Saturday, April 27, 2013

40 Notable British Emigres To Classic Era Hollywood (up to 1950)


I have used the word ‘emigre’ here to denote not just people who moved to the US and never looked back, but also those who moved back and forth between working in Britain and America. These people all made the move as adults. If they emigrated from the UK to the US as children, as Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope, Roddy McDowell and Freddie Bartholomew did, I have not included them.
I’ve only included people born in Britain, which left out the likes of George Sanders, who was brought up in Britain but born in Russia.
James Mason, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger are amongst the famous names who started their careers in Hollywood right at the end of this period - in 1949 or 1950.
  1. Aldous Huxley*
  2. Alfred Hitchcock
  3. Boris Karloff
  4. Brian Aherne
  5. C. Aubrey Smith
  6. Cary Grant
  7. Cedric Hardwicke
  8. Charles Laughton
  9. Charlie Chaplin
  10. Claude Rains
  11. Clive Brook
  12. David Niven
  13. Donald Crisp
  14. Edmund Goulding
  15. Elsa Lanchester
  16. Flora Robson
  17. Frank Lloyd
  18. George Arliss
  19. Greer Garson
  20. Henry Daniell
  21. Herbert Marshall
  22. Ida Lupino
  23. James Stephenson
  24. James Whale
  25. Laurence Olivier
  26. Leo G. Carroll
  27. Leslie Howard
  28. Madeleine Carroll
  29. Noel Coward**
  30. Peggy Cummins
  31. Ray Milland
  32. Rex Harrison
  33. Ronald Colman
  34. Sheilah Graham (gossip columnist)
  35. Somerset Maugham***
  36. Stan Laurel
  37. Sydney Greenstreet
  38. Valerie Hobson
  39. Victor McLaglen
  40. Vivien Leigh
*Huxley was screenwriter on Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Jane Eyre (1943) amongst other films.
**Coward acted in the US in Hearts of the World (1918) and The Scoundrel (1935)
**Maugham didn't actually do much work in Hollywood (The Constant Wife in 1933 was an exception) but he was a frequent visitor there and a close friend of George Cukor.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Last 50 Movies I've Watched

  1. White Material
  2. Monsieur Verdoux
  3. The Master
  4. Silver Linings Playbook
  5. Searching for Sugarman
  6. The Turin Horse
  7. Tyrannosaur
  8. Prince Of The City
  9. Groundhog Day
  10. The First Of The Few
  11. Made in USA
  12. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  13. Seven Psychopaths
  14. Marley
  15. Flight
  16. Waking Life
  17. Killing Them Softly
  18. Prison
  19. Life of Pi
  20. I Am Cuba
  21. The Hobbit
  22. Moonrise Kingdom
  23. These Three
  24. La Strada
  25. The Adversary
  26. Monrak Transistor
  27. Looper
  28. Headhunters
  29. Sisters
  30. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
  31. Lolita (1962)
  32. In the Shadow of the Moon
  33. Compulsion
  34. Zero Dark Thirty
  35. Rosemary’s Baby
  36. Compliance
  37. The Orphanage
  38. The Little Foxes
  39. Claire Dolan
  40. The Hit
  41. The Big Sleep (1946)
  42. The Maltese Falcon (1940)
  43. Belle de Jour
  44. Barney’s Version
  45. Deconstructing Harry
  46. Becket
  47. The Andromeda Strain
  48. Holy Motors
  49. A Bridge Too Far
  50. Jack Reacher

I Am Cuba is a famously lost but rediscovered film made by a Russian crew in Cuba in 1964, though set 1959 or earlier. It has a lot of clunky communist propaganda in it and its depiction of Americans is about as nuanced as a WW2 Hollywood depiction of ‘evil Japs’. The story is a bit too episodic: there are four separate storylines. And the version I watched had an unremovable Russian voice-over which repeats nearly everything said in Spanish, which was annoying. (Apparently it is possible to find versions without that). But still I’d have to recommend it. It has many powerful moments, including a great climax, and amazing camerawork. The film is visually sui generis, with many scenes shot in broad daylight with an infra-red camera (which produces a very strange effect in black and white), or with a fish-eye lens. And there are a couple of stunning tracking/flying shots in it, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. It’s a must-see.

