19/11/2014

Once In A New Moon (1935)


"Heavens! England's gone!"

Here's a rare thing. A "quota quickie" sci-fi from Fox British dating back to 1935, which tells of the fictional Essex hamlet of Shrimpton-on-Sea, unceremoniously plucked from the face of the earth by the sheer velocity of a passing "dead star" and which thereafter becomes a planet in its own right, Shrimpton-in-Space. The locals initially refuse to believe the truth when it's presented to them by postmaster Harold Drake (Eliot Makeham, an accountant in another life), but are finally forced to face facts, whereupon a class war breaks out between the socialist yokels and the landed gentry who have assumed power with a predictable air of entitlement. 

Once In A New Moon's outlandish Wellsian premise is is taken from Lucky Star (1929), a novel by travel writer and historian Owen Rutter, a former bureaucrat with the North Borneo Civil Service who was so obsessed with the Mutiny on the Bounty that he wrote no less than six books on the subject. However, its plot is merely a pretext for the gentle political satire that unfurls, putting mild-mannered Drake at odds with Viscount Bravington (Morton Selton), a purring old Tory keen on brown sherry and prone to smoothing down his lustrous white moustache when vexed. Bravington - a genteel hobbyist in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth at Blandings - is being bullied into striking up a civil war by his fearsome wife (Mary Hinton) when he'd clearly rather spend his days organising a cherished stamp collection. Fortunately, the comet reverses its effect before anyone on either side is seriously hurt and the village duly crash lands in the North Sea just east of Scarborough.

This delightful little curiosity - bringing cosmic intrigue to Little England in a manner not altogether dissimilar to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's recent The World's End (2013) - comes from director Anthony Kimmins, a veteran of multiple George Formby vehicles, who shows laudable ingenuity in getting a great deal done with almost no budget to speak of, a no-name cast and just a 63 minute running time. Kimmins succeeds in presenting us with a complete village's worth of distinct if clearly allegorical characters and  develops a pleasing sub-plot about Drake's doting daughter (the lovely René Ray) being pursued by the rebellious young lord of the manor (Derrick De Marney) despite his snooty parents' disapproval, a scenario always popular with W.C. Fields

Those looking for overt social comment or insights into the broader 1930's context from Once Upon A New Moon may be disappointed, although there's a striking moment during a newspaper-montage sequence - intended to show Britain's aghast response to Shrimpton's disappearance - when one of the other prominent headlines featured on a frontpage reads: "Nazi Terror in Vienna". One wonders if Once In A New Moon were well enough known to have been an influence on Ealing's later Went The Day Well? (1942).

18/10/2014

Red River (1948)


"I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
- John Ford on John Wayne

Howard Hawks' Red River - a psychological Western with a distinctly Oedipal twist - is often talked about as an early example of the Classic Hollywood school of acting encountering the young upstarts of the Method, with John Wayne's on-the-horse/off-the-horse style squaring up to Monty Clift's soulful sensitivity drawn from personal experience.

That's certainly one interesting aspect of the film - Clift providing quite a contrast to the practiced genre playing of Wayne and Walter Brennan - but it's less often remarked quite what a phenomenal undertaking the production was. As with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the cast and crew found themselves forced to live their story, leading a giant herd of cattle along the arduous Chisholm Trail while loaded with costumes and kit and toiling away in baking temperatures and only limited shade. The end more than justifies the means, however, with Hawks conjuring up a truly immersive experience for his audience, taking us into the fray by placing a camera in the rear of a covered wagon as the group wades across a high river and casting us among the fleeing cattle during a standout stampede* sequence.



