Saturday, 29 August 2020

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Carole Lombard and William Powell flirt, fight and buttel in My Man Godfrey

Director: Gregory La Cava
Cast: William Powell (Godfrey), Carole Lombard (Irene Bullock), Alice Brady (Angelica Bullock), Gail Patrick (Cornelia Bullock), Jean Dixon (Molly), Eugene Pallette (Alexander Bullock), Alan Mowbray (Tommy Gray), Mischa Auer (Carlo), Pat Flaherty (Mike)

My Man Godfrey is one of the most beloved of all screwball comedies. It’s also the only film in history to be nominated in every acting category and the directing and writing categories at the Oscars and still not get nominated for Best Picture (proving comedy was devalued even then). Today it still carries a heck of a comedic wallop, splicing this in with an ever more acute and profound social commentary. It’s a gem of Golden Era Hollywood.

With New York in the midst of the Great Depression, affluent socialites the Bullock sisters – snob Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and ditzy, scatter-brained Irene (Carole Lombard) – are in hunt for a “forgotten man” so they can claim victory in their scavenger hunt. In a rubbish dump – turned home for the unemployed – they find the well-spoken Godfrey (William Powell). Godfrey is having none of the condescension of Cornelia, but finds the honesty and kindness of Irene more touching agrees to help her win the prize – whereupon he promptly admonishes the upper-class crowd at the Waldorf for their lack of concern for the working man. Ashamed, Irene offers him the job of Bullock family butler, which Godfrey accepts. But as he navigates the eccentric family, is Godfrey also hiding secrets of his own, secrets that suggest he is much more than he seems?

My Man Godfrey is a very funny film, centre-piecing the fast-paced comedic delivery of the era, the script never going more than a minute without a killer line or brilliant piece of comedic business. It’s helped as well by the casting, with every actor being perfectly selected for their roles, and each of them bringing their absolute A-game. Not least the partnership of Powell and Lombard – divorced in real life but still close – who spark off each other wonderfully and keep the will-they-won’t-they question beautifully balanced throughout the whole film. 

La Cava’s film – wonderfully directed with imagination and visual chutzpah – matches this up with an extremely neat, but not too preachy, line in social commentary. The self-obsessions and petty concerns of the Bullock family are frequently contrasted with the poverty and struggles of the working man, while the families’ lack of concern for the struggles of the vagrants and down-and-outs only a taxi ride away from their mansion home is striking. Godfrey frequently points up this lack of empathy in this ‘classless’ country (which is in fact defined by class), stressing he found more decency and kindness at the rubbish dump than he did in the palaces of the mighty. 

Sure Godfrey’s secret may well be that he is from loaded stock himself – but has given it all up in shame and self-disgust – but that only makes him all the better an observer of the whims of the rich treading on the poor. In fact My Man Godfrey could well be the film for today. The scavenger hunt dinner – a brilliantly directed, frenetic scene that looks years ahead of its time in its technical accomplishment – really captures this. The guests haw and shout over each other, clutching with an ironic glee their examples of poverty (from everyday objects to a goat to, of course. the ‘forgotten’ man, who has as much value as the goat to them). We get more of it at the posh clubs and cocktail parties the Bullock frequent, the guests (while not cruel) being as blasé and oblivious of their fortune as they are of the suffering in the rest of the city.

But that makes this sound like a civics lessons, whereas the film is first-and-foremost a comedy. It has a terrific performance from William Powell as Godfrey. Powell makes the part a mix of Jeeves and Wooster: the intelligence and calm of Jeeves with the warmth and tendency for scrapes of Wooster. Powell is brilliant at balancing the wry observer quality of Godfrey, while never sacrificing his warmer, generous soul. And also brilliantly suggests his wonderful judgement of situations and characters, without ever making him smug or a know-it-all. It’s a quite exquisite performance of unflappility covering emotional depth.

Lombard sparks off him very well as Irene, allowed to frequently head further over the top as Powell grounds Godfrey in normality (Lombard was a famously electric performer, and the outtakes reel for the film frequently show her screwing up her fast-paced dialogue with copious swear-words). Today the more ditzy Irene sometimes comes across as a more tiresome, less believable character – she is so obviously a narrative construction rather than someone who could be real that it becomes harder to connect with her (or to imagine Godfrey might find her attractive). But Lombard’s energy and drive carries the film through and the film highlights her electric qualities in several show-stopping scenes.

