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Mein Leben für Irland

Sure and be-Goebbels
Max Kimmich was a hack writer of adventure screenplays who had failed in Hollywood in the Twenties but found a niche back in Germany when more talented men were driven into exile after 1933. Marrying Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels's youngest sister gave him an edge in the biz by grinding out anti-British stories-- about as perfunctory and patronising to their audiences' intelligence as the typical post-war Red-baiting script from Hollywood.

'The Fox of Glenarvon' (1940) had demonstrated, via Kimmich, the Nazis' tender solicitude for the liberties of small nations: specifically Ireland. In 'My Life for Ireland' next year Kimmich came up with a story so inept and ahistorical that it makes American pabulum look like Edward Gibbon. One doubts that Goebbels, a sophisticated analyst of politics, saw it as more than prolefeed.

To take only the first scene: we are told this is 'Dublin' in 1903. Now as far as I know the Irish capital is not an isolated peasant's hut in what looks like a small studio rain forest. I do know that by 1903 Ireland was quieter than for many centuries. The Potato Famine and the widespread evictions that followed were long past.

Thanks to a combination of carrot and stick by the United Kingdom government, and increasing integration of Ireland into the economy and political system with deliberate over-representation in Parliament, the Irish were tending to become what some derided as 'West Britons'. Would-be revolutionaries were in despair of attaining Home Rule, far less fullblown independence.

The Irish government had a highly effective espionage network which detected no dangerous dissatisfaction. It is the quiescent land depicted by Joyce in 'Ulysses', not that of David Lean and Robert Bolt in 'Ryan's Daughter. But according to Kimmich, an armed struggle was in progress, and the English were still evicting bankrupt tenants-- commanded by a portly 'sheriff' who dies leading an unarmed charge on the rebels.

His troops are 'English' policemen-- seemingly the Royal Irish Constabulary has been stood down. The rebels, who have been blazing away without worrying if they hit the hovel's native inhabitants, are caught. All are sentenced to death within 24 hours by a military court apparently composed exclusively of Brigade of Guards officers. The condemned are hung on 'short drop' gallows (actually done away with half a century earlier), escorted to their doom by soldiers in bearskins. Any resemblance to due process of law in peacetime Edwardian Britain is entirely accidental.

The rebel leader is allowed to marry his sweetheart shortly beforehand in an obvious echo of Joseph Plunkett in the 1916 Easter Rising. Her being already pregnant with his son hardly consorts with middle-class Irish Catholic morality of the times. It does, though, suit the current Nazi wartime rhetoric about tolerating illegitimacy to restock the race.

Eighteen years later the situation becomes more baffling. The son is now being educated and brainwashed at an English-style public school; the oppressive government has decided to convert the sons of rebels instead of marginalising them. Yet the country is still seething according to the cowardly VC winner 'Sir George', played like a typical Prussian junker complete with monocle. Cue the next generation of heroic liberation struggle, begun on the playing fields of 'St Edward's College'.

Back on boring old Planet Reality, by 1921 most of Ireland had already become the Irish Free State. There certainly were ructions, more than in the preceding independence struggle of 1916-20; but they were due to civil war between different factions of the Irish Republican Army. The English had packed up and left. Twenty years seems rather a short spell in which to have forgotten the chronology.

Ah well, perhaps this farrago distracted a few Fritzes and Friedas while the RAF was hitting back and Hitler was preparing to attack the Soviet Union. It may well be that audiences in some of the small countries Adolf had introduced to the blessings of the New Order sympathised with the Irish of the movie in the wrong way, identifying the oppressors with Germany. But it might have tickled cynical cinema-goers more to know what the Fuhrer had in mind for the object of Kimmich's solicitude.

In 1916 Hitler's predecessor, the Kaiser, had promised help to the leaders of the Rising, then left them in the lurch. Hitler despised the reactionary Catholic regime of the Free State and had ordered his generals to frame plans for a protective occupation if it showed any signs of softening towards the Allies... for which they contemptuously assigned just two battalions of the Wehrmacht.

The Nazis not only cried crocodile tears for the Irish; they did not rate their fighting prowess very highly. But after the Battle of Britain, any stick would do to try to portray the Reich's undefeated enemy as the really cruel tyrant.

The Fighting Kentuckian

Babe and Duke: odd couple that clicked
By 1949 Laurel and Hardy were all but finished (we don't talk about 'Atoll K') but Oliver Hardy, always hard up, needed to work. Hence this unique but worthwhile turn as a genial Southron in George Waggner's middling-good oater.

John Wayne-- Republic's chief asset and now his own producer-- and Vera Hruba Ralston, its boss's wife-- were co-starring in a slightly unusual western. It is set in 1819, heyday of Andrew Jackson's 'manifest destiny' expansionism. French settlers in the Deepest South, Napoleonic exiles, were slogging it out with English-speakers for the ownership of a bit of Creole country.

Wayne and Hardy, attired like Davy Crocketts, are teamed as old Kentuckian pals, veterans of the Battle of New Orleans. Now they're on the loose in Alabama and (since this was still the gallant, humorous Wayne of post-'Stagecoach' vintage) assisting French settlers against larcenous land barons such as John Howard.

Contrary to what lazy film writers maintain, 'Repulsive Pictures', as some jaded employees called it, was never a pure Poverty Row outfit. By the late 1940s it was careful to keep Wayne's market value up by attention to production values, a policy which culminated in 'The Quiet Man'. Here gleaming photography by Lee Garmes and George Antheil's score enhance the Frenchified interest of the mise en scene, and there's a surfeit of plot. (Incidentally Vera Ralston is no worse than many a Maureen O'Sullivan either, despite the cries of uxoriousness against Herbert Yates, Mr Ralston.)

Once again the factor that lifted Wayne above the Audie Murphys and Randolph Scotts is visible abundantly: the charm and grace he cannot help exhibiting, even though he'd have knocked a man down for mentioning them. The lightness and assurance he projects makes it not crazy to compare him with Cary Grant-- who was also at his most beguiling when portraying embarrassment, despite his reputation for smoothness. It has kept many of Wayne's seemingly routine pictures fresh when more pompous major productions have long since become fossilised.

Hardy's main job is to inject slapstick or advise and admonish his chum when Wayne gets too romantic, but he is involved in the mechanics of the plot too. He does so well one feels that if 'Babe' had been less fond of the golf course and in better health, he could have followed many funny men before him into a second life as a character actor.

Used to equality in a double act, Hardy works well with Big John: there's a genuine warmth between them, since unlike too many comics Ollie does not try to dominate their interchanges. Nor does he use the broader schticks of his peerless partnership: he does not mutely appeal to the audience or speak in that slow, absurdly dignified way he uses to challenge Stan's stupidities. He is given business with hats, eats too much, twiddles his incongruously delicate fingers, falls in a river as in 'Way Out West'. But it's all done lightly; Willie Paine's a bit of a clown but not a gross buffoon.

Seeing Babe slugging and being slugged is novelty enough, and there is poignancy in his last shot: marching away at the wedding, as if bidding farewell unknowingly to his Hollywood career. It's an unexpected coda, a box office success to boot, and a heartwarming one after years stuck in unworthy programmers with Stan for Darryl F Zanuck.

Stage Fright

Back in Blighty, but a bit boring
Alfred Hitchcock was into the ten-year sag between "Rope" and "Vertigo" when he filmed a novel that reviewers had said would make suitable material for him. It feels more like an opened-out West End hit play, full of what the Master derided, in others' work, as 'photographs of people talking'. It lacks the pyrotechnical set pieces of his later chefs d'oeuvre, and is flat and commonplace in expository stretches of whodunnitry. Also, there is one narrative cheat which everyone knows by now but is no more pardonable for that, unless you think the whole shebang is too contrived for it to be marred thereby.

Interest is maintained, just about, by a procession of oddball, mainly British, character players. They circle around the insipid central character of Jane Wyma's drama student, sleuthing after the real killer of Marlene's husband. Barely straying from a back-projected London with hints of the full-blown gorblimey anachronisms of 'Frenzy'-- Hitch was already remembering his native city more than reliving it-- the story unwinds leisurely. There are amusing but irrelevant pauses for Marlene's self-parodic 'Laziest Girl in Town' sashaying, and a jolly scene with the old firm, Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell ('You are sorry for the orphans, aren't you?') at a shooting range during a wet theatrical charity event; Hitch pastiches himself with a shot of umbrellas filling the screen as it rains, like 'Foreign Correspondent'.

Ms Wyman had won an Oscar by proving she could Really Act as a raped deaf-mute in 'Johnny Belinda'. Understandably she wanted something lighter. So did Hitch after the nerve-wracking long takes and melodrama of 'Under Capricorn', which had lost a packet and ended his partnership with the Bernstein brothers of Granada. Jane's 'tewwibly Briddish' accent is not up to Paltrow's or Zellweger's, and she was not enough of a plain-Jane in clothes and makeup to satisfy her director-- at the garden party she's in full New Look. But her nervy, big-eyed, oddly simian prettiness gets her through the part of a drama student who infiltrates Marlene's dressing room: 'Doris' was 15 years younger than the soon-to-be-ex Mrs Ronald Reagan was in real life.

There are other perversities in casting. Michael Wilding has to subdue his roguish Regency-buck charm as a plainclothes copper embarrassed by his Christian name; conversely, the stiff and sanctimonious Richard Todd (who had jerked tears co-starring with Jane's husband in 'The Hasty Heart') had to portray a charismatic possible killer. Hitch, Todd says, was pleased with the result, but the man himself later said 'the villain was a flop' and shot a lot of close-ups of his eyes, maybe because Todd's mouth and body are not the most expressive.

The overall mood is frivolous and relaxed, but Hitch was not at his happiest in light, as opposed to black, comedy: 'Mr and Mrs Smith' for Selznick, with no crime or solution, had not been his best time in Hollywood, and the surname of Wilding's character might be considered ominous. As 'Waltzes from Vienna' showed, Hitch was not at home with song and dance numbers either. The backstage life of the posh theatre where Marlene performs has none of the atmosphere of the music hall in 'The 39 Steps'.

