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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

That tingling feeling of freedom in the tip of your fingers (II)

Warning: this post spoils a relevant part of the ending of the film This Land Is Mine (1943), so it is advised you see the film first. Feel free to watch the film anyway if you don't mind spoilers: its a darn good film!

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

"We have good fathers, you and I" (Painter Alfred Manessier to his friend the actor Charles Laughton. Chartres Cathedral, 1959)

Those who have good parents, or good teachers, are blessed.

I must say that I have been fairly lucky in this regard, not unlike Charles and Alfred were by having known Etienne Houvet , or Albert Lory by having been tutored by professor Sorel.

"I must go not because I am harmful to society, which is you, but harmful to tiranny"

"Goodbye... Citizens!"

I just love the way Albert Lory puts his hands in his pockets, don't you? Josep thinks that the film could have ended in this scene, which I think is not a bad idea, cinematically speaking. Raúl has written a beautiful text in which he deftly delineates Albert's character.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Snowball Effect

Homeless cat, hospitable busker (St. Martin's Lane, 1939)

Elsa recollects at 81:
We always had a cat but we didn't ever go out and get a cat. Somehow the cats found us. When we moved to our house in Brentwood (1), one day we drove in and we heard a meeping and rustling in the driveaway, and eventually we fished out five kittens from the ivy. In Hollywood at least, if a poor family had a cat and it had kittens and they couldn't afford to have the mother cat "fixed", and they couldn't bring themselves to kill the kittens, they would put them in a basket and drop them in the gardens of the people who were better off. So we had cats. We kept them for a few weeks, all five, and we had five kittens chasing one another around the house–a great entertainment. It was much, much better than going to a ballet. Eventually we found homes for them all, except one–a ginger one–so this one was called "Mister Pinky" and he was considered Charles' cat. After that we always had ginger cats. For some reason, ginger cats always turned up.

Two doors away from the Brentwood house lived Henry Hathaway. He had an aunt and, I believe, a mother living there, two apparently rather deaf elderly ladies. One day their gardener told our gardener that "the Laughtons barbecue cats." We were infuriated. Tracing the atrocious statement to its source, we found that one old girl had said to the other, "You know, the Laughtons harbor cats," and the other deaf old girl heard "harbor" as "barbecue"

Oh yes, there's some distance between "harbor" and "barbecue", but it is a distance many a writer on films has covered easily, even breaking planetary records. As Greg from Cinema Styles put it here, "Of course, I have discovered through years of film study that 'History of the Movies' books are often poorly researched and repeat the same legends they've heard elsewhere without any verification", which is a good reason I not only read bibliography on Laughton, but bibliography on people and subjects related to him.

Many urban myths about Charles start like a little snow flake going down a slope and end like a big snowball. I have even read comments of people around Charles who probably ignored certain things about Charles when he was alive, but having learned new things about him after his death, they just "incorporate" the new information to their reminiscences of the man... Mind me: when a person had a close personal or working relationship with Laughton, it is very likely that they chose to keep some things to themselves while Charles was alive... But every then and now I come across some people's statements, not close to him in any way, whose reminiscences, or so it seems to me, carry a whiff of disingenuousness.

You may say, and you'll be right up to a point, that this is the price to pay for fame, but then we are talking of the old-style type of fame, the one who came along with merits and skills (not the present-day Paris Heelton attention-craving, empty type of celebrity, so to say). And since along these myths there is some stuff which is not only damaging to our subject , but also rather untrue, I recommend to be cautious about what you learn about people, all the more if there is no alternate view... And don't get me started about I-emm-dee-bees and wikis: the snowball gets bigger and bigger as the stories start to circulate online without people bothering to check the sources!

Wife. Husband. Utterly guileless sofa

I could mention, for instance, the story of a discarded sofa. Of how a wife decided to get rid of it because the seat brought the wife painful reminiscences: the sofa, you see, was associated to a marital infidelity.

Such story was recounted by the wife, many years after the husband's demise, she being the only, noncontrasted source....And allow me to add, she didn't actually watch the scene but -so she referred- was just briefed about the events, afterwards, through the husband's tearful confession. This story has enjoyed a number of retellings by third parties, some quite imaginatively amusing, one actually saying that the guilty sofa was burnt in a bonfire as if the wife were a fierce Inquisitor, and the sofa a doomed heretic.

Oh boy! I cannot wait to read the version of the story in which the wife burns the sofa, its guilty occupants (who in this version will be caught, of course, in fraganti) and the whole building while she laughs maniacally.

Sources and Notes
Elsa is quoted from her 1983 autobiography.