As for the other films, of the new ones, these are all worth seeing:
Silver Linings Playbook
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Zero Dark Thirty
Jack Reacher
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
...though best of all were:
Life of Pi
Searching for Sugarman

Of the older films, the following are very good:
Groundhog Day
Monsieur Verdoux
Waking Life
La Strada
Monrak Transistor
The Little Foxes
The Hit
The Big Sleep
The Maltese Falcon
Barney’s Version
Deconstructing Harry

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Performances in Stanley Kubrick Movies/Actors as Auteurs

Whilst re-watching Full Metal Jacket recently I was struck once again by R. Lee Ermey’s tour-de-force performance as the drill instructor and this time I even started to question how much it could rightfully be called Kubrick’s film. We movie fans usually worship directors, especially this director, but for the first 40 minutes of the film - covering the training of the recruits on Parris Island - Ermey dominates proceedings to such an extent that it’s almost beside the point to note that Kubrick does a good job of framing him, that his tracking shots and geometric arrangements create a good context for showing off Ermey’s talents. We don’t keep track of the people who set up the stage when a rock band performs live, and it’s almost the equivalent situation here. One has to wonder sometimes why a director always gets the most credit or blame for a film.

Much of the power of Ermey’s performance comes from the outrageous things he says, things like ‘Do you maggots understand that?’ and ‘I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck’. But how much were these things scripted? The film was officially written by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford based on Hasford’s novel, The Short-Timers, but surely a lot of it was improvised? These lines don’t seem like the kind of thing you could actually sit down, ponder on and methodically put down on paper. They seem like the kind of thing that could only come out of a man’s mouth when he’s in a spontaneous rage. (Wikipedia says ‘According to Kubrick's estimate, the former drill instructor wrote 50% of his own dialogue, especially the insults’.) What’s more, this opening section is the most distinctive part of the film, and the thing that distinguishes it from every other Vietnam War movie. The rest of it, including all the scenes involving the mysterious sniper, is very good but could just as well have been in Platoon or Casualties of War. So couldn’t you say that in a way that Ermey is the ‘auteur’ of this film as much as Kubrick?  

Then there’s Dr. Strangelove. Apart from Slim Pickens’ scenes in the bomber, isn’t it basically the Peter Sellers show? There’d be hardly any film left if you took him and his three roles out, and could any other actor have done what he did? Wouldn’t they have had to radically alter the script if Sellers had been unavailable? So shouldn’t Sellers be considered an auteur in that case too? And what about Jack Nicholson in The Shining? In fact you might wonder if Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film very obviously not dominated by actors, with no big names or larger-than-life characters, because after movies like Paths of Glory (dominated by Kirk Douglas), Lolita (James Mason and Sellers) and Dr Strangelove (Sellers), he wanted to make something that was unequivocally his. And maybe later he chose Ryan O’Neal for Barry Lyndon precisely because O’Neal was unremarkable and unlikely to upstage the elaborate visual scheme he had planned for the film?

I don’t mean to disrespect Kubrick. I’m a big fan of his. He had an amazing visual sensibility and was a great story-teller too. But it’s precisely because he’s such a revered creative talent that the contributions of his actors perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve. And it’s easy to start picking apart other directors’ oeuvres in the same way. When we think of Ingmar Bergman films should we be paying more attention to Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand etc? I’m a huge Frank Capra fan, but his two best films are definitely Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life and both of them rest on powerful performances by James Stewart. How come when Capra worked with other actors he hardly ever reached the same standard? Mr Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper seems like it should be as good, but it simply isn’t.

And where would Scorsese be without De Niro, Keitel, Pesci and DiCaprio? If his resumé only included the films he made without any of these four, what would his reputation be? Or even if we just took out the performances of these four guys and their parts had been played by uncharismatic B-grade actors instead, how would we rate Marty? Even though Scorsese's films more than most are very directed, full of brilliant camerawork and editing, it still seems to me that they affect us so much mainly because of what the actors do. For instance in the famous Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas, when Ray Liotta leads Lorraine Bracco into a nightclub through the back entrance and the kitchen, is it brilliant because of what the cameraman does, or because of Liotta's smooth patter and Bracco's bug-eyed look of amazement? Brain De Palma's work is full of similar directorial flourishes but just look at something like Body Double to see how meaningless they can be if they're not backed up by the work of charismatic actors. There are long sequences in that film which are very similar to the passages in Vertigo when James Stewart follows Kim Novak. One could possibly argue they are directed in a more interesting way, or at least have more interesting camerawork. But even if that's true it doesn't really help, because the two leads are so bland when compared to Stewart and Novak. We feel nothing for them. It was telling that De Palma was only at his best when he worked with big stars on films like Carlito's Way, Mission Impossible and The Untouchables.