With glimpses of Sybil Thorndike (as Wyman's heedlessly talkative mother) and Sim as her dad, both too old, plus Miles Malleson and with Kay Walsh moving into character roles, 'Stage Fright' cannot fail to be lively at times. But Marlene would be better served in the 1950s by two other major helmers who cast her against type in small but vivid appearances, in 'Witness for the Prosecution' and 'Touch of Evil'.

Hitchcock did not work with these talents again and preferred, rightly, to write this one off. As Fritz Lang said of 'An American Guerilla in the Philippines', a director must eat. No doubt some film studies thesis is at this moment poised to discover a masterpiece in these faded reels... but no, not really.


Mexican Spitfire meets the artists
As the empress of painterly self-pity, Frida Kahlo strikes a chord with today's Me Generation (female branch) which, in the view of some of us mere males, is unwarranted.

Her morbid depictions of herself being operated upon, or glowering under her monobrow with the sacral weight of her innumerable wrongs, can be enjoyed perversely for the garish, cartoonish exaggerations that send them into the realm of fantasy. But put her beside the quieter, more intense art of a Gwen John and her hollowness is exposed. She was not very interested in anything except herself-- the Tijuana Tracey Emin of the Twenties.

This self-obsession-- resulting in steadily flatter, less absorbing pictures after her late 1930s spell in the USA-- is faithfully reflected in Julie Taymor's biopic and the one-note performance of its progenitor, Salma Hayek. The ladies are concerned with Kahlo's part-Mexican roots as a key to her choice of imagery (skeletons and skulls, finery which clothes decay) and with the turbulent politics of her time and nation, but only as picturesque backdrops. The movie combines "disease of the weak" tear-jerking for the ladies with touches of "love among the artists" salacity for the chaps.

The old Svengali/Trilby theme, and its customary trappings, is rehashed for the relationship of Kahlo and her on-off husband Diego Rivera at the heart of the story. Pushy prodigy gatecrashes famous artist's sanctum and insists he appraises her efforts, he approves, he seduces her, they fight, they drink, they mix with the local arty set and bohemians, both cheat, they have problems with patrons, they cannot live together or apart... Every "tempestuous relationship" cliché is there, no more justifiable for being largely true. But Taymor canters through them briskly, the photography is lustrous, the colour rich. Inaudible dialogue in Spanglish, confusion over who's who (Kahlo's relations as well as once-famous faces) and simplistic bits of exposition come with the territory. They can be pardoned; you go on watching.

Alfred Molina, often an over-solemn presence, manages to convey something of the irregularly communist passion of Rivera if not the babe-magnet aspect. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, seemingly condemned to be icepicked for having had a roll in the hay with Frida, is in and out in ten minutes. But Hayek has given herself a one-woman show, and it keeps coming back to this mostly sulky little person, who can spit and rage like Lupe Velez and whose bodily handicaps mysteriously abate when dancing a lesbian tango, climbing a pyramid or storming down a dark alley. In true disease-of-the-week fashion, her sicknesses do not deface her; she barely ages in the 30 years of the narrative, whereas Rivers suddenly loses most of his Mexican mop. (Frida's faint moustache is not for Hayek either.)

What we see little of, among the novelettish turns of the tale, is its raison d'etre: Kahlo's art. It is glimpsed chiefly in animated dream sequences to underline her Alps of an emotional temperature chart, as if accidentally to reinforce criticism of Kahlo's solipsistic limitations. Of Rivera's work we see almost nothing except for his abortive Rockefeller Center mural: he is there to validate Kahlo, to keep pleading to be taken back, and to tell her how good she is.

Art needs long periods of calm, quiet and reflection. This film is so anxious to supply fireworks that there is no room for the spaces in between, when Rivera and Kahlo were living in harmony and fostering creation by mutual devotion. Their quarter-century of partnership is reduced to fights and truces; their sexual lives to adulteries.

Conspiracy of Hearts

Ralph and Betty try harder
Ralph Thomas and Betty Box belong so firmly to the tale of the British cinema's protracted postwar decline, and their output runs so much to cheerful mediocrity and worse, that it would be churlish not to salute this exception.

A film about a mixed European bag of nuns in sunny Italy, sheltering Jewish children from nasty German occupiers, could have easily wound up as sticky or preachy as a Hollywood movie of the week or after-school special "endorsed by the National Education Association". This production does quite a bit better.

To begin with, the couple took the commercially bold decision to shoot in dramatically suitable monochrome (Rank was very into Technicolor) despite the temptation of those gorgeous locations near Florence. Next, Rank's addiction to polyglot casts proves acceptable, since the nunnery and the Cahtholic church are multinational, as is the war situation: the convention of Colonel Albert Lieven talking in Teutonically accented English and others in Italianate English does not distract.

Thirdly, the cast is well chosen. Sylvia Syms, a rising English rose, was the novice. Michael Goodliffe was a familiar officer/vicar type, decent and tense as the nuns' protective priest. Lilli Palmer, that quintessentially cosmopolitan star, is apt (if a little too soigne) as Mother Superior. Ronald Lewis as the Italian major torn between allegiance to the Axis and revulsion at its persecutions, patronised by Lieven and a worm about to turn, is his customary sombre self. (Both Lewis and Goodliffe were suicides).

Fourthly, the mise-en-scene is ideal for moral conflicts: sunny exteriors and open hillsides against the shadowy cloister and catacombs where the hunt for hidden escapees from a concentration camp culminates. Thomas is no Bresson or da Sica, but he makes good use of his lighting cameraman, and in his workmanlike way keeps the tension boiling. The religious angle (with its dilemmas of obedience, confession and incompatible loyalties) is deftly threaded through the chase to raise the tone.

For a 'U'-certificated production there is an unholy amount of screen time leading up to, and about, killings and executions: it's about younger children but not for them.

As always, Box and Thomas are craftsmanlike, most to be praised for the mistakes and ineptitudes they avoid.

This is not "The Sound of Music" sans music. The storyline is not muffled by subplots, the enemy are not caricatured (Lieven convincingly depicts a non-Nazi career officer, forced into exemplary cruelty by his force's isolation amid partisans) and the slither into sentimentality is avoided nearly all the time. This is the price the script willingly pays for not characterising the children much; on the other hand, the issue of whether nuns gladly harboured Jews and made concessions to Judaism under a Christian roof is not shirked.

Adrian Scott, a member of the Hollywood Ten, outlined a plot based on real incidents which was worked up by Marsha Hunt's longtime husband, Robert Presnell Jr. It was unusual for the Pinewood team to work with Americans, who may have helped keep the film's political aspects uppermost-- and, as it were, salted it with some asperity, so that it plays pretty smartly and kitsch-free today.

Barney Balaban of Paramount saw its premiere while in London and paid Rank handsomely for the rights on impulse. The film fared well in an America not yet used to stories of Nazi anti-Jewish actions: the Auschwitz trial and Eichmann's capture would soon make them too familiar. In Britain, "Conspiracy of Hearts" was one of 1960's top grossers alongside Ralph's and Betty's latest "Doctor" film. Sadly, the latter would be much more typical of them thereafter.

Miracle on 34th Street

Do you believe? If so, why?
Richard Attenborough returned to acting after 14 years behind the camera in "Jurassic Park", and followed it swiftly by daring to challenge comparison with Oscar-winner Edmund Gwenn in this remake.

As a heartwarmer for those inadequates who won't sit through a 60-year-old monochrome movie-- albeit one which rivals "It's a Wonderful Life" as Hollywood's answer to "A Christmas Carol"-- this John Hughes revamp will probably serve. Anyhow, there are plenty of copies on sale at the checkout of my local supermarket. But it is a bit too laid-back and, latterly, too bogged down in argument for younger kids or older boys. It may warm more cockles among the grandparents.

The main thematic interest is how Hughes chooses to tweak the original screen story as adapted (unusually for the time) by the director, George Seaton. Whether he sought to or not, the remake has thrown up some intriguing twists for a more skeptical and secular time.

The oldie caught the mood of an America yearning to get back to normalcy amid the perils of the post-war, Cold War world. Location shooting in New York City, with much co-operation from Macys, gave a touch of realism to the fantasy, whereas in 1994 it's an imaginary store and (for Americans, at least) an incongruously "veddy British" claimant to the chair of Santa Claus- although his nationality is not the issue when the legal meanies of the State of New York try to get him confined to the bughouse.

What is striking is the judge's rationale for allowing Kris's plea for freedom. Because US bills have "In God We Trust" on them, he reasons, it means New York is allowed to have blind faith in the existence of a supernatural being who lays presents on 1.7 billion children in one night, operating from invisible workshops with reindeer which cannot be made to fly in a courtroom demonstration of his powers because it isn't Christmas Eve. Besides, the sneery prosecutor's kids were raised to believe in him, so there- case closed.

In real life the ACLU would be appealing such a judgement all the way to the Supreme Court for allowing too much religion into the law and the public square. "In God We Trust" was only put on the money during the Cold War, to cock a snook at "Godless bolshevism"; but this film is refreshingly disrespectful to the newer orthodoxy of playing down most Americans' beliefs in their films.

Kris asks if he should swear in the Bible, the Pope's ruling on Nicholas's sanctity is debated, and the ethos is quietly but unmistakably Christian. No "spiritual" Santa or "Happy Holidays" here. In a very light fashion, the film does revolve issues of how far it is legitimate to maintain a metaphor as a source of inspiration when rationalism of the Dawkins and Hitchens strain is sniping at it. The screenplay also looks quite beadily at the way commercial operators use holy myth to make money, even if the message comes muted from Hollywood.

That is the good news. There's plenty to carp at as well.

Attenborough's quiet, gentle but firm performance (most atypical of one who spent his previous acting time mainly playing unreliables or martinets) suffuses the film. He gets little competition, save from the contrasted crustiness of Windom. Most of the support is so-so, on the level of a Yuletide TV special, and not excluding little Wilson as the girl who has faith in Mr Kringle's claim to be St Nicholas. She is no Margaret O'Brien, if no worse in her way than the kewpie-doll Natalie Wood. In fact, she's a John Hughes moppet who did little later and nothing since 2000.

The narrative's departures from the well shaped original are no help. Once off the legal hook, Kris, wearing a brown suit, just disappears-- we don't see any triumphal sleigh ride to bid him adieu-- while attention shifts to a ridiculous post-midnight-mass impromptu wedding in a Catholic church. Then follows a trip out to a dream house in the snowy country, ushered by a silly salesman. The film does not seem to know when to call a halt, and there's not so much as Clarence's tinkling bell to bring back Kris at the close. It's as if the whole object of the exercise was to unite two bland characters in matrimony.