(1) The house at Brentwood was Charles and Elsa's first regular house at Hollywood in the 1940s, after they had been staying temporarily at the Garden of Allah.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Cobblers at Tournai, 1919

"The Cobblers" performing Aladdin at Tournai. (Photo published on March 1st, 1919) They are all memberst of the 7th Northamptonshire Battalion except those where it is indicated otherwise. From left to right. Standing: Emperor: Private Parkings, Abanazar: Dr. Felton, Vizier: Sergeant Dr. Kelby, Policeman: Lance Corporal Bayley (13th Batt., Middlesex Regt.), Ni-cee (maid to princess): Sergeant-Major F. Hitch, Prince Peko: Private Redmond (9th Batt. Royal Sussex Regt.), Wishee Washee: Private Potter, Widow Twankey: Second Lieutenant F. Judge. Sitting: Princess Balronbadour: Private Hutson, Aladdin: Lance Corporal Pickering (13th Batt. Middlesex Regt.), Santa Luna, Slave of the lamp: Lance Corporal Wright

In 1936, by the time he was promoting "Mutiny on the Bounty", an interviewer asked Charles Laughton what made possible that, having been working in hostelry until barely seven years before, he could have turned into a succesful actor, and, not only that, to have become in that short span of time one of the most respected and sought-for actors in the world at the time.

Laughton's answer was it was a matter of chance, and cryptically added "It took a World War and an act of God" to make him an actor.

Adding a bit of explanation, explained that the "act of God" was his younger brother Tom: "he decided to go into hotel bussiness one day, so I said 'here, take this, I`m going to the stage". Tom Laughton's own version is more detailed, and tells us that Charles didn't enjoy his responsability as hotel manager, a responsability that had befallen him due to the fact that he was the first-born of the family. As opposed to that, he utterly enjoyed every minute of his spare time devoted to amateur theatricals in Scarborough. Charles' family didn't approve his theatrical enthusiasm, and wanted him to keep his mind only in hostelry. Then came Tom to intercede for his parents' cause. Thinking that he had a winning argument, Tom told Charles that he was lucky being the eldest, for he, as the second son, had no chances of inheriting the family hotel and had had to make a living in something else. Tom's strategy failed, as Charles happily seized the occasion to offer Tom his place on the family bussiness, and left to become an actor.

But what about the war? He just says, without much further explanation, that "The war shook me into considering acting as a life work", and one is left pondering: what did he exactly mean by that? One wonders if, having been told cautionary and disencouraging tales by his family about the precariousness of an actor's work (i.e. as opposed to the safer living of hotel bussiness), Charles found that there were ways of life far more precarious and uncomfortable than a thespian's, verbi gratia, that of the soldiers fighting a war. One also considers, on the other hand, if war had on him a similar effect it had on another another Great War veteran, the American painter Horace Pippin, who would declare about his own war experience that "The war brought out all of the art in me, I came home with all of it in my mind, and I paint from it today" (1)

A further clue, however is given by Laughton himself, who, discussing very briefly his time as a soldier, went on to single one experience of which he evidently held a fond memoir : "I saw Leslie Henson play in a pantomime in Lille- it was 'Aladdin'. He was damned funny as usual" . In fact, he would recall in a 1933 interview that "the performance kept alive my latent ambition (to become an actor)". Maybe this was it: the realization that, no matter the bitter experiences, or the glum surroundings, the theatre had the powerful effect of lifting one's spirit. So possibly Laughton reached the same conclusion than the eponimous character played by Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges' masterful film Sullivan's Travels".

But Leslie Henson wasn't the only one performing Aladdin in France around this time. It was also performed by "The Cobblers" a troupe formed by soldiers of the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment... which was the unit where Charles served in France.

But before talking further about "The Cobblers", we might as welll give a smattering about entertainment in World War One.

How the British soldiers were entertained (1914-1918)
Early in the war, the military authorities realized the potential of entertainment for the troops: for the young men in training at home, it offered a more wholesome alternative to spend their spare time than other less reputable ones like alcohol, gambling or prostitution. For soldiers at the fighting fronts, it was also a temporary respite from the harsh realities of trench warfare. For those convalescing from wounds, it was a welcome balm.

The provision of entertainment was often due to the initiative of relevant individuals: many famous actors and actresses of the day would put a show for the benefit of troops, tour in training camps, or in certain cases, even in the vicinity of the front lines, which they would do with the acquiescence of the military commanders. Such were the cases of Lena Ashwell , Gladys Cooper , Harry Lauder, Frank Benson or George Robey , to give just a few names.

On the other hand, there were profesional and amateur performers who were serving in the forces. Among the professionals, we have cases like Leslie Henson, who formed a touring troupe called The Gaieties, or Basil Dean, who would efficiently organize theatres and shows for the Army canteens. Dean and Henson would be the men behind the creation, in the following war, of ENSA, an organization which pertained to the forces, and provided the servicemen with entertainment. However, those serving in ENSA during Second World War worked exclusively as entertainers, whereas those profesional and amateur entertainers in khaki during First World War were'nt usually spared from their regular duties as soldiers (2): those working in a show might be excused from some military routines while preparing a spectacle, but not from returning to their duties once the curtain was down. The casualties at the front meant that the formation of these troupes could be quite variable. Because of this, there was a great empathy among performers and spectators: they knew what made them tick, and a bit of irreverence for humour's sake was tolerated, which provided an extra relief as well.

One of the almost mandatory and usual formations were the Divisional troupes: owing to the large number of men available in a Division (3), there was a good staple of talent to choose from. While the output of these troupes could be variable in quality , depending of the unit, it was usually a well appreciated relief. Commanders were keen on encouraging these performances, and giving some help to make the stagings possible, but the shows weren't officially sponsored, and this was even truer in smaller units (like Battalions). Thus, more often than not the troupes didn't have proper stages to perform in, or costumes... But, quite undaunted by that, they would creatively work to improvise them, quite often with very remarkable results.