The plot, adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from the former's Saturday Evening Post yarn, concerns Wayne's Tom Dunson, who stakes his claim on Texas soil in 1851 and builds a major beef empire after his girlfriend is butchered by Indians when a wagon train she is part of is attacked. Dunson adopts the only survivor of that atrocity, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), and raises him as a son with help from his old confidante Groot (Brennan). 15 years later, the Lone Star State is impoverished in the aftermath of the Civil War and Dunson needs to sell his herd to keep the business afloat. Setting off on the 1,000 mile trek to Missouri, Dunson and his men soon suffer terrible hardship, weakened by bad coffee and short rations. Dunson himself becomes tyrannical and obsessive in the best spirit of Captains Blye and Ahab, forcing the adult Garth (Clift) to intervene and overthrow him, diverting the cattle drivers east towards Abilene, Kansas, where the new railroad has just hit town. Dunson, maimed, swears revenge.



But Garth's coup is much more than a dramatic plot turn. For Red River is really a critique of posturing alpha male masculinity, offering us Garth the thoughtful, feminised consensus-seeker as an alternative to Dunson's unchecked and wrong-headed machismo and aggression.

As with other tough guy stars of the 1940s, Big Duke Wayne found post-war America ready for a more nuanced and complicated hero and more open to questioning the action man exploits he had previously thrived on following six long years of global conflict. Bogie would become Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bob Mitchum a murderous preacher in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and even loveable Jimmy Stewart a tortured neurotic in Vertigo (1958).


Wayne's Tom Dunson, a forerunner to the borderline psychotic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), is sidelined by Garth, however reluctantly, because his macho management style has bred an unhappy camp where morale is low and dissent rife. Dunson, white haired and covered in trail dust, looks like a phantom, his brutal, militaristic instincts having finally led him astray and rendered him obsolete. Garth, the Fletcher Christian of the piece, is the New Man that America needs, a proto-Democrat and pacifist prepared to listen and take counsel to achieve the best result in opposition to the overbearing authoritarianism of his Republican father figure, which, Red River shows us, has become a dangerous dead end. The film's gender politics are further underlined when both men are giving a thorough dressing down by a woman (!) at the close, love interest Joanne Dru handing out the ticking off with evident relish.

*That scene is also a fine example of how to turn comedy into tragedy. A recurring joke about a cattlehand with a sweet tooth pinching sugar from Brennan's chuck wagon is finally revealed to be the set-up for a disaster: his clumsily upsetting a pile of pots and pans while seeking to satisfy his craving causes the spooked herd to turn tail and run and a colleague (Harry Carey Jr) to be trampled to death in the ensuing melee.

Harry McClintock - The Old Chisholm Trail

01/10/2014

The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Warner Brothers hired syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger in 1937 in a bid to bolster its reputation for making realistic pictures "ripped from the headlines", founded on the success of films earlier in the decade like Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Hellinger was the sort of flashy character who wore loud blue shirts and white ties in hot weather and made a point of driving a car repossessed from Dutch Schultz. This Jimmy Cagney vehicle directed by Raoul Walsh was the first fruit of his partnership with Jack Warner and was based on one of Hellinger's own short stories, 'The World Moves On', about the criminal heyday of Prohibition.


Producers Hal B. Wallis and Sam Bischoff worked hard to emphasise the authenticity of The Roaring Twenties, opening with a signed endorsement from Hellinger and a montage of news reel footage counting backwards in time from the rise of Hitler in the present day to the stock market crash of 1929 and the outbreak of the Great War.

We're then introduced to Cagney's garage mechanic turned doughboy Eddie Bartlett, who dives into a French foxhole to escape enemy shellfire and there encounters sadistic George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and frightened law student Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). The three men bond over cigarettes and discuss their plans for the future. Back in the US, Bartlett finds it near impossible to get a job and becomes embittered, finally resorting to driving a taxi borrowed from his pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) by night. A chance commission from a stranger sees Eddie unknowingly tasked with delivering illegal liquor to a nightclub run by Panama Smith (Gladys George), whereupon he is promptly arrested for bootlegging. Bartlett takes the rap for Panama, the intended recipient, and goes to jail. Impressed by his stoic resolve, she pays Eddie's bail. Wiping his shoes on the 18th Amendment, Bartlett enters the black market booze business and accrues a fortune, buying a fleet of cabs and hiring a small army of ex-cons to carry out his rum runs. Acquiring a taste for power, Eddie sets up teenage chanteuse Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) in Panama's club and reunites with Hally to form an uneasy but potentially lucrative alliance. Glory beckons, before Bartlett's glass is well and truly knocked over.