Carry On Cowboy

A different critter among Carry Ons
The theme of the tenderfoot pitched into the Wild West and cleaning it up was old by the time England's merry Pinewood pranksters tackled it.

In a sense, that is the history of the USA in a nutshell: disciplining the wilderness with the aid of the greenhorn's civilisation. "Destry Rides Again" and "The Paleface" had made a joke of the epic long since-- safe to do so once the frontier was closed and tamed-- and not long before, Britain's Kenneth More had visited Hollywood to play the Limey sheriff of Fractured Jaw. Mel Brooks would go over the old ground in "Blazing Saddles" and John Cleese would uphold the law in "Silverado".

Enter Jim Dale as the 1966-vintage innocent abroad: a sanitary engineer (first class), mistaken for the US marshal who can rid Stodge City of the baleful reign of terror of the Rumpo Kid. ("Rumpo" is an obsolescent Britishism for Sid James's favourite activity-- cf "tiffin" in "Carry On... Up the Khyber".) Abetted or hindered by a corruptible judge, a saloon madame, a drunken Indian, a whiskery and wheezy old Confederate colonel, a six-gun-totin' Annie Oakley and other stock figures from generations of fleapit oaters, P. Knutt does his best and worst.

Scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell was now well launched on the great period of Britain's most successful and durable film comedies. Historical spoofs inspired Rothwell: Cleo, Screaming, Khyber. This one is a little different, and perhaps falls a little short.

Attention to detail extends beyond the sets and mounting of the production, which always belied Carry On's "low budget" tag: the accents and horsemanship are more than adequate, the body language in the crowd scenes accurate enough to be mistaken for a Randolph Scott or Audie Murphy vehicle, and apart from Hawtrey (who is funnier for not trying to be anything but himself) the principals, like the script, stay firmly in the roles as written.

This Carry On eschews anachronistic and topical gags as well as calculated flaunting of its cheapness. It lacks some of the more incongruous belly laughs and double entendres we expect from Rothwell-- although "bullocks", to be reiterated in Khyber, are harnessed here already. Babs Windsor, who turned everything into a cockney music hall romp, is replaced by the more actressy and straightforwardly glamorous Angela Douglas; Kenneth Williams depicts an old man for once, with no epicene overtones; Sid, who had often played Yanks, is conscientious about remaining in character. He does not lean as much as usual on his dirty laugh or "cor blimey", more on a priapic snorting.

There is more action, less slapstick. Future stalwarts Butterworth and Bresslaw make their bows, and have not yet established themselves enough to be given a lot of personally tailored business. Running gags are displaced for plot twists. In short, this is one Carry On that leans on story and consistency more than on a string of harking-backs, catchphrases and skits to carry it through.

However, there are plenty of pleasures, if also some sadness in seeing Joan Sims take a back seat to the younger glamour girls, becoming the "old bag" before Sid's very eyes. Rothwell, instead of raiding his bag of old chestnuts, comes up with some lovely fresh ones such as Judge Burke assuring Knutt that some of his best friends were lynched- "there ain't no stigma to it out here".

Above all, though, this is where Sid decisively became the tentpole of the series-- in Cleo he had still contested with Williams for the limelight.

Like the best screen comedians and horror stars such as Karloff, Sid can command attention without being varied in his parts or versatile in his effects; he is a very limited actor who can make his repeated schticks and tricks funnier and funnier with repetition. He is the British cinema's Lord of Misrule; it's impossible to imagine that ageing, knowing rogue playing a depressed type, failing to lift a film or not cheering up an audience. He is a life force, and when he accepted he was too old to chase skirt on the Carry Ons, they could never be the same again.


"Anything can happen and it probably will"
A Hollywood chorus carols in saccharine style: 'I once had a vision of Heaven, and you were there', only to fall straight through the floor... into the infernal regions where, the opening title tells us, any resemblance to a motion picture is purely coincidental.' Well, there is quite a lot of resemblance, but the wildness of the ensuing number, full of devils gleefully "canning" their victims, announces that this is not going to be one more musical.

Ole Olsen's and Chic Johnson's only film triumph has the virtues of its limitations. It came to the screen as a freak Broadway hit, a melange of old sch-ticks, novelty acts and occasionally inspired improvisations which caught the theatre public's fancy in the late 1930s. How to squeeze all this into a film, given that straight recordings of revues had gone by with the talkies' earliest days and cinema-goers usually failed to warm to staginess, unless it was transformed into Busby Berkeley spectacle that would not chime with a crazy comedy? Probably more by another fluke than by calculation, Universal stumbled on the answer: make the impossibility of fixing theatrical spontaneity on celluloid the main running gag in the picture. The result is unique: structurally, if not frame by frame all through, this is the most playful travesty of movie conventions ever to become a big hit for a big studio.

Much of the vaudeville material has dated, though pleasantly enough- the Congeroo jitterbugging is a wow- and some of the gimmicks become familiar by imitation; but boredom is avoided, and several laughs- such as the taxi joke at the beginning. the "Rosebud" line and Cook's bullet-proof vest at the end- are imperishable. How did it happen? Most of the principals, including director Potter, and the stars, were theatre and vaudeville rather than Hollywood types. The script sports its scorn of movie narrative rules, not just in John B Fulton's special effects (freeze, reverse motion, a reprise of his Invisible Man trickery) but in its mockery of plot conventions.

A millionaire pretending to be poor so a rich girl will love him for himself? "That's crazy!" "That's movies!" Mischa Auer as a genuine Russian prince in exile pretending to be phony? It's so the socialites will be amused at knowing his non-secret and will pick up the tab for him, whereas a real nobleman is banal and has to be a waiter. A lavish musical show, with water ballet, mounted in a country house? No problem if Chic and Ole can wreck it, in a good cause.

No doubt other drawbacks governed the screwball treatment. Olsen and Johnson were not built for slapstick, hence other forms of visual excitement. More seriously, and despite faint echoes of Abbott and Costello, they were a fairly bland and over-ingratiating duo. Like Rowan and Martin, they anchored and mediated the eccentricities of Auer, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert etc and explained, or protested about, the film's oddities. Breaking the frame, giving the game away to the spectators, arguing with a behind-the-scenes collaborator in front of the paying public: heretical in Hollywood, not so unheard-of on the New York boards where comedians played to their claques.

Temporarily O&J gave the off-the-wall comedy an extended life, just as the Marx Brothers were flagging. Like the brothers at MGM, Ole and Chic played matchmaker to more sexually appealing support, took a break for musical or romantic interludes and had road-tested their own contributions: not by sneak-previewing them but by dint of having done the show 1,400 times already.

The world war would speed up the tempo of such entertainment, as would the influence of radio, with its avoidance of 'dead air'. Jokes about the draft and shortages have crept into the Hell scene, and throughout the pace is snappy. However their later films, after the first reel of "Crazy House", showed that O&J could not extend their partnership as fruitfully as Laurel and Hardy, the Marxes or the Ritz Brothers. Or Hope and Crosby, whose "Road" series, with their talking animals and to-camera asides were mining the same seam.

Never mind. The director may have shot the screenwriter in disgust at the finish, but nearly 70 years on, many will find "Hellzapoppin" a lot more fun than "Being John Malkovich", and as cinematically quirky.

They All Kissed the Bride

Not such a baby, less than beautiful
Some months after Pearl Harbour was a little late to be putting out a New Deal-style crazy comedy, and it feels like it here.

Alexander Hall was a Broadway veteran whose Hollywood films never seemed to venture out of doors. He helmed a strenuously busy but claustrophobic showcase for La Crawford, after her scenery-masticating dramatic hit in "A Woman's Face"; but when Carole Lombard died, Joan was loaned out to Columbia for this change of pace, donating her fee to the Red Cross because it found Lombard's body.

She plays a "woman in possession", of the genus Barbara Stanwyck, who inherits the family trucking firm, mentors her susceptible kid sister on men and copes with the "Topper" couple, Young and Burke, as distrait presences around the sister's wedding. The score, over-reliant on "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby", nudges us to notice what's meant to be funny. Joan strides through the cut-ups: shoulders back, mouth grimly fixed, eyes flaring like a basilisk as ever. Reporter Douglas, the eternal support to strong women, threatens to reveal her company's dark side before warming to the object of his expose. Who'd have thought it?

Joan is in transit, image-wise, between her tragedy queens at MGM and her future, in reduced circumstances, at Warner- where her Oscar-winning but brief comeback in "Mildred Pierce" would finally establish her, middle aged, as an increasingly batty matriarch and dominatrix. It's a switch for which she seems to be preparing in her desk-set background and admonitory scenes with sister Parrish, who's an "innocent young girl" of Hollywood's most artificial sort, all head-dipping and handwaving, gooey-eyed and goggle-mouthed.

Joan's fatiguing jitterbug at the company hop ruefully acknowledges that her jazz-baby days are long gone, and also that even the biggest Hollywood stars have to clown for the war effort- like arch-rival Bette Davis croaking through "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" in "Thank Your Lucky Stars".

With no plot surprises threatening, the audience has to lean on farcical thesping, and there is too little slapstick after the wedding opening to gloss over the silly psychology within this set of conventions. None of the accomplished practitioners seem quite on key, as if war clouds had got to them. Burke had become too engrossed in her grande-dame daffiness, her voice lurching ever higher out of her control: the Glinda persona too must have suddenly seemed irritating and out of date for grown-up movies in wartime, for both she and Young were soon dropping into cameo parts. Douglas would head off to the theatre after rising from private to major in the Army. The picture flopped. The Thirties really were over.

The One That Got Away

Giving the enemy his due
After the Cold War broke out, it was necessary to reconcile the newly democratic, Nazi-free West Germany to its former enemies. Hollywood did its bit with a sympathetic account of Erwin Rommel in "The Desert Fox". After "Frieda", the British movie business followed a spate of PoW escape films with one about a Luftwaffe pilot who had been as hard to hold as the heroes of "Albert RN" and "The Wooden Horse".