There were no girls in the army, so "some of the boys showed how attractively they could be made up as girls". Two female impersonators of "The Cobblers", on the Left, Sergeant-Major F. Hitch, on the right, Private D. Hutson, or "Ida, the Cobblers' Girl", as he was alternatively known.

Since no there were no women in the army at the time, some of these performers in uniform would transform themselves into lovely ladies, not unlike the female impersonators of the Elizabethan theatre, or the Onnagata in the Kabuki Theatre. The best among these female impersonators would be quite sought after to perform, and could be real stars among their comrades.

The Cobblers

The Cobblers, with some Battalion officers (Circa 1916?). From left to right. Lieutenant A.F.T. Bullock, Sergeant Hunting, Captain H. Grierson, Lieutenant Durrant Swan, Lieutenant-Colonel Edgar Mobbs, Second Lieutenant Murray, Sergeant Wenn, Private Driver. Front Row Lieutenant Wharton, Corporal Chapman and Lieutenant Debenham.

Why was that troupe named "The Cobblers"? The 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment was one of the Kitchener formations of the early war period. This Battalion was mostly formed by citizens from Northampton, a city known for its shoemaker industry, hence the nickname "The Cobblers" .

According to the available reference, the troupe was first formed in 1916. The battalion had already suffered grievous losses during the Battle of Loos in the previous year. Edgard Mobbs, the international Rugby player who had a relevant role in the recruitment of the Battalion (and who was by then commanding it) encouraged its formation, and even contributed to the programme of the Concert Parties. This early formation of the Troupe would entertain the Battalion and its visitors up to the Battle of the Somme, where the 7th Norhamptonshires would again suffer many casualties.

Lacking other information, we jump to February 1919, a few months after the armistice, when we met a new formation of The Cobblers performing "Aladdin" in Tournai to the benefit of the children of Belgian Soldiers (The soldiers not only entertained the kids but also fed them, with money provided by the Battalion's canteen funds)

It is not unlikely that the choice of the pantomime was due to the fact that Leslie Henson's Gaieties troupe had sucessfully performed "Aladdin" at the reconstructed Lille Theatre earlier in the winter of 1918-1919. It is to be wondered if Henson lent any costumes to the 7th Northamptonshires, even though by what is written about the performance, it seems that the men created imaginatively their own costumes with what they had at hand.

None of the members appearing in the 1916 formation of The Cobblers can be seen in the 1919 photograph. In fact, there are members from other battalions of the 73rd Brigade (to which the 7th Northamptonshires belonged) among the members of the cast... This illustrates quite well the many changes undergone by the battalion due to casualties since the creation of the troupe.

And where was Charles? Well, we certainly don't see him among the members of the cast appearing in the photograph, even though the accompanying article states that those appearing are only part of the cast... Being the stagestruck kid he was, I'd say that it is not unlikely that Charles was very eager to help, and I wonder if he didn't assist the troupe as a chorus boy, as part of a stage horse (or camel?), or a stage hand. At any rate he must have been, without a doubt, a very keen spectator.

This performance by "The Cobblers" must have been one of the last activities of the Battalion with Charles still there. The article covering the "Aladdin" performance was eventually reported in the Northampton Independent in March 1st, 1919, and Laughton had been demobilized in February 14th 1919. It can be said that the effort in benefit of those Belgian children certainly wasn't lost on Charles: a few years later, he and his fellow amateur performers from Scarborough would also perform to aid the League of Help, an association which gathered donations to help with the reconstruction of devastated French and Belgian towns and villages.

(1) Incidentally, Laughton would have some of Pippin's work in his art collection, prompted by his friend the collector Albert C. Barnes

(2) Cases like Leslie Henson or Basil Dean were, at the time, more the exception than the rule.

(3) Infantry Divisions had an establishment of up to 20.000 men (at full capacity: this number, of course, could vary due to casualties, etc.)

Thanks, ackowledgements and sources
The information and documentation about the Cobblers was kindly supplied to me by Ms. Kate Wills, who is a dedicated researcher on the subject of First World War and Entertainment. Apart from Mrs. Wills information, and old news pages from the Northampton Independent provided by her, This post's sources include an interview to Laughton by Patrick Murphy published in segments at The Sunday Express from November to December, 1933; A 1936 interview with Laughton appearing in Picturegoer's Weekly Supplement; Elsa Lanchester's 1938 book Charles Laughton And I; Tom Laughton's Pavilions By The Sea; L. J. Collins's comprehensive Theatre at War 1914-18 and David Woodall's "The Mobbs Own. The 7th Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment. 1914-1918"

Some links of interest
:: Charles Laughton's known First World War experiences at the Huntingdonshire Cyclists website, plus a little update on the matter in this 'ere blog.
:: You might also be interested in checking Horace Pippin's memoirs.
:: A good link on First World War entertainment, at the comprehensive site Great War and Different.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Eating chesnuts, drinking muscat

Here we don't celebrate Halloween as in other countries: we mostly drink muscat, eat chesnuts and panellets , clean the graves at cemeteries and swap scary stories. Still, for those of you keen on Halloween (anglo-saxon style) I will give you this link towards which fellow Laughtonian Edward Johnson kindly directed me to, which contains the cool screensaver which I'm reproducing above, and hopefuly some of you will like to use it on your computers during these days. Oh, and if you want pumpkinshere's something for you, too

Well, on with some bits of news, fellers and felleresses ;p

The Devil and the Deep, finally on DVD!
Many of you have probably grown weary about the film majors' constant blabbering about respect of the copyright of the items owned by them, and endless whining about piracy.