The entire Bullock household is in fact spot in, with gorgeous performances. Alice Brady (Oscar-nominated) is the quintessential disapproving society mother, archly self-obsessed. Eugene Pallette is wonderfully funny as the exasperated father of the household, barely able to understand either his family or his investments. Gail Patrick is a delight as Irene’s manipulative sister, proud and selfish. Mischa Auer (Oscar nominated surely off the bag of his extraordinary gorilla impersonation) is very funny as Angelica’s “protégé”, a preening, talent-free musician and freeloader who spends most of his scenes eating. Jean Dixon is smart and sassy as the maid Molly. There isn’t a bum note in this ensemble.

La Cava directs all this with great skill, framing the action with a beautiful sense of composition, pace and style. You know you are in save hands with the opening scene that show the credits appearing like neon bill boards during a slow, continuous tracking shot along the New York riverside. With dialogue that glides beautifully from humour to pathos, and delivery that creates comic archetypes that feel like real people, it’s a film that gets nearly everything right – which is why it’s still a classic today.

The Entertainer (1960)

Laurence Olivier excels as a faded music hall star in The Entertainer

Director: Tony Richardson
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Archie Rice), Brenda de Banzie (Phoebe Rice), Roger Livesey (Billy Rice), Joan Plowright (Jean Rice), Alan Bates (Frank Rice), Daniel Massey (Graham), Shirley Anne Field (Tina Lapford), Thora Hird (Mrs Lapford), Albert Finney (Mick Rice)

In the late 1950s Laurence Olivier was worried about his career. While he was still doing Shakespeare and Coward comedies (intermixed with the odd film), the world of acting and theatre was moving on. Not least as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was taking the West End by storm. Olivier seemed the polar opposite of the “Angry Young Men” of British theatre, a dusty relic. So Olivier changed gears – and his entire life – by asking to be cast in the lead role of Osborne’s next play The Entertainer. Olivier’s sensational stage performance – captured here on film – radically changed the path of both his career and his life, with his long-troubled marriage to Vivien Leigh broking down during it. But he also cemented himself as the leading British actor.

Olivier plays Archie Rice, a failing never-has-been end-of-pier comedy performer at an unnamed Seaside town in 1956. Rice’s routines are old-and-tired, his comedy tinged with desperation and he’s all but broke. Archie’s audiences are tired, bored and unamused. His home life, with his faded former beauty champ wife (Brenda de Banzie) is on the ropes due to his constant infidelity. His father (Roger Livesey) – a music hall celebrity with real talent – loves him but thinks he’s a disasater waiting to happen. His son Frank (Alan Bates) adores him but his daughter Jean (Joan Plowright) is more realistic. Archie through continues to peddle the idea of a success being round the corner, trying to put together a hit revue starring his latest mistress (Shirley Anne Field) and funded by her parents. Things will not end well.

The Entertainer’s main claim to historical note is that it captures that sensational stage performance of Laurence Olivier in the lead role. Olivier had always liked to claim that, with a few zigs and zags in his career, he would have become a third-rate comedian. His performance – with its ingratiating patter, it’s seedy sexually ambivalent campness, his selfishness and self-obsession and greed – is brilliant. Archie’s entire life is a desperate struggle to get himself the career he wants – while trying to shut his eyes to his own lack of talent (of which he is painfully aware). Olivier captures superbly not only the front of a man bent on self-promotion, but also the dead-eyed horror of a man who is aware all the time that he is dying inside.