Walsh's film shows us none of the gaiety of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age" and lays heavy stress on its vice and venality instead. Cagney is as charismatic as ever playing the plucky everyman seduced and corrupted by ill-gotten gains while Bogie is as sour and unpleasant as I've seen him. Several years before John Huston had the visionary idea of casting him as a hero for the first time in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart is on truly nasty form, drawing on his years of experience playing deadbeat henchmen to snarling effect. By contrast, Gladys George is tremendously moving as Panama, in love with Eddie and hard-pressed to watch him have his hopes dashed by the young protégé he hopes to marry but who's really in love with Lloyd, now a mob lawyer troubled by his conscience. Frank McHugh is also good value as Danny, the cabbie sidekick being something of a stock comic role in those days (see Larry Dobkin's expert patter as Louis in The Saint for CBS, 1947-51). Cagney's death, lying bleeding in the snow, is as sad a pay-off as it is inevitable. "He used to be a big shot" is Panama's resigned eulogy.


Fans of HBO's Boardwalk Empire (2010-) will find much to enjoy and many points of similarity: Eddie's return from the trenches mirrors that of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), his weakness for showgirls recalls Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) while his habit of ordering nothing stronger than milk in speakeasys is echoed in Michael Stuhlbarg's fey characterisation of Arnold Rothstein. Eddie's surprise reunion with George meanwhile takes place when he attempts to rob the latter's whisky shipment out on the Atlantic one foggy night, a scene borrowed by Martin Scorsese for the series' pilot episode.

14/09/2014

Ace In The Hole (1951)


What is it about the New Mexico heat that drives men to complete moral collapse? Long before Walter White took to the desert to cook crystal meth in his underpants, washed-up Big City reporter Charlie Tatum (Kirk Douglas) was kicking his heels in the orderly offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, dreaming of his ticket back to the big time. And then he found it. 

Charlie exploits the case of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave while potholing for Indian relics, a routine accident that Tatum whips up into a media frenzy, which soon goes national and benefits all concerned. Except of course poor Leo, slowly dying in the dark while the punters roll up outside to watch the protracted rescue operation, happily paying the ever-rising parking toll, chewing hot dogs and riding the Ferris wheel while they wait. Charlie positions himself at the heart of this queasy carnival, with exclusive access rights to the invalid. He's in cahoots with corrupt sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal), the sort of man to delight in a pet rattle snake, which he keeps cooped up in a shoe box, not unlike old Leo. Tatum and Kretzer ensure that Minosa's rescue is affected in the most time-consuming manner possible, by drilling downwards into the cave from above rather than through its blocked ground level entrance, thereby ensuring that their "human interest" story gets a full week's run, regardless of what's in Leo's human interests. 


Part of the tragedy of Leo Minosa is that he takes solace from the belief that his wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), with whom he runs the nearby diner and gas station, is grieving for him and doing all she can to engineer his release. This isn't so. Lorraine, a bored, dishwater blonde in the vein of Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), is actually planning to leave Leo and only relents when Charlie points out how much she stands to gain from the situation. Like Tatum, she's an urbanite from back east who feels as buried alive in the desert as her husband is beneath those rocks. She's disgusted by the fur stoll that Leo instructs Charlie to give her as a present and is clearly attracted to the journalist's ruthlessness and dynamism. It's the greed and self-interest of Tatum, Lorraine and Sheriff Kretzer that ultimately seals the injured man's fate, not the boulders crushing his legs.


Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole is often branded with adjectives like "cynical", "acidic", "corrosive" and "vitriolic" and was angrily attacked by The New York Times and Hollywood Reporter upon its original release. But, in my humble opinion, this is one of the few really honest depictions of the amoral world of journalism out there. I'm not even sure it's a satire. Wilder is merely following the cosily embroidered dictum of Tatum's editor, Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall): "Tell the truth". Charlie's knowingly exploitative tactics and crowd-pleasing turn of phrase are still run-of-the-mill today in a profession that thought it justified to hack the voicemails on a murdered girl's phone, even if it meant hindering the police investigation into her killer.

It's no surprise to learn that Ace In The Hole was in fact based on a real incident - the tale of W. Floyd Collins, alluded to by Charlie Tatum in the film, who was trapped in a Kentucky cavern by a landslide and turned into a star by Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William Burke Miller in exchange for a Pulitzer. Wilder's film has lost none of its relevance in the online era, with widespread coverage of recent mining disasters in Chile, China and Turkey showing that its story still has currency with sensation-hungry readers. Wilder would return to the subject of murky hack work in 1974 with a remake of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's Depression-era play The Front Page, which has a more comic flavour but is nonetheless full of devastating lines. As fine as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, that film lacks the tour de force that Kirk Douglas displays here. The man is simply incredible throughout, driving the film just as Charlie drives his media circus. When Tatum finally slumps to the floor - following in the footsteps of Walter Neff from Double Indemnity (1944) as a walking wounded desperate to make confession - we feel as exhausted as he is. Charlie's tragedy is that his grand masterwork has cost a man his life and all been for nothing: New York newspaper boss Nagle (Richard Gaines) has lost interest and won't take his calls.

12/09/2014

Calamity Jane (1953)


Is Calamity Jane the gayest thing that's ever happened? Well, perhaps not. But between ancient Sparta and this 80's music video by Baltimora, Doris Day was butching it up in deer skins and a cavalry cap and belting out 'The Deadwood Stage' for the ages.

Within the first ten minutes of David Butler's celebrated musical for Warner Brothers - an answer to the box office success of MGM's Annie Get Your Gun (1950) - we've already been treated to the sight of Day's seemingly asexual tomboy heroine roughing up barflys and mild-mannered thespian Frances Fryer (Dick Wesson) entertaining the liquored up patrons of The Golden Garter in full drag.


Fryer has been mistakenly booked when the punters wanted vaudeville pin-up Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), prompting Jane to head east to Chicago to rectify matters. Her subsequent fish-out-of-water scenes in the Windy City include an extraordinary episode in which an amused prostitute catches Jane's eye with a come-hither glance, to which she responds with bemused but unmistakable curiosity, the first stirrings of a sapphic sexual awakening. Her return with Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), another wannabe mistaken for Adelaid, results in the sudden blossoming of an intimate friendship between the two women, which in turn serves to rouse Jane's dormant femininity. The ladies, soon looking every inch the lesbian couple, give Jane's dilapidated cabin a makeover and sing a duet entitled 'A Woman's Touch' while Jane hammers together the furniture and Katie finesses the interior decor. And then, to cap it all, Jane ventures out onto the hillside alone, wearing manly duds, to close the film with 'Secret Love', apparently about her feelings for Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), that Mr Darcy of the Black Hills. Yes, but is it though, Jane darling?


However much of a delight this campest of romps is for its first two-thirds, the fun couldn't go on forever. This was 1950's Hollywood, after all, and so, inevitably, a conservative moral is tacked on demanding that Jane put down her phallic six-shooter, start wearing pretty dresses, cease all that "female thinking" and settle down with Bill. It's a disappointing if predictable conclusion to a joyous production whose gender-bending antics would prove a gentle forerunner to Nick Ray's weirdo feminist Western Johnny Guitar, released the following year.