Most unfortunately (as I see it) all this talk has not, so far, been accompanied by, well, the release of this precious material they own, and which is mostly kept in the vaults far away from the prying eyes of the public, a public which so far couldn't enjoy a lot of classic films unless it was in a bootlegged copy, which usually meant they couldn't be viewed unless in a defective version, with a poor (if not distressingly gawdawful) image and sound quality, and of course, without the extras, subtitles and assorted goodies that many a film lover appreciates in a really swell DVD release.

However, there could be winds of change a-blowing in this matter. In my previous post here I mentioned that The Bribe would be finally available in a special "on-demand" release within Warner Bros Archive Collection (Zone 1). Apparently, this type of initiative has begun to get a following, as Turner Classic Movies, along with Universal, are also going to release old films in their stock, which hopefuly means that many an old Paramount film owned by Universal, so far inexplicably locked up and kept away, will be finally available, at least in Zone 1 (even some old Paramount pictures have already been released in Zone 2).

As you can read in the link above, in the earliest batch there is The Devil and the Deep. This early film work by Charles is not without interest: Apart from being a predecessor of the prolific genre of Submarine Films, it was Charles first "official" work in Hollywood (his actual debut was actually in James Whale's The Old Dark House). While his acting there may have still have the imprint of the stage, it is a performance worth re-evaluating, and he is well accompanied by a competent Gary Cooper, a sublime Tallulah Bankhead and a very young Cary Grant.

A whispering aside on DVD zones
You have probably noticed that whenever I talk about a new DVD release I mention the DVD zone to which they belong. I know that many film buffs, knowing that a DVD release they might be interested in may not fall in their "assigned" zone, have already a multizone DVD player. For those who don't, or are considering the purchase of such a contraption, I should mention that it would be worth asking the electronics store clerk about it.

Still, it might be interesting for you to know that, certainly for a good number of brands manufacturing DVD players, the zone setting can be changed/reset with the remote control. It seems that many a DVD player is originally manufactured to play in all zones, and then "set" to play only in one. Julien, a kind visitor of this blog, just sent me an e-mail giving me details about it, and told me that, for instance, you can find webplaces like this one, which tell you of the codes you need to reset your one-zone hardware. Since some of you may be considering the purchase of a Blu-Ray player, I might as well give you this other link(again, thanks to Julien for that), a site which reviews hardware and may be give good references to consider a possible purchase of DVD/Blu Ray players

Still, as I said, be sure to ask the store clerk when you purchase a model (and I hope that you go to a good and proper store, the type which cares about their customers and employs competent personnel)

This having been said, I have always wondered why on earth DVDs don't come in the all-compatible Zone 0, which can be enjoyed regardless of the corner of this planet where you live. This problem never existed for Compact Disks (which can be played on any corner of the world) so I wonder why DVDs should have such questionable frontiers, harumph!

Ben Harper talks about Night of the Hunter
Well, as you can imagine, not Ben Harper, but the actor who played the role, Peter "Mission Impossible" Graves. You can read an interview with him starting here in which Graves talks about his career, from Night of the Hunter to Airplane and beyond.

Peter Graves had already mentioned that he enjoyed working under Laughton's orders (specially if compared with his experience with John Ford as a director, in a film in which he was working at the same time he was acting in Night of the Hunter), and here he again praises Charles' work as a director. It is interesting to note his opinion on the reasons that made The Night of the Hunter to be Laughton's only film behind the camera: according to him, a directing career would have required a greater energy than Laughton's age would have permitted. This may contradict the image of the remarkable energetic Laughton we could still enjoy (three years after NotH) in Witness for the Prossecution, but Graves point is worth taking into consideration, specially if we bear in mind the chronicles of The Night of the Hunter's shooting, which reveal a very eager, involved, nearly 24-hour commited, film director... Basically, the Pep Guardiola way which, of course, can be quite wearying in the long run.

Paul Baker passes away
One of my usual complaints about how Charles is chronicled is that in some quarters he is regarded solely just as a "film actor". While today his screen work the one that counts -mostly because it is the one still surviving for evaluation-, there are items of his stage career which tend to be overlooked. There's in fact a stage experience which is absent from any biography written so far, and it is about his collaboration with Paul Baker.

Baker (whose obituary you can read here)) was known for his innovative teaching of drama in Baylor University and other places. It shouldn't be surprising that Charles Laughton (which was keen on teaching and had a similarly unorthodox approach to theatre) would eventually collaborate with him.

In his biography "So Far, So Good" Burgess Meredith recalled a very avant-garde staging of Hamlet by Baker, "in which Hamlet was surrounded by three oher Hanlets, playing different aspects of the melancholy Dane!". I wonder if, back then, Baker, Laughton and Meredith would have been given such free rein had they played in Stratford-upon-Avon.