Early in the Second World War most Germans captured while bombing Britain did not try to escape: they thought the Wehrmacht would soon arrive to free them. "Baron" Franz von Werra was an exception. No Nazi, he was a Swiss boy who had been brought up by aristocratic German relations and felt he owed his adopted country his services; he was also a show-off who idolised von Richthofen and relished the glamour of being a flying ace.

Roy Baker (thus billed on screen) said he wished to get away from "beer-swilling krauts or homosexual Prussians". He saw von Werra as a maverick, and shot him moving from right to left across the screen whenever possible because typically film characters move in the other direction.

The film is pretty faithful to his story, as was established years later by a documentary called "Von Werra" (Werner Schweizer, 2002) which his impersonator, Hardy Kruger, presented. Kruger's own past was more Nazi than Franz's: he was at Sonthofen, the Party's "order castle" school for the future elite, and his blond good looks are said to have been admired by Dr Goebbels, fuhrer of the German film business.

Pitted against a string of barely differentiated British officer-class character actors, Kruger has a whale of a time in what is virtually a one-man show. It lets him display charm, cunning and endurance in buckets. First he outwits his interrogators, then he twice goes on the run in England (the second time almost taking off in a stolen Hurricane) and finally he flees from a Canadian train in below-zero temperatures. He zigzags 30 miles to the St Lawrence River and paddles through floes in pitch darkness into the neutral USA, arriving with badly frostbitten ears.

Concentrating on his time in captivity, the script neither pleads for sympathy for an enemy nor arraigns him, It does not give us any background on the man, and his second epic escape-- from the US extradition authorities, via Central and South America, the Atlantic and Italy back to the Reich-- is not covered either. True to his gentlemanly self-image, von Werra used his brief fame to compare conditions for the British in German camps unfavourably with those he had experienced-- even the primitive Grizedale Hall-- and got them improved. (The Canadian camp he avoided was luxurious.) He flew on the Eastern Front in the early days of 'Barbarossa', downing obsolete Soviet aircraft, but disappeared on a routine flight later in 1941.

Baker would soon make 'A Night to Remember', the film all true 'Titanic' buffs prefer to James Cameron's version. Here too the virtues of understatement are evident-- crisp monochrome photography, short scenes which always drive the story on, thrifty but credible art direction. Von Werra's ordeals in the rain-soaked Lake District and the icy Canada/USA border are gruelling, and the doughtiest British spectator will not begrudge him his cheeky postcard after completing his home run. Baker used a documentary cameraman, Eric Cross, and shot the St Lawrence scenes in Sweden.

Call Me Madam

Call Me Mediocre
Once upon a time there was a society hostess named Perle Mesta who became US ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And soon afterwards there was a society hostess in an Irving Berlin musical who became ambassador to the Grand Duchy of 'Lichtenburg', made some gaffes and matches, and hoofed and bawled her way through diplomatic receptions in ball gowns.

Ethel Merman notoriously 'projected' too much to sit comfortably on a movie screen; but Berlin, who had much say over picturisations of his Broadway hits, insisted on her repeating her Broadway show-stopping turn in Fox's stodgy adaptation-- directed by Walter Lang with the resolute anonymity that was his non-trademark. Scene after scene plays as just that: a procession of Broadway tableaux, designed for Ruritanian artificiality with no cinematic flow or heightening by camera or cutting. The book is light on hits, and 'You're Just In Love' is worked too hard.

Ethel is adequately restrained, but neither of the juvenile leads-- Donald O'Connor as a gawky junior American diplomat, Vera-Ellen as the reluctant princess he woos-- are full-blooded enough.

O'Connor lacks the furious energy he showed as Gene Kelly's partner in the previous year's 'Singin' in the Rain', which probably got him this part. He is not trusted with many funny lines either. Vera-Ellen, whose previous director had called her a piece of putty, is an efficient if anorexic hoofer and mouther of dubbed songs. She lacks something extra: the neurotic streak of Garland, the dynamism of Ann Miller or the steeliness of Doris Day that makes an ingénue stand out. George Sanders, as the Lichtenburg bigwig who tickles Ethel's fancy, warbles a little, breaks into a shuffling dance sometimes and remembers not to be a cad.

Camp keeps breaking in. Billy De Wolfe, Merman's disapproving chief of staff, made his name as a nightclub comedian impersonating a woman in the bath, and there are intimations of that in his remonstrances. A big number at the annual Lichtenburg fair, with Princess Vera-Ellen hymning the joys of the ocarina amid a troupe of Hollywood chorus boys dressed as mittel-European peasants in tight shorts, is one of several moments which remind one of Freedonia in 'Duck Soup' (as does the finale back in Washington).

Romance is on low temperature given the four principals, and the laughs are limply drawn from the idea that the Grand Duchy, uniquely in Marshall Plan Europe, would be too proud to take Uncle Sam's largess. Ethel has several one-sided telephone talks with a president named Harry whose daughter gets mixed reviews for her piano-playing. Gangs of local and US politicians splutter in mutual misunderstanding.

This was Berlin's last hit musical, though he lived another 36 years, and it was something of a career-finisher for the stars as well-- although Berlin's 'There's No Business Like Show Business' was shot back-to-back with it with Lang, Merman and O'Connor and rushed out the next year.

Vera-Ellen married and retired to a life of misery and seclusion; Merman never had a big film role after 1954 ('Gypsy' went to Rosalind Russell); O'Connor was soon stooging for Francis the talking mule; and Sanders dwindled into supporting parts, bankruptcy and suicide. 'Singin' in the Rain' had been the summit and the beginning of the end.

Local Hero

Whimsy galore
Whimsicality walks a tightrope in the cinema: your cute is my twee. Bill Forsyth's attempt to update Ealing comedy falls off the tightrope because the screenplay, his own work, is muddled, compromised and fails to give the audience the steers it needs and deserves. His whimsicality irritates.

Forsyth is so in love with his "subtlety" that he cannot be seen to make his mind up about anything. Take the basic plot premise: Knox Oil & Gas, stridently established in the opening sequence as a money-mad Yankee corporation, is hellbent on turning a bleak but charming spot in western Scotland into a dock and refinery. (Curious siting for North Sea purposes, incidentally, but perhaps Arisaig and Morar were more photogenic than Helmsdale). So is this US invasion a good or bad thing? Ecologically sound, disruptive of a traditional way of life based on crofting and fishing, philistine? Or just what these backward folk need to shake them up? We don't know at the off, and we don't know at the end. Do the villagers welcome their windfall, dread the loss of their community? We don't know- ever. They seem, apart from Lawson their omnicompetent negotiator, indifferent or obtuse like a herd of sheep, barely differentiated. Even Fulton Mackay, who threatens to derail Knox's plans by hanging on to his beach, seems to be more baffled than outraged by the business.

And here is the crucial way in which Forsyth differs from Sandy Mackendrick in "Whisky Galore!", the comparison for which critics grasped. The islanders of Todday are agents, not victims. They plunder the Scotch and hoodwink those who come to retrieve it by a hundred clever means while wearing down Captain Waggett's moral resistance. And this is illustrated by a brilliantly plotted and photographed collection of incidents.

It may be objected that Forsyth's is not a message film about pollution or cultures clashing, and that we should study the human interest instead: the loneliness of the long-distance go-getter, and how it is chastened by contact with a more authentic, slower, saner way of living. But that noble-savagery stuff is not a strong enough to carry almost two hours of what is meant to be a comedy.

The sentimental nostalgia to which Macintyre succumbs at the end of "Local Hero" is based on no such re-orientation of the audience's sympathies as occurs in "Whisky Galore!", and is depicted with no such skill. He does not soak himself in the hamlet's way of life; he remains a pratfalling, gawping tourist when he is not briskly haggling with Denis Lawson, an accountant who apparently has plenipotentiary powers to sell the property.

When Latin American novelists lapse into implausibility, it's called magic realism. There's a wee dram too much of MR in this screenplay: are there no wider concerns about Knox's plans, no government inquiry, no save-the-harbour protests? Forsyth and Puttnam picture Riegert and his Scotch quisling/sidekick like Catholic friars trafficking with the Indians in "The Mission". It is patronising to them and insulting to the intelligent spectator. A film supposedly rooted in what is real and abiding, contrasted with Happer's neon-lit inferno, should have more respect for the givens of modern life, which include planning procedures.

With this film Forsyth and Puttnam began to court America, and one can almost hear the Hollywood money urging them to beef up the belly laughs for the multiplex crowd. Hence, one guesses, the subplot about Happer's demented shrink: matter so coarse and stupid that it is fit only for the likes of Terry Gilliam. Lancaster became more and more intense vocally as his physical vigour waned, and he overbalances this movie: you keep waiting for him to turn up in his chopper and shoot a little vim into the wan, whimsical string of incidents.

Riegert appears bemused throughout as if the switch from "Animal House" was too much, too soon. As usual in a Puttnam production, the women are remote goddesses or walk-ons, and the subject is male befriending and jockeying. Other "meeting cute" moments are tossed in, such as the Russian fishermen's visit, to compensate for the lack of real tension and jeopardy in the primary encounter.

The trademarked off-beat moments are mainly cursed by the magic-realist taint too. Why would Urquhart hide his second role as an accountant? What is the frisson in a character as undeveloped as Seagrove's having mermaid toes? What besides PC dictated making the minister black, a circumstance as unlikely as the demographics of 'Ballymory'?

The cinema-going public never got on to Bill Forsyth's wavelength. He duly went Stateside, along with Puttnam (for a brief reign as the Savonarola of Columbia Pictures) but Forsyth was no defter at conveying the moods of quiet places and lives there than in the Highlands. Since 1993 his only feature has been a sequel to "Gregory's Girl", the film which bankrolled "Local Hero".

He might have fared better if he had stayed in Scotland, gone into TV drama and cured Scottish Television of its obsession with Glasgow murderers. But there is a gulf of snobbery between telly and "film", and Forsyth tumbled into it.

Loving You

A flying start
How cruel the critics have been to Presley's films, with the exception of 'Jailhouse Rock', whose monochrome mordancy is more to their liking than the candy-colored 'Loving You'. Yet arguably the latter presents the century's greatest vocal magus more truly, at least when he was young, green and disturbing teenagers' parents.