What is ultimately most remarkable about Calamity Jane - apart from its cheery disregard for historical accuracy (see the real Jane above) - is Doris Day. The singer turned actress is so astonishingly bright, so swashbucklingly athletic and so utterly unselfconscious, it's quite breathtaking. She swings in and out of moving stagecoach windows with all the carefree ease of the young Errol Flynn, leaps onto saloon bars mid-song and is even lassoed from the ceiling at one point. No leading lady working today would be capable of a comedic performance of this sort and it's a crying shame that Day is so terminally out of fashion. A talent to be treasured, whether or not this sort of business is your bag.

22/08/2014

Poppy (1936)


"What a gorgeous day... what effulgent sunshine... yes... 'twas a day of this sort, the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe!"

W.C. Fields here starred as Professor Eustace McGargle for the second time on celluloid, having already appeared in a silent version of Dorothy Donnelly's play directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925, Sally Of The Sawdust (below). But this was the umpteenth time the great clown had played McGargle in his career, having been a regular in the role on Broadway in 1923, reportedly treading the boards of the New York Apollo Theatre 346 times.


Eddie Sutherland's Paramount Poppy presents us with the image of Fields that has come to define him. Decked out in billowing check trousers, spats and a towering Mad Hatter's chapeau and cane, Fields travels the countryside with his faithful daughter in tow (Rochelle Hudson), pulling cons and hawking tonic at medicine shows until the idea of posing her as the long-lost progeny of a missing heiress enters his mind and real trouble ensues. The film provides W.C. with a welcome opportunity to dust off and repurpose some of his most cherished routines in a period setting: his Golf Specialist bit now takes place on a croquet lawn, his talking dog trick this time fools a bewhiskered publican while his fleeing from the scene here involves a getaway on a penny-farthing bicycle (a particularly joyous sight). There's also plenty of new business, including a failed recital on a cigar box violin that is continuously interrupted by the seemingly malevolent machinations of the aforementioned topper.


It's marvelous stuff, but don't take my word for it. Graham Greene, the English novelist whose work has inspired a number of cinematic classics from This Gun For Hire (1942) to Odd Man Out (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949) - started out as a film critic for The Spectator and reviewed Poppy highly favourably on July 17th 1936:

"To watch Mr Fields, as Dickensian as anything Dickens ever wrote, is a form of escape for poor human creatures: we who are haunted by pity, by fear, by our sense of right and wrong, who are tongue-tied by conscience, watch with envious love this free spirit robbing the gardener of ten dollars, cheating the country yokels by his own variant of the three-card trick, faking a marriage certificate, and keeping up all the time, in the least worthy and the most embarrassing circumstances, his amazing flow of inflated sentiments."

Greene further applauds Fields, in opposition to Charlie Chaplin, for winning our affection, "not by class solidarity (he robs the poor as promptly as the rich), but simply by the completeness of his dishonesty." A brilliant insight from a very fine writer indeed.

09/08/2014

His Kind Of Woman (1951)

It’s no surprise to learn that RKO boss Howard Hughes had a meddling hand in this oddball noir from John Farrow. What starts out as a fairly routine hot climate crime caper - in which Bob Mitchum’s no-luck gambler is dispatched to a Mexican holiday resort to greet a powerful mystery man arriving by sea – ends up becoming a wildly eccentric soapbox for Vincent Price, the great ham grandstanding as film actor Mark Cardigan, who overcomes a sunken dinghy to lead a motley crew of hotel workers to Mitchum’s rescue from a boatload of gangsters.

The bountiful Jane Russell provides the love interest, wearing little and prowling about the place like a lynx. Until, that is, she is unceremoniously locked in a closet by Price, whose whimsical thesp longs for a real adventure after a lifetime of playacting. The supporting cast is of a high calibre too, with Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus all showing up to add menace and texture. It’s a strange concoction, all told, and hard to know where Farrow’s work ends and Richard Fleischer’s begins (the latter drafted in by Hughes to tinker). His Kind Of Woman has gained a cult following over the decades and I’d say it deserves it. The closing metaphor of the steam iron burning a hole through Mitchum’s pants sums its humour up nicely.