You can read yet another obituary of Baker, with a picture of the aforementioned Hamlet version.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two number ones (and a number of quick ones)

As mentioned previously in another post, I'm not of the opinion that a position in a list is what makes a film great. Still, since there's people influenced by "umpteen best films" lists, I've got to say that they have its use... For one, they may attract the interest of filmgoers towards "oldies" and, well, help overcome their reluctance to watch films in Black & White, for instance.

In the particular case of Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter", this may also give a measure of the growing reputation of the film which all but seemed doomed to oblivion when it was first released. I'm well aware that high-ranking places also usually draw the attention of Phillistines and Iconoplastas who'll raise hell just for hell-raising's sake (... or because the poor things have nothing better to do, tsk!)

"Ah! Je souris de me voir si haut dans cette liste..."

Anyway, here it goes: the British magazine The Spectator put "The Night of the Hunter" in the number one of their Best Films list. This was brought to my attention by a couple of fellow Laughtonians, who sent me this link by Roger Ebert commenting on the issue (and Ebert is a great appreciator of Laughton's only full opus behind the camera)... Not only this, for Time Out, the British entertainment weekly guide, also lists the film as the number one among first films of a director's career, which is considerable kudos to give, considering that they've listed as remarkable film debuts as "Citizen Kane", "Les Quatre Cents Coups" , "The Great McGinty", "Targets" or "L'Age d'Or" below Laughton's film.

I must say I get an extra kick of this recognition coming from the British press. Over the years, I've got the overall impression that Laughton, while certainly apreciated by the British public, wasn't as recognized by the British powers-that-be. But never mind... Charles may have not got titles nor royal honours, but sure he still gets lots of love... Worldwide!

On the light of this, it might be interesting to watch this little snippet from an American TV program (dated around february 1960):

"Guess who's playing Falstaff"

The host's final comment to Charles about the American public's affection is worth noting: Laughton certainly seems to feel at home, willing to charm and full of energy and projects: it's sad to realize he had barely a couple of years left to live (By the way: It's funny to listen to the blindfolded pannelists assume that any British-born actor has a title). It is intriguing to learn that there was a broadcast of the Stratford 1959 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (with Charles playing Bottom) which was shown in America but not in the United Kingdom (hum... Why?!)

Pierre's Fablet "Night of the Hunter Project" has finally seen the light in a handsome CD distributed by Harmonia Mundi. This is just so you know, for, as you can imagine, the recording is truly worth of a post of his own, which I hope to do as soon as circs allow.

Those of you fortunate Laughtonians living in the vicinity of Chicago, Illinois, will be glad to learn that there's is a Laughton season going on there until December 3rd: here at evanevanevan.com you can read a nifty essay on Charles' career, as well as details about the screenings.

In the film releases front, I'm happy to announce that "The Bribe" is finally going to be on DVD, in the Warner Bros "Archive Collection", which, as some of you may know, is no regular DVD release, but one that works on customer's orders (you order it, and they make a digital copy for you). The bad side is... it's a Zone 1-only release which cannot be purchased by anyone living outside that geographical zone... In short, some genius at the top of the company think that, outside the north of America, nobody is interested in film classics.

(Note: if any kind American Laughtonian is willing to make an order for me, please send a message to this blog so we can make an arrangement, ahem)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why must we resist, Mr. Lory?

Prosecutor: Excuse me, Your Honor, I ask the courtroom be cleared.

Albert Lory: He's afraid, Your Honor. He's trying to deprive me of my last chance to speak. I know I am a condemned man. I know I will die. Are you going to let me speak, Your Honor, or are you afraid, too?

So, why must we resist, Mr. Lory?

Because though it increases our misery, it will shorten our slavery.

Thanks, Mr. Lory!

P.S.: Oh, by the way...Salutations to the guys of the Gestapo. Yes, I'm pretty aware you're reading this, too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sir Wilfrid, I need you!

Sir Wilfrid, adressing my mastah

I hope my fellow Laughtonians excuse me for not giving any signs of life for weeks, but things in the non-virtual world have kept my mind busy. Gloomy things. Gloomy thoughts. You'll forgive me the Off-Topic.

After weeks of spreading rumours, the powers that be at my workplace have gracefully announced that they're gonna give the axe to an undetermined number of employees. Over the last year, the management has asked us to make sacrifices, and so we've done and, cor, we've be compliant and as flexible as jelly bamboo, goodness knows. But this seemingly isn't enough, and they are seizing the current recession as an excuse to chop heads, à la Henry VIII.

In front of us hapless, amateurs but wilful representatives of our small company's workers, we'll have one of the most expensive, and mightiest law firms of Spain. We've been told that they have a fondness for raw meat, and I'm afraid that they're starving for workers' tartare.

If only we had at our side Sir Wilfrid Robarts, champion of the hopeless causes... But as Albert Lory, we'll have to be our own defenders.

God Almighty help us.

(Wish us luck, we're effing going to need it)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spring blades

A knife cutting through a pocket. Fans of "The Night of the Hunter" are familiar with the image, arent they?