It is not without hints of the temptations that would turn him into a tragic, bloated self-parody. But it gives all due credit to his electrifying stage presence, his modesty and ineffable, courtly charm when a novice idol. You do not feel, as so often in his later programmers, the contempt of the old men jerking the strings for their moneymaking puppet.

Plotwise, 'Loving You' is little but a sanitised bio. The delivery boy is discovered, at a political rally of all places. He slowly builds a following in venues such as the Haroldsville Lions Club and the Alkali Wells Stock Fair. He is groomed for bigger things by a Svengali (but a husky-voiced female, not a Dutch illegal immigrant with a bogus military rank) and he learns a few lessons about life and love as the fans scream louder and louder.

So far so obvious. The craft is in the detail. Hal Kanter, who came from Elvis's neck of the woods, writes and directs with an eye to the folksy, C&W background of Deke Rivers's troubled youth: the title song is first performed, not in a theatre full of squealing teenyboppers, but al fresco in front of a farmer's family, with chickens scratching behind our troubadour.

Deke's main squeeze (Hart) is a sweet pony-tailed innocent, not the wiggling little swimsuited strumpets of the later "travelogues"; Scott and Corey are an on/off showbiz couple with one eye to exploiting their find but another to treating him honourably. There are no real baddies, only hooligans in the diner and bluenosed ladies in Freegate, Texas, readily convertible to Deke's music. Elvis uses his fists only to defend Corey; and he only gets into a big clinch with Hart in the last shot.

The simplicity of this film has kept it fresh. There are topical gags about flying saucers, De Mille's "Ten Commandments" (a favourite of the King) and the Freegate finale mirrors the concocted fuss about Elvis's gyrations on Ed Sullivan's show; but the period elements do not obtrude. Even the clothes-- Elvis's denims, Hart's blouse and skirt-- don't look nearly as dated as punk or Goth clobber.

The picture is aimed at a wide audience, lacking the silly juvenile-delinquent posturing that Elvis was made to do later to grab the teens. Since the story makes him an orphan, he has no familial bonds to struggle against- rather he longs for the home he never had, and his mistaking Corey and Scott for surrogate parents (while she is tempted to be more than maternal or managerial) is the tale of his relationship with them. Elvis eventually plays matchmaker like Shirley Temple or Deanna Durbin before they were old enough to have their own sex lives on screen.

It must have been agony, in 1957 and more than ever soon afterwards, for the mother-fixated Elvis to utter such lines as "My mother's dead" or be told by Scott that "It's time you realised that Momma is never going to come!" During the shooting Vernon and Gladys Presley were summoned to Hollywood, the only long trip they ever took together; they can be seen in the audience in the last scene, and when Elvis comes jiving down the aisle Gladys is among the older "converts" clapping along. She died soon after, and he never watched the film again.

Presley was lucky that he commenced actor just as the Method was hitting its height of popularity among younger Hollywood denizens: his tendency to mumble, wriggle and stutter seems less out of place than ten years earlier or later. He begins playing every scene with his head hanging or averted, as if mortally abashed; later he grows a bit more confident and relaxed, but this suits the character's evolution. His rough edges as an actor only make one root for him; he projects likability.

It was Elvis's real movie debut ('Love Me Tender' was a rushed, botched job) and a fair sign of what his stock in trade would be. But for Scott, producer Hal Wallis's girlfriend, it was the end of the road: her career was wrecked by 'Confidential' magazine's innuendoes. Shame- she might have blossomed int another Joan Blondell. That infamous rag also smeared Dolores Hart, who reacted rather drastically by taking the veil, though she still has a vote in the Oscars. Kanter returned to Colonel Parker's circus to write, alas, 'Blue Hawaii': Elvis's post-Army induction into the legion of inoffensive entertainers.

Before Winter Comes

Before he was on the fiddle
Chaim Topol's career seems to have dwindled into endless revivals of his great role in 'Fiddler on the Roof' (cf Yul Brynner and 'The King and I'). So it's piquant to reconsider his first big break in Hollywood, two years before the film of 'Fiddler' catapulted him to fame.

'Before Winter Comes' highlights the decline of another once-rampant talent, director J. Lee Thompson. It is a mildly diverting entertainment, notable if only for its unusual setting: not World War two but its chaotic and tragic aftermath in four-power-divided Austria, with refugees in camps or roaming the snowy landscape looking for a home.

The centre of the story is an uneasy love/hate liaison. In the blue corner, bored, stiff, combat-nostalgic British senior officer David Niven ('I am nobody's old boy!'). In the red corner, a wily, Schweik-ish ex-Soviet displaced person whose polylinguality recommends him as a go-between when the UK occupying power is trying to co-exist with Stalin's boys as 'firm friends-- friends but firm'.

Niven could by now play a uniformed part asleep, and occasionally seems to have taken that as an order. His career was in low water at the time. It is a quieter part than in most of the ghastly comedies and capers he was doing at the time, but his bland technique is unaltered. Topol is fire to the Briton's ice: winking, grinning, suddenly looking sober and all-business, but how much is sincere and how much the pedlar's spiel? He's adequate, but Zorba-the-Greekishly unidimensional. Perhaps he always wanted to be liked a wee bit too much.

The film begins as lightish comedy, and tries for a change of pace to gravity and Cold War ominousness after Anna Karina insinuates a disturbing element as the love interest. But the gears clash. It looks like an Alistair McLean international adventure with more laughs, sprinkling doughty British thespians generously (Anthony Quayle as a brigadier, an amazingly unravaged John Hurt as a green junior officer) amid the Babel of displacement. Ron Grainer furnishes a whistling-squaddies theme to make you think of 'Bridge on the River Kwai', but the film lacks Lean's dedication to detail in the service of its message. Ultimately any theme deeper than 'Can't we all just get along?' is elusive. Nor is there any 'Great Escape' element to up the suspense.

The script was by Andrew Sinclair, a curious import to movies (Old Etonian, Cambridge academic, author of satirical novels) who sporadically tried to adapt his sour view of Britain to celluloid. The film looks too much 1969 rather than 1945, with Topol heavily hairy and a plethora of flashy zooms from Gilbert Taylor, Thompson's regular collaborator. They had been together, with Quayle, on 'Ice Cold in Alex'... which, alas, shows what a difference eleven years can make.

All My Life

Yes, I've Seen It Too
And it's one of the most intense, compacted moments of joy in the cinema. I must have watched this minimalist music video-- Teddy Wilson's orchestra with the young Ella Fitzgerald delivering a ballroom swing number of the late 1930s, scratchily recorded-- fifty times... and never failed to be uplifted, and never known quite why.

It's a continuous take, panning west, of a broken-down old clifftop fence-cum-hedge, sometimes floral, sometimes bare. At the end (as the vocal refrain ends and the orchestra slides into the final recapitulatory chorus) the camera eye soars calmly up into the wide blue yonder, crossing a telephone wire, and fades. And that's it.

Sheer magic, a visual haiku. One hates to be at a loss for critical words, but 'All My Life' defies them. Just see it.

Bear Island

Chiller, not thriller
Comparing Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming is salutary. Both were heavy-drinking Scots who wrote action thrillers, hitting the jackpot in the Fifties and Sixties. But whereas Fleming's novels have risen to be Penguin Modern Classics, MacLean-- once said to be the world's best-selling novelist-- is now totally out of print in the States, and in and out of it in his own country.

Fleming created a flat but fascinating protagonist who became more interesting than the villains and girls he encountered; MacLean never used the same character twice, preferring chase and setting to psychology. His inability to invent interesting female foils was absolute; often they have the same name, Mary or variants thereon. MacLean trusted that the story would be its own reward, but without psychological flesh on the bones his stock situation-- group of professionals in tight-lipped quest for a treasure, one of them a snake in the grass- becomes wearisome.

MacLean's other handicap was that he liked money. After "The Guns of Navarone" hit dollar paydirt, he increasingly wrote with movie adaptation in mind, producing hybrids that were neither literary nor cinematic; whereas Fleming barely lived to see the Bond films blossoming into history's biggest screen moneyspinner.

"Bear Island" is a case study in the frosty aridity of MacLean's "visual" imagination. The gang are placed in a locale he knows and loves: the Arctic, scene of his first hit, "HMS Ulysses", and "Ice Station Zebra", a good film. In the background is World War Two, in which MacLean's naval service was the making of him. The principals are uneasily allied in search of Nazi gold buried on Bear Island, near Spitzbergen. There is much betraying and motive-revelation, chases in boats and on skis and snowmobiles, close-quarters work with fists, knives and guns, before the treasure hunt is played out. But it's all as chilly as the temperature.

To begin with, the film was an Anglo-Canadian co-production, never a promising sign; it was shot in British Columbia with a cast ill at ease with their roles. Donald Sutherland, the Canadian contribution, gawps and mumbles in his usual fashion, hardly the strong silent MacLean hero. Vanessa Redgrave-- incredibly, this was the part with which she chose to follow an Oscar for "Julia"-- is a statuesque Scandinavian with a wobbly Ingrid Bergmanesque accent. Christopher Lee seems to pine for cape and fangs. Lloyd Bridges, the bad apple, hams it up in a manner anticipating his turn to actual self-parody in "Airplane!".

All are often encased in anoraks and big fur hoods, so knowing who is doing what to whom is a puzzle. The pace is crippled by the conditions: fights seem slapstick, and there is a ludicrous moment when several characters flounderingly "break into a run" knee deep in snow, at a leaden pace. The icy scenery is attractive, but to get scale the camera has to stand well back, diminishing the figures of the actors and making their manoeuvres seem as trivial as a puppet show.

Director Don Sharp, as Ken Annakin noted in his memoirs, was better at derring-do than humour, but nobody goes to MacLean for a laugh: here too he is unlike Fleming, whose pawky vein of wit was broadened by the Bond scenarists and has preserved the early 007 entries magnificently. The solemnity of "Bear Island"'s furry, flailing personnel becomes risible.

The picture, in short, was a weary and chilly haul for the audience. Not that many were given the chance; it was hardly released to cinemas and became a TV schedule filler. It might as well have been a midatlantic melange from Lord Grade.

