•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  
We're campaigning for a Special DVD edition of "The Night of the Hunter": Join the cause!
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Two items of the lost & found type

One of the great things of the internet era is much more easier to come accross things which otherwise should have been missed.

As an instance of that, I'm bringing to the visitors of this blog two examples of rare Laughtonware of which I just came aware through Youtube.

Filmed Galileo, by Ruth Berlau
Laughton as Galileo, William Phipps as Andrea and Mickey Knox as the Little Monk, in a photo from the Los Angeles staging

"In describing Laughton's Galileo Galilei the playwright is setting out not so much to try and give a little more permanence to one of those fleeting works of art that actors create, as to pay tribute to the pains a great actor is prepared to take over a fleeting work of this sort". So wrote Bertolt Brecht in "Building up a part: Laughton's Galileo".

It is indeed a pity that great stage work is usually only enjoyed by contemporaries, leaving little, or no trace for the future. Nowadays many stage performances may occasionally be captured in video, but older events are lost forever. Still, one can try to figure, even if in a platonic way, an approximative idea, from testimonials, reviews and pictures, how a performance might have been.

In the case of the 1947 stagings of Galileo, we have Brecht's word, and also the photographs which Ruth Berlau took during rehearsals.

Time ago, I was lucky to see a documentary titled "My name is Bertolt Brecht, Exile in U.S.A." (produced in 1989), in a local film festival: and I was thrilled to see that it contained silent filmed excerpts of Laughton's performance as Galileo. The directors (Norbert Bunge and ChristineFisher-Defoy) were present, so I asked Mr. Bunge about the footage, and he told me that there were filmed bits of the stage production in the Brecht archives in East Berlin. Very interesting to know. however, i was led to think that those were just only a few short filmed bits.

But recently, I came across a one-minute bit from a documentary about Ruth Berlau in Youtube ( Click here to watch it), in which, apart from it showing bits which I had not seen in the other documentary, it is mentioned that Ruth Berlau's filmed record is more extensive than I believed: she shot the entire play. Albeit it was done with a domestic camera, in Black and White, and from a static position (in fact, as an spectator might have seen it in the theatre), well, the mere idea of it being available to be seen is mind-boggling.

Click here to learn more about the documentary containing these images, "Red Ruth: That Deadly Longing"

Stopover in Bombay

Another surprise foud in Youtube is a video from a TV programme hosted and starred by Laughton titled "Stopover in Bombay". According to the notes accompanying the video, the show was never aired! It seems that it was a pilot of a series to be hosted by Laughton, who would also play parts in some of the series' episodes.

The date seems to be 1958, which is interesting, as it shows that, even though Laughton didn't do much films after "The Night of The Hunter", he was certainly busy, albeit in other mediums.

Click here to watch the video.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A propos Jane Wyman: The Blue Veil

Laughton, Jane Wyman, and director Curtis Bernhard resting between scenes

"The Blue Veil" (1951) is a rare film: one with a multi-stellar cast and two Oscar nominations which has almost dissapeared from sight. Of all the films from Laughton's filmography is one of the most difficult to locate. I must say that, while originally released in my country, I have yet to see a TV broadcast of it, let alone a video or DVD release. It was only through the kind help of an American Laughtonian (who sent me the tape which he had recorded, years ago, from a TV airing), that I was finally able to see it. Well, "see it" is here a figure of speech, as the image in the tape was somewhat faded, and the viewing was interrupted by commercial pauses here and there, so my comments on the film are bound to be somewhat incomplete: I can't, certainly, make a proper comment on the film's photography, such was the poor image quality of the tape.

Having watched it, I am of the opinion that the film is a good, watchable melodrama, well worth a DVD release. However, it seems that the same reason that has kept that film in the vaults, and unavailable for TV broadcasts or video releases so far, is a matter of rights' ownership. Honest, I don't think that it takes such an incredible amount of money to satisfy these copyright issues, so whoever the responsible, please, pay for thew rights so this film becomes available for view again.

The Blue Veil was based on a French wartime film "Le Voile Bleu" (1942). It was released in the United states after the war (1947) and it is likely that its American release impressed RKO's studio heads enough to consider an American adaptation. It certainly looked like a good vehicle for Jane Wyman to star in: The young actres had proved he could play substantial lead roles and character parts, and her ascending star through films like The Yearling, Johnny Belinda (for which she won an Oscar) , Stage Fright, made of her an ideal actress for a melodrama such as "The Blue Veil".