... Wait, I don't recall this frame from the film... What's wrong?

Quite simply, this hand isn't Robert Mitchum's but Lon Chaney's, and this frame doesn't belong to Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), but to Wallace Worsley's "The Penalty" (1920), which David Cairns commented upon on a post at Shadowplay. It was Mr. Cairns who mentioned the scene in the comments, and I was duly intrigued.

When he posted me the screen capture seen above, I was truly awed, but let's recap and go back to "The Night of the Hunter"

Well, we have Preacher Powell attending a Burlesque show... Not that he likes it, in fact, he seems to find it rather disgusting.

So he clutches his left "Hate" fist, hides it inside the pocket and... "Snikt!"

Mr. Cairns believes that the scene in "The Penalty" might have inspired this one from "The Night of the Hunter", and it doesn't seem unlikely... Didn't the gardener tell Brecht "I steal from all places"?

Such a scene, by the way, is not in Davis Grubb's original novel, the most similar situation there being a scene prior to preacher's detention, in which he is ready to loosen the blade of his knife as a prostitute proposes to him in a brothel... One imagines that the whorehouse was transformed in the film into the -no less sleazy- Burlesque show to avoid censorship, but it is striking that the censor didn't object to the gleaming, phallic knife cutting through the clothes. The scene follows faithfully the definitive version of the script, and, from pictorial evidence, Laughton took great care in directing Mitchum's hands there.

Good direction is in the tiny details

Back to "The Penalty" , the knife cutting through Chaney's pocket is suggestively menacing, though it lacks the connection between Eros and Thanatos so strongly stated in Laughton's film. At any rate, this scenes reminds us of how "The Night of the Hunter" recovered the powerful storyteluing of silent movies, a power which was gone with the sound.

We could conclude that there might be a Worsley & Chaney connection with Laughton beyond "Notre-Dame de Paris"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Here's looking at you

Charles Laughton is often referred to as an insecure fellow. I'd like that those thinking this way would take this image into consideration. He stares at you with a confident stance, it could be said, in fact, that he's challenging the viewer.

The image is from 1932, and quite likely (from the haircut) near the time he was working in "Island of Lost Souls". At this moment, he's the newbie who's holding Hollywood in awe. He doesn't hesitate to hold for his vision of the character he's playing, even if he has to hold it against a Hollywood big fish like Cecil B. de Mille, and he's only been in town for a few months.

He had arrived to California with an agreement with Paramount to work in a couple of films a year, so film work didn't keep him from working at the British stage. When he returned to London some months afterwards, he had shot six pictures. For Paramount, but also for Universal and Metro-Goldwin-Mayer. By the time he was about to work in his fourth film, his wife Elsa Lanchester (often referred as his bolder better half) had returned to London in a seizure of homesickness. Of course, she was also understatably frustrated about Hollywood's myopia, who back then perceived her just as the new employée's wife. Elsa had a protective attitude towards Charles, though it is evident that he did reasonably well when he was left alone in the Tinseltown wilderness for the months he was without her. He returned to London able to say he had made it.

You should know that, a mere seven years ago, one of 1932 Hollywood sensations had -finally- convinced with his family of hoteliers to allow him to give a try at becoming a professional actor. They, of course, believed that Charles would return from his foolish adventure soon enough, tail between legs, to assume his destiny as an hotel manager. But Charles would never again be an hotelier, and his mother and brothers would gape in disbelief when he not only eventually became a professional actor, but got to play leads in the West End.

What was he thinking when the photographer shot this image? Maybe "And tou thought I wouldn't make it, eh"?

I'd like to think he was thinking "Here's looking at you!"

Insecure you said?

...Right, this was again the Charlie Birthday Special, and I'd like to finish it with a few goodies for you all.

I generally bookmark CL-related links for when I have to deal with an specific film or play in the -near or far- future, but I have a couple of Laughton celebrations in the blogosphere which I'd like to bring to your attention: one is by Matthew Coniam at Movietone News , a celebration of the actor focusing in his pre-code films, and the other is by Joseph "Jon" Lanthier at Bright Lights After Dark, asking the oil painters of the world to unite. Both post will be treat to any Laughtonian.

Talking about treats, I'd like to mention Criterion's recent DVD release of David Lean's "Hobson's Choice" (Zone 1), coming, like every DVD release should, with appetizing extras. If that weren't enough, Criterion's website provides a number of very readable articles on Laughton and the film: Graham Fuller's "Charles Laughton: Size matters" , Armond's White"Hobson's Choice: Custom-Made" , and links to press notes.

Also, Criterion's kid sister company, Eclipse, has released a special boxset, "Alexander Korda's Private Lives" which includes "The Private Life of Henry VIII" and "Rembrandt". Again, a Zone 1 release, though, as usual in Eclipse's releases, without extras. Again, we have at their website an interesting article about this release as Michael Koreski's. There are nice external reviews, too, such as Jon Lanthier's here and here ("Korda cudgel"... XD), Dave Kehr's at the New York Times (these and some other comments on the subject can be found linked by David Hudson at IFC.com

And that's not all! In the last months, a couple of interesting books new books about "The Night of The Hunter", one is "La Nuit du chasseur - Une esthétique cinématographique" by Damien Ziegler, and the other "The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film" by Jeffrey Couchman. I'll post about them in the near future, promise.

