Sunday Watch: Life of a Mountain – Blencathra


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I suppose I could have counted this, and its predecessor regarding Scafell Pike, as a film and included them both in my film summer season, but either way it is always a pleasure to spend two hours of a cold but sunny Sunday morning in the Lake District, paying close attention to one of its finest mountains.

Life of a Mountain – Blencathra is the work of Terry Abraham who, not quite a decade ago, was an unemployed Liverpudlian who bought a camera, taught himself filming and spent a year on England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, filming the mountain in its many aspects, filming the life that goes on around it, talking to people and building the results of his efforts into a two hour documentary film, released on DVD and then broadcast on BBC2, even if edited down to one hour. The film received extraordinary acclaim and made Terry Abrahams a star. It gave him more money and resources to make a similar film about Blencathra.

Blencathra, or Saddleback as it was known in my youth, and still largely is locally, is in the Northern Lakes, the only mountain area to be isolated from the rest of the District, with no links over high ground. Like the other and higher mountain that dominates the region, Skiddaw (locally pronounced Skidder), it presents a front to the south, and what a front. The mountain consists of five fells, linked into one massive massif, with a brilliant symmetry of dark combs presented between them. It displays almost all its finery to open view, and for anyone with walking or climbing instincts, it is a magnet not just to the eye but the boots.

There are so many routes of ascent to choose from that Wainwright ended up giving Blencathra more pages than any other fell in his seven Pictorial Guides. He also revived the beautiful, romantic, original name. Saddleback was prosaic and merely descriptive, whereas broadcaster and walker Eric Robson traces the Celtic name to Blenc-Arthur, Arthur’s Seat, King Arthur. The intruder name still shows on Ordnance Survey Maps as a small capitals alternative to Blencathra, whereas I remember the days when there was a certain euphony between the paired names of Skiddaw and Saddleback, and it was Or Blencathra that appeared on maps in small capitals.

Abraham’s film is subtly divided into four parts, one for each season, but without any formal distinctions between sections being drawn in the film itself. It’s contributors are mainly local people, though broadcaster Stuart Maconie and comedian Ed Byrne also appear, and the film’s greatest character, as he was in the Scafell Pike film, is guide and TV researcher David Powell-Thompson, a transplanted Geordie and a calm, dry, experienced presence.

There is so much to see of Blencathra and over the film’s two hour length we see the mountain from all sides. But the majority of this is aerial footage, probably a drone camera, drifting without pattern or any real sense of the mountain’s construction, in silent scenes, or rather scenes set to a swelling orchestra. The music is pretty prevalent in this film, and there are even two songs written about Blencathra, not to mention a poem, all broadcast in full.

This is where I begin to express my disapointment. There’s a distinct change in emphasis from Scafell Pike to this, in that the film is far less concerned with the mountain itself and rather with the people who live and work about it. Life Around a Mountain might have been a more accurate title, but the film’s sub-title, A Year in the Life of the People’s Mountain, is a hint (excuse me, but ever since Tony Bloody Blair in 1999, I have become allergic to anything being described as ‘The People’s…’)

Sequenvces actually featuring the mountain are surprisingly rare, and many of these are actually looking at the mountain rather on it. There are only three sequences directly dealing with the ascent of the mountain itself, and two of these feature Sharp Edge, which to me is over-egging the pudding. Neither of these sequences show the bit of Sharp Edge that gave me my worst moment fellwalking ever, which is etched on my memory as if burned there by acid, which, given that Wainwright picks out this spot for special mention, is a strange omission. Is it me? Is my far-too-vivid memory of having to take one unsupported step, placing my life on my ability to balance on one boot on a blade of rock narrower than said boot, a false one? Or is it that nobody not being lowered from a helicopter by winch to hover, Superman-style, over the bad spot will do this with the need to attend to a camera in their hands overwhelming their primitive Survival Instinct?

Either way, the film does not match up to Scafell Pike in sheer fascination with the mountain itself. In the end, its stringest sequence turned out to be an unhappy coincidence. Abraham filmed this over the year from Spring 2015 to Spring 2016. He was engaged on a sequence about a working farm, run by a cheerful mother and a lacomic son, managing both the tiny farm and a successful guest business. This was December 2015, the month of the devastating rainstorms that flooded so much of my beloved country, causing irreperable damage – for who can put a countryside back together is less than a century? And even then make it look as it was? – and despite the mother’s forced oiptimism afterwards, it destroyed them. Those memories are very bitter: the new bridge at Pooley Bridge is modern, elegant and all-metal, but the old stone bridge, with its several spans, was both beautiful and of its place in a way the new bridge never will be. The destruction that time caused makes me want to weep.

A sad note on which to end. Blencathra is worth it because it’s next to impossible to make a bad film about the Lake District, though Abraham’s Helvellyn did its damnedest, and I’m always ready to look on places I’ll never see in real life again. But it could have been so much better, and Terry Abraham had already shown how it could, and should, be done.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Movies – 10: All About Eve


all about eve

10: ALL ABOUT EVE: 1950. Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. US. Melodrama. Bette Davis. George Sanders. Anne Baxter. Thelma Ritter. Celeste Holm. Marilyn Monroe.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, a drama written as well as directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, from a 1946 short story The Wisdom of Eve, by Mary Orr (aka Mary Orr Denham, 1910-2006, American actress and author), who sold the story rights to Twentieth Century Fox for $5,000. Although not credited, she apparently received the Screen Writers Guild award. Mary Orr says the inspiration came from an anecdote told her by the actress Elizabeth Bergner (1897-1986), when she was performing in the 1943/44 Broadway version of The Two Mrs Carrolls (originally written 1935 by ‘Martin Vale’, a pseudonym for Marguerite Vale Voiller). Bergner had taken pity on a young fan – referred to as “that terrible girl”, but who then attempted to take over her life. This story, still apparently without naming names, later featured in Bergner’s biography. However, another legend has it that the story’s origins lay in the rivalry between Tallulah Bankhead and her understudy, Lizabeth Scott, when performing the 1942 Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. Perhaps, as is so often the case, it was a happy combination of the two.
Duration is 138 minutes; the budget was $1.4million, and box office receipts were $8.4million – so a goodly profit! The characters are:
Margo Canning (Bette Davis) – big Broadway star, but “just turned 40”. One description was an “ageing, egomaniac grande dame.”
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) – younger, scheming, ambitious, pretends to be Margo’s fan, becomes her understudy, then the next Broadway star with her eye on Hollywood – “outwardly docile, inwardly scheming” and manipulative. She constructs a fake backstory of being young Second World War widow, which almost everyone buys into – at first.
Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) – Margo’s maid and confidante, who distrusts Eve on sight, and instinctively disbelieves her sob story.
Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) – the theatrical critic, and opening narrator, who soon discovers Eve’s true secret past. Aptly named, a perfect vehicle for Sanders’ dry, sardonic wit, described as a “powerful critic who reeks of malignant charm”. He eventually uncovers Eve’s real identity as ‘Gertrude Slescynski’, who was never married or with a deceased war-hero husband, but instead forced to flee her hometown after an affair with her boss. He is now able to blackmail her, telling her she “belongs” to him. Other cast include:
Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) – Margo’s boyfriend, a director, eight years her junior, who Eve tried to seduce.
Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) – Margo’s best friend who introduced her to Eve.
Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) – Karen’s husband and successful playwright, who Eve hoped to steal.
Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe) – younger drama college newcomer, and DeWitt’s latest squeeze.
Phoebe (Barbara Bates) – The younger, ‘high-school’ fan of Eve who will continue the cycle.
Once again, pre-production, a number of other names were being touted for the various roles, and especially for that of Margo. Mankiewicz had originally envisaged the role for Susan Hayward (1917-1975, born Edythe Marrenner), but she was deemed “too young”, while Marlene Dietrich was “too German”. Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) came with too many restrictions on how she wanted to act the role. Zanuck wanted Barbara Stanwyck, but she was unavailable. Tallulah Bankhead was also considered, as was Davis’s old rival, Joan Crawford, who was already working on The Damned Don’t Cry. Claudette Colbert almost clinched the role, but suffered an injury, and again Mankiewicz considered Ingrid Bergman, before eventually offering it to Bette Davis, who had just finished her 18-year stint at Warner Brothers. She read the script and loved it, deeming it one of the best ever. Subsequently the part was revised, making Margo more abrasive, less genteel. It was perfect, and is probably the best Bette Davis role and performance – Margo was Davis; Davis was Margo. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan or John Garfield were considered for the role of Bill Sampson, before being offered to Gary Merrill, who was Mr Bette Davis anyway! Nancy Davis, as she was, before she became Nancy Reagan, was considered for the role of Karen. Thank goodness not! Both Angela Lansbury and Zsa Zsa Gábor (married to George Sanders from 1949 to 1954) were considered for the minor role of Miss Casswell, before it went to then unknown, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962, born Norma Jeanne Martenson). Monroe, always rather mentally fragile, was totally intimidated by Bette Davis, who frequently “barked” at her, resulting in numerous retakes and Monroe being physically sick. It was probably not a happy memory for her. Anne Baxter (1923-1985), whose filmography was from 1940 to 1980, was the granddaughter of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Barbara Bates, playing the role of Phoebe – George Sanders DeWitt drawling “Hello, and who are you?” – was, in real life, only two years younger than Anne, born 1925, died 1968.
Thus it was that a tightly scripted story, an almost theatrical movie about the theatre, by a series of chances and accident, bought together the perfect actors for each part. Bette Davis was a talented, wholly professional, actress, frustrated by years of bad roles and worse scripts – perhaps factors she recognised in her portrayal of Margo, together with her long-running on/off-screen bitchy rivalry with Joan Crawford. George Sanders (born 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, died by suicide 1972), also suffered from what he considered to be mediocre roles beneath his skill and intellect – he spoke French, Spanish, German and Russian. In addition to movie, theatre and television acting, he was a singer, song-writer, musical composer, and author. Indeed, he rather regarded acting with lofty disdain – hence perfect for the role of critic. One biography claimed his father was the illegitimate son of a prince of the House of Oldenburg, with connections to pre-Revolutionary Russian nobility. Her certainly had German, Estonian and Scottish ancestors. His filmography was from 1934 to 1973, often – with his suave, upper-class English accent – playing villains. He – quite rightly – got an Oscar for his role of DeWitt. He played ‘The Saint’ – from the character by Leslie Charteris – from 1938 to 1940, and then, a version on the same theme, ‘The Falcon’ from 1941 to 1942, when he was killed off, and the role passed to the ‘Falcon’s’ brother – actually George’s real life older brother, Tom Conway (1904-1967). Like Davis, this was, without doubt, his best movie, although I liked him in the role of George Zellaby, in the 1960 British movie The Village of the Damned, the quite faithful adaption of John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos. He was married four times, and reputed regarded women as “strange little creatures”. With both his physical and mental health deteriorating, and the deaths of his mother and brother, he took his own life, leaving a suicide note that read: “Dear World. I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” Afterwards, his friend David Niven, in his autobiography, claimed George had predicted as long ago as 1937 that he would die by taking an overdose of barbiturates at age 65. A spooky self-fulfilling destiny, if true, but Niven was apt to tell tall stories.
My own commentary as at 19/03/1989.
I remember seeing Bette Davis in a little film Fog Over Frisco (1934) which is one of these unsung gems – good-bad films. In All Above Eve (1950) she plays ageing actress Margo. Davis herself thought this film brilliant – script, director, fellow actors. And one cannot help feel that there is something of Davis herself in the Margo character, talented, ageing, brilliant, bitter and bitchy. The story (told initially from the rather smug critic’s viewpoint – played by George Sanders, he of the ‘Saint’ and ‘Falcon’ movies) tells of the meteoric rise of an obscure would-be actress Eve from mooning about Margo’s stage door to ousting her from the play and getting the theatre award. At the end the critic moves in for the ‘kill’, he knows her true past, her lies, her weakness and submits her to sexual blackmail (“You’re mine, Eve – forever.” Saunders has just the right voice, cultivated menace) but in her hotel room Eve finds yet another star-struck young thing as worshipful of her as she was of Margo (who has bitchily retreated in high dungeon), and when Sanders sees her (“Hello, and who are you?”) we know the cycle is about to begin again. In retrospect a clever and ingenious ending where the scheming deceitful Eve (Anne Baxter) will get her comeuppance, having evolved from sugar-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth to a rather haughty bitch herself. But it’s Davis who really steals the show – right from the first reel she dominants (as someone said it’s really “All about Margo”) and I’m trying to think of another film where one star does so, and so blatantly.
24/03/1989
All About Eve (1950) was one of Bette Davis’ favourite films – an excellent intelligent script for a change, well directed, and with a cast of enthusiastic professionals. Davis is quite brilliant as the larger than life, but very vulnerable, theatre actress Margo Canning, unsure of her love affair with the younger director, and threatened by Eve, the rather creepy, snide, overambitious and contriving understudy, who not only tries to steal Margo’s part and fame, but even her lover, if unsuccessfully. At the end Margo gets her man without losing her fire, and Eve, after seducing the playwright and nearly wrecking his marriage, gets instead the equally slimy Addison DeWitt (super swathe George Sanders) the theatre critic. It’s a tight, very clever story with twists and turns, deception and revelation, surprises and a brilliant ‘mills of God’ ending. There are some good lines, especially Margo’s cynicism, and some home truths also. Yes, rates high. Marilyn Monroe makes a small, but unremarkable, part as the pregnant potential stand-in and DeWitt’s prodigy prior to Ann Baxter’s Eve.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Movies – 9: The Third Man


