22/08/2014

Poppy (1936)


"What a gorgeous day... what effulgent sunshine... 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) - and the umpteenth time in his career, the great clown 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.

26/07/2014

Stormy Weather (1943)


Andrew L. Stone's busy little musical for 20th Century Fox is a rare showcase for many of the great African American showbiz stars of the day, its cheery, celebratory tone and top notch songs enough to gloss over an extremely slight plot. What story there is is loosely taken from the career of Stormy Weather's star, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whose "educated feet" enabled him to dance his way to stardom through vaudeville to Broadway and Hollywood and is best remembered today for appearing alongside the late Shirley Temple and, unfairly, as something of a beaming Uncle Tom figure.

Robinson is given the charming Lena Horne as a love interest here, she a veteran of MGM's similar venture Cabin In The Sky (1940). Her Selina Rogers gives Robinson's Bill Williamson his start in music hall after she encounters the former G.I. waiting tables in a Beale Street bar. Selina falls for Bill before relocating to Paris to further her career, only to return in time to dish up the title song (mournful and at odds with the film itself) and the anticipated reconciliation. All of which Bill accepts with the same broad grin. I suppose you can't keep a good man down. There's also some tidy support from Dooley Wilson, fresh from playing it again as Sam in Casablanca (1942), as Bill's perpetually broke army buddy Gabe, the owner of a curbside shoe shine stand who prefers to pose as a swell to impress the ladies.



But rather like Frank Tashlin's later rock 'n' roll musical The Girl Can't Help It (1956), this is really an excuse to gather together a wealth of related talent to run through their greatest hits on the Big Screen. Despite the occasional cringe-inducing diversions into minstrelsy - female dancers wear golliwog-faced sunflower hats during a cakewalk, Robinson and cast dress as Zulu warriors to bang tom-tom drums in a jungle sequence - it's wonderful to have a record of stride piano hero Fats Waller mugging his way through 'Ain't Misbehavin'' (above) and likewise Cab Calloway doing his peculiar thing. The Harlamaniac-in-chief is here given more time to demonstrate his megawatt charisma and outlandish tailoring than he was in the Paramount ensemble comedy International House (1933) and makes full use of the opportunity to show off a zoot suit a lesser man would have got lost in. Both are heroes in their field, but it's the Nicholas Brothers who finally steal it. Their wild tap routine has to be seen to be believed.



Like Horne, Fats and Calloway, Harold and Fayard Nicholas were seasoned veterans of Harlem's famous Cotton Club and their extraordinary athleticism and invention are immediately apparent. Fred Astaire considered this "the greatest movie musical number" he'd ever seen. Praise indeed. Astaire also famously admired Robinson and had already paid tribute to him with the 'Bojangles Of Harlem' sequence in Swing Time (1936).

18/07/2014

Hobson's Choice (1954)



Behind every great man, there's a great woman. In the case of Salford leathersmith Will Mossop (John Mills), that lady is Maggie Hobson (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest daughter of his boss, the blustering Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton). Whom she's also behind.

Unbeknownst to anyone but herself, the headstrong Maggie has decided to make a project of Will, marrying him, teaching him to write and encouraging him to found his own bootmaking business to build a better life for both of them. In so doing, Maggie realises both his potential and her own, the ploy enabling her to break free from a life of thankless toil beneath the heel of her complacent father, who expects her to pick up where his late wife left off. For Hobson has loudly and publically written Maggie off as a Plain Jane, an old maid, a young spinster. His is a cruel and entirely selfish line of reasoning because Hobson knows all-too-well how invaluable Maggie's managerial skills and good sense are to the running of his house and business. This pompous boozer has held her back for too long while his youngest girls (Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales) are rewarded for their uselessness with independence. For the ageing patriarch, faced with mortality and the demise of his cobbler's empire, this is King Lear. For Maggie, this is a simple Cinderella story in which her own sudden self-realisation stands in for the want of a fairy godmother.