Spanish herald advertising the film

The film was indeed meant as a quality product, apart from a spectacular cast including
Jane Wyman, Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell (who would earn an Oscar nomination for her role in the picture), Agnes Moorehead, Cyril Cusack, Everett Sloane and Natalie Wood.Norman Corwin, the famed radio writer, was responsible for the adaptation of François Campaux's original story. You may remember Corwin as the author of the screenplay of "Lust for Life", but I'd like to point here that Laughton had worked in a number of remarkable radio programmes written by him: It is not a widely-known fact from Charles' career, and unfairly so, as these programmes are indeed worth listening and should be recovered... But then this is another story, to which I'll come back in another post sometime in the future.

Maybe the lower-profile element of the film is the director, whose name won't ring many bells, even to dedicated filmophiles, which may disregard him a priori as a journeyman. Curtis Bernhard had been working mainly in Germany, a country which he had to leave prior to the Second World War, as so many did, due to the fact that he was Jewish. He was therefore part of the exiled European contingent which enriched the former Hollywood with their talent and/or craftmanship. His directing in "The Blue Veil", while not spectacular, is competent enough.

The story
(you may skip the next few paragraphs if you don't want to be spoiled about the plot)

American first release poster

This is the story of Louise Mason, a woman who loses her husband in First World War, and then her child. Looking for a job, but not having any special training or skills, she is eventually offered the chance to work taking care of children.

Her first customer, a recently widowed corset-maker (Charles Laughton), is so satisfied about how she keeps his child, and so drawn to her good character, that he proposes her marriage: she kindly declines, as she rightly guesses that it's the man's uncapability to bear a lonely life, rather than genuine love, what motivates his otherwise well-meaning proposal. However, the corsetmaker's secretary has no such qualms and marries him, and with the child having a new mother, Louise looses the job.

Her next employers are a wealthy couple (Agnes Moorehead and Don Taylor). Louise takes care of the younger son, while his older brother is tutored by an idealistic young teacher who resents his steady, but far from exciting job, and yearns for far horizons. Louise and the teacher get friendly, and, when he takes an offer to work in a foreign land, he asks Louise to marry him, and she accepts. Her employer wishes them the best of luck, even though she tells them that she feels that the whole thing is a bit rushed. Louise has no doubts, but her suitor suddenly becomes hesitant. Feeling her fiancé is too doubtful about such their future relationship, Louise refuses to marry such a vacillant partner and returns to her work.

We next see Louise taking care of a teenage girl (Natalie Wood), the daughter of a singer (Joan Blondell). The singer is very devoted to her career, to the point that she neglects her daughter, who increasingly turns to Louise as a mother figure. When te singer doesn't attend the girl's confirmation due to an important audition, the girl introduces Louise to her friends as her mother. Considering that the whole thing has gone too far, Louise quits, not without telling the singer her reasons, which realizes that she should be more of a mother than she has been, and ready to turn down offers for future shows which might come between she and her daughter.

Later, Louise is employed by a young couple. The husband is British, and when a new war breaks out in Europe, he leaves the Sates to join the army. When the husband is wounded, his American wife leaves as well to take care of him, enthrusting her child to Louise. The husband dies and her widow marries someone else again, forgetting about her son. Years pass and Louise has become, to all efects, the child's mother. Sudenly, she gets a notice that his biological mother and her new husband have returned to claim the child, but Louise refuses to give them back the boy, who is like a son to her, to a mother that hasn't cared for him in years. The District Attorney (Everett Sloane), gives the kid back to her biological mother, even though he considers Louise to be the real mother. But he must stick to what the law says.

Louise is now an aged woman, and she is considered too old to nurse children. Having no other working experience, she ends as a cleaning woman in a school, where at least she's in contact with children, but otherwise leads a lonely life with no-one to take care of her in her old age... Will all the unreserved love she gave to so many children go unrewarded? Maybe, maybe not... Hey! I'm not spoiling the end :p

This is the kind of film which is usually described as "tearjerker", yet its efficacy in the Kleenex department doesn't mean it is an overwrought melodrama... In fact it is quite restrained. Examples of it might be the almost-silent scene when Louise realizes that something is going wrong with her child, or the scene where she quits her job at Joan Blondell's home, where, in a crucial moment, we only see her back when we could see her tear-stained face.