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9: THE THIRD MAN : 1949. Director: Carol Reed. UK.
Crime thriller. Orson Welles. Trevor Howard. Joseph Cotten.
Alida Valli. Wilfred Hyde-White.
Adapted from an original Graham Greene idea with extensive contributions by Carol Reed, this has to be the best example of British film noir ever – ironically not set in Britain, but in late-1940s, post-war Vienna, still divided and under Allied and Russian occupation. Once again we have the happy harmony of director, script, camerawork, musical score, and the perfect cast, together with the added authenticity of much of it actually being filmed on location, making it a perfect time-capsule of what was a bleak and rather terrible time and place. It belongs to those movies that should forever exist in black and white – like The Maltese Falcon, or Kiss Me Deadly, or Psycho. Even better, this is a movie set in post-war Europe where the Austrians speak German and the Russians speak Russian, giving it that extra grain of truth. Reputedly, when Carol Reed and Graham Greene were asked by producer Alexander Korda to come up with a story, Greene remembered a single introductory sentence he had written years before of a man named as ‘Harry’, seeming come back from the dead. It was to be the basis of the story of Harry Lime, in the movie, the mysterious ‘third man’ after a supposed fatal traffic accident in Vienna. The rest is history. Greene wrote the draft, although Carol Reed (supported by studio boss David O. Selznick) insisted on the more downbeat ending, rather than a happy ‘Anna and Holly’ one. There were other changes along the way – all for the betterment of the final movie – the original narrator was to be Major Calloway; Harry Lime was to be English; Martins first name was Rollo rather than Holly. Movie legend attributed more influence to Orson Welles, who was initially rather reluctant at the comparative small physical presence he had, but while he apparently did add the famous speech comparing Borgia Italy with Switzerland, many years later, when asked by Peter Bogdanovich, he conceded his input was “minimal”, and “it was Carol’s picture.” Probably the best movies – like the best books or stories in general – are big on small things. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca operate as a snapshot of ordinary, otherwise quite insignificant, people whose personal stories we view briefly within a greater setting or events. They have no influence or control over this bigger world, whether it be 1940s San Francisco, a Vichy enclave in World War II North Africa, or the ruined, military zones of 1949 Vienna. At the end of the story this greater world is the same as it was at the beginning. No wrongs have been righted, no tyrants toppled, no earth-shattering events written into the history books. They, like us, are the little people. This is their story.
All of the key dramatis personae were played by actors at the top of their game. Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) played Holly Martins, the somewhat naïve American “writer of hack westerns”, and Harry Lime’s friend. In real life he had been Orson Welles’ friend since 1934, and appeared in several of Welles’ classics, Citizen Kane (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Journey into Fear (1943). He was another Hollywood star who had cut his acting teeth on Broadway, moving from theatre to modelling (when work dried up), to radio work, to a movie career from 1930 to 1981. Welles apparently rated him as a great comic actor. Here he plays a simple, decent man increasingly out of his safety zone. English actor Trevor Howard (1913-1988, born Trevor Wallace Howard-Smith), was best known for his leading role in another British classic, the 1945 David Lean movie Brief Encounter, but he is perfect in the role of British Army military policeman Major Calloway. Another actor originally from a theatrical background, his overall film list is impressive, many of which are in military roles. Howard’s own military service, with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War, was less outstanding, however. Contrary to his, and the studio PR accounts, he was discharged in 1943 for “mental instability” and having a “psychopathic personality”. Never mind, his Major Calloway is intelligent, shrewd, determined and professional.
Refugee Anna Schmidt, with her forged passport, hopelessly in love with Harry Lime, was played by Italian actress and singer Alida Valli, aka the Baroness Alida Maria Altenburger von Marchenstein-Frauenberg (1921-2006), a quiet, but dignified role. At least one critic, reviewing her overall career from 1936 to 2002, said she was the only actress to equal Dietrich or Garbo. Quite an accolade. Finally we have Orson Welles himself (1915-1985), actor, director, screenwriter, producer, equally brilliant in radio, theatre or film, something of a multi-talented genius, larger than life, a true 20th century ‘Renaissance man’, but with a fascination for the darker side of humanity also. This proved ideal for him to play the outwardly charming, but utterly immoral, Harry Lime character. Later the Swiss got upset about his ‘cuckoo-clock’ story, pointing out cuckoo-clocks were made in Bavaria, not Switzerland. Whether it was ab-lib or scripted, Welles’ speech of Harry Lime justifying his indifference to suffering and contempt of the little people, inevitably became the memorable pivotal piece of the story’s character.
British character actor, Wilfred Hyde-White (1903-1991) had the small bit part of Crabbin, who seemingly ‘kidnaps’ Holly to give a speech at their book club. His filmography from 1934 to 1983 is impressive, but he perhaps best known for his role in My Fair Lady (1964).
Again the story is that Carol Reed heard Anton Karas playing the zither in a Viennese wine-garden and was immediately taken by the “jangling melancholy”, which eventually became the memorable sound-track. The zither, from the Greek cithara, is played by plucking or strumming the strings, and is a popular musical instrument found throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia. In consequence of the movie, Karas (1906-1985) found global fame, playing before European royalty, touring North America in 1951, and Japan in 1962, 1969 and 1972, although he had supposedly retired in 1966. He was an unassuming man, who disliked touring and preferred to be home in his native Vienna. Despite his apparent fame, The Third Man theme was a one-hit wonder. Additional music for the movie was by Australian-born composer Hubert Clifford (1904-1959), under the pseudonym Michael Sarsfield. The movie was 108 minutes long, and (according to the-numbers.com) worldwide box office takings was $1,485,311.
There were several adaptions or pre-sequels, Lux Radio Theatre in 1951 (featuring Joseph Cotten) and 1954 (with Ray Milland in the Holly Martins role), and a British radio serial in 1951-52, The Adventures of Harry Lime, by Harry Alan Towers, apparently in collaboration with Graham Greene. Is the USA it was retitled The Lives of Harry Lime. They were a pre-sequel, in a lighter tone than the movie version of Lime, and there would appear to have been 52 episodes, featuring Orson Welles, who claimed (perhaps falsely) to have written at least six episodes – or was it really scripted by a ghost-writer? There was also a television spin-off, 77 episodes from 1959 to 1965, starring Michael Rennie, which may account for my vague childhood memory of the zither theme tune.
The English writer and journalist Graham Greene (1904-1991, born Henry Graham Greene) had already had his novel The Power and the Glory filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, and would go on to see many of his novels adapted into movies, some more than once – Brighton Rock (1947 and 2011); The End of the Affair (1955 and 1999); The Quiet American (1958 and 2002); The Comedians (1967); The Honorary Consul (1983). Having converted from atheism to Catholicism in 1926, the motif running through many of his novels were ambivalent moral and political issues. In his later life he called himself a Catholic agnostic. His writing revolved around travel, thrillers and espionage. He was recruited into MI6 in 1941, and actually personally knew Kim Philby, the Soviet ‘mole’. He resigned in 1944, but travelled extensively, using his experiences as background to his fiction – Serra Leona, Liberia, Mexico, Haiti, the Congo Basin of Africa, Cuba (where he became a friend of Fidel Castro), before moving to the South of France, and finally Switzerland, where he was friends with Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps crucial to his involvement with The Third Man, he was a friend of Michael Korda, brother of Alexander Korda. In 1948 Elizabeth Montague had given him a tour of Vienna, and he had met, and shared stories with, The Times correspondent there, Peter Smolke.
Several years earlier, in August and September 1945, the American-born photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977), in her role as US designated war correspondent for British Vogue magazine, had visited Vienna. Already mentally scarred by her experiences on the frontline, and having witnessed first-hand the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau death-camps, she found Vienna “a city suffering the psychic depression of the conquered and starving…[but still as] Gemütlich as ever [the Viennese] are drunk on music, light frothy music for empty stomachs.” Several of her photographs from this time show rubble-filled streets, and a huge Lenin poster in the Soviet zone, in the Kärntner Strasse. But, on another occasion, she visited a hospital, staffed by nuns, where children were dying for lack of drugs. She wrote: “For an hour I watched a baby die. He was a skinny gladiator. He gasped and fought and struggled for life, and a doctor and a nun and I just stood there and watched…This tiny baby fought for his only possession, life, as if it might be worth anything.” One has to wonder if Graham Greene had read Miller’s article when it was published in Vogue, and if that influence the hospital scene between Calloway and Holly.
My 1988 critical comments were less than favourable, but with subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant combination of acting, story-line (especially Carol Reed’s more downbeat ending, which even Graham Greene agreed was superior), and the authenticity and originality of this little classic. Below, then, are my earlier comments as written 24/02/1988:
I cannot remembering seeing The Third Man (director Carol Reed, 1949) before, but I vaguely recollect a television series and the distinctive theme music. That said, I did not know the story, or that Orson Welles played Harry Lime, or Graham Greene wrote the story. So I watched what is regarded as a classic. Disappointed? Just a little. The setting, the photography, is good, being immediately post-war Vienna. Germans speak German, which adds realism (how I hate it when they all speak perfect ‘Oxford’ English), showing it to be a British film – Hollywood would never have done that, or very few directors. A Graham Greene story should have warned me. I expected the twist; things not to be what they seem. Instead, apart from Lime’s faked death (how come the police never looked at the corpse?) everything is what it seemed. The American ‘Western writer who drinks too much’ is just that. The Czech-German Anna is a Czech-German girl in love with Lime, the crooks are crooks and Lime is the biggest crook of them all, ignoble, callous, ruthless and unlovable, despite the fact we have two people apparently infatuated with him.
Bred on a diet of Len Deighton, I really expected Lime to emerge as a goodie, perhaps masquerading as a crook to flush out the real villains; instead a series of shady, shifty, unlovable characters: the hack writer, the British military policeman, the smooth-talking Russian NKVD colonel, Lime himself. Perhaps the girl Anna was a sad case, forced to see the man she thought she loved die twice. Rates two stars, but predictable and the plot flawed. A good period piece though, but Len Deighton would have made it sing. Thought: did the Greene story influence Deighton’s work? The cast of characters reappear in several of his books, notably in Funeral in Berlin, Game, Set and Match, and even An Expensive Place to Die.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Films – 8: Black Narcissus


