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.