In fact, I did recently get an opportunity to see what a great film full of talented actors would be like without those actors. I rented The Maltese Falcon (1940 Bogart version) from my video shop and was surprised to find two earlier versions of the same story were thrown in for free: The Maltese Falcon (1932) and Satan Met A Lady (1936). I watched part of each movie after I’d seen the Bogart classic but not all of them since they were very, very similar in storyline. It’s unusual to have three versions of the same story within such a short space of time, and the fact that the settings and iconography and black and white cinematography were basically identical highlighted the one huge difference between the 1940 version and the earlier films: the acting. In the 1936 film a very young, very blonde Bette Davis plays the Mary Astor role, but otherwise all the players in these two films are by now virtually unknown, and you can’t help thinking history has made a fair judgment. You keep on comparing them to Bogart and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet etc and thinking ‘Wow…they’re so bland, so flat, they’re… just kind of nothing’. Elisha Cook Jr. only has a small role in the 1940 film but this time round he struck me as one of its highlights. He’s such a strangely emotional, vulnerable gangster; he actually gets tears in his eyes when Bogart reveals his plan to make him the fall guy for the police. In the earlier versions there’s nothing remotely as powerful, even from more major characters.

This kind of comparitive exercise can really bring home to you how important casting and acting is to movies. Or to put it another way, a lot of what makes a great director is surely their ability to recognise and care about great acting and to cast well. This should be noted more often. (There are some acclaimed arthouse directors who don’t have this talent but they’re the ones whose films are, to my mind at least, very over-rated). The auteur theory came about partly because up until the 1950’s movie commentators concentrated most of their attention on the stars and hardly noticed the director, so maybe it’s retrograde and unnecessary to start championing the actor at this late stage. But we do tend to think of actors as not actually creating films. We admit that they do something but tend to think of the director (and maybe the screenwriter) as the real artistic forces. It is easy sometimes just to think of actors as parroting out the lines they’ve been given and showing off their pretty faces or, in the case of character actors, their natural idiosyncrasies. Yet it’s more complicated than that. There are many behind-the-scenes unknowables - how much actors improvise, how much they cut or add to make the lines feel right - before we even get to the knowable elements on screen: their intonations, expressions etc. Nevertheless these unknowables are not what I’m concerned about here, because as far as I can work out the words said in a finished film are usually at least 90% from the script (so never mind actors and directors; what about screenwriters not getting the credit they deserve?)

What I’m trying to put my finger on is something else that actors bring, some magical transformation they occasionally enact, when words on the page become much more meaningful when said out loud. Sometimes it seems actors own those words more than the person who wrote them. And that happens when they have an emotionally intelligent reaction to their lines, and let us see what they’re feeling and thinking. So maybe all I’m saying in the end is that of course a good film requires a symbiotic relationship between everyone on the set, and actors, directors, screenwriters and everyone else all help to make each other look good (or bad)... but I still think a director needs good actors more than an actor needs a good director. And a lot of the pleasure of the movies is witnessing a good actor’s interesting appropriation of scripted words, and that pleasure is under-rated and under-reported. The best film criticism, like that of Pauline Kael, recognises this; she often reported on what actors did with their voices and faces and bodies, and how that made her feel. But she’s long gone and unfortunately even the most widely-read critics these days often talk of acting only in the blandest generic terms. I wish more people writing about film would get into the nitty-gritty of their own feelings about performances. It’s far more interesting and valuable than any high-falutin theory or terminology you can learn at film school.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Deconstructing Harry (1997): A Calm Man Gets Angry

Woody Allen of course has made many films that pay homage to his favourite director, Ingmar Bergman. Interiors is like one of Bergman’s ultra-serious chamber pieces of the 70’s, Cries and Whispers or Face to Face. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy pays tribute to Smiles of A Summer Night, and so on. Deconstructing Harry has obvious similarities to Wild Strawberries: it’s centred on a road trip with a motley bunch of people accompanying an old man to receive an academic honour. The countryside they drive through could easily be Swedish countryside and at one point novelist Harry Block (Allen) even hunches over the steering wheel with a haggard look that may remind you of Victor Sjostrom in the earlier film.