To many spectators of today, used to more cynical approaches, the character of Louise might strike them as outlandish in her unselfishness... Yes, this woman who becomes the surrogate mother to all children under her care, only to be left heartbroken when she has to leave the job, is nearly a saint. But then we've all known about people who is able to sacrifice themselves for others. Also, Louise is counterpointed by the misanthropic toy-store owner played by Cyril Cusack. Cusack seems to have the store, not because he likes children (he doesn't: he's inclined to scare them out of the place), but because he's an overgrown child himself: So maybe it's no wonder he becomes friendly with nanny Louise.

On the other hand, we also see Louise considering to have a life of her own: first, when she accepts the teacher's marriage offer, even though she's disappointed by the selfish love of grown men, and returns to the unconditional love that children give her. Second, when she raises her ward as if she were her actual mother, and resists the idea of giving him away.

As a Jane Wyman vehicle, she certainly makes the best of her performance, suggesting well the loving, sacrificial nature of the nanny-nurse in a quiet way. This gives more strength to the scene where she claims to the District Atorney the custody of the boy she has mothered for years: the frustration of her not being a biological mother is patent there. She also ages convincingly, even though the kindly, older Louise isn't quite like Angela Channing, the shrewish matriarch that an older Jane Wyman played many years later in the TV series "Falcon Crest"

Personally, I have one complaint. I know the film was done in other times, but I resent that the Joan Blondell character is presented as selfish for wanting to maintain her career as a singer, instead of being a full-time mother: she has to earn her keep, doesn't she? In contrast with this, we don't see, for instance, a criticism of the Charles Laughton character for directing his corset factory and leaving his son in the hands of a nurse (however competent)... Ah, forgive me, I'm just sensible about these issues..

On Charles' performance

Charles as Fred K. Begley

Oh, but of course we should be talking about Charles a bit... shouldn't we? ;D

"The Blue Veil" is one of those films which figures in his filmography, but is rarely reviewed or mentioned in books about him. The logical reason is that it is a hard-to-get item, or a "lost" one. This is not an unique case among his films, though maybe "On Our Merry Way/A Miracle Can Happen" (where Laughton's participation in the film was considered lost) would be more of a case in point. Laughton only appears in the first part of the film as Jane Wyman's first employer. Interestingly, Laughton has quite a number of episodic films in his career, in which he gave performances short in footage but grand in quality ("If I Had a Milion" could be the topping example).

Laughton's Fred K. Begley is a man devoted to his corset factory, he finds it hard to live alone, so Louise not only solves the child-care issues, but also becomes a confidante he can trust: they become a family of sorts. However, it is not actually a family, and Mr. Begley ends proposing to the nanny: Laughton uses a polite, but very matter-of-factly way to do it, quite becoming to a businessman. In fact, more than a marriage, he seems to be proposing a commercial partnership. And he accepts Wyman's refusal like a sport, even though, as soon as he leaves her room, he drops his façade and we see him walk sadly down the corridor. In this moment of bleak defeat, he gets a call from his secretary, and Laughton brightens so much during the conversation that it s obvious that it is not bussiness that he's talking about: it is the realization that he's not alone as he thought he was..

Back from the honeymoon, the new Mrs. Begley is ready toi take care of the child, and she believes that the Nanny is no longer needed. Laughton's sadness at the thought of loosing Louise reveals that he doesn't agree with the idea, revealing that the dominant boss at work is a bit of a henpecked guy at home.

In all, he gives a touching, competent character study.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"I don't want to set the world on fire..."

I just love this photo: it is one of the favourites in my collection of Laughton stills. It is to me a metaphore of how Laughton's talent set the world on fire, particularly in his décade prodigieuse of the thirties, where he awed the world with a string of great performances.

He's got a charming air canaille in the picture... Not unbecoming, as Laughton was enamored with France, a country whose language he spoke fluently. Being a francophile is not an usual choice for an Englishman, but then Laughton was a citizen of the world avant la lettre.