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8: BLACK NARCISSUS : 1946. Director: Michael Powell. UK. Melodrama. Deborah Kerr. David Farrer. Kathleen Byron. Sabu. Jean Simmons. Flora Robson. Esmond Knight.
Both produced and the screenplay co-written by Michael Power (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (Hungarian-born British national, 1902-1989), adapted from the 1939 novel of the same name by Margaret Rumer Godden, English author (1902-1998). Cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Edited by Reginald Mills. Music by Brian Easdale. Matte landscape paintings by Walter Percy Day (1878-1963). Powell was introduced to the novel by actress Mary Morris. Godden had already adapted a US stage version for Lee Strasberg (1901-1982). Screen-time was 100 minutes. Budget was £280,000. As usual the US version was edited – or, more correctly, censored – with the flashback to Sister Clodagh’s life (and her failed romance in Ireland) before she became a nun removed completely (thus undermining the entire emotional motif of her character). The US Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned the movie as “an affront to religion and religious life”, and even demanded the pronouncement emphasising that the nuns were of an Anglican Order rather than Catholic! We know now how Catholic nuns treated orphans or unmarried mothers. Other aspects of the film’s sexual tensions – the character of the Indian girl Kanchi, for instance – were also watered down or removed, and in America were not restored until the 1980s. Least we get too smug about past efforts of self-appointed moralists to edit creative art to their own ends, now, of course, we have the equally self-righteous PC brigade, who get uptight about white actors/actresses ‘blacking up’ to play Indians – in this instance, Jean Simmons (Kanchi) and Esmond Knight (as the Old General), and Mary Hallett as Angu Ayah, the aged palace caretaker. The exception was the then young boy Indian actor Sabu (Sabu Dastagir, 1924-1963), who played the ‘Young General’, while other Indian extras for crowd scenes were apparently recruited from the Rotherhithe Docks, south-east London. Given the time, budget restraints, and other factors, it probably wasn’t that easy to find suitable Indian actors in 1946/47 Britain, but the tradition of ‘blacking up’ was an old one, at least back to Shakespeare. Generations of white actors played Othello, or non-Jews playing Shylock. Indeed, until at least the late 18th century, virtually all female parts on stage were played by men or young boys. To immerse oneself into a challenging, completely different role was what acting was supposed to be about. While it might bring new insight with a disabled actor playing a disabled character (Christopher Reeve in his later career), or a gay actor playing Oscar Wilde, or a First Nations Native American Indian playing Geronimo, it is nonsense to say only they can understand the psyche of such parts, or write or create them as authors. Any good writer or actor should be able to cross the boundary of their own gender, ethnicity or circumstance. Thankfully, we don’t insist that only Americans should play Americans, or – if filming a French novel for an English audience, for instance – still insist on French-only actors. To remark, as some latter-day critics do, that Michael Powell was ‘wrong’, or even a latent racist, by having Simmons playing the role of an Indian girl, is to apply 21st century ethics and thinking to a bygone age, and diminishing a piece of brilliant, classical cinema. Yes, using GCI, we could eliminate all those cigarettes Bogart smoked in character of, say, Sam Spade or Rick in Casablanca, but to what purpose? We must understand the past. We cannot change it. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Godden wrote the novel in 1939. It was just coincidence that the film was being made just as the British Raj was coming to an end. The film’s symbolism – especially of the nuns withdrawing from the mountain-top palace in the last reel – was probably more accidental than intentional.
Michael Latham Powell (1905-1990), has sometimes been equalled amongst British film directors to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. His filmography was from 1926 to 1972. His best known films were with Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger, and they formed the Production Company The Archers. The two were originally introduced by Alexander Korda. There followed a succession of films together – many regarded as classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, 1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffman (1951). And, indeed, Black Narcissus brought together a number of Powell’s favourite actors and actresses, including his former lover, Deborah Kerr (she always insisted it was pronounced ‘car’), who had featured in Colonel Blimp, and his then current lover, Kathleen Byron. In fact Powell had been briefly married in 1927, to an American dancer, Gloria Mary Ranger, then in 1943, to Frances May Reidy (they were not divorced until 1983). During this time he apparently lived with another actress, Pamela Brown, until her death in 1975. Eventually, in 1984, he married his long-time film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Powell’s career suffered something of a major a setback with the hostile reception to his 1960 movie Peeping Tom; a dark, certainly rather misogynistic, murder movie in the Hitchcock mode, but his latter-day admirers include Francis Ford Coppola, George A. Romero, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, Schoonmaker and Scorsese collaborated to restore Powell’s films after his death.
English stage and film actor David Farrar (1908-1995) played Mr Dean, the local Indian ruler’s British agent, intelligent and rather cynical, who has gone semi-native. Farrar’s filmography was from 1937 to 1962, when, in his own words, he “walked away from it all”. Powell rated him highly, equal to almost any other actor, remarking on how handsome he was, with “violet eyes…and exceptional timing”. Critic David Thomson, in Movies of the Forties (1982), described him as “a dark, Gary Cooper-like actor, apparently too moody to seize the stardom that Powell believed would have waited him…an ideal Powell hero: passionate but introverted.” Farrar certainly often played anti-hero types. He later appeared in the Powell/Pressburger film The Small Back Room (1949), as the semi-crippled, alcoholic bomb-disposal expert, starring opposite Kathleen Byron again. He was married to Irene Elliot in 1929 until her death in 1976, when he moved to South Africa to live with his daughter, where he eventually died. Perhaps, in retrospect, most of his other films are only for the film buff or connoisseur, Black Narcissus is what he will be remembered for. He was paid £4,500 for forty-five days shooting. Kathleen Byron (1921-2009), another of Powell’s ladies, played the mentally unstable Sister Ruth. Pressburger said she a “dreamy voice and great eyes like a lynx”, perfect for the part of the rather demented Ruth. Apparently Powell had wanted Greta Garbo for the role of Sister Superior Clodagh, but Pressburger wanted Deborah Kerr. This reputedly made for a certain behind-the-scenes tension – Powell’s ex-lover and his current one, rather echoing the sexual tensions between their characters in relation to Farrar’s rather sexy, shimmering, Mr Dean. Hitchcock, with all his blonde leading ladies, seemed quite chaste by comparison! Byron, born Kathleen Elizabeth Fell, in West Ham (now London, then Essex) had a filmography from several uncredited roles 1938, 1942, through to 1998. In 1943 she married a USAAF pilot and briefly lived in America. She played an angel in A Matter of Life and Death, so we presume her affair with Powell dated from about then. He was named as co-respondent when her marriage was dissolved in 1950. A brief stunt in Hollywood proved unsatisfactory and she returned once again to Britain, where she married journalist/writer Alaric Jacob (1909-1995) in 1953. Thereafter most of her roles were in minor, rather forgettable, movies, ‘B’ features or horror (Twins of Evil, 1971), comedy (One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, 1975), bit parts in The Elephant Man (1980), or Les Miserables (1998 – as ‘Mother Superior’, so promotion from a mere nun!) On television she appeared in Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), Emmerdale Farm (1979), and Midsomer Murders (1999).
Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) was born in Glasgow, as Deborah Jane Trimmer. In 1945 she married Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley, RAF, and they had two daughters, born 1947 and 1951. They divorced in 1959. She married again, to writer Peter Viertel, in 1960s. Playing the role of the emotionally and sexually vulnerable Sister Clodagh – an acting tour de force by any standard – propelled Deborah Kerr into a life of successful stardom – in Hollywood, on the stage, and even television. She was paid £16,000. In total her filmography was from 1937 until 1986, playing opposite some of the greatest names of that movie era. Powell was of the opinion that MGM “never fully realised her potential”, but her versatility was such that – despite the usual attempt by the studio to typecast her into prim, upper class English lady roles, she inevitably broke free, and – as she had with Black Narcissus – gave ever greater depth, as well as often latent sexuality, to her characters. 1950 saw her in King Solomon’s Mines (with Stewart Granger); Quo Vadis (1951); Julius Caesar, Young Bess (with Granger and Jean Simmons); Dream Wife (with Cary Grant), and – memorably, From Here to Eternity (frolicking on the beach with Burt Lancaster, playing opposite Frank Sinatra, after Joan Crawford backed out of the role – all were in a busy 1953). 1955 saw The End of the Affair (co-starring Van Johnson and Peter Cushing); The King and I (with Yul Brynner); and Tea and Sympathy (both 1956); An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant again, 1957); Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (playing a nun again, with Robert Mitchum, also 1957); Separate Tables (David Niven and Burt Lancaster again, 1958); The Sundowners (with her good friend Robert Mitchum again, 1960); The Innocents (Michael Redgrave, 1961); and The Night of the Iguana (with Richard Burton, 1964). This list goes on, but the latter years are mostly comedies, perhaps notable for their more sexually risqué story-lines and male co-stars – Marriage on the Rocks, 1965 with Frank Sinatra; Prudence and the Pill, 1968, with David Niven; and The Gypsy Moths, 1969, with Burt Lancaster yet again. This was notable for being Deborah’s first (and last) nude love scene. However, typical of Hollywood, despite her talent, by the late 1960s there were few parts of still beautiful, middle-aged actresses and she retired from movies completely in 1969, although the 1970s saw her return to theatre, and the 1980s to television. Alfred Hitchcock had wanted her to star in his 1954 thriller, Dial M for Murder, with William Holden and Cary Grant. However, Holden and Kerr were unavailable, and Grant declined to play the villainous husband, so Grace Kelly took the part of the wife, opposite Ray Milland. Both had that same extraordinary beauty, although I would suggest (no disrespect to Kelly) that Kerr was the more versatile actress. It is interesting to speculate what Deborah might have brought to the part – Grace certainly made her suggestions and contribution, which Hitchcock acknowledged and adapted – but, of course, in retrospect it was a happy choice, with Kelly becoming one of his favourite blonde leading ladies, if not the favourite. From various anecdotes about Kerr, Hitchcock would have liked her rather down-to-earth, no-nonsense persona, and it is a pity, perhaps, that he never successfully persuaded her to feature in any of his later movies – how would she have played the Kim Novak role in Vertigo, for instance? Although she was a natural redhead rather than blonde (she dyed her hair blonde for From Here to Eternity), together they would have been a formidable team.
Rightly featured in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, American critic and writer Kim Newman gives an excellent synopsis: “David Thomson probably overstates the case when he refers to Black Narcissus as ‘that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.’ Based very closely on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, the picture follows a small group of sisters who are gifted with a building high up in the Himalayas that they attempt to turn into a convent school-cum-hospital. The drafty building was once a harem and is still adorned with explicit murals, while a cackling ayah left over from the times of licentiousness gleefully predicts that the sisters will succumb to the place’s atmosphere. On one level, Black Narcissus is a matter-of-fact account of the failings of empire: these sensible Christians arrive with good intentions but are in an absurd situation, teaching only pupils who are paid by the local maharajah to attend lessons which mean nothing to them, and doctoring only minor cases – since if they try and fail to save a patient, the hospital will be abandoned as if cursed. Directors Powell and Pressburger see the humor in the nuns’ frustrations, observing a culture clash without dismissing either the rational or primitive point of view, relishing the irony that it is the most religious characters who are the most sensible here (when they should be prone to all matter of unfounded beliefs), and the godless ones who are most inclined to superstition. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), promoted too young, tried to keep the mission together like an inexperienced officer in a war movie, thrown together with the smouldering, disreputable Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and thus exciting the eventually homicidal jealousy of the most repressed of the nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). As the obsessions begin to bite, the film becomes more surreal, with the studio-bound exotica glowing under Jack Cardiff’s vivid Technicolor cinematography and Kerr and Byron trembling under their wimples as the passionate nuns. Amongst the most startling moments in British cinema is the ‘revelation’ of Sister Ruth stripped of her habit, in a mail-order dress and blood-red lipstick, transformed into a harpie who tries to push Clodagh over the precipice as she sounds the convent bell. With a nearly grown-up Sabu (Mowgli in the 1942 Jungle Book) and a young Jean Simmons (with a jeweled snail on her nose) as the sensual innocents who set a bad example.”
In addition to Kerr, Farrer, Byron and Sabu, we have Flora Robson (1902-1984) as Sister Philippa, whose duties was tending the convent garden, but who becomes lost in the environment, and finishes up growing flowers instead of vegetables; Jenny Laird as Sister Blanche, aka ‘Honey’, who was supposed to teach lace-making; Judith Furse as Sister Briony, in charge of the infirmary, but who succumbs to ill-health herself, while a sick native child dies on her watch; May Hallett (who specialised in playing eccentric roles, 1876-1968) as Anya Ayah, the harem palace caretaker and confident to Mr Dean; Nancy Roberts as the Order’s Mother Dorothea. Finally, playing Kanchi, the young native girl of “erratic spirit”, we had a blacked-up, 18-year-old Jean Simmons (1929-2010), actress and singer, later wife, from 1950 to 1960, to Steward Granger, himself to be one Deborah Kerr’s later lovers.
The Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary is fictional. The habits were white, their design a mixture of Medieval styles, intended to contrast with the bright colours worn by the natives. The ‘Old General’ (Esmond Knight) is named as Toda Rai, Rajput, or ruler, of the princely state in the Himalayas, presumably in Nepal. The dilapidated palace perched up on the cliff and named as Mapu, had formerly been the secluded harem for his father’s concubines. The sisters optimistically renamed it St. Faith. The Old General hoped to have his heir, the so-called ‘Young General’ (Sabu), educated in Western culture prior to his trip to the UK.
Filming took place, between May and August 1946, at Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire (opened in 1936, owned by the Rank Group until 2001, used by both film and television productions), and at Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex. It is worth noting that the full-length habits of the sisters, set certain constraints on acting: everything had to be conveyed by voice and facial expression only, rather than body language.
Some have criticised the apparent theatricality of the palace/convent, but Powell was right that nothing would have been gained by blowing the budget on filming on location, actually in Nepal (and at a rather dangerous time, politically). The harem-cum-convent would always have to be studio created. It was a combination of full-size exterior building (with the oriental-style gateway that houses the convert bell, supposedly poised on the very edge of the precipice), together with scale models, and stunning mountainous Himalayan vistas reminiscent of Nicholas Roerich. And, in retrospect, with clever creative photography and the outstanding matte painting artwork by Walter Percy Day and his sons, the scenery is just as credible as Rick’s Bar and Casablanca, or Sam Spade’s San Francisco. Again these are carping criticisms from a later era where producers can waste mega-bucks on needless live location trips and expensive sets. Big is not always better. Less can often be more. At a time of ration books and shortages in Britain, Powell created the powerful, enduring image of exotic, distant foreign lands and people, while at the same time bringing together a great character-driven story, superb acting and direction, and a cinematic masterpiece that was exploring themes ahead of its time – the consequences and failure of Western imperialism and a celebration of the ‘other’ – from non-Eurocentric culture to the unspoken worlds of female desire. This is a rollercoaster of a movie – adventure; travel; drama and suspense; psychological; love, madness and desire. And, at the end, the emotional moment of Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean parting – for ever – that lingering handshake, that unspoken feeling between them, her requesting he tend Sister Ruth’s grave, following by the sisters retreat as the monsoon rains start. Again Powell was right. That was the fitting finish. Anything that came next would only be anti-climax.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: – 7. Casablanca


