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Archive for the ‘CAMERAMAN: Joseph August’ Category

Sylvia Scarlett

16 Jul

Sylvia Scarlett – directed by George Cukor. Grifter Romance. Unruly disguises rule. 90 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

I like all grifter dramas, stories about people gulling other people out of their eyeteeth. Here Cary Grant is the principal con-man, and of course he is first-class at it, and has a lot of fun bringing his good old English carnival shill energy into it.

He is aided and abetted by the great Joe August who filmed it and by the brilliant trick-writer John Collier who was one of the three adapters of Compton MacKenzie’s novel, and it runs well as we hook into Edmund Gwenn and his daughter disguised as his son, as escapees from consequences in France to the luckier shores of England where they fall under the tricky Grant and the dubious spell of a musical hall chanteuse sexpot Dennie Moore. To earn a quick buck they become travelling vaudevillians. Then Brian Aherne turns up to derail the scams by becoming the object of the love interest of Katharine Hepburn, who up until this time is disguised as a boy. Her competition with Aherne is played by The Countess Natalia Pavlovna Von Hohenfelsen (whose biography would make your hair curl or uncurl, depending.)

Well!!! – as Jack Benny so eloquently put it.

The conglomeration travels on unexpected tracks at the start, and this is welcome – but, when romance insists on elbowing in, the movie looses it fascination, energy, imagination, and fun, and turns routine.

What is not routine is Katharine Hepburn as a hobbledehoy! For as a boy she is quite different than what she appears to be as a girl. As a boy she is quite convincing. As a girl she is quite unconvincing. As a boy she is swift, daring, direct, and true. And you really believe she is a boy. As a girl she is arch, sentimental, coy, extravagant, and meretriciously phony. You never believe in her at all. As a boy uninterested in romance, you swallow her whole. As a girl making goo-goo eyes she is a wretched fraud.

So when is she acting?

And when is she just playacting?

And why?

As a boy, Sylvester Scarlett, she delivers one of the greatest acting performances ever laid down on screen.

As a girl, Sylvia Scarlett, she gives one of the worst.

Don’t miss it. Hepburn was one of the great personalities of The Twentieth Century and one of the great things. The movie has a bunch of rewards and the biggest one is Hepburn acting more naturally as a male than any other male in the movie.

 

Gunga Din

12 Apr

Gunga Din — produced and directed by George Stevens. Comic Action Adventure. 117 minutes Color 1939.
★★★★★
George Stevens was 17 when he jumped over the wall of the Hall Roach Studios. What he found on the other side was a Western, Rex, King Of The Wild Horses, and its sequels. As assistant cameraman he went off into the rugged mountains and made up movies, and ever after he said that the Western was his preferred genre. What this gave us is, of course, Shane but it also produced The Greatest Story Ever Told, shot in those settings and Gunga Din a sort of Eastern Western, situated in spectacular mountains and in a frontier fort and a remote town, and with a host of bloodthirsty savages.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of His Gal Friday, wrote the story, which, naturally therefore, has one of a trio of soldiers of the Raj wanting to get married and the other two sabotaging his immanent retirement by engaging all of them in putting down the Thugees, a tribe of native killers – read The Taliban.

To say there is a plot to this were to rearrange the meaning of that word, for the movie is one thing after another, a comic scene at the fort, followed by a big battle scene, comic scenes back at the fort, another battle scene, another comic scene back at the fort, and so forth.

The battle scenes are as funny as the comic scenes, for Stevens had learned gag comedy at The Roach Studios so the movie resembles Indiana Jones, or rather Indiana Jones resembles Gunga Din, for Jones kept up with Din by aping it in scene after scene. Stevens’ visual imagination in devising interesting and entertaining slaughters was unequalled. They involved thousands of actors and, to insure no one was hurt, they had to be carefully imagined, very slowly rehearsed, then repeated a bit faster, then faster still, then shot at full speed.

