Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is of interest more for the part it plays in cinema history and the once-in-a-lifetime cast rather than the actual content of the film. Presumably anxious to show off the new medium of talking pictures, MGM did not waste valuable time writing a script. Instead, the studio bosses simply rounded up their brightest and best talent, shoved them on a stage, pointed a camera (just one by the look of things) and let them get on with songs, dances and comedy routines.

The entire thing is filmed with all the cinematic flair of a parent recording their child’s school play, and the rigid camera and uninspired angles often sap much of the energy and talent of the performers for the viewer. Of course, a non-stop parade of variety acts would be perfectly fine for those watching in a theatrical setting, as the immediacy and the atmosphere from the audience would more than compensate for the repetitive format. However, this film was made to an empty house, making the corny banter of hosts Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny fall flat, something not helped by having them address the non-existent theatre audience, rather than the camera.

Unlike other films that use the revue format, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has no story, either to link the skits or run in the background, surprising, and a little frustrating, given that silent pioneers – including some on this bill - had been hard at work developing cinema in order to tell stories. They had also invented a few tricks and techniques that were unique to the medium, but these are few and far between here. There are a couple of cinematic touches, such as the opening number where the picture goes (presumably intentionally) negative, or, more successfully, where Bessie Love initially appears in miniature (inside Jack Benny's pocket of all places) before growing to full size to complete her number. In fact, the effect is so successful that it is repeated later in the film with Marion Davies and her soldier-themed routine.

Despite this there are enough points of interest both on and off screen for fans of the films and the history of early Tinseltown to watch The Hollywood Revue of 1929 at least once. For a start, it marks the first on screen appearance of the song Singin' in the Rain, more than 20 years before co-writer Arthur Freed, in his later capacity as an MGM producer, would use it as the basis of the classic film of the same name.

We also get to see early talkie appearances from silent stars such as Laurel and Hardy, in an enjoyable routine playing bungling magicians, and Buster Keaton, doing pratfalls in a scene that lacks the purely cinematic invention of his classic work. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford, introduced as "the personification of youth, beauty, joy and happiness", shows off her lesser known song and dance talents.

While it may make for an uneven, often grating watch, not helped by the nearly two hours running time, there is no denying the place of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in the story of cinema as a medium. Films like this were part of a process that separated those, like Crawford or Laurel & Hardy, who could adapt to sound from those who couldn't, such as, sadly, Keaton.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Bleak, unsettling and relentlessly paranoid, Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the premise of the source material, both film and short story, and gives it a gloomy, post-Watergate spin. The end result is a paean to all the things that make us human, and why we should never let those things go.

Donald Sutherland plays Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco public health inspector, who has his curiosity piqued when a colleague, Elizabeth Driscoll tells him that her husband has changed, almost overnight into a cold, distant man. Bennell's psychiatrist friend David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) tells him that several of his patients are starting to think that their husbands or wives are not who they seem to be. Just when Bennell is thinking he may have caught up in some kind of mass hysteria - two of his friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec, find a partly formed corpse, part of an alien plot to replace the world’s population with emotionless clones.

Right from the start, director Phillip Kaufman draws us into an off-kilter world of mistrust and suspicion, mixing shots of normal life and slightly odd things and occurrences (a telephone cord, a priest on a swing, a man playing banjo) and seemingly imbuing them all with meaning – a classic trait of the paranoid. Cleverly, by moving the setting of the story from a small town to a big city, the idea of people behaving in a cold uncaring manner seems plausible and easier to dismiss as the consequences of “city living”.

However, despite the nationwide and global scale of the invaders plans, the script never loses sight of the human drama and the plight of the individual. Kaufman wisely chooses to balance the weirdness with characterisation, and he is helped by a first rate cast. Sutherland, eschewing any movie star trappings or mannerisms, is believable and sympathetic as the rational everyman, trying to make sense of the increasingly bewildering and unsettling situations.