Casa

7: CASABLANCA : 1942. Director: Michael Curtiz. US. Wartime romance/thriller. Humphrey Bogart. Ingrid Bergman.
Paul Henreid. Claude Rains. Sydney Greenstreet. Peter Lorre. Conrad Veidt.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis. Production Company: Warner Brothers Pictures. Screenplay by Howard Kosh, Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, adapted from an unproduced 1940 stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Editing Director: Owen Marks. Music: Max Steiner. Screen time: 102 minutes. Budget: $878,000 to about $1million. Box office: $3.7million (rising to $6.9million by 1955). Winner of 1943 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay. Received 99% approval rating on 91 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
Veteran movie critic, Roger Ebert, remarked that, while Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the “greater film” (movie critics love it more than the ordinary public), Casablanca was the “more loved”…Conceding “the people in it are all so good” and it was a “wonderful gem” – praise, indeed. He went further, saying he had never seen a negative review. Certainly, Leonard Maltin, another critic, from 1950, named it “the best Hollywood movie of all time”, and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, wrote, “The Warners…have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap”, praising the “devious convolutions of the plot”, the screenplay “of the best”, and cast “all of the first order”. However, The New Yorker thought it merely “pretty tolerable”, not as good as Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon follow-up, Across the Pacific (also 1942, with Astor and Greenstreet, part-directed by John Huston, who – upon being called up for military service – took the script with him, leaving replacement director Vincent Sharman to pick up the plot pieces!) Now, of course, who, except Bogart of 1940s movies aficionados, remembers that movie – the title of which was itself a misnomer, as (for practical, wartime reasons) was set in Panama, not Hawaii. Later, the controversial New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael (1919-2001), sniffed of Casablanca, “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism.” Ouch! My superiority complex is bigger than your superiority complex! Another negative voice was that of Italian culture critic, novelist and philosopher, Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who thought it “mediocre”, although conceding the ending “reached Homeric depths”, whatever that means. Who cares what critics and intellectuals say? In 1989, the UK film magazine Empire rated it 28 out of 100 – saying: “Love, humour, thrills, wisecracks, and a hit tune are among the attractions, which also includes a perfect supporting cast of villains, sneaks, thieves, refugees and bar staff. But it’s Bogart and Berman’s show, entering immortality as screen lovers reunited, only to part. The irrefutable proof that great movies are accidents.” Perhaps of more interest is when, in 1982, freelance journalist Chuck Ross decided to test how many contemporary Hollywood agents would recognise the movie if it were submitted to them now. He retyped the exact script, but disguised under the name of the original play, merely changing the character name ‘Sam’ to ‘Dooley’ (after Dooley Wilson who played Sam), and submitted it to 217 agencies, as a ‘new’ film script by unknown writer ‘Erik Demos’. Seven did not respond. 18 were apparently lost in the post. 90 returned the script unread, most arguing they did not accept unsolicited screenplays, While eight thought it similar to Casablanca, only 33 recognised it for what it was (Alan Green of Gage Group, remarking he had “seen it 147 times”). Meantime 41 rejected it, saying things like “too much dialogue, not enough exposition, story is weak, didn’t hold my interest”. Three – still not recognising it – offered to represent, while one suggested it might make a good novel!
So, in retrospect, what can one say about Casablanca that hasn’t already been said? Is it, after The Maltese Falcon, really the greater movie ever? Books have been written about it. Film critics have argued over it. Spoofs and spin-off plays and movies have been made about it. It has long since become cult status. It has become the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis; hidden allegory (Rick as President Franklin D. Roosevelt!); and even speculation concerning the various names by characters to address Bogart’s character. Aside from would-be sequels, radio adaptions, and other spin-offs, it was said to have influenced the 1944 movie Passage to Marseilles (which also featured Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre and Claude Rains), as well as another Bogart classic of the same year, To Have And Have Not, directed by Howard Hughes, from the 1937 Hemingway novel. The Marx Brothers made an indie (non-MGM) spy comedy spoof, A Night in Casablanca (1946). Woody Allen made his nod to the movie with Play It Again, Sam (1972 – I remember seeing it, the usual Allen comic vehicle for one-liners). Less obvious in its link to Casablanca, is Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978, Peter Falk again doing an Bogart parody, as he had in the 1976 Simon movie Murder by Death). I’ve never really waivered from my opinion that Neil Simon is basically unfunny, pretentious, and overrated. A straight plot rip-off, then metamorphosised into bad sci-fi, was the 1996 Barb Wire, starring Pamela Anderson, written by Chuck Plarrer and Iline Chalken, adapted from the Dark Horse comics. As a movie, it bombed, probably deservedly so for basic unoriginality. Obviously yet another Hollywood movie agent somewhere who didn’t know, or remember the original!
David Pirie, in the Time Out Film Guide faces the question of the movie’s reputation head-on, and gives a good response: “Once a movie becomes as adulated as Casablanca, it is difficult to know how to begin to approach it, except by saying that at least 70 per cent of its cult reputation is deserved. This was Bogart’s greatest type role, as the battered, laconic owner of a nightclub who meets a girl (Bergman) he left behind in Paris and still loves. The whole thing has an intense wartime nostalgia that tempts one to describe it as the sophisticated American version of Britain’s naïve Brief Encounter, but it has dated less than Lean’s film and is altogether a much more accomplished piece of cinema. There are some great supporting performances, and much of the dialogue has become history.” Oddly enough, the Ann Lloyd/David Robinson Movies of the Forties (1982) barely mentions it, despite devoting a two page article to Bogart’s other 1940s masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon. In his article on Bogart, Oliver Eyquem writes: “Walsh had endowed Bogart with humanity in High Sierra; Huston gave him morality and the means to defend himself in The Maltese Falcon; Curtiz, in Casablanca, added to these a romantic dimension and a reason for living. At the beginning of the film, Rick, the hero, is shown to have taken refuge behind a mask of cynicism, in keeping with the unscrupulous political climate of wartime Casablanca. The unexpected arrival of the woman he has loved painfully reawakens his emotions, forcing him to renounce his pose of disinterested spectator. The film concludes with the need for commitment, one which concerned not only the hero but the whole of America.” Both the above would give the overwhelming impression this is a movie inexorably tied to the Second World War, and, indeed, although the story is set pre-December 1941 and America entering the war, it was actually being written and filmed in 1942. In the movie, the American Rick is still a neutral in Vichy-occupied Morocco. There were still many in the USA who were opposed to direct military intervention in what they saw as a European conflict. Fast forward to 1942, and that had changed. America and Germany were now at war. So, yes, it is a ‘period movie’ now (if extremely contemporary at the time), but is it not a ‘war movie’ as such, despite the bad guys being Nazis. Pirie makes the comparison with Brief Encounter, which many have also elevated to cult movie status. But the 1945 David Lean film (scripted by Noël Coward) is so terribly, terribly British (or maybe, more specifically, English), even the setting, actually the railway station of Camforth, Lancashire, then a busy junction on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, going north. But Casablanca is much more than a ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl’ plot picture. By it’s very origins and setting, it is a much complex and interesting movie, about more than Lean’s failed love affair.
School teacher and playwright Murray Burnett (1910-1997) had visited Europe with his wife Frances in 1938, where he saw the Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler pogrom in Germany. Later, with Joan Alison (Alice Joan Leviton, 1901-1992, also from New York), they wrote the stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, in 1940. It was their second play, blatantly pro-French Resistance, and anti-Nazi. It was never performed; instead Stephan Karnot and Warner Brothers studio editor Irene Lee Diamond convinced producer Hal B. Wallis to obtain the rights for $20,000, back then the most ever spent on a unproduced play. Thereafter it morphed into Casablanca, and the Warner Bros Studio did their best to downplay the story’s original plot or authors – apparently even to the extent that Ingrid Bergman, as late as 1974, was still unaware there had ever been a previous story script prior to the 1941 film. In 1986 Burnett and Alison contested the property rights of what was, after all, originally their theatrical creation. The case went to the New York Court of Appeal, and Warner Bros agreed to pay them $100,000 each, and the right to produce the play on stage. In 1991 it opened at the Whitehall Theatre, London, for six weeks, with British actor Leslie Grantham (best known for playing ‘Dirty Den’ in the television soap EastEnders) playing Rick. While the name of the Rick Blaine character remained the same in both draft play and later movie, love interest American ‘Lois Meredith’ became Norwegian Ilse Lund; and Italian ‘Luis Rinaldo’ became Louis Renault. Sam, in the play, was known as ‘The Rabbit’. Victor Laszio remained the same, but ‘Señor Mortinez’ became the Italian Signor Ferrari, and ‘Guillerro Ugate’ became just Ugate. In the play Rick is a lawyer, who meets ‘Lois’ in Paris before she marries Victor Laszio.
Hal B. Wallis (Harold Brent Wallis, born Aaron Blum Wolowicz, 1898-1986) already had a glittering career as film producer, with a filmography from 1930 to 1975. Among just a few of his previous movies were Little Caesar (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Kid Galahad (1937), and The Maltese Falcon. Although he resigned from Warner Bros in 1944 – more of which below – later financial successes included the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, a number of Elvis Presley movies, Gunfight at the O.K. Carrol (1957), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and True Grit (1969). For Casablanca Wallis had originally wanted German William Wyler (1902-1981) as director, but he was unavailable, so Wallis made the happy second choice of his close friend, Hungarian Jew, Michael Curtiz (born Manó Kertész Kaminer, 1886-1962), whose filmography, in Europe and the USA (after 1926), was from 1917 to 1961, some 86 films in total. Some of these include Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, with Cagney and Bogart); Mildred Pierce (1945, with Joan Crawford); Doris Day’s movie debut, Romance on the High Seas (1948); White Christmas (1954, with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney); We’re No Angels (1955, with Bogart and Peter Ustinov); Kid Creole (1958, with Elvis Presley); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960); The Comancheros (1961, with John Wayne). Bette Davis was in six of his films; Cagney and Bogart in four each; Errol Flynn in seven. By any accounts, an impressive CV.
We’ve already looked at Humphrey Bogart (1898-1957), whose filmography career had really take off with The Maltese Falcon and now – much to his surprise – Casablanca also. He was paid $37,000. Playing opposite him, as the love interest, was the self-confessed “tall, Swedish, Lutheran” Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982), with a filmography from 1932 to 1978, theatre work 1940 to 1978, and television from 1959 to 1982. She plays Ilse Lund, Norwegian wife to Victor Laszio, who Rick met in Paris in 1940 when she thought her husband was dead. The wonderful Bogart line: “I remember Paris. You wore blue, the Germans wore grey.” In looks Ingrid could be compared to her fellow Swedish actress, Greta Garbo (1905-1990), if not in temperament, or Garbo’s contemporary, German-born Marlene Dietrich (1904-1982). She was one of that collection of incredibly beautiful actresses, like Grace Kelly or Deborah Kerr. And, perhaps rather like Grace – if to a lesser extend with Deborah Kerr – she had a reputation of having romantic/sexual relationships with her leading male co-stars. Over time she was linked to Spencer Tracey, Gary Cooper, Victor Fleming, the musician Larry Alder, Anthony Quinn, the photographer Robert Capra, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant…to name but a few. The exception was Bogart. The first problem perhaps was Ingrid was several inches taller, and, the story goes, when filming together, Bogart wore 3 inch wooden platforms tied to his shoes. One of the reasons Ingrid liked working with Gary Cooper was that she “didn’t have to film barefooted”. Romantic as she and Bogart were on-screen, immediately the cameras stopped rolling, he blanked her, going off to play chess on his own. Not that Bogart – in keeping with most others in his profession – was particular celibate or not into infidelity, but at that time he was going through a particularly bad period with wife Mayo Methot (1904-1951), herself a film and stage actress, who he had married in 1938. It was the third marriage for both, having met while filming Marked Woman, with Bette Davis (1937). Both were into heavy drinking, but Mayo often became violent under the influence of alcohol, and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. What were called “gin-fuelled rages” often ended in violence, committed by both. However, even after Bogart began his affair with 19 year old Lauren Bacall in 1943, there still followed separations and reconciliations until a final divorce in May 1945, Bogart marrying Bacall just days later. Thereafter Mayo’s career declined due to her alcoholism (which eventually was her cause of death) and depression. However, it is noteworthy that Bogart continued to send flowers to her crypt until his own death in 1957. Ingrid herself was married three times, and won three Oscars, for Gaslight (1944); Anastasia (1956); and Best Supporting Actress in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). She was named as the ‘Fourth Greatest Screen Legend Actress’ by the American Film Institute, after Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn, but in front of Garbo at fifth, Marilyn Monroe at sixth, Elizabeth Taylor at seventh, Dietrich at nineth, and Grace Kelly at thirteenth. Bogart tops the greatest actor’s list. Initially other actresses had been considered for her role of Ilse Lund, including Ann Sheridan (1915-1967); Hedy Lamarr (Austrian/German, 1914-2000); Louise Rainer (another Swede, 1910-2014); and Michéle Morgan (French, 1920-2016). Producer Hal Wallis got Bergman from David O. Selznick on an exchange loan of Olivia de Haviland. Bergman’s salary for the movie was $25,000.
Playing the role of Czech resistance hero (and husband to Ilse), Victor Laszlo, was Austrian-born actor Paul Henreid (1908-1992), born in Trieste, then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He left Germany in 1935 (he was later officially designated an “enemy of the Reich”), moving first to Britain, then to the USA in the late-1930s, and, in 1939, played the German school teacher Staefel in Goodbye Mr Chips. He was employed by RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM, and later Columbia Pictures. His career profile lists actor, director, producer, writer. In the filming of Casablanca he comes across as boorish and rather arrogant, demanding equal billing to Bogart and Bergman, the former he considered a “mediocre actor” and the latter a “prima donna” – not how to make movie friends, Paul! Like Bergman he was paid $25,000, less than Bogart, which perhaps rankled him greatly. Despite being avowed anti-Nazi, he was also later opposed to the early-1950s House Un-American Activities Committee show-trails, and was subsequently – along with so many others – thereby falsely blacklisted as a “communist”. In defiance, Alfred Hitchcock hired him to appear in his television Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He continued movie work in France and the UK, and in other television series after his blacklist status was removed.
British/London-born Claude Rains (full name William Claude Rains, 1889-1967, US citizen from 1939) played the somewhat roguish, cynical French gendarme prefect of police, Captain Louis Renault, who shifts his colours from supporting the neo-fascist Vichy regime and their Nazi masters in Morocco, to that of the Free French – or so we assume. He is unscrupulous, but charming, and – while the Hollywood Code put strict limitation on saying so explicitly, he obviously sold favours such as visas out of Morocco to neutral Portugal in exchange for sex with the pretty women, even if they are married. However, throughout the movie, Renault is friendly to Rick. Rains was another stage, as well as movie, actor, his theatre work was from 1900 to 1956, filmography from 1920 to 1965. Initially he moved to the USA in 1913, returning to the UK at the outset of the First World War. In action at Vimy, on the Western Front in 1916, he suffered disability following a gas attack, which left him with a 90% loss of vision in his right eye. One of his other best known early movies back in America, was as Griffin, in the 1933 Hollywood movie version of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, with director James Whale. He later appeared, again Bogart, Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, as sea Captain Freychet in Passage to Marseilles (1944), and with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). His domestic life was rather chaotic, being married six times, his last wife predeceasing him, after which he remained single, eventually retiring to be a ‘gentleman farmer’ at his 380-acre Stock Grange Farm, Pennsylvania. However, he, too, was a chronic alcoholic, who eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver.
