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Friday, December 31, 2010

A few Laughtonian tips for New Year celebrations

Wishing you a happy New 2011 from the Cub Room, where -you know- the elite meet

I'd like to excuse myself with this blog's readership about the scarcity of posts and lateness of comment replies. Things have not been going well as far as work issues are concerned and I haven't been in the proper mood to update properly. I intended to make, at least, a big post saying how much I had liked the recent Criterion release of Night of the Hunter, but by (dis)courtesy of Barnes and Noble, I'm not expected to have my copy before I get my Valentines (By the way, If any of you has reviewed this release or knows of a dandy link about it, feel free to send it as I'll love to include it in the links section of that upcoming post).

Still, we'll be celebrating a new year tonight (which will be hopefully better that the year we're leaving behind), so let's drink and be merry for tomorrow we lie (with a hangover), and to this end we'll be giving some wise Laughtonian advice. Underage visitors are kindly discouraged to keep on reading: nothing for you here, kids, nothing for you...

We might start with Charles and Elsa's first trip to America, in which Charles played "Payment Deferred" in New York and Chicago. The couple had fond memories of his time by Lake Michigan, although Charles was surprised to find that local mobsters were not as colourful as he had portrayed them in Edgar Wallace's 1930 stage hit On The Spot: "I spent three weeks there without seeing a machine gun or hearing a gun shot" Charles would later reminisce.

Tony Perelli, or Capone according to Laughton

Elsa had some other anecdotes of the Prohibition era. On the occasion of a lone Transatlantic travel (Charles was left working in California), she entertained a couple of high society fellow travellers with stories such as the one about a little shop in Times Square which was...
(...) Just a hole in a wall with room for a narrow door. It sold only one thing –apparently reddish-purplish house bricks. Actually, they were dried pressed grapes, and round each brick was a label that read: "DO NOT put this in three quarts of water at a temperature of 76 degrees and leave uncovered for three weeks, then strain and over and leave for six more weeks, as it will become alcoholic AND THIS IS AGAINST THE LAW!"

She thought that New Yorkers had all "furry tongues and bad breath from drinking bathtub gin, which made plain tap water taste horrible", to which her rich acquaintance replied "Tap water, tap water, what does it taste like?

We have a useful tip by Charles' younger brother. When Charles, who was the elder son, relinquished his first-born right to direct the Pavilion Hotel of Scarborough in order to become an actor, his younger brother Tom was more than keen to take the post. As it turned, Tom may not been originally chosen by his parents for the job, but filled Charles' shoes quite efficiently, and possibly became a better (and more enthusiastic) hotelier than Charles would eventually have.

Tom left a book of memoirs in which he talks a bit about his famous brother, and mostly about his family's trade: his remarks on food and drink are quite worth reading, for he was as much a gourmet as his brother was, though of course he had by trade to oversee its quality on a daily basis to serve an important number of customers, so he was much more the pro in this regard.

Tom was keen on listening to the advice of those who worked for him, as in one occasion when he had to attend a party, and feared that the social obligation of drinking might obliterate his ability to attend the guests properly throughout the soirée (a situation in which many of us may find ourselves tonight). A butler gave him the advice of swallowing two desert spoonfuls of olive oil before drinking. This worked splendidly, though it must be said, much to Tom's regret:
(The party) was gay from the start, and still gayer as the party progressed, except for me. The butler's recipe was only too successful. For once in my life my capacity to take in alcohol was unlimited; it was passing through my stomach lined with with olive oil without getting into my blood stream. On the way home the roads were a sheet of ice, cars were skidding, and the car I was in did a double spin. What terrific fun for everyone, everyone except me –the only sobre one in the party. I have never taken precautions before going to a party since.

Anyway, whether your drinks are made from pressed grape bricks or not, and regardless of whether you take a spoonful of olive oil or none, celebrate and have fun tonight but drink wisely. And of course, don't drive drunk as the car might spin more than twice.

Be the soul of the party! Charles and Dean Martin on the sax, Dorothy Lamour plays the clarinet and Jerry Lewis slaps the bass

Notes on sources:
Charles is quoted from an interview in The Observer in 1932. Elsa's anecdotes are as told in her 1983 autobiography "Elsa Lanchester Herself", and Thomas Laughton memoirs Pavilions By The Sea

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Miracle Can Happen

Today I was feeling like Félicie, the heroine of Eric Rohmer's Conte D'Hiver , because, you know, I found out that it's worth waiting for miracles to happen, even if the chances are seemingly infinitesimal.

What happened, then? Well, you may remember that a couple of years ago there was talk about a new DVD release of The Night of The Hunter. The project seemed shelved shortly after its announcement, and I crossed my fingers in case that cancellation was for the better.

And then today, Professional Tourist most kindly e-mailed me the news. Well, fasten your seatbelts!:

Night of the Hunter will be released in november in a two-disk DVD and Blu-Ray edition. By Criterion. With loads of extras.