But Stevens also knew what to look at with his fort scenes, where the comedy depends not on gags but on the expressions on actors’ faces. Each of the sergeants – Douglas Fairbanks Junior is Scottish, Victor McLaglen is Irish, and Cary Grant is Cockney – has rich comic scenes to play, and from the start they are all involved in comical branagans. Grant has his lust for booty, McLaglen a darling elephant, and Fairbanks the milksop Joan Fontaine.

Stevens knows exactly what to look at with his camera, which is manned by the great Joe August, who even gives us an in-tight Place-In-The-Sun closeup of Fontaine. Abner Biberman and Eduardo Ciannelli play the outright villains outrightly. And Sam Jaffe is just lovely as the waterboy, Gunga Din, a middle-aged man who saves the day and who is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s poem from which the picture is loosely derived. They originally wanted the great child actor Sabu, so Jaffe said he played it exactly as Sabu would have, and he’s just marvelous.

Alfred Newman’s music is rousing, and the thousands of troops on the parade grounds and threading through huge mountains is spectacular. Cary Grant is especially gratifying in, for him an unusual, lower class part and also a dopey one. There are comic effects on his face you will never see from him in any other film. All you need do is sit back and look at him to be entertained. He was lower class in origins, and it shines through with a warm, particular and special wit.

Stevens seldom moves his camera so the adventure takes place without intrusion, and he seldom used reaction shots, so the energy between actors is never broken. It is one of the most “complete” films ever made, and remained a George Stevens’ favorite.

The film has never been out of circulation since its immensely popular first showing in the year of the movie miracles, 1939.

 

Twentieth Century

06 Nov

Twentieth Century — Directed by Howard Hawks. Slapstick Screwball Comedy. A theatre director divo spellbinds an actress until she can take no more. 91 minutes Black and White 1934.

* * *

Certain qualities can make an actor popular and even lovable, without their ever being a good actor. Such certainly was the case with Gary Cooper, and such was also the case with Carole Lombard. She was pretty, she had a good figure, and she was spirited, but it is only the last of these qualities which cinched her stardom. Watching her playing Lily Garland, the “discovery” of the manic Broadway Director Oscar Jaffe (based on Jed Harris and others), the most obvious defect of her technique is vocal. Even in repose, she always seems to be screaming, always in her upper passagio. She was Howard Hawks’ first discovery as the Hawksian woman who could stand up to men and compete in their world. He would find it later in Ann Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, and Lauren Bacall – but all of them had low, well-placed voices, and if they had not he would send them into a back room for a couple of weeks and train them to replace them with lower ones, but  Hawks hadn’t gotten around to it yet with Lombard. As it is, Lombard’s inability to modulate her voice and her spirit ends up being almost as annoying as John Barrymore’s inability to modulate his own performance into making at least a few local stops into reality. (Carole Lombard’s recently divorced husband, William, Powell, would have been better in the part.) For is Barrymore a ham playing a ham, or is he an actor playing a ham, or is he an actor who has become a ham playing a ham? If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. Barrymore also had one of those badly placed voices, a high grating tenor. And the film is such a mélange of frenzy in the dog-and-cat fight of its episodes, that it becomes monotonous in its yowling and in its pace that breaks the neck of any audience. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht wrote it from a hit play of their own, and there are lots of funny lines. Most them are delivered by Roscoe Karns as the drunken press agent. (These were the days when alcoholism was considered droll.) And the movie is worth seeing just to witness the wit style of the era of which Macarthur and Hecht were the masters. But the film as whole I found trying. It feels labored and forced. It demonstrates a complete failure of directorial tone. The famed cameraman Joe August shot it, and I think not well, especially in the theatre scenes, all of which were taken first in the shoot. As per Hawks films, there are almost no close-ups, so that when Lombard appears in one it’s a stylistic shock. If you want to see if Barrymore could act, don’t listen to his Hamlet, see Don Juan or see William Wyler’s Counselor At Law of the year before. And if you want Lombard at her best, see her in the last film she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not Be. Twentieth Century started her off in Screwball Comedy. It was not a successful film at the time. It still isn’t.

 

 
 
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