German-born Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), another genuine refugee from the Nazi regime, played Major Heinrich Strasser. He had fled Germany in 1933 soon after marrying his Jewish wife, Ilona Prager. His filmography was from 1917 to 1943. Sadly, this was his penultimate film, as he died from a heart condition soon after. He was a heavy smoker. We have already discussed British actor Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954), who played Signor Ferrari, owner of the rival Moroccan bar, the Blue Parrot, and a black-marketeer, who also sells visas. Likewise, another from The Maltese Falcon, is Hungarian-German actor Peter Lorre (1904-1964), as Signor Ugate, part of the local criminal underworld, motivated only by profit, capable of murder – another Joel Cairo, in other words! Lorre made two films with Alfred Hitchcock, the original 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Secret Agent (1936), both during Hitchcock’s British period. In between, in 1935, he played the central character in director Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, based on the novel by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Throughout his subsequent career, he migrated back and forth from Britain and Hollywood, but became increasingly typecast into playing sinister, darker roles. From 1937 to 1939 he played Mr Moto, the crime-solving Japanese detective from the novels by John P. Marquand. Later appearances included in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944); The Beast With Five Fingers (1946); Around the World in Eighty Days (1956); Tales of Terror (1962); The Raven (1963); and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1964). Lorre was a heavy drinker and smoker, and following intestinal problems in the 1920s, he – like follow horror movie actor Bela Lugosi – became addicted to morphine. He died, age 59, of a stroke. He had formed something of a comradeship with fellow actors of the terror movie genre – Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee. For his role in Casablanca he was paid a mere $500.
Given that the story plot was about refugees trying to escape the Nazis, many of the cast were genuine refugees, which their own backstories and recent memories, and this gave added emotional impact to the movie’s ethos. The scene where ‘Victor Laszlo’ orchestrates the occupants of Rick’s Bar to sing La Marseillaise in competition to Major Strasser’s Germans singing Die Wacht on Rhein, the tears were for real. Originally the ‘Germans’ were to sing the Nazi anthem Horst Wessel Lied, but this was still under international copyright at the time. Casablanca probably had the most international, non-American cast for any Hollywood movie – only Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page (who played Annina Brandel, the young Bulgarian wife – she was the step-daughter of studio boss Jack L. Warner) were American by birth. Even Rick’s girlfriend, Yvonne, who he dumped as soon as Ilse reappeared, was played by French actress Madeleine Lebeau, who had fled Europe with her husband Marcel Dalio.
Casablanca’s ”wonderfully unified and consistent” script defy all expectations and logic. Starting with Burnett and Alison draft play, Wallis brought in scriptwriting twins Julius and Philip Epstein (1909-2000 and 1909-1952 respectively), but, having started, they then took a break to work with Frank Capra on his 1942 Why we Fight series. In the interval the film script was given over to Howard Koch (1901-1995), who apparently drafted between 30 and 40 pages before the Epstein brothers returned. Here there seems some confusion, perhaps prompted by individual egos, maybe most notably Koch. He claimed the Epstein brothers retained his work, either all or in part in the final story script. They claimed they never used what he wrote. It does seem that neither actually sat and worked together. The later interpretation would seem to be the Epsteins wrote the overall structure, the back-history of Rick and Ilse, and the ending, but that Koch worked on the politics, while yet another screenwriter, [Kenneth] Casey Robinson (1903-1979) worked – uncredited – for three weeks polishing the nitty-gritty of the Rick and Ilse Parisian romance and their subsequent dialogue after she walked into Rick’s Bar. In addition to a career as producer, scriptwriter and director, he was described as a “master of the art of adaption”, although his later assessment of the film was “sophisticated hokum”. In the Epstein/Koch debate, it would appear that the twins were paid $30,416 and Koch $4,200, so it is apparent which contribution to the end film was the greater. As for the myth that even the actors like Bogart and Bergman didn’t know the end, the Hollywood Code would have forbid married Ilse and former lover Rick having a ‘happy-ever-after’-style ending anyway – adultery was not rewarded in movies at that time! The only question was the fate of Victor, and how Rick would send Ilse away.
British film critic Barry Norman (1933-2017), in the chapter “Hollywood Goes To War” in his book Talking Movies, had much to say about the motives and myths of Casablanca. Having remarked that, in 1941, Howard Koch had co-written (with John Huston) the Gary Cooper First World War movie Sergeant York, about a former conscientious objector who – single-handedly – became a war hero, Norman continues: “A much greater exception to the rule that wartime pictures were not as good as they might have been given a little more boldness and imagination was one of the most splendid film of any era (and never mind such Pseuds’ Corner comments as Pauline Kael’s ‘the best bad movie ever made’) – Casablanca, which was made in 1942. It was set at a time when America had no part in the war and was aimed very largely at the appeasers. Humphrey Bogart’s line: ‘What time is it in New York? I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America’ has nothing to do with nostalgia for the nocturnal peace of his homeland. He is saying, ‘Wake up, America.’ And even by the time the film was made America was already wide awake and getting into the thick of the action, it was a timely reminder that the nation had done the right thing after Pearl Harbour. All manner of myths and legends have sprung up about the making of Casablanca – that the script was written while filming was already going on (true); that two alternative endings were shot (untrue); that when Bogart nodded approval for the Free French to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ and drown out the Germans he had no idea what he was nodding for but nodded simply because the director, Michael Curtiz, told him to (quite probably true), and that Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were both second choices, the originals having been Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan (quite appallingly true but at least indicating that someone up there in that Great Cutting Room in the Sky keeps a benevolent eye on the movies and is prepared occasionally to intervene and help wrestle triumph from the jaws of what would certainly have been disaster if the casting people had not had second thoughts). In the same way the film has been subjected to a variety of dotty interpretations, the most amusing being the friendship between Bogart’s Rick and Claude rain’s corrupt police chief is in fact homosexual. But this, of course, is merely the work of the Gay Mafia who are always trying to make us believe that everybody is really homosexual if only we’d all admit it.
Actually, according to Howard Koch, Warners had bought the story in the first place with the idea of casting George Raft and Hedy Lamarr but this never got beyond an idea because Raft turned it down. Koch himself was brought in to work on the screenplay after the Epstein brothers had been seconded to help out elsewhere in the war effort. He had two weeks with the Epsteins while they filled him in on where the story was going, as far as they could work it out, and then… ‘I was on the last stretch for the final script and working very often on the set with the actors and the director. And I think at this stage what we were trying to do was make an entertaining picture that would say something good politically.’ Two alternative endings may not have actually been shot but they were debated, he said, right up until the last moment. ‘I remember Ingrid Bergman coming to me on the set, when I was working with the actors, and saying “How can I play this love scene when I don’t know which man I’m going to end up with?” I made the best guess that I could, which was in line with the ending as it turned out, and I think she was happy with that approach.’ The alternatives were the romantic ending – Bogart going off with Bergman – or the one that was eventually chosen, the sacrifice – Bogart packing Bergman onto the plane with Paul Henreid and going off himself with Claude Rains, hence the homosexual theory. It would come as a surprise to Howard Koch to learn that there were homosexual undertones in a all this. Being merely the writer he saw the conclusion only in political terms – ‘anyone making a sacrifice, as Rick made one there, would be acting in a cause that was for the benefit of all human beings.’ One great advantage Casablanca enjoyed in being set in the period before Pearl Harbour was its lack of topicality. No matter what happened it could not be rendered out of date by events that occurred between the end of shooting and the premiere. For more standard war films the fear of becoming instantly irrelevant because of changing circumstances was very real. It was a problem that stayed around for obvious reasons, throughout the war, although naturally it did not stop movies with more topical subject matter being made.”
At the time of its release Casablanca was banned in the Irish Republic under the so-called neutrality rules, and was only shown – but still with cuts – in 1945. Even later, when shown on television as late as 1974, all the dialogue relating to Rick and Ilse’s love affair was cut – thereby, of course, leaving a large, illogical, plot hole! Oh dear, no Irish Catholic male would ever dream of having an affair with Ingrid Bergman, would they? As always with such silly censorship, what planet do these people live on? Obviously not the real world. Warner Bros did do an edited version for post-war West Germany in 1952, but again with all references to the Second World War and the Nazis removed – it was 25 minutes shorter – thereby totally changing (one might say, distorting and murdering) the story and characters. It was not until 1975 that the original plot was finally shown.
On the other hand, the thought of right-wing, second-rate actor Ronnie Reagan might have played Rick is more scary than such silly censorship! It would seem Barry Norman was only half-right about George Raft. The rivalry between Bogart and Raft was long-running, back at least to 1932, when both appeared in Scarface – Shame of a Nation. Over the years Raft became the Warner Bros poster-boy, to the extent that, in 1939, his average weekly pay was $5,500 to Bogart’s $1,250. However, he came to dislike playing gangsters (which role most people associated him with), in part because he had lots of friends who really were gangsters. While not really being very intelligent, he came to be extremely opinionated about plots and story lines, and this, eventually lead to his decline, as, time after time, he refused parts, quite a few of which then went to Bogart. Bogart had his own chip on the shoulder. He made 37 movies in eleven years, but, not only was he also typecast as the gangster or ne’er-do-well who gets shot or dead before the last reel, but also found himself constantly pushed down the billing on the movie poster – “also featuring: Humphrey Bogart”. When Raft turned down the lead role of Ray Earle in High Sierra (he didn’t like the ending), and Paul Muni, the other big name, was in conflict with the studio – which ended his career soon after – Bogart apparently telegraphed Hal Wallis saying he wanted the part – and he got it. Both Raft and Bogart then appeared in several mediocre movies (Raft himself had Bogart removed from performing in Manpower), before Raft again declined to take the Sam Spade role in The Maltese Falcon. His argument was it had already been filmed twice, the second of which bombed, and Huston was a “rookie director”. Yet again Bogart got the part, and stardom at last. Raft didn’t see it; his star was waning. In 1942 Raft turned down All Through the Night and Big Shot – Bogart got both. With Casablanca, the story seemed to be studio boss Jack Warner sent a memo to Hal Wallis, asking if Raft was to play Rick. Wallis replied, no, the part was written with Bogart in mind. And that would appear to be it. In 1943 Raft featured in a sort of Casablanca rip-off, Background to Danger, set in Turkey, with Greenstreet and Lorre. It flopped. His final big movie break came when Billy Wilder reluctantly approached him to play the lead in the 1944 Double Indemnity, after a long list of rejections by bigger, better names. Wilder regarded Raft as “scrapping the bottom of the barrel”. Raft, who was semi-illiterate, listened as Wilder read the script, then demanded a completely different plot. The part finally went to Fred MacMurray. Still seemingly unaware he was sabotaging his career, Raft made it through the mid-1940s (his annual earnings in 1946 was $108,000), but the decline set by the late-1940s, still refusing good parts that went to other actors. By the time he died at 1980, age 85, his income was $800 a month, comprising social security and pension. He did get to sleep with some of the top Hollywood actresses of the time – Dietrich, Bankhead, Carole Lombard, Mae West, Betty Gabel, and Norma Shearer – and outlive his ‘arch-rival’ Bogart, by a considerable number of years.
Max Steiner, who wrote the overall musical score, disliked the song As Time Goes By, sung by Dooley Wilson as Rick’s best friend Sam. It had been included in the original play, being a Burnett favourite. It was written by Herman Hupfield (1894-1951), for the Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome in 1931, when it was sung by Frances Williams. Several versions were made 1931-32, one in particular by Rudy Valée. Dooley Wilson was a drummer and couldn’t play piano, which was by studio pianist Jean Vincent Plummer instead. Steiner thought it a “schmucky song”, and wanted it cut from the final movie, but instead it became the film’s leitmotif running throughout, and, of course (as no doubt intended in the original play script) the memory-link back to Rick and Ilse in Paris.
Hal Wallis’s falling out with Warner Brothers Studio came following the Academy ceremony, when Casablanca received the 1943 Best Picture Award. As producer, Wallis stood up to go on stage to collect the trophy, only to be “blocked by the entire Warner family” while studio boss Jack L. Warner rushed up to bask in the fame and glory – despite that he had had little interest or connection to the movie until then. Wallis was humiliated and angry, remaining so even forty years later. He left Warner Bros a few weeks later. Their loss, but Warner Bros were not the best of studio, or bosses. Jack (Jacob Wamer, 1892-1979) was the co-head of production as well as film exec., and longest lived of the four brothers – Sam Warner (1887-1927), Harry (Hirsz Moje?ese Wonsal, 1881-1958) and Albert (Aaron Wonsal, 1884-1967). Jack Warner retired in 1973.
Inevitably there are a number of factual boobs in Casablanca – not least in that the ‘Letters of Transit’ was a complete MacGuffin, created by Joan Alison in the original play, having no basis in fact. Following the fall of France in June 1940, French Morocco was under control of the Vichy until 1942. As the exiled leader of the Free French, based in London, General de Gaulle would have been persona non grata, while the Vichy-appointed Delegate-General in North Africa, General Weygand (1867-1965), was dismissed from his post by the Vichy government in November 1941. However, at no time were any German troops stationed in French Morocco during the Second World War. After 1942 Morocco passed under the control of the Allied Powers, eventually predominately the Americans. On the other hand, Victor Laszlo turning up in Casablanca, he would probably have been arrested, although we could argue Captain Renault preferred not to, hoping simply to get him out of the country!
Contemporary suggestions of sequels, and/or remakes never really happened, although – as we have seen – there were plenty of inferior rip-offs. In 2012 there was talk of a sort of sequel, proposed by Cass Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner, who was also a friend of the then late Howard Koch, in which the “illegitimate son” of Rick and Ilse is searching for his biological father – boring! As always, decades later, with possible sequels (the long-awaited sequel to Gone With The Wind is a case in point), the original actors and actresses are aged or dead – mostly dead. Who could play the Bogart and Bergman roles now? Maybe CGI eventually. Until then….
Which brings us to Ted Turner’s totally misguided attempt at colorization of the great black and white movie classics – Casablanca included. We will look at this again with the needless colour version ‘remake’ of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but the question has to be: why? In fact, the response was mostly negative, with the colour version visually less interesting. Bogart’s son Stephen summed it up nicely: “If you’re going to colorize Casablanca, why not put arms on the Venus de Milo?”
What is it that makes Casablanca still a great movie, almost despite the odds? It is not just a love story. It is a story about loyalties and doing the right thing; about a man made cynical, but who is still basically right-minded and decent; who knows, no matter how bad things are now, they are going to get a lot worse before they get better. It’s about the little people rather then heroes or heroics. In war, or living under a tyranny, it is the ordinary people just trying to survive, day by day. Despite the factual flaws, there is an authenticity there, while the dialogue – whether it be from the original play, or written by the Epstein brothers or Howard Koch – is believable, mundane to the magnificent, memorable and quotable, holding the film and the characters together.