There's a date in the copy: 1939. Whereas this date refers to the year the photo was made or just the one in which it was printed, it is significative, for the clouds in the background seem a symbol of the bonfire that had burned Spain and was about to spread to Europe and the rest of the world. Laughton's own prospects were burnt-out as well: the films produced by "Mayflower Pictures", the film company he had set up with the legendary German producer Erich Pommer, hadn't met with the required success on their original releases. And Laughton, with the savings made by years of hard work gone, and broke, was again an actor badly in need for a job, and had to accept a contract with RKO pictures to clear his debts and that of his British film company .

As it happens, this would result in one of his greatest performances, and a fitting way to top his extraordinary work of the thirties: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre-dame". He and Pommer had thoughts of re-starting their company, which were definitely shattered by the start of the hostilities in Europe and its effects on foreign film markets.

But I digress... The subjet of this post wasn't actually that. In fact, I wanted to reflect about how different are our times from 1930. Had Laughton lived today, no doubt he'd be able to live his personal life more freely. But if our times are more tolerant on some areas, have grown more narrow minded in other regards... If Charles Laughton, actor, lived today... would be allowed to set the world on fire? Probably he wouldn't even be allowed to light a match!

Consider me a pessimist, but recent talk about Leonardo DiCaprio playing emperor Claudius in a prospective film version of Robert Graves' novel "I Claudius", or Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing Henry VIII in the TV series "The Tudors" doesn't strike me as good news.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not meaning that these gentlemen can't do the job, but the thought of handsome, hunky guys playing historical characters that may have not been, precisely, the kind of people you'd see in a Hugo Boss advert, doesn't make me too happy.

And even less so, after reading a recent interview which I recently read in La Vanguardia's section "La Contra". On the October 22nd of the current year, Lluis Amiguet interviewed plastic surgeon Thomas Biggs. The doctor mentioned the case of a well-known character actor (1) who had to be operated urgently : seemingly, the actor was to play a romantic scene, and it turned out that he had a bit of double chin, which the director considered intolerable for the camera to capture...

In Laughton's times, an actor with talent could become a world-famous star even if he didn't look debonair. Nowadays, eugenics seem to rule, and soon non-hunky actors won't be even allowed to play bit character parts, however talented they might be.

1) The victim of intolerance against normal looks, according to Dr. Biggs, was Ben Gazzara.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

About Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead"

Norman Mailer just passed away. I don't know how many of you know that, had "The Night of the Hunter" fared decently in the box office, Charles would have directed a second film, based on Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead".

In fact, Laughton was already working in the film's script with Mailer. As he had done with Davis Grubb, he considered that the writer's own contribution was vital to the final film (a certain sign of respect for literature). By the time his first directorial effort was on its way for release, Laughton was already working in his next film with Stanley Cortez and the Sanders brothers, who had collaborated with him in the making of "The Night of the Hunter". As a matter of fact, Cortez went to Hawaii to scout locations for that film.

This is covered in some extension in Preston Neal Jones' very commendable book . There's one priceless anecdote about Laughton and Mailer discussing the script which I don't want to reveal (read the book, punyeta!). It is also recorded there that names like James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Robert Montgomery were being considered at this early stage to act in the film. Both Cortez and Terry Sanders recall very interesting visual narrative ideas that were being conceived to be in the film. As in "The Night of the Hunter", it seems that we would have had a film that was ahead of its time, with daring new cinematic devices that would still be influential today. Sanders also mentioned that the final script was "quite magnificent".

Charles Laughton in 1917, while undergoing early army training

I always wondered how Laughton would have approached the subject of war. Having himself experienced war first-hand as a foot soldier during First World War, and having never talked extensively about his time in the army, the film could have been revealing about his own insights about men and war. Unfortunately, the critical and box-office indifference to "The Night of the Hunter" meant that the prospects of a second film directed by Laughton got difficult. Laughton was himself disheartened an the failure of his first-born, and felt discouraged to keep on working in his second film. Alas.

The film was eventually produced by Paul Gregory, and directed by Hollywood veteran Raoul Walsh. Cortez later would say that, upon seeing the finished film, it was, as compared to what Laughton had envisaged "It was like day and night". Gregory himself, who split his association with Laughton after "The Night of the Hunter", admitted himself that Laughton would have made a better film, as he had the poetry that Walsh's approach lacked.