Big Jim McLain

Duking it out for democracy
Most cineastes are more or less left-wing; a film such as 'Big Jim McLain' will be bashed regardless of its intrinsic merits, and whether time has vindicated its picture of widespread communist labour-movement penetration or not. In truth, the movie is a cheap, ill-focused affair, and its prefatory acclaim for the 'undaunted' House Un-American Activities Committee should not excuse its faults, however rock-ribbed one's Republicanism. But it is neither as inept nor as rabid in its ideology as detractors make out.

The pill of anti-communism is sugared by a deal of local colour (not literally; the grass-skirted gals who shimmy in several scenes are ill-served by the monochrome location work). There is some ham-fisted humour and makeup-mashing romance between the Duke and Nancy Olson, a rivalry for her hand with a Navy linguist and slugfests on the waterfront. An unpolitical popcorn-chewer would not have felt cheated.

As discerning reviewers such as Dorothy Jones observed at the time, Hollywood's Red-bashing narratives differed little in substance from wartime anti-Nazi, spyhunting tales or Thirties sagas of G-men busting criminal rackets. The subversives and agitators apparently rife in the Islands are depicted as petty gangsters controlled by a suave but cynical puppeteer, akin to the 'legitimate businessman' at the top of a Mob operation (Alan Napier- the future Alfred the butler in TV's 'Batman').

The story trundles along quite smartly, with long spells when the political fervour of agents Wayne and Arness is relegated. Only the murder of Wayne's partner (which is not dwelt upon) fires him up as he pronounces a eulogy in the morgue over his fellow-Marine turned crusading lawyer; earlier, Wayne had told his girl that he was just firing at the designated enemy, the same way he did in the Pacific. Let us not ask which side the Soviet Union was on in that war! The script plays down the foreign-infiltration aspect, preferring to paint its American communists as men who have lost faith in the country for no obvious reason-- don't mention the Depression-- and are now plotting to enslave it... rather like the Bodysnatchers of a slightly later and better example of paranoid cinema.

Sometimes Wayne's frequent scenarist, James Edward Grant, piles on the moralising. A woman whose husband lured her into the CPUSA expiates the shame by working as a nurse in a leprosy colony. Wayne meets an old couple, obviously Jewish though not identified as such, whose son turned red after winning a trip to the USSR. There is an incongruous episode of a lunatic (Hans Conried, the future Dr Terwilliker) who offers to inform on the party cell, boasts of his secret inventions and contacts with Stalin, and then tells Wayne he has a plan to end all wars by making every man and woman in the world look the same. This irrelevant scene could almost be read as sabotage to convey Grant's real opinion of his assignment and the calibre of McCarthy's snitches.

Olson, the other woman in 'Sunset Boulevard', is overshadowed by Veda Ann Borg's turn as a peroxide lush who fancies the Duke and embarrasses him in a nightclub. Again, if taken seriously this strand of the plot makes the investigation look like a clumsy wild goose chase.

Moreover, Wayne is not the fascistic bully critics purported to see but is poised between the gallant, diffident cowboy of his pre-war movies and the crusty blowhard of the Sixties. It was his first for WB after his smash in 'The Quiet Man', and he makes a pleasant, modest impression. The film, launching his Batjac production company, was very much his pet project-- but maybe as much to help live down his avoidance of war service as to assist Tailgunner Joe. The Warner brothers, incubators of notorious nests of leftists since the mid-Thirties, had something to prove to suspicious congressmen too.

Yet the end is equivocal. The Duke gets the girl, but the CP high-ups he has tracked down plead the Fifth and wriggle out of punishment. Objectively McLain's mission has failed; liberalism, benefit of the doubt, right of non-self-incrimination triumph. There is no 'Green Berets' afflatus as the end-credits roll; the commies live to subvert again. Many of the anti-red movies had this streak of pessimism and half-heartedness. They were against Hollywood's grain.

The truth is that the public does not want to be preached at in return for the price of a ticket, and this muted denunciation went the way of most message pictures-- left or right. But that angle gives it more curiosity value than most actioners of its time.

Dandelion Dead

A major criminal?
The revival of interest in Mike Hodges prompts another look at this 1994 mini-series, directed while he was in the feature-film wilderness. Like nearly all he touches, it is about desperate violence. However this is no 'Get Carter' but a well-mannered, low-key account of the sort of cause celebre Orwell lamented in 'Decline of the English Murder' as a casualty of the Second World War. Major Armstrong's murder trial gripped Britain. The Attorney General himself conducted the prosecution, and the famous 'Daily Express' editor RD Blumenfeld narrowly escaped imprisonment for contempt when he published a photograph of the defendant's eyes.

Herbert Rowse Armstrong ('Major' was a temporary Great War rank, snobbishly retained) was a pillar of the remote community of Hay-on-Wye, a market town on the England-Wales border. He was a churchwarden, master of the local Freemasons lodge, a Cambridge law graduate, the district's leading solicitor and clerk to three magistrates' courts. In April 1922 he was convicted of poisoning his wife and hung: the only British solicitor ever to suffer such ignominy.

During war service Armstrong-- a doting but henpecked husband of a neurasthenic wife and a father of three-- had met a charming widow, named in the film but not when she was a witness. Armstrong had also contracted syphilis in France, though not from her. Returning to Hay, he had developed a strong resentment of Oswald Martin, a younger rival in the law who had set up literally opposite Armstrong's somewhat rundown premises over a shop. The prosecution alleged that Armstrong poisoned both his wife, for her money, and Martin for harassing him over the payment of monies owed to a client.

The film does not adjudicate on Armstrong's motives or his guilt; it allows Michael Kitchen, in a bravura display of restraint, to plead his cause or incriminate himself as the viewer judges. Kitchen had always been a little too intense for any given role, but here he achieves the consummate screen actor's gift of conveying much with very little: a raised eyebrow, a twitch, pursed lips, the slight contortion of a frail frame. (Armstrong weighed only seven stone and was 5 feet 5 tall.) His buttoned-up demeanour is matched by a voice which protests mildly or pleads gently: a sinister mockery when asking after a victim's health, or merely the politesse of a gentleman attorney?

Hay is a fading backwater, admirably designed by Voytek in shades of brown and black, lightened by Armstrong's escape to the hills with his lady love or interludes of uncertain happiness at home with his three children. In the narrow streets neighbours peer, gossip and nurse growing suspicions. The pace is relaxed, the expected moment when Armstrong is either caught in the act or proved innocent never arrives, and the four hours' traffic ends on a note of irresolution which may leave some feeling cheated.

It is pleasant to record that one detail the audience might suspect was a bit of scriptwriter's trimming was true: Armstrong really was arrested on New Year's Eve, and had to see 1922 in from a cell.

Other, more material facts are also largely respected. Emphasis in Michael Chaplin's screenplay is on the events, not on the trial at Hereford Assizes. As Curtis Bennett (Denys Hawthorne), the defending counsel, argued, Armstrong's motives for the alleged crimes were thin indeed. He was said to have murdered his wife for her money and to be free to remarry; yet he was solvent, her legacy to him lay untouched for a year till he had to draw on it for his lawyers' bills, and he never proposed to his inamorata. And would he have fed Martin a poisoned scone ("excuse fingers") just because of a business dispute?

Against that, why did the Major divide the arsenic he claimed he bought to kill weeds (hence the film's title) into small packets, and why was he still carrying one around when he was arrested, instead of leaving it safely locked up at home? The high point of the trial came when Sir Charles Darling (Ralph Nossek), one of the most famous judges of the day, effectively took over the prosecution and grilled Armstrong, who briefly lost his iron composure.

The jury took three minutes to decide that he was a wife murderer. The Major protested his innocence to the end. The Martin charge lay on the file; Martin died only two years later, depressed and showing signs of continuing damage from poison. But in 1988 a solicitor who lived in Armstrong's old home wrote a book exonerating him and seeking to show how Mrs Armstrong might have committed suicide.

Connoisseurs of 'Inspector Morse' will have no trouble identifying the composer whose long chords and piano plinks punctuate 'Dandelion Dead'. Among supporting performances, Chloe Tucker is outstanding as the Major's owlishly bespectacled and gawky eldest daughter Eleanor, oscillating between love and suspicion. But it is Kitchen's film. He found the right register for the first time, enabling him to rise from the showiness and petulance of his young-man performances towards the calm authority of 'Foyle's War'. He may be the next Jason or Thaw.

Millions Like Us

How to put up with the war
Some of Britain's best Second World War films had equivocal origins as 'suggestions' from the Ministry of Information (i.e. propaganda) under its mischievous and mysterious chief, Brendan Bracken. 'The 49th Parallel', 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' and 'A Matter of Life and Death', Powell's and Pressburger's productions, were all begotten by a Whitehall daddy whose name was kept off the birth certificate.

Ditto 'Millions Like Us' by another talented duo. Launder and Gilliat, well established as scriptwriters, ventured into feature direction (the only time they took a joint credit) with this episodic and fascinating study of life on the home front.

It centres on the long, dull hiatus between the Blitz and invasion scares of 1940 and the forthcoming relief of D-Day in 1944. The propaganda purpose was to rededicate civilians who were becoming bored with the seeming stalemate: Hitler no longer menacing us, we not yet able to take the war to his camp. Women were targeted for morale-boosting. The film aimed to convince these 'millions' that their conscription into factories, often seen as unglamorous by comparison with uniformed service alongside the fighting men, was essential for victory.

Thus Patricia Roc, the shy home-keeping daughter of a domineering working class widower, dreams amusingly of heroics as a nurse or airwoman, and dreads being called up for industrial work on a production line in a strange town. But she makes friends, is good at her work, marries a nice flight-sergeant in the Royal Air Force and endures the vicissitudes that follow. Other girls from widely different social backgrounds muck in and do likewise.

So much for the uplift. Rarely has a pill been so deftly sugared, however. The scene-setting in the widower's house is an index of the film's almost obsessive determination to avoid overt uplift.

Rumours of war on the wireless are exchanged for dance music on the other channel. Patriotism does not visibly improve among the younger generation once hostilities begin. One daughter is man-mad, entertaining the troops not wisely but too well; another whose husband is serving in the Western Desert is a lazy, grumbling, neglectful mother. The old dad (Moore Marriott, gruff and unrecognisable as the antic dotard of the Will Hay classics) does his bit in the Home Guard but moans inconsolably about being 'deserted' by his daughters when the country whisks them away.