Film 2021: Justice Society – World War II


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Sadly, summers come to an end, even if September Sunday mornings are bright and blue, and so do summer seasons. I’m ending this brief run as it began, with a DC Animated Universe film, this time a very recent one (April, 2021) featuring my favourite DC characters of all time, the Justice Society of America. This is only the second of DC’s animated films I’ve ever bought, and it’s fun.

I ought to feel short-changed, given that the Justice Society of this film consists of only four characters – The Flash, Hourman, Hawkman and Black Canary, led by Wonder Woman, though there’s also an appearance by an unidentified Doctor Fate – but I’m not. It’s good enough to know that the JSA can be made the heroes of a ninety minute film without stretching commerciality by demanding that the audience get their heads around a dozen unfamiliar characters all at once.

Even then, the film has to ameliorate its somewhat esoteric subject by using a major modern character as our introduction to these strangers. After a newsreel-style opening, mostly black-and-white, to echo the time period of the film (including President Roosevelt, a nod to the JSA’s comic book origin) and introduce our principal cast, we switch to a bright, colour emphasised moden day. Barry Allen and Iris West are in Metropolis for the day for a picnic in the park, interrupted by Barry’s need to race off and help Superman in an attack by Brainiac, during which The Flash grabs a kryptonite bullet and gets catapulted through a psychedelic tunnel (aided it seems by Doctor Fate) and is catapulted into a Justice Society battle with Nazis in a village in France.

After being treated as an enemy by Wonder Woman, who assumes this red-clad figure must be a Nazi superhero, because she doesn’t know who he is, Barry-Flash settles in to help.

The story isn’t really that important. At times it’s not much more than a set-up for action sequences. I don’t recognise either of the writers’ names as being involved in comics writing so perhaps it’s not that surprising that there are few memorable things about the plot, but its the little details along the way that are excellent: either Jeremy Adams and Meghan Fitzmartin are very well read up on JSA history or they’ve had some very precise advice given to them in writing this.

The story is basically that the JSA have been formed as a covert action team, under deep cover, to hunt out the various magical artefacts the Nazis are collecting. They’re on the trail of one such when Barry-Flash buts in. It involves an untranslatable code that can only be translated by an insane man who, despite not being named, is evidently Kent Nelson, aka Doctor Fate. The translation gives coordinates for the Bermuda Triangle so the team head of there in a US submarine. They find an outpost of Atlantis, and its King, Aquaman, who they seek to persuade into the War on behalf of the Allies, but Arthur is already under the hypnotic control of an unnamed Advisor (whose provenance, if any I am completely ignorant of) and is a Nazi sympathiser.

Atlantis then attacks a skyscrapered city on the Easterrn seaboard, using massive undersea monsters, until his hypnotic control is broke. at which point he withdraws. A bomber attacked is talken apart by a very familiar figure, appearing in costume for the first time ever, namely Superman. Once the attack is defeated, Barry Flash is sent back home, where he proposes to Iris.

You get the idea: this is not one of the great superhero stories but this is one where the devil is in the details, which are much more fun. Obviously, it conforms to no known Justice Society continuity from the comics, and once I would have been gloweringly resentful of all the ‘mistakes’ it contains, but no longer.

For instance: there’s some nicely teasing nods to where the JSA fit into the DC Universe. To begin with, Barry Flash assumes he’s merely gone back in time, and expresses concern and amazement that he’s never heard of the Justice Society, opening up concerns that Black Canary voices, they they are doing all this but will be totally forgotten. That’s the modern day status, that the JSA are/were the heroes of an earlier generation – the real world situation – but then there’s a twist when Barry Flash realises that he may be in the past, but not the past of his Earth. The JSA are the heroes of a parallel world, a lovely nod to their pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths status, which leads to a brief discussion of Multiversal Theory among the scientists of the team, Jay Flash and Hourman. Best of all, Jay Flash assumes that their world is Earth-1, and what’s more he’s the one clued in about the Speed Force, not Barry.

To many of you this is probably barely comprehensible, an overlong focusing upon the bark that obscures the view of the tree, let alone the forest but to me this is the fun of it. There are other details that are glorious touches, such as equipping Aquaman with yellow, not green gauntlets, which is the correct distinguishing feature between the Forties version and the modern era and tje discussion about life-partners between Hawkman and Black Canary, in which she dismisses her detective friend, Larry, as not thinking he’s the one.

But what’s best about the film is the relationship between Wonder Woman, Diana of Themiscyra, and Steve Trevor. She’s so far above him, and mostly she acts it, but he doesnn’t mind. As far as he’s concerned, a goddess has come into her life and isn’t he gloriously happy for it? He proposes every day, she refuses him every day, but it doesn’t bother him. It’s a mixture of his love being big enough to contain both of them and the underlying knowledge that yes, she really does love him too: she lets him prpose every day without kicking his butt from here to Tartarus, doesn’t she?

In a film such as this, which can tell a real story without worrying about having characters available for next month, and in a real War there are and can be casualties. Hawkman, who has not met his liveslong love in this incarnation, is killed: he is philosophical about it, because he knows he will be back. More significantly, Steve Trevor is also killed. In his own, honest and clear way, he too is philosophical. This is a War. You don’t get a guarantee on tomorrow and anyway he’s died doing something he believed in, something important and right. And she did l;ove him. She agrees to fulfil his dying wish, to take his ring, though there is not enough time or life for Steve to put it on hier finger.

Instead, she gives the ring to Barry Flash, to take home with him, telling him not to waste his life on fears of what might happen tomorrow. So Barry goes home, to the very second he left, and completes saving Superman. His experience has taught him the vbalue of teamship, and he proposes what will become the Justice League. Better yet, he gives Steve’s ring to Iris: it signals a marriage, and cheaply sentimental though it might be to say this, you know the Steve Trevor of this film would have approved.

What made this film so enjoyable is the very point I’ve been trying to articulate this year. Super powers are fun, and this story was fun. It had its darkness, its loss, but it also presented light to balance against the shade, which is precisely what we no longer get. It reminded me very firmly of what I’ve always enjoyed for so many years.

And I have to praise the voice cast, who were uniformly brilliant. Wonder Woman was voiced by Stana Katic, using a slight foreign accent, with a near-distant dignity, and Barry by Matt Bomer (Larry Trainor in Doom Patrol) as an eager, fresh, excited kid. Much praise too to Armen Taylor (Jay), Elysia Rotaru (Black Canary) and especially Chris Diamontopoulus as Steve Trevor.

If they do a sequel to this film, I’ll buy it. As it is, there are a lpot of DC Animated films out there and I do wonder wometimes. They don’t get the money spent on them that the live action films do, but they’ve more options available to them, and they’re aiming for an audience outside of the jaded diehards, so they’ve room to be broader in range. But I’m still cagey about watching more of them. A dichotomy on which to end this summer season.

