Friday, September 05, 2008

Uncle Kevin's Film Festival: fit the third

Third and final round. The theme's pretty simple this time: the rules are that there are no rules.

Outside, countess. As long as they've got sidewalks you've got a job.

aerial shot of the By A Waterfall scene Having established the pattern in the last session, let's transition gently into "Footlight Parade." We couldn't possibly explore the disruption of The Natural Order Of Things without having mad majesty of a Busby Berkeley musical.

And by jingo! we won't.

Why this one when there's 'The Gold Diggers of 1935' with its maniacally-massed piano number, or 'Dames' wherein a crowd of girls turn into a portrait of Ruby Keeler to the tune of 'I Only Have Eyes For You'? Well, in this film the choreography for "By A Waterfall" alone beggars belief, with hundreds of beautiful girls; dreamily arbitary shifts of perspective; and unreality piled onto unreality, ending with the girls stacked high on a three-story tall fountain. And that's just one of the numbers. (A realistic note for those of us who use public transport: The girls change into their bathing suits on a crowded bus speeding through Times Square, with all its lights on. Happens every day in Tadcaster.)

It's an acid trip in monochrome with Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler. Who cares about the plot?

film poster: Hellzapoppin
I though they'd burnt that...

Next along is "Hellzapoppin" a rambling mess of a film wherein Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson are making a film but have problems getting it sorted whilst also helping their friends put on a musical revue in the garden and love's in the air and common sense isn't and Mischa Auer is a Russian count and Martha Raye isn't and Elisha Cook Jr. is the writer who's going to write this film and... well the plot falls to pieces somewhere in the first ten minutes and after that you just have to go with the flow, wherever it's going. It's a wildfire gagfest, many of which miss entirely, some of which are hilarious.

The musical interludes include some excellent stuff, too, and some pretty damned impressive dancing, including an absolutely brilliant Lindy Hop.

I've chosen this film because it neatly breaks a lot of the usual boundaries: the third wall's broken by characters' talking directly to the audience and there's a pile of movie in-jokes to enjoy (the quote above is from Johnson as he picks up a sledge labelled 'Rosebud').

Oh, and Stinky Miller: go home your mum wants you.

Thirdly, a silent. The world divides into people who love Chaplin and people who love Keaton. I enjoy Chaplin's Essanay films and I do like 'The Gold Rush' but most of his work I find too maudlin for my tastes. I once read a biography of Abbot & Costello which referred to Lou Costello's fatal decline caused by 'Chaplin's Disease' leading him to search for pathos in his work and finding only bathos.

We are lost! He is sending for the world's greatest detective!Buster Keaton about to climb into the cinema screen

As you might guess, I'm a Keaton fan.

"Sherlock Jr." is another breathless canter across (and through!) the silver screen, with Keaton as a lovelorn projectionist dreaming of becoming a great detective and getting his chance when he climbs into the film and becomes one of the characters.

The billiard game is a treat (the baddy's included an exploding ball, just to make things interesting). And there's a wonderful motorbike ride without the benefit of a driver. (Silent films, like cartoons, work on the basis that you're safe from harm until you realise that you're not safe from harm, then things happen).

Finally, we come to "The Black Cat." Yes, I know I said no horror films, but I also said that there were no rules.

film poster: The Black Cat
And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago?

"The Black Cat" is one of my favourites from Universal's thirties horror films. "Suggested by the story by Edgar Allan Poe," it bears no resemblance to that story save the title. It stands on its own two feet well enough: this is a powerful story told as much by restraint as by anything else. The plot? Honeymoon couple travelling in Hungary get caught in the crossfire between Hjalmar Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast, men with dark history between them. Oh, and Poelzig's a satanist who's taken Werdegast's wife and daughter (both senses of the word) while the latter was languishing in a military prison.

Boris Karloff is another actor who tends to be judged by his films rather than his performance. In "Frankenstein" he was brilliant. In "The Black Cat" he not only delivers a performance of utterly-repressed violence he brings out the actor in Bela Lugosi who, stripped of his penchant for melodrama, turns in a surprisingly moving and powerful performance and actually succeeds in becoming the strongest character in the film.

The sets and the lighting are what you would expect from Universal at the time: heavily influenced by European emigrés and full of Futurist and Deco detailing. Darkly beautiful, as is the finale where Werdegast tries to save the young girl by playing a chess 'game of death.'

We understand each other too well. We know too much of life.

As is traditional, I must pass the baton on. I'm inviting the following to give us their lists of films:

  • Library Lizzie (to take her mind off yet another library exhibition);
  • Can Bass 1 (to take his mind off BBC choir contests);
  • The Webrarian (another habitué of the gaslit end of the reserve shelf stacks); and
  • The Topiary Cow (who's just back from holiday and needs to be distracted from the hurricanes)

Have fun all, I look forward to seeing your lists posted on your blogs.

God that was fun. Can we do it again some day?


Lavinia said...

I haven't seen any of these movies but "Hellzapoppin" could very well be the title of my auto-biography!

Kevin Musgrove said...

I always had you pegged as one who swims serenely in life's waters Lavinia!

Gadjo Dilo said... acid trip in monochrome with Jimmy Cagney... - now you’ve got my attention! I thought I’d seen "Hellzapoppin", but I thought it starred Sammy Davis Jr, so maybe I haven’t; anything involving Marx Brothers jokewriter Nat Perrin gets my vote, and by God you’re right about that lindy hop. Ah, we agree that the world divides into people who love Chaplin and people who love Keaton but I haven’t seen so many of the latter’s films (including Sherlock Jr.) so maybe you can still win me over! Boris Karloff was a fine actor, I totally agree - and a fine cricketer too, I believe - and I’d love to see him bring out the non-melodramatic in Bela Lugosi (who was born not so far from where I am now). You appear to have compendious knowledge, Kevin, and you’ve inspired me to buy some more old videos on eBay. Yes, we should do this again, I feel you have more to tell us...

librarylizzie said...

Oh no...hugely intimidated. Considering getting husband to write list and pass off as own. He was much impressed with your least I'd actually heard of most of them. In fact, on your recommendation we watched The Man in the White Suit.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Lizzie: don't be intimidated! The blogosphere is one long rambling conversation in the corner of a pub somewhere. Will they all have Charles Hawtrey?

gd: Glad to have returned the favour!

No Good Boyo said...

I too love the Black Cat, and agree with you on Karloff.

My top Karloff films apart from Frankenstein are The Isle of the Dead and Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. I omitted the former from my list as one of President Ordovicius's chums (http://taliesinttlg.
-movie-meme.html) had included it in his, and Targets didn't quite make it.

With you on Keaton too. A colleague of mine is convinced that planes only fly because all the passengers are conned by the physics spiel. If they thought for one moment about where they were, it would all be over fast. This moment of self-knowledge would have accounted for most of the Bermuda Triangle incidents, if they had actually happened.

We must do it again when we've all changed our minds.

Ellis Nadler said...

Thought Hellzapoppin a masterpiece when I saw it aeons ago.
You omitted "Duck Soup".

Kevin Musgrove said...

Ellis: I'm saving 'Duck Soup' for my own personal delight.