The score it is the only cinematic effort by jazz musician (and psychiatrist) Denny Zeitlin is  eclectic, switching between ominous, sometimes discordant, orchestral cues, dark rumbling synth lines, and quieter, more reflective small jazz band pieces,

The special effects work is excellent, gooey and unpleasant, predating Cronenberg’s films The Brood and The Fly, or John Carpenter’s The Thing, linking the film to the sub-genre of Body horror.

One thing that this remake does not have that the original did is a clear political subtext. Instead the focus is more on emotions, feelings, the things that make us human, something that makes the final iconic scene as devastating as it is disturbing

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

The recent BBC TV series was not the first attempt to move Sherlock Holmes from Victorian times into a more contemporary setting. Universal set several of the series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson, during the wartime 1940s world that they were released in. What makes Sherlock Holmes Faces Death one of the best of these is that the war is now the backdrop to, not the driving force behind, the story, and the filmmakers went back to the source, adapting the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual".

The plot sees Watson working at to the Musgrave estate, a country mansion turned makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded in World War Two. When one of his colleagues is mysteriously attacked, Watson asks Holmes to help investigate, but when the great detective arrives, he finds one of the Musgrave family murdered, a long list of suspects, and a possible link to an old and sinister family tradition.

The script plays fast and loose with the original short story, making it more of a straightforward murder mystery, set in a slightly hokey haunted house, complete with thunder, lightning, suits of armour, secret passages and cobwebs. The story plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner, quickly setting up the story and showing us the suspects one by one.

Rathbone's take on Holmes is one that keeps many of the traits of the books, such as the unpredictable energy, fierce intelligence and eccentricity (we first see him shooting bullets into his living room wall in order to test a theory, and he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of train times and current affairs). His portrayal is the one that I grew up with, and is the one that perhaps set the public perception of the character in the twentieth century,

Watson is not as quick-witted as in the books, but he is a loyal and likeable fellow, as well as, for the audience sake, filling the role of giving Holmes someone to explain the story to (and being the sort of Doctor who prescribes patients "those American cigarettes you like")

Regular Holmes foil Inspector Lestrade is on hand to provide the comic relief, bumbling from one mishap to the next, even though nobody has any explanation for why a London police officer is investigating a murder in Northumberland. Having said that, nobody has any explanation as to why the English village has a distinctly Mediterranean look either.

Unlike previous wartime Holmes films, here, he is not working for the Allies, and the conflict seems rarely to get a mention. Interestingly though there are hints at some tensions between the British and the billeted US soldiers, with one villager talking disapprovingly of somebody "running off with a Yankee". The only time war comes to the fore is the stirring speech by Holmes at the very end, talking of "a new spirit abroad in the land" where "the old days of grab and greed are on their way out". It feels tacked on, and jars somewhat with the rest of the film, which is a fun, interesting, and atmospheric mystery thriller.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

A thrilling piece of escapist entertainment, The Adventures of Robin Hood has a fast paced script, lush score, stunning Technicolor and a great cast led by a star in the role he seems born to play. It is also a film that exists in it's own world, free from the irony and subtexts that would inevitably come with a version of the story made at any point after 1938.

In 12th century England, with King Richard held captive in a foreign land, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes power and, along with his Norman cronies such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), begins oppressing the Saxon population. However, one man leads the fightback, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), a Saxon knight, stripped of his land and wealth, who heads a guerilla army, hiding out in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor.

This is very much Flynn's show, and his indefatigable swagger and energy mean the audience never get bored. The swagger is still there even when he is not sword-fighting or swinging from vines, as he delivers rousing speeches mocking John and Gisbourne like a music hall comedian delivering a routine.

His natural charisma helps sell the unbelievable situations, such as the Jesus-like way he persuades total strangers to drop everything and start following him. The whole premise is unbelievable in any kind of realistic sense, so your enjoyment will depend entirely on your ability to buy into the completely artificial world of Sherwood Forest, with the endless sunshine, well laundered and utterly impractical costumes, and people swinging from the sort of vines not normally seen in European woodland.