I will confess that a NOTH edition by Criterion was the ultimate dream of many film-lovers. Personally, the actual release comes very near to my wildest cinephile dreams :

:: New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
:: Audio commentary featuring assistant director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones
:: Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a two-and-a-half-hour archival treasure trove of outtakes from the film
:: New documentary featuring interviews with producer Paul Gregory, Sanders, Jones, and author Jeffrey Couchman
:: New video interview with Simon Callow, author of Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor
:: Clip from the The Ed Sullivan Show, in which cast members perform live a scene that was deleted from the film
F:: ifteen-minute episode of the BBC show Moving Pictures about the film
:: Archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez
:: Gallery of sketches by author Davis Grubb
:: New video conversation between Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin about Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”
:: Original theatrical trailer
:: PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critics Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow

You see, the extras are substantial in amount and quality: One the most welcome features are Robert Gitt's documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter, containing precious outtakes of the film, and the comments, interviews and contributions by first-rate Laughtonians and people who participated in the making of the film.

One still would have wished a few more items: I feel that Simon Callow's 1987 documentary about Charles Laughton would have been a fine addition to the luxuriant list of extras, and hopes that the interview can make up for it. I'd also liked that there was an extra disk containing the original soundtrack... Still, this upcoming release sounds like near perfection, and will certainly be welcomed by most.

I'd like to thank anyone who ever spread the love for this film, and particularly, those who joined this blog's campaign, which I hope helped at least to send the right vibes for the thing to happen, also to a few choice entities who have obviously been very thankful for their wax candles. And thanks indeed to the guys of Criterion, for taking the challenge and making a dream come true!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Of looks and millinery

Elsa Lanchester:
Before any production, Charles would play with his new props–putting on a hat and taking it off, hanging it up, putting it down, at home, in his dressing room, or in the producer's office. This was a time of fun for Charles and any audience around him. He could look at you from under a hat brim like nobody else could. He knew he could captivate and mesmerize.

There's so much talk, and ink on paper, on the topic of "Charles not standing his face in the mirror", that I often wonder if this was really so, all of the time. Laughton may have been, in Simon Callow's deft definition "A disappointed narcissist", but, personally, I don't think he was as emo about his looks as Higham depicts him (often bordering the caricature), in fact, I'd go with Callow when he writes that "(Charles') ugliness, one might say, was a technique, rather than a condition". And Elsa's above quote underlines Charles' knowledge about his own power to charm people, in short, a Charles who was well aware of his attractiveness.

Charlie as a lad of twelve, in an early rehearsal of his under-the-brim bussiness, and not yet looking too bad, in his own opinion

So, he could look himself into a mirror (otherwise, the daily shaving would have been quite a chore). There's in fact, an interesting quote by Peter Bogdanovich:
When I was sixteen or seventeen, my parents used some connections they had to arrange for me to go backstage and meet Charles Laughton, who I believe was playing in Shaw's Don Juan In Hell (which he also directed). He was quite heavy and awfully nice in a slightly gruff yet self-deprecating way. When I told him I wanted to be an actor he said, "Well, you should have no trouble–you're a good-looking boy. I've looked like the hind end of an elephant since I was twenty-one."

So, at least, up to being 21 of age, Charles seemingly didn't consider himself ugly-looking. One ponders if it was merely a manner of speaking, or whether something happened to him around that age which made him look into the mirror in a different way for ever more...

Well... Happy belated 111th birthday, Charles! (because your birthday was on July 1st... Today, of course, is Tura Satana's birthday)

Simon Callow's Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor; Elsa Lanchester's Elsa Lanchester Herself; Peter Bogdavich's Who the Hell's in It: Conversations with Hollywood's Legendary Actors

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buddy, buddy

From left to right: Gary Cooper, Laughton, Jobyna Ralston, Jack Haley and Richard Arlen (circa 1933)

In the above picture, Gary Cooper smirks to the camera and leans over Charles in a chummy manner, and Charles looks quite happy. If you are interested in some background about this image, keep on reading.

1932. Charles and Elsa arrive to Hollywood after he's reached a suitable agreement with Paramount: A three year contract, two films a year, which will allow Laughton to combine film and stage work. Charles rightly expects that thanks to Paramount's money he will be able to afford non-commercial theatrical ventures (1), but is a bit surprised that, in spite of Paramount's pressing demands for him to hurry to the West Coast, he is left to wait in California with little to do.

While his friend Benn Levy works in the script of The Devil And The Deep (the film devised by Paramount to be his Hollywod debut), Charles and Elsa wander around Hollywood: it's a curious place, but both feel a bit homesick, specially her (2). Charles finds an occupation in snooping around and investigating about Hollywood studios' working systems, so different from his previous and fleeting film experience in Britain. And the difference between stage and screen acting! Charles realises that he must work hard in order to adapt his style to suit the camera, so he welcomes the opportunity of playing a small role in a film directed by his friend James Whale at Universal, The Old Dark House, which will be his first actual Hollywood film (if not officially).

Useful as his experience under Whale's direction is, he now faces the challenge of playing a lead role, pitted against one of Hollywood's more popular stars, Gary Cooper: a bit of tension would have been expected, all the more when the female lead was played by Tallullah Bankhead, who didn't precisely warm on Laughton (3). Miss Bankhead seemed to ignore the man who was to play her husband onscreen: her only declared interest in her Hollywood foray had been to meet Gary Cooper, with whom she expected to be able to strike up a friendship, if not, hum, more. However, if you think this is a landscape with a storm brewing, you're wrong.