At the factory a socialite drafted to turn a lathe strikes up an uneasy friendship with her gruff northern supervisor; but he tells her she'll never be better than mediocre at the work, that she might not be good enough for his proletarian family and that he isn't ready to propose to her because they may be too different. "Ooh aye, ooh aye" she mockingly replies. This brilliantly crisp little exchange seems in retrospect to predict the bombshell Labour victory of 1945, when the people of the 'People's War' gave the upper crust its quittance and the rising technocratic class took control.

Laced with verite footage of crowds at play at the seaside or entering and leaving factories, the film plays like a fictionalised version of Humphrey Jennings's 'Spare Time' and 'Listen to Britain'-- with perhaps a conscious homage in the canteen community singing of the moving final episode. And through it runs the music of Beethoven, as if to acknowledge that the enemy has his good points: here it anticipates another Jennings classic, 'A Diary for Timothy'.

The acting, especially in the home sequences, is low-key in the same manner as Lean's 'This Happy Breed'. A far cry from the stagey histrionics of pre-war British cinema, it anticipates the naturalism of TV drama. There are no big speeches or characters, just commonplace folk muddling through. The interpolation of Naunton and Wayne, whom L&G had made a crosstalk team in 'The Lady Vanishes', is the only concession to a 1930s conception of entertainment.

Miss Roc, torn between father, duty and the dream of a domestic life, is a credible symbol of young British womanhood. Recent research, contrary to earlier feminist assertions, has established that most women were both glad to escape the parental home to aid the war effort, yet were not reluctant to become housewives once the fighting men returned. In this and other ways 'Millions Like Us' has a ring of truth absent from histrionic efforts such as Selznick's 'Since You Went Away' and retrospective looks at Riveting Rosies such as Demme's 'Swing Shift'.

That such a presentation could be achieved while the dilemmas were being experienced, and under the auspices of a government fighting total war, is a huge tribute to the integrity of the British film-making community. It remains a quietly, gradually engrossing pleasure to watch.

The Man with a Flower in His Mouth

Not the first, but the start of something big
Often claimed (here, for instance, and at Wikipedia) as the world's first TV play, this was no such thing. As the following entry correctly records...

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0378625/ ...

that honour belongs to 'The Queen's Messenger', a melodramatic piece by Harley Manners broadcast by General Electric at their Schenectady experimental station almost two years earlier. Arguably it was more venturesome than the BBC's debut: it used three cameras and the director, Mortimer Stewart, mixed their feeds in a control box.

Pirandello's 'L'Uomo dal Fiore in Bocca' is an adaptation from a short novel: essentially a philosophical dialogue in a cafe between a man with a cancerous throat (hence the title) and a businessman who has just missed the train to work and has time to kill. The Baird 30-line technology allowed only one actor to appear at a time, and since all broadcasts then were largely confined to heads and shoulders, this made it suitable fare. They were not even talking heads, since the BBC stingily did not allot enough bandwidth to let sound and vision be simulcast. Instead the few hundred viewers first saw the characters silently mouthing, then heard their words on a dark screen.

Neither could the single fixed camera, scanning the scene with a whirling Nipkow disc, cut from face to face. A chequered fading board had to be slid across the scene for a lap-dissolve effect. It was worked by 16-year-old trainee George Inns, who grew up to be producer of the long-running (and now maudit) 'Black and White Minstrel Show'. Four backdrops by the well-known artist CRW Nevinson were suitably futuristic and semi-abstract.

Fitting too was the presence of Marconi, the wireless pioneer and countryman of Pirandello. He was among dignitaries who watched the play in a canvas tent, menaced by high winds, on the roof of the Baird Company's studio in Covent Garden. The Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, is said to have tuned in at No. 10 Downing Street, to which Baird, always adept at publicity, had gifted a 'televisor'.

Apart from faces of the three actors, close-ups of their hands were cut in to vary the monotony. To get the requisite definition of features, faces had to be made up in bright yellow with blue lips. Incidental music was furnished by a gramophone. The result was deemed by critics to be wireless with illustrations, although the director, Lance Sieveking, had a reputation in the BBC for excessive 'artiness' as a radio documentary innovator. Much influenced by Russian film's theories of montage, he must have felt cramped.

The British may not have produced the first television play, but they soon led the world in this as in most branches of the infant art. By 1939 the BBC could transmit a three-hour musical from a West End theatre using an OB unit, and was regularly showing 90-minute live studio productions with filmed inserts for exteriors.

Jesse James

Robbing Hoods Get the Technicolor Treatment
With Ty Power and Hank Fonda in the saddle, there was no way this version of the James Brothers legend was going to paint them as bad guys.

Less so since the courtly southerner Nunnally Johnson wrote and produced the yarn. In reality the James boys took to knocking off banks and trains after being at a loose end following Missouri's joining the losing side in the War Between the States. This was too painful a scab to pick in the Thirties, so Johnson gives the Jameses a more palatable enemy than Abe Lincoln: big bad railroad barons upsetting their ma. And he paints his outlaws with a populist tint, to please New Deal Democrats as well as Dixiecrats who knew the real backstory.

However, the broad outlines of their rise and fall are intact. We see a gradual slide into semi-chivalrous villainy (they didn't rob train passengers, only mails), a 'Liberty Valance'-like exploitation of their coups by political orators and editors, Jesse's becoming consumed by his own legend, and the final botched bank job at Northfield, Minnesota. That leads to a panicky flight and an attempt to live semi-respectably under pseudonyms, followed by Bob Ford's betrayal as Jesse turns art curator.

The film is pleasingly quiet between action set pieces, free of the obtrusive music that was often the curse of Hollywood soundtracks and laced with good lines from Johnson's florid pen. And above all, surrounded by good character actors, we have two rising Zanuck stars tussling enjoyably for mastery, both in the plot and career-wise.

Henry King had become Power's preferred handler ('In Old Chicago' the previous year had been a wow) and both men evidently relish the challenge of tweaking his 'nice bank teller' image a little. Swarthy and bearded betimes, barking out orders to older subordinates, Power does fine. Fonda's grand remonstrance, when he tells Junior that he's turning into a suicidal psycho, is ably played and paced. The soft early tripack Technicolor looks sweet both outdoors-- Ford was getting similar results in 'Drums Along the Mohawk'-- and in candle-lit interiors.

Also noteworthy is Jesse's respectful, confiding relationship with his black ex-slave Pinky (Ernest Whitman) when he decides not to pursue Frank. Black maids could sass their mistresses in crazy comedies, but this quality of understanding between men of different colours was unusual in early-talkie Hollywood.

'Jesse James' was released in Hollywood's peak year, 1939. It's understandable that it was overlooked. But when we've done finger-wagging at the cruelty to horses which led the American Humane Association to demand supervisory privileges over stampedes-- and the cruelty to female Central Casting members which allowed Power to father a child on one-- we can still appreciate a good, workmanlike travesty of outlaw history. As a distortion of the James-Younger saga it has not been surpassed.

Finding Forrester

Forest of folly
No surprise to find that this screenplay was penned by a morning drivetime DJ, since it's a jerk's idea of literary greatness that animates it: the sentimental notions of someone who will probably never write a novel, good or bad, but spend his days scratching out scenarios for development hell. (Perhaps he'll "novelise" one of them?) William Forrester appears modelled on J.D. Salinger, except that this hermit stays holed up in the middle of a busy neighborhood of New York City instead of a quiet, thrifty cabin in New England. Like Salinger, Forrester was a one-hit wonder: 'Avalon Landing' must have been a hit indeed to keep him in idleness for over 40 years. He has a gofer to bring him groceries and fresh socks, since he has become agoraphobic; he also has cancer, which might have got him out of the apartment, but no... it takes cheeky young black prodigy Jamal to put the old curmudgeon back on his push-bike and remind him what Life Is Really All About.

Jamal is not only a literary prodigy who can trump his sour Eng Lit teacher on every quote with the reflexes of a Wilt Chamberlain. Just to show he ain't jes actin' white, man, we never see him read anything (maybe he does it all by telepathy) but we do see him struttin' his stuff on the basketball court, and deliberately letting his teammates down when he chooses to thumb his nose at The Man. Jamal's at this toney, WASP-y academy; and by another miracle of contrivance, the crabby "professor" who suspects the lad of cribbing his assignments-- rightly, in one instance-- is an old rival of Forrester the one-book genius in the cutthroat world of NYC letters. So the stage is set for a final showdown, with creativity vindicated and criticism abashed.

In fact, so creaky is the narrative that this is not the end. There are several more false-alarm curtain scenes to follow. But long before the fadeout, we are drowning in treacle of the genus TV Movie of the Week, unaccountably given a feature film's budget.

Sure, Forrester is allowed a couple of F-words, though the pupil remains chaste in diction. Apparently you can swear and get a '12' certificate these days: my, how we've progressed since Otto Preminger broke the Code by using the word 'virgin'. Most of Forrester's surly wisdom is cracker-barrel advice about being a writer-- forcing the stuff out of your psyche on to the page-- on the Dale Carnegie level. The boy has to promise not to ask his guru why he dried up after one book, and Mr Mike Rich honours this pledge all too faithfully, except to imply that if unhappy things happen to a born writer, it stops him working. Well, that's a Hollywood wannabe for you. All the same we catch Forrester fiddling with piles of manuscript now and again. Is this his posthumous second work of genius, like Salinger's legendary Glass family saga? The screenplay is cryptic.

Otherwise, during this 'Driving Miss Daisy through the 'Hood', entertainment can be derived from Connery's rug, from his cursory recension of the gruff Irish cop in 'The Untouchables', and from one more contribution to the ever-lengthening list of scriptwriter's excuses for Connery not attempting an accent: Forrester migrated to the States from Scotland after World War Two, you see. That makes his ability to turn out an abiding American classic a few years later even more miraculous, but still... One ends by feeling that this movie is not quite as egregious a folly as van Sant's literal remake of 'Psycho', but it's close enough for a small cigar.

The Smallest Show on Earth

The Last All-British Picture Show
A struggling novelist and his wife inherit a 'fleapit' cinema in an Midlands glue-manufacturing town, which shudders to its foundations every time an express train passes. Abetted by an alcoholic projectionist, genteel cashier and doddering odd job man, they defy the wiles of a rival picture palace proprietor.