Olivier’s eyes are drill-holes of death, and his life is an exhibition of selfish patter, with a constant sense of performance in every inch of Archie’s life. He’s a run-down, finished and disillusioned man trying to pluck what few moments of pleasure he can from a life he is only going through the motions in. All of it covered with a coating of self-delusion that quickly crumbles into sweaty desperation. While the film can only give a taste of the Olivier stage performance, it re-enforces Olivier’s energy, creativity and bravery. Olivier’s both bravura and tragically tired music hall performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Away from Olivier’s exceptional capturing of the washed up patter of the sleazy loser, it’s easy to overlook most of the rest of the film. But it’s directed with a kitchen-sink freshness by Tony Richardson, who brilliantly captures the faded grandeur and grubby failure of a failing seaside resort. Osborne’s play used the decline of music hall as a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire and while the film (for all its Suez references) doesn’t quite convey this, favouring instead domestic tragedy, it still perfectly captures the crumbling world of Rice and his ilk. Rice’s father – Roger Livesey, excellent and about a year older than Olivier – is a relic of the success of this era, and still carries some of its glamour, but still lives as a virtual tenant in the Rice home, eating spare cake where he can.

While the film is dominated by Olivier, this presentation of the play as a domestic tragedy works rather well. Brenda de Banzie (also reprising her role from stage) is very good as an ex-glamour puss (and former mistress of Archie) now turned into a faded, depressed matron, drunkenly bitter about what her life has (not) led to. Joan Plowright is excellent as the knowing daughter, alternately sympathetic and appalled at her father. Shirley Anne Field’s naïve lover is suitably naïve, under the control of her battleaxe mother, well played by Thora Hird. The cast is rounded out with Alan Bates and Albert Finney (both in debuts) as Archie’s sons.

While the film feels a little overlong at times, and is perhaps too much in thrall to Olivier, it offers a neat kitchen-sink view of failure and corruption in British life of the 1950s. There is, of course, no hope and no second chances here. Only the long, wearying decline and rotting as Archie’s life disintegrates under pressure and his own incompetent self-delusion. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O'Neal is Barry Lyndon in Kubrick's brilliantly distant epic

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Michael Hordern (Narrator), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Marie Kean (Belle Barry), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), André Morell (Lord Wendover), Anthony Sharp (Lord Hallam), Philip Stone (Graham), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeney)

Kubrick has been criticised as a director more interested in style and the technical tricks of cinema than emotion, and there is perhaps no argument for the prosecution than Barry Lyndon. It now seems to the cineaste’s choice du jour as the greatest Kubrick film (probably partly because it is less well-known). Barry Lyndon however is like an exercise in all Kubrick’s strengths and weaknesses, a film that you can admire at great length while simultaneously caring very little about anything that happens in it.

Based on a William Makepeace Thackeray (although it feels in spirit only), Barry Lyndon tells the story of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the mid eighteenth century. Fleeing Ireland after (he believes) killing an English officer in a duel, Barry goes from the British arm to the Prussian army, to card-sharping the courts of Europe to marrying into the aristocracy, as husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). But, however hard he tries, it’s difficult for an Irish chancer to be accepted by the British aristocracy, particularly when he suffers from the vocal hatred of his wife’s son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). 

Kubrick spent several years carrying out research for an epic biopic of Napoleon (he had Ian Holm lined up for the lead role – Holm read multiple biographies and spent months working on a script with Kubrick). The flop of Waterloo (with a deliciously hammy Rod Steiger as Napoleon) killed off the chances of that film making it to the screen. Never-the-less Kubrick now had a vast archive of research for the period – and how easy it was to shift the focus of this research back a few decades. Thackeray’s novel was his chance to put all this to use – and allow Kubrick to indulge what had become a passion for the style of the era.

Barry Lyndon won four Oscars – and all in the areas where the film deserves unqualified praise. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, surely a contender for one of the most strikingly gorgeous films ever made. Ken Adam’s set design utilises a superb range of locations across the UK, dressed to breath-taking effect. The costumes, completely accurate to the period, are exquisitely detailed (Milan Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland) and lusciously mounted. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a wonderful riff on a range of masterpieces from classical music, including Handel, Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Most strikingly Kubrick decided to film as much as possible with natural lighting only, rather than the vast array of lighting bought in for most films. This was part of Kubrick’s intention to avoid any sense of the studio to his film – everything was to be shot on location and to help immerse the viewer in the detail of the period. Shots were framed to imitate artists of the period, in particular Hogarth. Evening scenes were shot lit only by candle-light, leading to truly stunning images, simply superbly lit. John Alcott’s photograhy utilised (and I’m serious here) NASA designed cameras used for the moon landings to capture images in such low light. Visually, Barry Lyndon may be one of the most perfect films ever made. It’s wonderful – and any doubts that Kubrick is not a true master of cinema should be dismissed.