Having run out of films again, next Sunday will be back to Sunday Watch and its mix of TV programmes, leaning heavily on sitcoms, of which I’ve got two brand new complete box sets to try out, so that’s the next two Sundays booked up. Join me.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Movies – 6. The Maltese Falcon


Maltese

6: THE MALTESE FALCON : 1941. Director: John Huston. USA. Crime caper. Humphrey Bogart. Mary Astor. Peter Lorre. Sydney Greenstreet. Elisha Cook jr.
The producer was Hal B. Wallis, who we will met again with another Bogart movie, Casablanca. It was adapted from the 1930 novel of the same name by crime writer (Samuel) Dashiell Hammett, this was the third – and definitive – movie version by the Warner Brothers studio, who had acquired the film rights. The first version – later retitled The Dangerous Female – was made in 1931, and starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and Bebe Daniels in the Mary Astor role. While it adhered closely to the novel, it had a lighter, looser pace, and – being pre-Code – was more blatant with the book’s homosexual subtext of the three male villains, later played by Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook. Its playtime was 80 minutes. The next WB version – and most agree, the worst – was titled Satan Met a Lady, made in 1936, and starred Warren William and Bette Davis, with director William Dieterle. Playtime was 75 minutes. Davis hated it, and called it “junk”. The entire story was greatly changed, names, gender (in the case of the ‘Fat Man’) and the McGuffin, which became the jewel-filled fabled horn of the early medieval Frankish warrior Roland (died 778), rather than the gem-encrusted falcon statuette created by the Malta-based Knights of St. John. Described as a “cynical farce”, others quickly dabbed it an “inferior remake”. The Time Out review says it doesn’t bear comparison to the 1941 Huston version, but is still, for the most part, “enjoyable and quirkily funny”. Otherwise, perhaps less said the better. Apparently it flopped at the box office – in retrospect, deservedly so.
For the third WB version, the young, first-time director John Huston (1906-1987, previously he had been a writer and scriptwriter), went back to the book, although now more constrained by the self-censorship pseudo-morality of the Hollywood Code. Therefore the book’s more open implications of prostitution or homosexuality were out, and could only be hinted at in the most subtle way. Despite this apparent handicap, Huston came up with a cracking script (much of it lifted directly from the book), but what really makes this version, not only the best of the three, but one of the greatest movies ever, are the actors – Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade; Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo; Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, aka the ‘Fat Man’; Elisha Cook jr. as Wilmer Cook; and Mary Astor as Ruth Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy; together with Lee Patrick as Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine. This was the film that finally made Bogart’s reputation, and which even he conceded was “practically a masterpiece”, and one of the few things he was proud of. Humphrey DeForest Bogart (1899-1957) was partly of distant Dutch descent, and apparently born on the 25th December. Later, he was subject to many dubious legends, mostly created by Warner Brothers, so even his ‘official’ birthday was moved to January. In 1918-19 he had briefly served in the US Navy, before following a career in theatre (and principally Broadway) from 1921 to 1930 when he moved to Hollywood. But he was not to find real success until 1936, when he starred in The Petrified Forest. Warner Brothers had wanted Edward G. Robinson as lead, but this was resisted by co-star Leslie Howard (who held the production rights), who insisted “No Bogart, no deal.” For the next five years Bogart was rather typecast with dark, menacing roles, mostly gangsters. Despite this initial success, he was often in dispute with the studio. But then WB, with the thoroughly unlikeable Jack Warner as head, was something of a shoestring studio anyway compared to MGM, often treated their most talented stars appallingly, but somehow managed to produce a succession of great movies. Again the studio had offered the role of Sam Spade to George Raft, who turned it down because Huston was an unknown director. This was one of a number of times when Raft’s career decisions worked to his personal disadvantage, but to the long-term pleasure and delight of the movie-goer and cinema fan. By contrast Bogart and Huston immediately clicked, and the rest was down to Bogie’s “sharp timing and facial expressions”, acting talent, and a top-notch script. Apparently, when Ingrid Bergman (who had a bit of a reputation for sleeping with her male leads) was cast to appear in Casablanca, she watched The Maltese Falcon over and over to learn how to “act and interact” with Bogart. Later she was reputed to remark how she had kissed Bogart, but never got to know him.
For Dashiell Hammett – himself a former private detective with the Pinkerton detective Agency in San Francisco – while other characters were apparently based on real people, Sam Spade was the idealised gumshoe. It’s no coincidence that ‘Samuel’ was Hammett’s own first name. British film critic Barry Norman, in his book Talking Movies, said this of Bogart’s interpretation: “As Spade he developed the sardonic, suspicious, untrusting character whom he was to portray again in slightly different guises in such pictures as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and Key Largo; an amoral, unshockable type who expected little of life or his fellow man, but who, at heart, was on the side of the angels.”
But this was a collective effort. Peter Lorre (1904-1964) was born Lászió Löwenstein, a Hungarian of Jewish descent, who moved to Hollywood in 1934. He had starred in the Fritz Lang classic M, and throughout his career played on his rather ‘creepy’ image and vaguely sinister voice. This was his first movie with Bogart and Greenstreet, and his duration with Warner Brothers lasted from 1941 to 1946. In 1954 he played the villain Le Chiffre in a television version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, while later he featured in many of the Roger Corman horror or fantasy films. Sydney Hughes Greenstreet (1879-1954) was a British theatrical actor, who had first performed in the USA as long ago as 1905, featuring in anything from musical comedy to Shakespeare. At age 61, The Maltese Falcon was his first movie, while his last movie was in 1949, although he did radio work in 1950-51. He suffered from diabetes and Bright’s disease. Mary Astor (1905-1987) was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, of German and Portuguese descent, and her movie career had began in the 1920s. With the coming of ‘talkies’, her career was briefly on hold as her voice was thought “too masculine”, but soon picked up again, only to suffer another blip in 1936, with the negative publicity following her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman (1889-1961), when she was branded the “adulterous wife”. She was married four times. Despite struggling with alcohol problems, her career had another resurge in the 1950s. Elisha Cook jr., (1903-1995) had an acting career in movies and television from 1926 to 1988, mostly specialising in “cowardly villains and neurotics” or, as he got older, dim-witted cranks.
Also featured, but uncredited, was John Huston’s father, Walter Huston (1883-1950, Canadian singer and actor), as Captain Jacoby, who staggers into Spade’s office clutching the falcon, only to die straightway of gunshot wounds. Son John deliberated insisted on over twenty takes.
The movie was premiered in October 1941, and was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture; Sydney Greenstreet as Best Supporting Actor; and John Huston as writing the Best Adapted Screenplay. The falcon itself – supposedly a gem-encrusted statuette to be presented by the grateful Knights of St. John to the King of Spain – was sculptured by Fred Sexton, and based on a 1697 hawk statue by Georg Wilhelm von Kniphausen, now part of the Chatsworth House collection. It stood 11.5 inches (29cm) high. One metal falcon sold at auction in 1984 for $398,000; but the one used in the film sold in 2013 for over $4million.
Warner’s plan for a sequel, The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, never materialised – perhaps thankfully. Bogart featured in a radio adaption with the CBS Silver Theatre in February 1942. In 1975 there was a so-called comedy sequel, entitled The Black Bird, starring George Segal as ‘son of Sam’, Sam Spade jr., with Elisha Cook and Lee Patrick reappraising their old roles. Again, less said the better!
Again the Time Out film review talks of the Huston version having a “vein of unease missing from the two previous versions,” and how it “portrays a claustrophobic world animated by betrayal, perversion and pain.” Not only is it a movie classic – in my opinion one of the best movies ever, equal perhaps only to Casablanca – but one of the all-time greats of the film noir genre.
Again, I’m an unashamed film noir fan. There are a number of motifs that appeal – urban streets and backstreets; night-time; rain reflections on wet tarmac or paving stones; hotels and motels; shabby offices; clever (if sometimes dangerous) women; policemen or gumshoes, just the kind of people who specialise in ferreting out dark secrets or uncomfortable truths. It comprises an underworld, mostly hidden behind the sham of daylight and so-called safe normality. It has its own rules, code and argot. Traditionally regarded as quintessential American, but many of the above elements can be traced back to early German Expressionist cinema – Lang’s M would be an example of 1920s noir. But equally French writers like George Simenon’s Maigret novels – the 1931 The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, aka Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, could easily be classified as early noir; also Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma novels (set in the 1940s to 50s) are Parisian noir. And, indeed, the 1940s and ‘50s are most associated with film noir, although the term was only coined in 1946 by French critic Mino Frank. Crime and gangster movies were already popular throughout the 1930s, but the orthodox view is the first film noir movie was Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940 from the RKO Studio, again with Hungarian émigré Peter Lorre. At the time it bombed, losing $56,000, and was regarded as too arty and/or too humdrum. The golden age of film noir certainly lasted into the 1950s, when perhaps it gave way to Cold War-inspired science fiction ‘B’ movies. But it never really went away. Raymond Chandler movies continued to be made, notably with Robert Mitchum inheriting something of Bogart’s mantel. Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown (in colour, but set in 1930s L.A.) featured an aged John Huston as the villain, Jack Nicolson as the hapless gumshoe. Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver also had noir elements, while Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is futuristic science fiction noir, even in the original release having Harrison Ford’s narrator voiceover. Although there are a few examples of British film noir, strangely they aren’t the same. We prefer straight crime capers, cops and robbers, comedy crime, or the Agatha Christie/Ruth Rendell-type murder whodunnit. Another reason I liked the story was Hammett’s clever mix of historical fact with his own plot fantasy – the Knights of St. John; the annual gift of a falcon to their feudal overlord, the King of Spain, in whose possession Malta than was, the Knights having been driven out of their previous stronghold of Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. The idea is clever, and quite plausible.
My own commentary made 27/12/1987.
The Maltese Falcon is one of, if not the best Bogart movies, as Sam Spade, P.I. Bogart, tough, streetwise but somehow loveable, talking and sometimes fighting his way in and out of trouble. John Huston directed – and the dialogue, characters, story-line, are all brilliant, probably because it adhered lovingly to original Dashiell Hammett novel. Made in 1941, it was streets ahead of almost anything at that time. This is Bogart at his best, and movie-making with the stroke of genius. Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, etc., take note. A trashy film is not made better with a $100million budget, flashy gadgets, big set and a cast of thousands. Huston and Hitchcock made brilliant films on a small cost, low budget and just damned good scriptwriters and actors. Did Bogart really only play the Sam Spade character just the once? Somehow the portrait is so powerful that you feel you know him better than – well, real people. You want to know more about him, his late partner’s wife and his intelligent blonde secretary.
Their relationship could have been another fascinating story. She is Sam’s right hand, capable, all-knowing about Sam’s affairs, more so than his deceased partner. She is a fascinating character herself, vivid and extraordinary like Sam, but somehow very American, and very believable.
“You are a character, sir,” says the wickedly immoral English villain, the Fat Man, “Yes, if I may say so, a character.” Sam is clever, ruthless but not without a code, without his own morality. He is more rounded and human than Holmes, more down to earth than Lord Peter Whimsy, more believable than Miss Marple or Poirot, less of a fascist thug than Mike Hammer. At the end he is wholly Bogart, that face, that voice, that period.

Film 2021 – The Hours


The Hours

I dunno.

When you buy a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, you create a certain expectation of what you are about to watch. I deliberately did not read much about the film before watching it: I have a passion for coming to things with the least amount of foreknowledge possible, so that I can experience all of it without preconceptions, just like film and television used to be: a completely fresh experience.

So I knew only vaguely what The Hours was about, that the three stars played women in different time periods, and that Nicole Kidman played the novellist Virgina Woolf but that Streep and Moore played fictional characters. There’s a conventional approach to such a film that the subject matter dictates. The screenplay will flit, sometimes seemingly capriciously, between the three characters, that the events that affect them will each be individual but that there will be parallels and reflections throughout, experiences shared in differing forms. And that was what The Hours delivered.

The acting was of the highest quality, as you might expect. I am constitutionally incapable of mentioning Nicole Kidman without a comment as to her prettiness, but there was none of that in this film, and all the better for it: indeed, there were times, and many of them, that I stopped noticing that Mrs Woolf was being portrayed by her and was watching Virginia Woolf, the novellist, the disturbed woman who, after previous attempts, killed herself by weighing down the pockets of her long, straight, flat dress with bricks and walking into the middle of a river.

That’s where the film begins and ends, in 1941. In a way, it creates a false expectation that the rest of the story refutes. In between, the film is firmly anchored to its respective time periods – 1925 for Kidman, 1951 for Moore as Californian housewife Laura Brown, and 2001 for Streep as editor Clarissa Vaughan in New York – and confines each to the events of a single day.

