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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.