Basil Dearden's versatility makes his directorial career somewhat of a mystery, like John Huston's. Beginning as cutter and technical assistant to the great Will Hay, he progressed through 'issue' movies ( 'Frieda', the colossally influential 'Blue Lamp', 'Sapphire', 'Victim') into action blockbusters, and before his untimely death brought off a handsome, deft comedy thriller, 'The Assassination Bureau'. Otherwise he was not much noted for laughs, and 'The Smallest Show on Earth' came after a spell taking joint credit in the chair with his producing partner Michael Relph; so perhaps it is more heartfelt than most films Dearden signed.

Certainly it now seems doubly nostalgic. Within the narrative, the elderly staff hark back to the dear dead days of silent movies; yet the one they replay, Cecil Hepworth's remake of 'Coming Through the Rye', was only as far back in their time as 'The Godfather' in ours. The film's present day, 1957, is way back from ours: a time of steam trains, family firms of solicitors and all-white hooligans who wear collars and ties, when old people could safely walk home from work after dark.

But it was also an era when the telly (never mentioned as a rival here) was draining all cinemas, not just the Bijoux, of patrons. Their sites were being ravaged for supermarkets and bingo halls. The only danger in this story is that the Grand will snap up the site as a car park. In the end the tables are turned, and the Bijou's inheritors depart to Samarkand with £10,000 (say £166,000/$300,000 in today's money) after a plot development which unfortunately is neither plausible nor morally creditable.

That apart, the tone of gentle and graceful fun is maintained smoothly, with little slapstick or mugging on the part of the rich supporting cast. Sellers, 32, who had been off the big screen for two years, draws on his 'Willum' character in 'The Goons' for the tippling projectionist; Dame Margaret Rutherford, likewise absent for a while, is an endearing grande dame and as usual procures a tiny part for her husband, Stringer Davis; and the future Lord Miles, aged 50, bumbles about octogenarianishly as old Tom. Leslie Phillips, two years before 'Carry On Nurse' redefined him as a Lothario, is a friendly local lawyer. Sid James, then riding high as Tony Hancock's foil on TV, is against type in a cameo as the aggrieved father of the Bijou's enceinte usherette, wrongly suspecting Bill Travers.

Which brings us to the faintly anodyne central couple. It's customary in comedy for such as these to 'stand in' for the audience itself, guiding its reactions to the grotesques that encircle them. Bill and Virginia are as bland and bourgeois as anyone could ask, but in her jut-jawed resolution and his moments of putting his foot down there are hints of steel. Alas, a few years later 'Born Free', lions and conservation derailed both their careers. The reviewer who compared Travers with Cary Grant in his ability to convey exasperation and helplessness while remaining, at bottom, in control of the audience was not overstating the case. (Kenneth More, Travers's Fifties contemporary, was showing the same skill more consistently and genially in 'The Admirable Crichton'.)

The picture is beautifully art-directed. Mr Quill's wheezing projection gear, Mrs Fazackalee's cubby hole and old Tom's rusted radiators are evocative. The script packs in every gag about poverty-row Electric Theatre operations: the audience barracks and accompanies the action of the cheap westerns on screen, snogs in the back row, gasps for soft drinks during scenes set in the desert and stampedes for the exit before the National Anthem. Then there are the sight gags of a performance going wrong every which way under Travers's prentice hand, which top 'Singin' in the Rain'.

Too many British cinemas of the period were like the Bijou. Consciously or not, Dearden was writing the epitaph of his industry. Within a few years, not only would most small towns lack a picture palace, but the production end would be as Americanised as the Bijou's procession of oaters.

Dearden was an Ealing Studios alumnus. Ealing perished the year 'The Smallest Show on Earth' was released, but something of its spirit lingers in this 'Titfield Thunderbolt' redivivus: one of the very rare movies about how movies are screened.

The Astonished Heart

'Darling, you're making me so dreadfully ashamed'
By the late 1940s, after total war and subsequent insolvency, the Brits were gasping for glamour. Their movies supplied it in the Herbert Wilcox/Anna Neagle cycle of London comedies, and Gainsborough weighed in with this romantic melo where everyone suffers in splendour.

Main setting is a Park Lane flat/office. White telephones, quilted headboards, furs, fresh flowers and cocktails. Miss Leighton is gowned by Edward Molyneux. The only hint of post-war austerity is that the tea shop where the two loves of Noel Coward's life accidentally meet has run out of biscuits.

The dialogue is peppered with 'marvellous', 'simply dreadful', 'frightful', 'absolutely'. The vowels are Mayfair-posh: 'thet' for that, 'may' for my, 'Peris' as a city for Johnson to run away to. Like the pronunciation, the story's attitudes and values feel too old for escapism: World War Two and a socialist government had left them behind.

Source material is a playlet from the 1930s anthology 'Tonight at 8.30', as 'Brief Encounter' was developed from 'Still Life'. But this one has no comic relief like the Holloway/Carey byplay to throw the lovers' crises into perspective; the playlet is expanded only to pile on the agony. Blame Coward, who wrote the screenplay and the lush symphonic score. He was surrounded by old pals Johnson, Carey and Payn, with Gladys Calthrop as artistic adviser but no Cineguild (Lean, Neame or Havelock-Allan) to control his excesses.

Terence Fisher later made some stylish Hammer horrors, but here, not long out of the cutting room, his staging and camera-work are as dull as in an episode of 'Colonel March of Scotland Yard'. The illicit pair's sojourn in Venice is covered by a few cheesy back-projections. Coward's big final scene prefigures Fisher's future with Dracula and Frankenstein in that he processes about like a zombie or golem. But he is generally adequate, if never more buttoned-up, portraying a heterosexual-- unlike (say) Ian McKellen.

There is a teaser opening with Johnson doing a flashback narration as in 'Brief Encounter'. Coward does not appear until two reels in. It transpires he's Dr Christian Faber: a fashionable, uptight and overworked shrink, 'one of the most famous psychiatrists in the world'. He goes missing after wife Johnson discovers and unnervingly tolerates his fling with Leighton, her school contemporary, a divorced, fickle expat on the loose. (Johnson was 14 years older than Leighton; and though meant to be 34 in the story, she was 42.)

The title alludes to 'The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and astonishment of heart' (Deuteronomy). Physician, heal thyself. As we know from his diaries, Coward did experience bouts of amour fou which he half-regretted for interfering with the work which, he once said, was 'more fun than fun'. When Dr Faber's not mooning over Leighton, cigarette in hand, his brisk way with patients resembles Capt Kinross's buttressing of morale on the lower deck in 'In Which We Serve'.

The tale could be Coward's way of obliquely acknowledging the drawbacks of his clipped, corseted approach to life and emotions, which was beginning to be mocked. He was no longer the child prodigy or even the wartime booster. In the 1950s, as kitchen sinks displaced french windows, the Master would lose touch with the mood of theatre critics (if not audiences) and would increasingly appear as a cabaret performer and featured player in others' films, mass-marketing his persona for rich Americans.

'The Astonished Heart' was his last serious stab at cinematic auteurisme. It was the diminuendo end of an ace decade on and behind the screen. For a blistering portrayal of the same sort of guilt, we must turn to his old 'Brief Encounter' colleague Trevor Howard in 'The Heart of the Matter'.

Out of the Clouds

Heathrow cleared for take-off
After Ealing's 'Dead of Night', ensemble films-- sets of short stories linked by theme- caught on in Britain. And after 'Train of Events' (1949), Relph and Dearden had another bash with this pre-'Airport' (and pre-'Airplane!') compendium of tears, love and laughter set at London's Heathrow Airport. Michael Balcon eased the purse strings to permit shooting in Eastmancolour-- all those blue skies and silver speed birds-- but the cast, apart from Lorenz and the British-based American David Knight, is British Commonwealth (Robert Beattie, a Canadian, worked mainly over here) and the low-key tone is Anglo too.

'Out of the Clouds' can be seen as a continuation of the post-war 'victory against the odds' genre: uniforms, stiff upper lips, quasi-military routines with room for the odd romance or shared confidence between male pilots (officers) and subservient female stewardesses. During a sticky landing, the airport firemen standing by are shot from heroic low angles as if by Humphrey Jennings. Anthony Steel as a philandering, smuggling cockpit jockey is like the statutory bad apple in a POW camp.

But wartime memories feed into the film's inspiration in a less obvious manner. It reflects a brief surge of optimism about Britain leading the world in civil aviation.

Heathrow, though it looks like a desert here, has been operating for almost ten years. It is on its way to becoming the busiest crossroads of air travel, as well as the greatest noise pollution disaster in Europe. The central area already has its control tower and first purpose-built terminal-- a far cry from the tent city which hastily arose in 1945 after a cabal of civil servants and airline managers fooled Churchill into green lighting the forced appropriation of Middlesex's best farmland, on the pretext that the RAF needed a bigger field near London than Northolt. In the movie all the airliners are prop-driven; but De Havilland has just produced the first jet, the Comet, and its fatal metal-fatigue flaws are not yet understood.

Here on view is the half-forgotten period when passengers embarked so near the lounge that friends could wave them on board; when stewardesses, not Tannoys, addressed travellers courteously and by name; when security precautions were cursory; when BOAC and Pan Am embodied national pride; and, more fancifully, when a cabbie would give a foreign couple a tour of 'the real London' ending in his own home.

Interestingly the main plot concerns an Auschwitz survivor: very rare in film fiction 50 years ago. This Austrian orphan is diverted from marrying an elderly ex-GI in Wisconsin by meeting a young hydrologist who wants to make the desert bloom in the new Israel. Balcon seldom let his Jewishness show so clearly.

Britflick fans will enjoy plane-spotting faces such as James Robertson Justice, on the verge of Hollywood stardom in 'Land of the Pharoahs'; ever-fluttery, downtrodden Esma Cannon; Sid James, gambling on his wife's life with travel insurance; Terence Alexander, the future Charlie Hungerford of 'Bergerac', as a flight controller; Abraham Sofaer, celestial judge in 'A Matter of Life and Death', as a talkative Indian; and Bernard Lee, aka 'M', as a customs man with a nose for Steel's suitcase shenanigans.

Steel, as usual, projects suave unreliability, like a more reined-in Laurence Harvey. Twenty years later he would be outraging Corinne Cléry in 'Histoire d'O'.

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