The co-stars are uniformly excellent, with Reins and Rathbone making a great contrasting double act, one short, squat and bullying, the other tall, athletic and a physical match for the hero. However, both are definitely bad guys, and very easy to boo at.

The well structured script clips along at a breathless pace, quickly establishing the characters, then breaking up into episodes that give them all things to do, culminating in a perilous rescue of the damsel in distress, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Despite the numerous fight scenes involving arrows, swords and a trail of bad guy corpses, the end product is sanitised of any blood, although the descriptions of the torture of Saxon peasants are disconcertingly quite gory.

While it might not be swimming in blood The Adventures of Robin Hood is certainly swimming in colour, and looks fantastic, with the astonishingly
vivid Technicolor cinematography becoming almost overwhelming at times, and certainly helping to lend a fantastic, hyper-real feeling to the film.

It does not just look wonderful, but also sounds wonderful as well, thanks to Erich Korngold’s brilliant and groundbreaking music. Korngold was arguably one of the architects of the modern film score with his use of different recurring themes and motifs for different characters, as well as often explicitly tying the music to the action on screen, ideas that seem so obvious nowadays, but in the 1930s had not then been this fully explored in Hollywood.

If The Adventures of Robin Hood had been made a few years later than it was, it would be tempting to see it as a rousing piece of wartime propaganda, with heroes, villains, and talk of freeing oppressed people and different races (Norman and Saxon) uniting together. However, it was released in May 1938, and while Hitler was spreading fear and turmoil across Europe, it's hard to picture many people in Hollywood, or in the movie going public thinking too much of war. It is still very much a product of it's time, an innocence, on screen at least, that it is hard to imagine today. It is also hard to imagine Hollywood producing a hero so committed to forced redistribution of wealth in the post-war, McCarthy era, and I can not deny being surprised at a Hollywood hero so committed to the re-establishment of the monarchy.

The film has a happy ending, of course, but one thought remains though, one that I have never been able to resist thinking after seeing happy endings. Robin Hood makes his goal very explicit throughout the film, that of of wanting to see Prince John removed and King Richard restored to the throne. However, the fun he has making that happen, even in the face of extreme peril and threats to his life, mean that now his wish has come true, life in Sherwood Forest is simply not going to be so exciting any more.

Carry On Screaming (1966)

A raucous but affectionate spoof of Hammer and Universal horror films, Carry On Screaming is one of the funniest and best crafted of the long running British comedy series. Despite lacking some of the regular faces commonly associated with Carry On Films, their replacements more than rise to the occasion, and are joined by a few regulars, a script that doesn't abandon story for corny gags and an eye for detail in the production design.

The plot sees two Edwardian London policemen, Sergeant Sidney Bung (Harry H. Corbett of Steptoe and Son fame) and Constable Slobotham (Peter Butterworth) investigating the disappearance of several young women in a local wood. Could the disappearances have anything to with sinister scientist Dr Watt (Kenneth Williams), who has a lab full of mysterious equipment – and a lucrative sideline selling female mannequins to local department stores?

This is the twelfth entry in the series, so by now many of the tropes had been established, both the with characters (the henpecked lech Sid James, his harridan wife, his dopey sidekick, and an object of his lust and the script (innuendos, puns, and broad slapstick). There is no actual Sid James the actor, so the Sid James character is represented by Corbett, and he gives Bung a stoutness and sympathy that you might not have got from James the actor. Most of the back and forth banter between him and Butterworth feels like two men doing a music hall routine, but they know to milk the lines for laughs.

In the world of Carry On the usual object of the lust of Sid James is Barbara Windsor, but here it is the stunning Fenella Fielding, in a low cut red dress, the epitome of saucy goth beauty, her subtly naughty style making a good contrast to the histrionics of Kenneth Williams. Sadly Joan Sims, is rather wasted in the role of nagging wife Emily Bung, given little to do other than verbally and physically attack Sidney.

