films of Robert Youngson, or the story of Laurel & Hardy home movies, subjects again usually given the one-sentence treatment. For someone whose all-time favourite Laurel & Hardy film remains Passing the Buck, the one-reel condensation of Their Purple Moment that my parents bought to accompany my first film projector, the latter could hardly fail to hold me in rapt attention, while the chapter on Youngson does what innovative film writing so rarely gets the chance to achieve: make fascinating a subject in which I was only moderately interested, and reverse my lazy, half-held opinions on it in the process.
Scott got in touch with me recently to say that there was now a new edition of the book available, not just revised but extensively rewritten. The result is quite simply a different book, a must-buy even if you already have the first edition (and I'm keeping mine, because it had a nicer cover), with some 50% new material, and the fruit of tons more fresh research.
Great Guns ripped off Buck Privates, yeah? Okay, but did you know that Stan actually unofficially contributed to Buck Privates at Lou Costello's instigation? Or that their all-time biggest box-office hit was Nothing But Trouble, a film chosen in 1945 as one of the 45 titles added by the Washington Library of Congress to its motion picture collection "to preserve those films which faithfully recorded, in one way or another, the contemporary life and tastes and preferences of the American people"?
No? Neither did I. But I do now.
Movietone caught up with Scott to ask him a few questions about his book, its inspiration and reception...
Movietone News: What was the first of the forties Laurel & Hardy films you saw?
Scott MacGillivray: The first Laurel & Hardy picture I ever saw happened to be one of the Fox features: The Big Noise, in 1965. At that time only one TV station in Boston showed Laurel & Hardy at all, and then only three of the Foxes. They were broadcast maybe once or twice a year, as was then the norm with local stations, so it was quite an occasion when a favorite star or film was scheduled.
I first read John McCabe's book biography Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in 1966. That's when I found out Laurel & Hardy made almost 20 years' worth of movies! That's also when I found that the 1940s L & H films were supposed to be terrible. I took this as an opinion instead of a fact - I didn't believe that these comedians who were so good could possibly make movies so bad - so when I finally did see all the wartime pictures I could keep an open mind and enjoy them on their individual merits.
MN: So when did you realise there was a book to be written about this?
SM: In 1991, if memory serves. I was then the editor and publisher of the Sons of the Desert's international quarterly, and I wrote a feature article about the "forties films." By then I was accustomed to seeing author after author dismiss the later Laurel & Hardys without actually saying much about why, and I thought the topic deserved a closer look. The article was well received and, as I mentioned at the beginning of Forties Forward, Ted Okuda and Jan Carey encouraged me to write an entire book on the subject.
MN: From your postbag, would you say that the book has chiefly served to reassure existing fans of these films that they are not alone, or to convert those formerly resistant to them?
SM: Very definitely, they are not alone! I got many, many letters thanking me for taking the time to explore the later years of Laurel & Hardy history, and quite often my correspondents said they had always enjoyed the later films. One fellow expressed amazement at how prevalent the films' reputations had become. He wrote about attending a screening of one of the Fox features, and overhearing a neighbour softly saying, "We aren't supposed to like them."
I think if Forties Forward has been of any service, it has sent readers back to the films, so they can make their own judgements. And now, thanks to DVD, all the later films are back in circulation.
MN: What are your favourites among the later films?
SM: I have a sentimental fondness for The Big Noise because it was my first one, but I think my favorite is Jitterbugs. It's great to see Stan and Ollie being stuck in the desert, then leading a band, then adopting disguises and taking part in a sting operation! My least favorite is A-Haunting We Will Go, because the boys are so listless in it and the script is so cumbersome. I do enjoy the cast, and it's always fun to see great character players like Richard Lane, Robert Emmett Keane, and Mantan Moreland in action. There's always something to enjoy in all the later films; for sheer relaxation I'd rather watch The Dancing Masters over Bonnie Scotland any day of the week!
.MN: You cite a number of instances where Ollie seems far more creatively involved in these years than legend insists: Charlie Rogers was brought back for Air Raid Wardens at his instigation rather than Stan's; he was very vocal about what they did and didn't want in terms of screen stories; he had his own private cinema where he would screen the films before release and scout for feedback... Do you think there might be an element of mythologising in the 'Stan in the screening room, Ollie on the golf course' dichotomy?
SM: Very intriguing question! I think Babe took a stronger hand in the forties because Stan was so dispirited by the big-studio experience in 1941 and '42. Things got better after A-Haunting We Will Go, and beginning with Air Raid Wardens the Stan and Ollie characters are again behaving as we expect them to. Gradually they had more input, and within two years Stan was directing.
There may well be an element of mythology here because Stan was quoted so extensively in later life, and McCabe and successive authors sang his praises as a creator. But we must consider that Stan represented the team when talking and corresponding with fans and authors. It isn't so much Stan being the creator - both were creative - but Stan's voice is usually the one on record, while Babe left fewer interviews behind. Babe usually deferred questions about filmmaking to Stan anyway, so this rather reinforced Stan's being the dominant voice.
.MN: You make a very interesting point about them going into their initial Fox contract with their eyes open, and how advantageous to them they appeared to find it. Bearing in mind what we now know of what ensued, what do you think they thought they were getting out of that contract? Do you think Stan simply didn't realise that the old rules would no longer apply, or was there an element of wilful naivety: seduction by the greater prestige of a major studio, bigger budgets, and perhaps even a gesture of defiance to Roach?
SM: Bravo. You express it precisely. Greater prestige, bigger budgets, and defiance to Roach. In 1940 Laurel & Hardy were at the bottom of Roach's roster instead of the top. Fox offered a chance for Laurel & Hardy to get back in the game and back on top. Stan was deeply impressed by the opportunity, because he kept souvenir photos from his films, and the biggest file by far is the one on Great Guns, his first picture for Fox.
MN: So did the early writers on Laurel & Hardy take their dismissive view of the forties films from Stan, or he from them? (In rather the way that Groucho slowly modified his oft-expressed preference for his Thalberg films over Duck Soup, a film he professed to dislike until latterday critics called it his masterpiece.)
SG: Stan was fond of the opportunity to make Great Guns, not so much the film itself. I don't think the authors influenced Stan - the only author during Stan's lifetime was John McCabe. Everything else was published posthumously, and all the authors I read took their cue from McCabe. Which brings me back to your first question: I thought the films' bad reputations were only a matter of opinion, so I wrote my own book.
Thanks to Scott MacGillivray for his time and assistance.
The new edition of Laurel and Hardy From the Forties Forward is out now, and no self-respecting Laurel & Hardy fanatic can do without it.