Now you may blow the candles.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

¡¡Camarero, una de gambas...

... con gabardina!!

Sorry for the lame pun, which probably will only be understood by Spanish speaking visitors anyway (and possibly just the Peninsular ones). See, gratuitous celebrity advertising existed long before the Beckhams were even born, the difference being that any member of this cast and director trench coated group actually had a talent beyond that of posing for an advert.

(I'm curious about the occasion: did they shot the picture on the set of Advise and Consent? Did they pose all together as a group or separately? Funny seeing Otto Preminger as a model there, too)

Anyway, I'm posting this wee bit just to comment that Matheww Coniam of Movietone News just gave me a friendly blogger award:

Huh... Thanks Mr. Coniam, Im so touched *sob*... All right, I'll spare you the three-hour long thankful speech in which I emote wildly and mention all my relatives -up to cousins in the seventh degree-. I have accepted the award mostly because I don't have to select/tag any particular number of fellow bloggers... (To those friendly bloggers who have given me an award in the past: believe it or not, I'm STILL making my mind as to which bloggers I should select to pass the award!).

That I don't have to pass the awardto anyone it doesn't mean that I won't: If you are in my blogroll feel free to claim the Friendly Blog Award from me ;D

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

White Rabbit

We'll have some fun when the clock strikes one

Elsa, about 74:
The passage of time reaches a high speed as you get older. (...)You learn that life is not long enough to plant a tree. It will grow, but you will never see it become a great tree. You feel like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland–No time, no time.
(...)And at this point I realize what Charles must have felt from his childhood on. No time, no time.

Charles, about 61:
When I was in my early twenties, I was at our farm on the Yorkshire Moors in England. My Mother, my brother Tom, and my cousin Molly and I were looking at a sow with a litter of young pigs: I noticed that each of us was looking at the scene differently. My mother was thinking "What a nasty smell!" My brother Tom was thinking how much the piglets would market for when they were fattened up. My cousin Molly was thinking "How sweet! A mother and her babies."

And I was watching my family tick.

In the picture above, Charles and Elsa as seen in a 1944 domestic vignette. Elsa's dress makes her look slightly Peter Pan-ish. The inlaid wood clock from their Art & Antiques collection she's winding is 350 years old. Elsa looks -as the press release note puts it- quite industrious: for some reason, I can easily picture her building up a set of EEK!EA shelves, Allen key in hand (my guess is that she'd be more efficient at that than Charles would).

And Charles? Well, Charles is watching the clock tick.

In the background you can guess a piano, topped over by a pre-Columbian jar, and a branch in bloom by the window.

The place is the Laughtons much loved house at the Pacific Palisades in which they lived through the 1940s, that of the luxuriant garden on the cliff overlooking the Pacific, eulogized by Bertolt Brecht:
(...) Leider ist der schöne Garten, hoch über der Küste gelegen
Auf brüchiges Gestein gebaut. Erdrutsche
Nehmen ohne Warnung Teile plötzlich in die Tiefe. Anscheinend
Bleibt nicht viel mehr Zeit, ihn zu vollenden.

Edit: Andy most kindly posted me the English language version Bert Brecht's full poem (Thanks! ;D). Anyone of you out there have the full German Version?


High above the Pacific coast, below it
The waves' gentle thunder and the rumble of oil tankers
Lies the actor's garden.

Giant eucalyptus trees shade the white house
Dust relics of the former mission.
Nothing else recalls it, save perhaps the Indian
Granite snake's head that lies by the fountain
As if patiently waiting for
A number of civilizations to collapse.

And there was a Mexican sculpture of porous tufa
Set on a block of wood, portraying a child with malicious eyes
Which stood by the brick wall of the toolshed.

Lovely grey seat of Chinese design, facing
The toolshed. As you sit on it talking
You glance over your shoulder at the lemon hedge
With no effort.

The different parts repose or are suspended
In a secret equilibrium, yet never
Withdraw from the entranced gaze, nor does the masterly
Of the ever-present gardener allow complete uniformity
To any of the units: thus among the fuchsias
There may be a cactus. The seasons too
Continually order the view: first in one place then in another
The clumps flower and fade. A lifetime
Was too little to think all this up in. But
As the garden grew with the plan
So does the plan with the garden.

The powerful oak trees on the lordly lawn
Are plainly creatures of the imagination. Each year
The lord of the garden takes a sharp saw and
Shapes the branches anew.

Untended beyond the hedge, however, the grass runs riot
Around the vast tangle of wild roses. Zinnias and bright
Hang over the slope. Ferns and scented broom
Shoot up around the chopped firewood.

In the corner under the fir trees
Against the wall you come on the fuchsias. Like immigrants
The lovely bushes stand unmindful of their origin
Amazing themselves with many a daring red
Their fuller blooms surrounding the small indigenous
Strong and delicate undergrowth of dwarf calycanthus.

There was also garden within the garden
Under a Scotch fir, hence in the shade
Ten feet wide and twelve feet long

Which was as big as a park
With some moss and cyclamens
And two camelia bushes.