Hobson's Choice was the celebrated David Lean's final black-and-white film and his last to be set in England. Made for Alexander Korda's London Films, it shares some of the grime of his earlier high gothic masterpiece Great Expectations (1946) but, sadly, little of that work's magic, despite the best efforts of its star and the endearing earnestness of the underrated De Banzie, touchingly vulnerable beneath her forthright veneer. Hobson's Choice is too reliant on accents for charm ("By gum!") and too modest and insubstantial a tale to stand up to scrutiny. Laughton's biographer Charles Higham pinpointed the problem when he said: "Neither David Lean nor Alexander Korda was suited to the task of turning this timeworn regional farce into a satisfactory film. Lean's chilly, academic, and formalised approach, and Korda's tendency to opulence and exaggeration combined to create a highly artificial, lush and overripe version of a story which should have been treated with warmth, simplicity and austerity if it were to work at all". Higham goes on to argue that Lean was the wrong class to be making a film about the "harsh decency" of plucky Lancastrians, but perhaps that is taking matters too far.

Laughton is said to have lost confidence in the project midway through and had a lifelong loathing for alcoholics deriving from a childhood spent growing up in his parents' Scarborough hotel. The scene in which Hobson drunkenly pursues the moon's reflection through a series of puddles in the cobblestoned street is nevertheless a lovely bit of silent clowning, even if it does appear to belong to another film entirely.

13/07/2014

Kiss Of Death (1947)


Henry Hathaway's gorgeous Fox noir Kiss Of Death continues to be one of the genre's most underrated entries, benefitting from a trio of brilliant character performances from Victor Mature, Brian Donleavy and especially Richard Widmark. It's far from perfect, and more than a little inconsistent, but has enough original flourishes to startle.

Hard-up hoodlum Nick Bianco (Mature) is busted carrying out a jewel heist on Christmas Eve, but refuses to squeal on his accomplices when pressed by D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Donlevy). Professional pride and the failure of mob lawyer Earl Hauser (Taylor Holmes) to make good on his assurances condemn Nick to the Big House. When news of his wife's suicide reaches him, Nick relents and agrees to strike a deal with D'Angelo, naming names so that he can get free and take care of his young daughters, since confined to an orphanage. With the subsequent prosecution successful, Nick manages to build a new life for himself with the girls and their former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray), eventually finding work as a bricklayer. But D'Angelo pushes him to continue serving as his stool pigeon, commissioning Nick to gather dirt on sadistic killer Tommy Udo (Widmark). When Tommy is unexpectedly acquitted by a sympathetic jury, Nick knows that the giggling, manic psychopath will come gunning for him.



Upon its release, Kiss Of Death was highly praised for its documentary realism, an opening title card assuring us that its events take place in real New York locations where these sorts of characters might actually operate. Shots of Mature's world-weary anti-hero playing with his daughters on the residential streets of Queens bear this out. Mature was meanwhile sent to Sing Sing prison, in true Method style, to get a flavour of the place and better inform his performance. While such striving for authenticity is commendable, the film quickly undermines itself by introducing a string of larger-than-life hoodlums and cynical cops, all of whom belong on the pages of pulp paperbacks rather than the evening news (although they're all the more entertaining for that).


A more serious inconsistency is Kiss Of Death's frustrating failure to develop the social criticism introduced by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's script. Unusually for a noir, the traditional first-person voiceover is here spoken by a woman, Nick's new bride Nettie. She assures us that the sole reason Nick and his gang are knocking over a department store in the opening scene is so that he can buy Christmas presents for his children, Nick having been unable to find straight work as a result of a common reluctance among employers to hire ex-cons, "reformed" or otherwise, meaning they're passively condemned to an ongoing life of crime. This is a fascinating and no doubt all-too-accurate observation, but Nettie then goes on to explain that Nick has been a career criminal from boyhood anyway and is merely following in the footsteps of his own no-good father, unhelpfully confusing us about his real motivations and never returning to the matter. Much more biting is the film's depiction of Donlevy's pragmatic D.A. routinely cooking up deals with crooks, arranging for them to betray fellow gang members in exchange for lighter sentences.


While Mature is as sympathetic and bruised as he was playing Doc Holliday and Donlevy as dependable as ever, it's Richard Widmark in his feature debut that steals the film. Tommy Udo pushing helpless Ma Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock) down the stairs in her wheelchair deserves to be remembered in the same breath as Cagney's grapefruit assault on Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy (1931) among the great acts of violence in crime cinema. Widmark's cackling coke freak turn, railing against "squirts", snapping his fingers to the jazz drumming at Club 66 and quaffing champagne before threatening darkly against his girlfriend, has influenced everything from The Joker to the weasel gangsters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and has to be seen to be believed. Hathaway's masterstroke is introducing the idea that Tommy will seek vengeance against Nick and then having the exact opposite occur. Nick sends his young family away on the train, tools up and hides in the shadows, waiting for the laughing kid to come knocking, anticipating Max Cady's sick pursuit of Sam Bowden in Cape Fear (1962). But Tommy never shows up, too crazy for anything so obvious. Most interestingly of all, it's suggested that Tommy isn't even the real villain here. After all, he's just a mad stick-up man, with none of the power wielded by Earl Hauser, a lawyer as crooked as a country lane.