Deconstructing Harry is a very autumnal movie - not only in its weather and temporal setting, but in its interior design and costuming: dark reds and oranges and browns and beiges. We start off with Judy Davis who, as she seems to have done in so many other Allen films, plays a woman coming apart at the seams, betrayed and badly used by his character. In the main narrative there’s a surprising sudden death from natural causes, a kidnapping of sorts and a resulting arrest, and Allen and Billy Crystal fighting over Elisabeth Shue. There’s a great scene where Kirstie Alley as Harry’s one-time psychiatrist wife discovers his infidelity: a patient arrives at that moment and she tries to treat him, but she can’t concentrate, so he sits alone on the couch and listens in fright as she keeps on going outside to scream obscenities at her contemptible husband. And there’s Hazelle Goodman’s striking Amazonian figure in pink hot pants clashing with the whitebread world of Harry’s sister (Eric Borgosian is that sister’s gnarly, ultra-orthodox Jewish husband) and the Ivy League college they end up at. Goodman plays Cookie, a prostitute Harry hires the night before the trip and who ends up along for the ride; she steals the show from the many other more well-known actors (who also include Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Demi Moore and Robin Williams).

The main narrative is interspersed with vignettes from Harry’s books which focus on characters who are him in earlier life, or thinly disguised versions of him (played by Richard Benjamin, Tobey Maguire and Stanley Tucci). In one of them Maguire spends a night with an Oriental hooker who blows his mind, but he has to pay a hilariously heavy price for his ‘sin’ due to a case of mistaken identity. There’s a brilliant scene when Robin Williams starts suffering from being out of focus (and it’s funny when the same thing affects Harry himself later on) and another where a couple have furtive sex standing up in a parlour while having a conversation with a blind, oblivious old woman.

Things get mixed up and sometimes you may forget what’s reality, what’s from the books, and what’s pure fantasy. Eventually Block starts meeting some of the characters he’s created, conversing with them, learning from them. At one point Demi Moore, playing the novelised version of the Kirstie Alley character, takes Block to observe his sister and what she really says about him when he’s not there: the two of them stand in the same room but somehow they’re ‘invisible’, in the same way characters in Annie Hall (and Wild Strawberries) were. There is also a wonderful sequence when an old woman discovers a terrible and ridiculous secret about her husband of 30 years, plus a funny trip through hell (with great production design/art direction courtesy of Santo Loquasto and Tom Warren ) set to Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. And there's sharp humour throughout the film (Harry’s sister: “You have no values...your whole's nihilism, it's cynicism, it's sarcasm and orgasm.”/ Harry: “You know in France I could run on that slogan and win.”)

This film sees Allen angrier than usual, and cruder too: there’s a lot of swearing in it. He seems like a misanthropic old man at the start, a nasty misogynistic old man even. Celebrity (1998), a companion piece to Deconstructing Harry, also had elements like this: scenes that seemed to express violent feelings towards women, which were only partially defused by humour. A while ago I wrote a review of Seven Psychopaths in which I said the film’s tone seemed ‘off’ because it did things like refer to women as ‘c**ts’, and Deconstructing Harry also does that once or twice. But to me I could accept it more here exactly because it wasn’t done casually, as a throwaway joke; it was pointing up how frustrated this old man has become with the world, that he has to use such violent language to express himself.

The film’s tone is a strange mixture. It’s intensely critical of Harry yet determined to explain and humanise him too. That creates a tension that keeps the audience on its toes. We’re constantly told: jeez, this guy is a terrible, terrible human being, he’s so selfish and unreliable, he cheats on every woman he’s with…but hey the world is such a fucked-up, unfair, crazy place and he’s doing his best, it’s not exactly easy for him either. (From another director we care less about, this line of reasoning wouldn’t work, but because it’s Woody, some of us at least are liable to sympathise). The film is close to the bone in suggesting similarities between Harry Block and Allen himself - or rather the reputation Allen had after the Soon Yi Previn scandal. And Harry's an angry character, but there's also real anger underlying the film, coming from the creator. I think it's anger at the way he was vilified in the press for that relationship with Soon-Yi. So he created this nasty womaniser partly in a huff, saying 'well you all think I'm a monster anyway, I may as well be one on screen'. And partly it's as if he's saying 'This is what a real misogynist looks like and do you really think that I'm the same? Are you really that dim?'