But Kubrick’s problem, as always? He’s a technocrat artist who lacks some soul. So much time and energy has been expelled on the visuals and the design – the film took almost a year to shoot – that, while you are constantly almost hypnotised by its sublime imagery, it slowly occurs to you that you couldn’t care less about most of the events that happen in it. For all the film’s great length and beauty, it’s a cold and distant film. Kubrick turns Thackeray’s rogueish comic tale – a picaresque dance – into a chillingly sterile meditation on fate, with Barry transformed from a rogue and chancer into a lifeless, passive figure to whom things happen rather than ever attempting to instigate them. 

Is this Kubrick’s idea of humanity? Perhaps it suits the director who was the great master of intricate design and traps, that he would be tempted to turn this story into one where humans are just another piece of set dressing moved around and manipulated by an unseen force (fate, or rather a director?). The distancing effect is further by super-imposing an all-knowing narrator over the events, who frequently pre-empts what will happen and stresses the powerlessness of men. (On a side note, the book is narrated by Barry as were early screenplay drafts – perhaps the idea of O’Neal’s flat voice narrating so much of the action horrified Kubrick. It’s a definite improvement to get Michael Hordern’s tones talking to us for three hours.)

Perhaps though, the failure to capture any sense of Thackeray’s satirical wit, is a sharp reveal of Kubrick’s own inability to appreciate comedy – without the guiding hand of a Peter Sellers to support him. The problem is exacerbated by Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Kubrick was ordered to hire one of the top ten box office draws of 1972 in the lead role – alas only O’Neal and Redford were the correct age and sex, and Redford (first choice) could never see himself as an Irishman masquerading as an Englishman. So O’Neal got the job – and the film is a damning indictment of his lack of charisma, flat and dry delivery and inability to bring life and energy to the proceedings (although O’Neal has blamed the editing partly for this, as well as the extended shoot). The film helped put an end to O’Neal’s career as a star (already on the wane) – and he is the film’s greatest weakness, in a role that needed more of the impish charm of Malcolm McDowell (although the lead actor from any of Kubrick’s films would have been superior). O’Neal’s presence turns Barry into a character we care nothing for, in a story already coldly distant.

O’Neal is also not helped by Kubrick’s utilising again his great love of striking British character actors – every role is filled with a recognisable face from 1970s British film and TV, each bringing colour and vibrancy to their (often brief) scenes. From Leonard Rossiter – weasily as you’d expect – as the captain Barry thinks he kills, through Patrick Magee’s ambivalently sinister Chevalier, Marie Kean’s loving mother, Murray Melvin’s obsequious priest, Godfrey Quigley’s matey army officer there is not a weak turn elsewhere in the movie. Leon Vitali brings real depth and energy into the film late on as Barry’s son-in-law and hated rival. Even Marisa Berenson – reduced to a dozen lines at most – makes an emotional impression as a woman trapped into serving the needs of the men in her life.

All these actors however are revolving in a movie that gets stuck and overwhelmed in its own grandeur and beauty. There are many wonderful sequences – with the film bookended by two duelling sequences that explore the strange rules and conventions with this society with a vicious black humour. Kubrick’s points about the oppressive insularity of the establishment – and the amount of forgiveness it has for its own, compared to the instant judgement of the outsider – are generally well-made, but are at times so laced with the director’s own cynical views of humanity in general (an increasingly clear trait in his later work) that they carry little impact. Despite this the film is never less than strangely captivating, even if its very easy to let it drift past you rather than invest in it.

But above all, while the film is stunning and the direction of Kubrick near faultless, the film itself gets so close to a great painting that it becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, but not to invest in. Kubrick couldn’t match his genius with the sort of emotion or wit that the story needed (much as it’s vastly superior to Tom Jones, that film gets closer to the spirit of authors like Thackeray than this ever does). Instead, he creates a coldly sterile world, like a perfect experiment in form and style that totally forgets such trivial elements as character and story. For all the film is full of character and events, you’ll find you care very little about them – and that the brilliance of Kubrick is only a partial consolation for that loss.