Aside from the people, Carry on Screaming, often looks and sounds as good as the films it is spoofing. It has the lush eerie score, cob web strewn haunted houses, and portentous dialogue. What is also noticeable and unexpected, at least for a Carry On film, is that it is often, if not scary, then at least creepy, with weird and almost unpleasant undertones that crop up from time to time. Williams actually makes Watt feel, at times, genuinely salacious and  unsavoury, with a hint of incestous flirting in the banter between him and Valeria.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr came towards the end of an incredible run of films for Buster Keaton, a run that helped shape many aspects of cinema, and whose influence is still felt today. Like all the best Keaton films, it is equal parts thrilling, spectacular, hilarious, and poignant without being sentimental.

"Steamboat” Bill Canfield has two prized possessions – a dilapidated paddle steamer, of which he is the owner and captain, and his student son, William Jr (Keaton), whom he has not seen since the lad was a baby. When Bill Jr comes to stay, fresh out of college, dad is disappointed to find his offspring is not the hulking macho man he was expecting. Instead, he sees a small, slight awkward fellow, with a ukulele, a pencil moustache, and a beret, not the sort who can help him compete with rival businessman John James King and his shiny new, luxury riverboat.

To make things worse for Canfield, Junior is in love with King's daughter Kitty, his ship is condemned as unsafe, and he ends up in jail for assaulting King - just as a cyclone hits town. Can Junior step up, prove himself a man, and save his love, his father - and his father's boat?

Even if you do not know the film you may well know the most famous scene, arguably Keaton's most famous scene of all, where, after stopping to catch his breath in the middle of the cyclone, the front wall of a two-story house crashes down over him. Keaton emerges unscathed his body perfectly framed by an open window. It still looks as impossible, and unthinkably dangerous today as it ever has. Goodness knows what was going through his mind at the time, but at least it was not two tons of house.

However, Steamboat Bill Jr is more than just one scene, and Keaton (Carl Harbaugh is listed as writer, even though Keaton claimed it his really his work. Whatever the truth behind that, it is difficult to picture Keaton not having a major say in the finished product) showed that he was prepared to spend time crafting the film. While it may not have the rigid, symmetrical story structure of The General, the film Keaton made directly before, this is by no means a slapdash screenplay.

The jokes are the usual mix of hair-raising spectacle with the more outrageous aspects all underpinned by Keaton’s deadpan demeanour, and more small scale, knockabout humour, such as the routine with Bill Sr trying to buy a new hat for Bill Jr. However, by now Keaton is adept and confident at telling a story, and building characterisation, and the routines also serve those purposes. For example, the business with the hats is a great way of showing Dad's increasing frustration with his son, and the massive difference between the two, both in appearance and personality, something which makes the scene somewhat poignant.

Father figures are a regular feature in Keaton films, second only to lady love interests. Plot wise, Steamboat Bill Jr makes a good companion piece to The General, as both feature a lead character who has to perform seemingly impossible (for him at least) tasks to impress his dad (and to impress a lady as well, of course).

The spectacle comes in the form of the extended cyclone sequence, clearly shot on location, not on a sound stage, and using life size street sets, designed to be torn to pieces by gigantic wind machines with Keaton, when not battling the breeze, being swung around on a giant (out of shot) crane. Throughout it all he maintains his trademark calm in the eye of the storm

Keaton would only approach these creative heights one more time with The Cameraman, a film which marked his move from independent film maker to MGM employee. Eventually, the studio interfered more, Keaton cared less, and the films became pale shadows of what had come before. Still, aspects of his work remain influential in various ways. Jackie Chan sites him as a major influence, something easy to see in Chan's fluid acrobatics and life threatening set pieces, while Johnny Depp's stonefaced performance in Edward Scissorhands is clearly a loving tribute. Cinema owes him a huge debt, for showing that you could make a film longer than 2 reels, with a story, a character arc, and visual spectacle, all of which can only be done within that medium.