The key to the film is Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, which I have not read, nor any of her work. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more if I knew the book, because it is the theme to each story and the template for the film’s structure in staying within single days. Woolf begins to write it, the unhappy Laura, five months pregnant with her second child, is reading it, Clarissa is a modern-day Mrs Dalloway, and is addressed as such several timews by her friend and former lover, poet Richard Brown, dying of AIDS and about to be honoured by a celebrated Award: Clarissa is organising a party.

(A brief sidestep to the Wikipedia entry on the novel indicates just how much the film has taken from it, and how it is spread around among the three characters).

The problem with the film is pace. A film like this is never going to be fast-moving, full of action and contain melodramatic elements: these would be contradictory to its nature. But at the same time, for most of its first hour, and again in its later stages, The Hours is conspicuously slow, self-consciously slow, and the soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, is obtrusive and too loud. The acting is excellent, but there are many scenes where it is too noticeable: the camera will sit on characters’ faces whilst emotions wrestle with each other to decide which will speak the delayed dialogue. This is particularly so for Streep and Moore, and especially in the one scene they share. They are both brilliant but their acting calls attention to itself and breaks the hold the film has on you, if it has one at all.

Kidman, playing an Englishwoman in the Twenties, and a lady accustomed to good society, is much less conspicuous. Her role calls for her to be withdrawn, almost passive, her difficulties subsumed to a large extent into her ‘confinement’ in Richmond, a quiet town, thought to be ideal for giving her time, space and silence, avoid disturbance. But when she does erupt, on the railway station, in an argument with her devoted husband, Leonard, the scene is the highlight of the film. The stilted, literary dialogue feels altogether real and natural, the intensity, and the simple depth of Leonard’s love and fear for his wife is awesome.

Only one other scene matches the power of this. I’ll come to that momentarily, but let me speak for a moment of Laura, the housewife seemingly living the dream of 1951, a loving husband who’s devoted and a good provider, an All-American kid son (what an unbelievable performance by Jack Rovello, aged about 4), another on the way. But Laura is deeply unhappy, so much so that, after baking a beautiful cake for her oblivious husband’s birthday, she leaves her son – who gets called all sorts of names, from Bug through to little Richie, but who only once is addressed as Richard – with a childminder whilst she rents a hotel room with the intent of overdosing, but cannot do it. Little Richie is deeply affected by his fear that his mother will not return, even after she does.

You may remember that I mentioned Clarissa’s friend and ex-lover, Richard Brown, poet, with whom she is still in love? The film keeps the connection under its hat for a very long time but I twigged it the moment Riuchie was named Richard, about twenty-five minutes before the film tips its hand. It’s Richard who gets the film’s suicide, throwing himself from a window, which is the catalyst for Clarissa’s meeting with Laura, in heavy old-age make-up, revealing that after her daughter was born, she left her family, abandoning.

It’s this scene, where Richard’s intentions are plain from the outset, that is the only other dominant scene in the film.

There are other parallels between the characters’ lives, such as a hint of bi-sexuality, and other allusions, and there is a phenomenally strong supporting cast which includes Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Alison Janney, Claire Danes, Stephen Dillane and Ed Harris, but whilst the film is full of complexities, it is nevertheless very slow, determinedly slow, and it sets out to deter your investment in it over the first hour. It’s title is the last two words of the screenplay and is, of course, the working title for Mrs Dalloway.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Films – 5: Things to Come


1937-Things to Come

5: THINGS TO COME: 1936. Director: William Cameron Menzies. UK. Science fiction. Raymond Massy. Margaretta Scott. Ralph Richardson. Ann Todd.
Produced by Alexander Korda; scripted by H.G. Wells, supposedly adapted from his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come.
Like Metropolis this is best remembered for its city of the future, as portrayed in the second half, rather than the weak plot or rather two-dimensional characters. In fact, the movie bore little connection to the novel, which was overlong, sprawling, pretentious and rather boring. I bought, read, and discarded it as virtually unmemorable, except – as I vaguely recollect – for Wells’ unfulfilled prophecy that ever-taller tower-block buildings in London would eventually result in the clay subsoil collapsing – as if architectural engineers were a bunch of schoolboys! Nothing Wells wrote after 1910 was worth reading except for curiosity value. Everything became mere propaganda for his beloved semi-socialist, but ultimately boring and authoritarian, World State. In the years immediately leading up to the First World War, Wells had prophesied exactly the same global war social collapse as he did here again, this time his next World War starting at Christmas, 1940. Straightway the problem with the movie is inherent in Wells’ script, it’s naïve simplicity and lack of credibility. The ridiculous ‘Everytown’ is London – sort of – with the dome of St. Paul’s visible in the background. The idea of anti-aircraft ack-ack guns in the middle of the main shopping street is rather ludicrous. The fleets of bombers certainly reflected, and probably helped to exasperate, the fear at that time of mass destruction, complete cities laid waste, and the widespread use of poison gas or biological weapons on civilian populations. However, Olaf Stapledon had already written such a scenario in his 1930 book First and Last Men, going further in chronicling the total annihilation of the populations of Britain and Europe.
The middle sequence, in the ruins of ‘Everytown’, are brutal, but again rather simplistic, even in places not making a lot of sense. ‘Everytown’, we are told, was located in southern England – Wells never really reflected Britain also comprised Scotland, Wales, England north of the Watford Gap, or Ireland. Yet in 1970 – thirty years after the conflict began – Ralph Richardson’s local dictator, ‘The Boss’, is waging a war against the people of the ‘Floss Valley’ for coal and shale resources, and captures a colliery, supposedly to resurrect his ragtag fleet of pre-war biplanes – one, we know to be a 1930s Avro 504K. The nearest coalfield to the south of England is in Wales or the Midlands. Another blank spot in Wells’ world-view – strange for the man who wrote a two volume history of the world – was the Anglocentric nature of his ‘World Communications/Wings Over the World’ new civilisation, centred – rather bizarrely, given more recent real-life history – on Basra, in Iraq. There are no Africans or Arabs depicted, no Chinese or Americans, Indians, Australians or Russians. In retrospect, this is a rather Victorian resurrection of the ‘noble white man’. No women, of course – pacifying the hostile natives and bringing civilisation and remoulding the world, is a man’s job; women aren’t invited. With the easy-peasy defeat of The Boss (already abandoned by his moll, played by Margarette Scott), by the highly effective, but apparently non-lethal, sleeping-gas bombs – only the Boss dies, for reasons unexplained – why is he the only one allergic to gas? – the way is open for the new World State, and we fast-forward to 2036, and the glimmering, all-white, antiseptic, towering mega-city of the future, with its monorails and glass tubes, and just the occasional token tree. This is neither a futuristic New York nor Le Corbusier (who perhaps Wells had never heard of, him being Swiss-French), but maybe more like 21st century, stinking rich Dubai or Shanghai.
The film script naturally passes quickly over the undercurrent of opposition or discontent within this apparently wonderful utopia, stirred up (with comparative ease) by a latter-day ‘Luddite’ – a ‘sculptor’, of all people – who demands a ‘rest from progress’ – here symbolised by the launching of the first space-shot around the Moon – echoes of Jules Verne, or Wells’ own The First Men in the Moon. Given Verne wrote his From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, it is rather odd that Wells still proposed launching his manned spaceship from an enormous cannon, already something of questionable science. At about the same time a young Arthur C. Clarke and fellow members of the British Interplanetary Society were in the process of planning an near-Apollo-like moon mission, while the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and the American Robert Goddard (1882-1945) were already the early pioneers of rocketry. Once again, Wells, one-time prophet of the 20th century, had seemingly retreated to a Victorian vision of the 21st century.
At the end, the older Cabal figure (Raymond Massey) gives a speech envisaging mankind’s conquest of space – a concept still so beloved by would-be galactic colonists from J.B.S. Haldane to Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk. Wells’ influence over the production of the movie is exaggerated, although there are photographs of him on set, leering at Ann Todd in her 21st century ‘mini-skirt’. In fact many scenes in the original script were cut, or never filmed, and it was reduced from 130 minutes to 117 minutes, then 108 minutes, and later 98 minutes, resulting in a number of versions in existence – the UK version is 92 minutes 44 seconds, while the USA version is 96 minutes 31 seconds. The art design was by Vincent Korda, Alexander’s brother. I vaguely recollect a 1960s science book published by the Daily Express, which used stills from the movie to depict the future of one hundred years hence. The rather sterile, uncluttered interior sets – transparent tables and rigid, uncomfortable seating or reclining chairs, with exotic but strangely lifeless plants in pots – were still being touted as the ‘desirable’ future house interior into the 1960s and 70s, notably by the likes of husband and wife British architects Peter and Alison Smithson.

Film 2021: Jumanji – The Next Level


Jumanji

One more time.

Enjoying Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was never part of the plan. It was all the things I didn’t like in film (except Karen Gillan in crop-top, shorts and knee-length boots): big, noisy, action/adventure, pointless, and it was a video-game movie. But when I watched it, it was also fun. It was all of these things but it was also self-aware, to the extent that it could tease itself, recognise what it was, and send itself up to the right degree of seriousness. In short, it had learned the lesson of The Princess Bride superbly.

What do you do when a film works that well, and makes all that money? You sequel it. You do the same thing all over again, only different.

The Next Level isn’t quite as much fun for me, mostly because it is doing it again. The air of freshness I associate with Welcome to the Jungle can’t be duplicated, externally or internally. The four High School students, Spencer, Bethany, Fridge and Martha, are now at College, separated physically but still with that bond, except that Spencer, the most neurotic one of the bunch, has kinda sorta not actually broken up with Martha, the second most neurotic one, which sucks because even outside the game you knew these two worked, and not just for the unlikeliness of either of them working with anyone else.

Spencer’s depressed. He’s home for Xmas break but that means seeing Martha. His Grandpa Eddie (Danny De Vito) is staying with them, following hip surgery. He’s a cantankerous old git. Spencer has to share his room with him. Longing to feel the capabilities of his avatar in Jumanji, Dr Smolder Bravestone, he tries to fix the ruined game that he secretly retrieved after Fridge dropped a bowling ball on it, deliberately of course.

When he doesn’t turn up for the reunion, the other three come looking for him. They discover where he’s gone. Over Fridge’s extreme reluctance, they have to go in to get him out by winning the game again. Only Bethany gets excluded, and Grandpa Eddie gets sucked in as well, along with his ex-friend and ex-partner Milo Watson, who’s trying to reconcile with him. And once they’re in, Martha is Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) again, but everyone else is mixed up. Fridge is Shelley Oberon (Jack Black), Milo is Mouse (Kevin Hart) and Eddie is Braveheart (Dwayne Johnson).

It’s an opportunity for Johnson, Black and Hart to show off their chops by playing different characters, which suggests maybe that Karen Gillan wasn’t considered flexible enough to take on a different identity. Given that she is a good deadpan comedienne, I disagree. Rather, she provides the stable note, the one who has been here before, who understands things and who becomes the default leader, since Eddie, as Braveheart, really can’t get to grips with the idea of where he is.

Along the way, we pick up Spencer, whose avatar is Ming Fleetfoot, female pickpocket and cat burglar (Awkafina). Meanwhile, outside the game, Bethany – whose character travelled the furthest in the previous film and whose transformation seems to be pleasingly permanent – is frantic about trying to get in and help. She enlists the help of the only other Jumanji veteran left, Alex Vreeke, and the pair turn up, he as his old Avatar, Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas) and she as Cyclone, a black stallion (a flying one, incidentally).

There’s no need to comment upon the action. It’s more of the same, only different, and is the good, lively fun you’d expect, especially the floating rope bridges sequence, and it’s a pleasant game to see everyone playing at cross-purposes, but when the chance comes up to reshuffle avatars, putting the team back into their original roles, there’s a correspondingly warm senxse of recognition: now we can concentrate.

And the day is saved again. Spencer and Martha sort out their differences, or rather they sort out his differences. Eddie and Milo restore their friendship, though it is to some extent oin the back of a bit of sentimental twaddle, because Milo is dying and hasn’t long left, so when the Game is Over and the team have won again, since he’s ended up as Cyclone he decides to stay and be immortal.

It’s Happy Ending time once more except that, in mid-credits, there’s a sequence that suggests the game is still active, only this time one of its menaces has escaped into the real world…

The next sequel has been held up by the pandemic. I’m dubious about whether it can work. There is a shelf-life on franchise movies and three is usually the limit. The Producers can’t just go back to another plain video game: whatever they come up with to be at stake will most likely feel artiicial. And it’s done the shift-the-avatars bit, that’s now old. I hope they intend to follow more of a Jumanji-outside approach, which would give a new angle to things. Either way, there are at least two well-made films of mindless entertainment to enjoy. Not everything has to be deep and meaningful. But come up with a better title, please!