One wonders if the script is anywhere to be read. It wouldn't be like watching the actual film that Laughton had in mind, but one would at least get a smattering of what it could have been.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

An interview with Paul Gregory

Those of you with particular interest in "The Night of the Hunter", might like to read this online interview with the film producer Paul Gregory.

It seems that Gregory and Mitchum didn't, hum, precisely, get along together very well XD... I know this may be one of the better known items of Hunteriana, but it is interesting to read it from Gregory's perspective

Also, I admit I had never read about Gregory's youth in London....Attending school with embassy children? Hmm...

I found this interview linked in the blog "Dispatches from Zembla" , In a post where he discusses Laughton's film and Simon Callow's BFI booklet about it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Wrong sailor in the boat

One of the anecdotes about the shooting of "Mutiny on the Bounty" (The 1936 version, of course!) is that the scenes about Lieutenant Bligh's epic travel in the Bounty's launch to Timor were shot twice, which made the shooting of those scenes a little odissey by itself.

The reason was that one of the actors that were supposed to be among the mutineers, was mistakenly in the launch among with those remaining loyal to Bligh. Charles Higham's book on Laughton put the blame on young actor Eddie Quillan, who was playing the young mutineer Thomas Ellison, and should be in the "Bounty", not the boat.

But then I got these two old stills:

In this one we have Laughton with Franchot Tone, playing Midshipman Roger Byam, who was the fictional equivalent of Peter Heywood, one of those who remained loyal to Bligh in the Mutiny but remained in the Bounty for lack of room in the launch, so well... he shouldn't be there.

In the second one, we see Donald Crisp (second sailor right of Laughton), who played one of the most conspicuous mutineers, Thomas Burkitt, and wasn't supposed to be in the launch, either.

So maybe the blame shouldn't go just to poor Eddie Quillan.

One thing I can say for certain is that both Tone and Crisp are made up as they looked as prisoners in HMS Pandora, the ship the Royal Navy sent to capture the mutineers. I wonder if the make up experts responsible for the scruffy looks of the members of both the Bounty launch and the prisoners at Pandora's box were around for a limited time, and this prompted a bit of confusion at both the filming and the shooting of stills.

Curiously, the actor I don't recall at all in the launch was Herbert Mundin. who played Bligh servant in the Bounty, he is neither seen among the mutineers nor among Bligh's loyals after the mutiny... Maybe because he was there for comic relief, and the launch trip was very dramatic stuff indeed. Still, what a goof.

Incidentally, being based in a novel, not the actual facts, there's always been criticisms about its historical accuracy. One of the greatest ones, in that sense, is the presence of Bligh aboard the Pandora, there to find Christian and his mutineers and make them pay for their rebellion. Actually, Bligh was on a new breadfruit expedition, and the Pandora was commanded by Captain Edwards, who was far nastier than Bligh. I haste to say that, although not accurate, Bligh in the Pandora made for one of the most dramatic moments of the film.

The Pandora also shipwrecked, and Captain Edwards had to bring to safety both his crew and his prisoners in boats, in a trip not unlike Bligh's journey to Timor. If it weren't because the actors in the still are mostly those whom se see in the film as Bligh's loyals, I'd drop the crazy theory that the trip of the Pandora's boats wers filmed, too, but cut in the final editing, ;D

Whatever, whoever was the actor responsible of being the sailor in the wrong boat, the rest of cast and crew were obviously oblivious of the fact, too. The making of "Mutiny on the Bounty" took about two years, but Charles' work in it was during a few weeks, due to other film commitments, so the scenes with Bligh were filmed all together over a short period of time: this might be one of the reasons for that continuity mistake, and also gives the impression that having to film those scenes again must be an extra source of stress for those involved, specially Laughton, who had to return to England to work for Alexander Korda.

The irony is, that when he came back, Korda kept him idle for months while throwing prijects and ideas to Laughton: one gets the impression that Korda's aim was to keep Laughton from working with other people, as this strange period of inactivity in Britain contrasts sharply with Charles' busy schedule when in Hollywood... But that's another story.