Nor did the lord of the garden take in only
His own plants and trees but also
The plants and trees of his neighbors; when told this
Smiling he admitted: I steal from all sides.
(But the bad things he hid
With his own plants and trees.)

Scattered around
Stood small bushes, one-night thoughts
Wherever one went, if one looked
One found living projects hidden.

Leading up to the house is a cloister-like alley of hibiscus
Planted so close that the walker
Has to bend them back, thus releasing
The full scent of their blooms.

In the cloister-like alley by the house, close to the lamp
Is planted the Arizona cactus, height of a man, which each
Blooms for a single night, this year
To the thunder of guns from warships exercising
With white flowers as big as your fist and as delicate
As a Chinese actor.

Alas, the lovely garden, placed high above the coast
Is built on crumbling rock. Landslides
Drag parts of it into the depths without warning. Seemingly
There is not much time left in which to complete it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Marie Magdalene, a remarkable woman

Sir Wilfrid peeps at Christine Vole while she puts on some lipstick

Charles Laughton's concern and/dissapointment about his lack of conventional good looks has almost become a legendary common place about the man, even though, as I mentioned in another post, he coped with it better than it is generally assumed.

In fact, while he could despair at the fact that he might look into a mirror to find his reflection, instead of Gary Cooper's or Johnny Weissmuller's, he certainly appreciated when someone contradicted his views on his own apperance. Let Charles himself tell us one of such instance:
When I was rehearsing in "on The Spot" (1930), Edgar Wallace's play, in which I had to wear smart clothes and go around the stage kissing the women, I came home one night in a state of despair, sullen and nasty, and said to Elsa (Lanchester): 'I know they won't stand for this. I've got a face like an elephant's behind, and in this play I've got to do the big sex act'. She turned tround on me like the proverbial tiger-cat and whipped out: 'How dare you presume you're unattractive! Hold your shoulders back, keep your head up and smile, so I can keep my head up with other women'. Can you beat it? I owe her plenty.

Despite the fact that he was gay, Laughton wasn't unappreciative of women, and many women (that is, apart from Elsa) liked him in turn: I have come across many warm records of his friendship and appreciation of fellow performers and/or co-workers like Ruth Gordon, Bette Davis, Maureen O'Hara, Agnes Moorehead, Deanna Durbin, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, Belita, and Lillian Gish to mention a few. Merle Oberon or Myrna Loy would recall Laughton raising their own self-steem with gracious compliments. And, we have to say, Charles could be very perceptive describing women, but let's hear it from Night of the Hunter's author Davis Grubb :
I once remarked that Marlene Dietrich had always struck me as a strange and bewitched kind of genius. 'Yes,' Laughton sighed. 'There is a quality about Marlene that rather suggests jeweled whips'

Under such quizzical praise of the German star lies genuine admiration, and there's an extra element here, for beyond the professional appreciation, Laughton also owed a big one to Marlene. In Elsa's account:
"Knight Without Armour" was started at Denham (Studios) just before we finished "Rembrandt", and so we ran into Marlene Dietrich quite a lot. She is to me, and to Charles, I think, one of the few undisappointing film stars off– a pleasure to pass in a passage. One of the greatest moments in my life was when she said to a pressman that she would rather act a love scene with Charles than with any other actor in the world. This statement made headline news in an evening paper. When Charles read it he was wildly flattered, he threw the newspaper in the air and cheered himself. I was no lesss delighted by the indirect compliment to me. We had a drink on it.
I somewhat regret that Marlene didn't get her wish fulfilled. Back then, her only link with Charles' work, was a sadly star-crossed project: While working in England, Miss Dietrich suggested Alexander Korda to give work to her former mentor Joseph Sternberg, and Korda gave Sternberg the job of directing "I, Claudius". Yes, "I, Claudius". Ouch.

Years later, Laughton and Dietrich would finally work together, not in any romantic scene, but certainly in good spirits in "Witness for the Prossecution". Where Laughton's stubborn Sir Wilfrid memorably confronts Dietrich's enigmatic, ice-cool Christine Vole in order to save poor Tyrone Power from the hangman's noose. Dietrich, who was helped by Laughton in rehearsals (I don't go into detail as to not spoil certain elements of the plot), wrote fondly of Laughton in her memoirs.

And to end with this little account of the mutual admiration society of Charles and Marlene, I'll end with a further (and intriguing) comment by Miss Lanchester about Miss Dietrich:
After meeting her in a Denham corridor one morning, Charles told me that in private life she had the art of casually putting on a very little makeup that looked slightly smeared, as if she had just got out of bed after a night of it. Obviously, these two should have got together somehow.

Hum... I wonder if that would explain Laughton's sighing when talking about Dietrich to Davis Grubb.

Oh, well, maybe he just got the story from Sternberg.

Note on sources:
Quotes are sourced from Elsa Lanchester's autobiographies "Charles Laughton and I" (1938) and "Elsa Lanchester Herself" (1983) and Preston Neal Jones' most commendable "Heaven and Hell to Play With: The filming of the Night of the Hunter" (2002)

This is one of the many posts I had half baked in the oven, so to say. I shouldn't have dared to give it the final push towards posting if the Self Styled Siren had not devoted a post on Marlene's lipstick and had started a MarleneFest on her own blog