06/07/2014

House Of Wax (1953)


André de Toth's schlock thriller put Vincent Price on the map as a horror star and ushered in the first wave of hysterical excitement about the possibilities of 3D cinema, something we're still debating the merits of 60 years later.

House Of Wax was the first major colour feature to appear in 3D, a novelty introduced by panicked studio executives seeking to combat the sudden emergence of television as a serious competitor to movie houses, with theatre attendance halving as punters opted to be entertained from the comfort of their own living rooms rather than step out for the evening. For the first time, audiences were presented with grey-lensed polarised glasses to wear, enabling them to see characters lifted off the screen thanks to House Of Wax's much-touted "Nature Vision" process, which involved running two separate 35mm film strips for the left and right eyes using twin interlocked projectors, the installation of which required complicated modifications on behalf of exhibitors. The film also boasted stereophonic sound and proved a hit with movie-goers, helping to blur the line between auditorium and fun house, a notion William Castle would take further with his inventive promotional gimmicks for House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler in 1959, both of which also starred the ever-game Price. House Of Wax contains some insertions of its own to demonstrate the power of its technology, notably a daft intermission featuring a barker in evening dress batting a paddle ball directly at the audience and an otherwise entirely superfluous can-can scene. Ironically, the one person unable to profit from House Of Wax's third dimension was its director, the Hungarian de Toth having lost an eye in a childhood accident. Don't feel too sorry for him though: he was married to Veronica Lake.


The film itself, a loose remake of Michael Curtiz's Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933), is set in late 19th century New York and concerns Price's artisan sculptor Professor Henry Jarrod, whose commercially-minded business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns down their wax museum for the insurance money, cruelly leaving Jarrod to die amongst his cherished models of notorious historical figures (their melting away is a marvellously grotesque spectacle). Unbeknownst to Burke, Jarrod has survived the inferno and now haunts the streets in search of revenge, horribly disfigured and deranged. After hunting down and dispatching his former friend, Jarrod reappears and unveils a new museum to the public, whose exhibits are more lifelike than ever. So realistic, in fact, that visitor Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) becomes suspicious when the body of her late friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) disappears from the city morgue, only for her exact likeness to appear on the face of Jarrod's Joan of Arc.


House Of Wax has a pleasing brutality about it that would get lost in many of Price's later horror outings, the likes of The Raven (1963) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) descending into easy camp and knockabout whimsy, losing their way rather than going for the jugular. Those films have nothing to compare with the genuine shock of Burke's cadaver being discovered hanging in an elevator shaft, Jarrod's waxen mask cracking open to reveal a face twisted with savage burns or his death, tumbling from a balcony into a vat of boiling pink chemicals, writhing, seething and steaming as he sinks beneath the surface (surely an influence on the staging of Jack Napier's transitional accident in Tim Burton's Batman, 1989). Chasing Kirk down a darkened street with a simian roll to his gait, Price, clad in billowing black, draws on Jack The Ripper, Lon Chaney and Judex and the effect is extraordinary.


There's a fine supporting cast too, with Charles Bronson appearing in an early role as Jarrod's mute assistant Igor under his real name of Buchinsky. Frank Lovejoy, forever typecast as cops in noirs, appears as, er, a policeman, while the leading ladies would both be better known for their TV careers, Phyllis Kirk starring alongside Peter Lawford in The Thin Man (1957-59) and Carolyn Jones, unrecognisable hiding behind a dumb blonde wig and breathy Marilyn giggle, as Morticia in The Addams Family (1964-66).