This was Allen’s best film since Hannah and Her Sisters and stands amongst his very best works ever, alongside Play It Again, Sam, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Match Point, and a few others. It’s spiky and full of energy. There are a lot of jump-cuts in some sections of the film, to give it a punchy feel: the director seems riled at the world. But Allen keeps hitting you with one great scene after another as if he were determined to make art replace anger. He succeeds wonderfully and makes most other films look drab by comparison. Deconstructing Harry works so well because after the sour opening scenes, the other parts of the film show us a great humanist, and suggest that Harry/Woody doesn’t want to be angry, is in fact trying to escape the anger life has foisted upon him. Famous for his self-obsessive characters, he is in fact too interested in telling stories about other people - this film has about ten great examples - to be really misanthropic or nasty. And after years of Allen being criticised for focusing on a rich white elite, the role Hazelle Goodman plays in the film is fascinating I think, a great riposte to those critics. Some may still complain because his one black character is a prostitute, but I think the honest sympathetic relationship Block has with her, and the matter-of-fact way he takes her into his white world, and the role she plays in humanising and calming him, more than make up for that. In the end all that matters is making connections and bringing people together.

For 88 screenshots from the film, click here

60 Hollywood Films of the 30's and 40's set in Britain

I wanted to make up this list because Hollywood seemed to have a striking interest in things British at this time. Partly it was due to the joint US/UK effort in World War Two, partly it was the fact that literary adaptations were popular - and that meant a lot of English classics - and partly it was the fact that there were a lot of British actors working in Hollywood who needed roles that suited their accents. In any case, it was certainly a trend. 

I haven’t included any films like Foreign Correspondent (1940) or A Tale of Two Cities (1935) which are just partly set in Britain. I've included US/UK co-productions if they had an American director. 

  1. A Chump at Oxford (1940)
  2. A Yank At Eton (1942)
  3. A Yank at Oxford (1938) 
  4. A Yank in the RAF (1941)
  5. And Then There Were None (1945)
  6. Becky Sharp (1935)
  7. Cavalcade (1933)
  8. Cluny Brown (1946)
  9. David Copperfield (1935)
  10. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932 and 1941)
  11. Dracula (1931)
  12. Forever Amber (1947)
  13. Gaslight (1944)
  14. Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)
  15. Great Expectations (1934)
  16. Hangover Square (1945)
  17. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
  18. Jane Eyre (1944) 
  19. Kidnapped (1938 and 1948)
  20. Kitty (1945)
  21. Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)
  22. Lloyds of London (1936)
  23. Mary of Scotland (1936)
  24. Ministry of Fear (1944)
  25. Mrs Miniver (1942)
  26. Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) 
  27. National Velvet (1944)
  28. None but the Lonely Heart (1944)
  29. Of Human Bondage (1934 and 1946)
  30. Oliver Twist (1933)
  31. Pride and Prejudice (1940)
  32. Random Harvest (1942)
  33. Rebecca (1940)
  34. Suspicion (1941)
  35. Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
  36. That Hamilton Woman (1941)
  37. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  38. The Barrets of Wimpole St. (1934)
  39. The Citadel (1938)
  40. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)
  41. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and others in the Basil Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes series
  42. The Invisible Man (1933)
  43. The Light That Failed (1939)
  44. The Lodger (1944)
  45. The Moonstone (1934)
  46. The Old Dark House (1932)
  47. The Paradine Case (1948) 
  48. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
  49. The Prince and the Pauper (1937)
  50. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
  51. The Saint in London (1939)
  52. The Secret Garden (1949)
  53. The Werewolf of London (1935)
  54. The White Cliffs Of Dover (1944)
  55. The Wolf Man (1941)
  56. The Woman In White (1948)
  57. This Above All (1942)
  58. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
  59. Waterloo Bridge (1931 and 1940)
  60. Wuthering Heights (1939)