05/07/2014

Billy Liar (1963)


Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay) feels trapped, stifled, buried alive. A lower middle class school leaver unable to afford university, he's stuck in a dead-end job as an undertaker's clerk and lives in the same old cramped council house with his hectoring parents (Wilfred Pickles, Mona Washbourne) and grandmother (Ethel Griffies) in the same humdrum northern industrial town where he grew up. Precocious but under-stimulated, Billy's also caught between at least two women, the disappointingly proper Barbara (Helen Fraser) and the altogether brassier Rita (Gwendolyn Watts), the lad frantically passing the same engagement ring back and forth between the two and hoping against hope that neither finds out about the other.


Billy's only escape from the tensions he's engineered for himself by neglecting his duties, cheeking his aged guardians and cruelly toying with the local female population are flamboyant flights of fancy. He imagines himself variously as the benevolent dictator of the fictional republic of Ambrosia, a debonair seducer and a violent machine gunner spraying bullets from the trenches, relishing the temporary release these snatches of daydreams bring. Until, that is, the lovely, free-spirited Liz (Julie Christie) arrives to shake him from his reverie and offer Billy a chance to make his half-baked dreams of moving to London to write gags for comedian Danny Boon a reality. Dangerously close to getting what he wants, Billy bottles it at the last minute and returns home, bowed but not broken.


John Schlesinger's Billy Liar - based on Keith Waterhouse's novel of 1959, itself a British translation of James Thurber's New Yorker story 'The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty' (1939) - remains a timeless study of small-town ennui and the teenager's restless yearning for escape from colourless reality to some ill-defined Shangri-La of the imagination. Despite its very specific positioning in time and space - working class Bradford in the early sixties - this staple of the British New Wave is entirely universal in its themes. Celebrated for its winning fantasy sequences, Schlesinger's decision to shoot Billy's everyday world in cinéma vérité style is perhaps of greater interest to posterity, as it turns the film into an invaluable record of the red brick buildings, winding hillside streets and dance halls of northern England on the cusp of the Sexual Revolution, an asset it shares with other "Angry Young Men" productions of the period such as Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963).


This is not to dismiss the importance of Billy's visions, which provide a wonderful contrast to the drab milieu and look forward to the work of the great television playwright Dennis Potter, whose major preoccupation was the isolated individual struggling to cope with strong doses of reality and seeking refuge in cherished imaginary worlds. Beloved Potter serials like the BBC's Pennies From Heaven (1978) carry this theme, but the closest parallel with Billy Liar is Potter's early Wednesday Play entry Where The Buffalo Roam (1965), about a troubled young man from Swansea who's obsessed with cowboys and finally acquires a six-shooter, with deadly consequences. A nightmarish answer to Schlesinger's comedy, Buffalo itself interestingly foreshadows the modern epidemic of high school massacres currently blighting the United States and is well worth seeing if you ever get the chance.


Having said that Billy Liar is a comedy, it is also entirely serious in its intentions. Billy's failure to leave on the midnight train with Liz, leaping from the carriage as the whistle blows on a spurious errand to buy cartons of milk from a vending machine, is usually read as a failure of nerve, a pessimistic ending underlining our weak-willed inability to realise our most heartfelt desires in a world all-too-ready to weigh one down with cumbersome responsibilities. However, Billy's apparently cowardly actions really mark the moment he finally reaches maturity. Rather than run away from his problems at work and selfishly abandon his parents in their hour of need, Billy returns home to face the music and comfort his mother, grieving over the death of grandma, finally accepting the debt he owes to his family. Although his roots have so far held him fixed firmly in the soil, they've also nourished and raised him. Behind his father's gruff northern machismo there lies real love for a son he'd be devastated to lose, a touching thought. Admittedly Billy has lost out on the affections of the radiant Julie Christie, but he's bought himself time to think hard about what he really wants to do with his time on earth, rather than go chasing disastrously after a phantom opportunity.




Elsewhere, Schlesinger's film is loaded with cherishable details. The firm of Shadrack and Duxbury where Billy works is a deliciously awful portrait of a first job, with expert character players Finlay Currie and Leonard Rossiter forming a magnificent partnership as the bluff Yorkshire Councillor and smug middle manager respectively. It's easy to emphathise with Billy's failure to deliver their latest batch of promotional calendars, a task so unthinkably futile he can't bring himself to complete it, even though he knows he'll be keelhauled for the omission. And his friendship with colleague Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes), co-author of the modest local rock 'n' roll hit 'Twisterella', is as funny and believable a portrait of two mates as I've ever encountered, their interactions peppered with authentic in-jokes, banter and silly accents. Exquisitely observed.