Charles was, in fact, struck by a revelation when he saw Gary Cooper casually light a cigarette on the set:
I knew then that he’d got something I should never have, I went across the set and asked him to tell me how he did it. He looked shy and bewildered and said that I ought to know better than he did. I was from the stage and he was just a ham movie actor

... If you're reading between lines, it's evident that, well, Charles got a bit of a crush on Cooper, but his reasoning nevertheless contains a great truth: we might say that he realised what a film star's power was about, as opposed to character -or craft- acting. Some time later he would elaborate further his thoughts on the differences between Cooper's style and his own:
We act in opposite ways. His is presentational acting. Mine is representational. I get at a part from the outside. He gets at it from the inside, from his own clear way of looking at life. His is the right way, if you can do it. I could learn to do it, but it would take me a year to do what he can do instinctively, and I haven’t the time…

Laughton would in fact, take a stance in defending film acting such as Cooper's. Laughton's sincere praise wasn't an usual move at a time when it was fashionable among theatrical people to look down upon film actors, a practice that he would emphatically criticise in an interview in 1934:
Why must the so-called high-brows vilify them? For every popular screen personality there’s a sound, underlying reason… and a very good reason. Actors and actresses don’t just become stars because a producer puts them in a picture, or because they are beautiful. There’s a reason for their success. Each one has some unique something, important enough for the public, in large droves, to pay money to see. The public in general doesn’t analyse this appeal; they realise it subsconsciously

But back to 1932 and The Devil and The Deep: However bitter their enmity was onscreen, offscreen Charles and Coop became the best of pals. Richard Schickel describes the situation:
Worse than the silly (4) scenario were the working conditions. Cooper, in the midst of a salary squabble with the studio, was uncharactheristically sulky and, despite his reputation as one of Hollywood's leading studs, impervious to Bankhead's determined advances. She, in turn, took an intense dislike to laughton who, completing an unlikely triangle, was smitten by the gorgeous Cooper. Not that any overt homosexual advances were made, but laughton, envying him his easy naturalism, would go to his grave proclaiming Cooper one of the best actors he had ever worked with

It's fun to bear this in mind when you thing that in the film, Lieutenant Sempter (Cooper) is Diana Sturm's (Bankhead) lover, and that Mrs. Sturm still has a bit of love left for the overjealous husband who mistreats her, and Captain Sturm (Laughton) hates both intensely: In real life, is not unlikely that it was Tallullah the one that got crossed while Coop taught Charles how to smoke for the camera and, in spite of Charles' admission that he wouldn't have time to catch up with Coop's manner onscreen, he would soon prove his ability to incorporate into his own work some of what he admired in the Montanan's acting: just a few months later, in Island of Lost Souls, Laughton would show that he could have his way with cigarettes in front of a camera.

While discussing Laughton's early difficulties at working with Clark Gable a few years after in Mutiny On The Bounty, Simon Callow points at other factor that may have drawn Charles to admire Cooper:
(...)Gary Cooper's perhaps even greater beauty had not disturbed laughton in the least: he had frankly admired him, both as an actor and in physical terms. perhaps the key word, here, however, is 'beauty'. Cooper, with his ravishing androginy, full of lip, luxuriant of eyelash, gentle of manner, had -at least in his performing personality- found a perfect balance between his mascuine and feminine elements, which was no threat to Laughton. It was exactly the balance that he longed to achieve himself but which for most of his life resolved itself into a battle, rather than a blend

Unfortunately, Laughton and Cooper wouldn't work together in another film: while they both act in If I Had A Million, they do so in different episodes of this anthology film. A chance to do so came close when Charles considered Cooper to play Preacher Powell in The Night Of The Hunter, a role which was eventually -and memorably so- played by Robert Mitchum. Mitchum owned the role in such way that it is difficult to imagine any other actor playing Preacher... One still wonders, though, how Cooper would have fared in the same part.

Some links:
:: Girl Friday reviews the film
:: at Another review at Greenbriar Picture Show
:: Fictional Film Club makes an interesting -and entertaining speculation- about what a new collaboration between Laughton and Cooper could have been: The Trascendentalist

Simon Callow's "Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor", Elsa Lanchester's "Elsa Lanchester Herself", Preston Neal Jones' "Heaven and Hell To Play With", Richard Schickel's "Matinee Idylls" and a 1934 interview to laughton at PictureGoer

1) In fact, this first stint at Paramount will help Charles afford to materialize an old dream: spend a season playing Shakespeare at the Old Vic (in 1933-34).
2) Elsa would recall, by the time they reached California "Charles was a nobody, and I was the wife of as nobody". Not long after she would return to London, leaving Charles alone: MGM shoot a film adaptation of "Payment Deferred", which Charles and Elsa had played on London and Broadway, but Maureen O'Sullivan was cast in the part Elsa had played in Broadway, which to the homesick Elsa proved to be the last straw: she swiftly returned to London, leaving Charles in California.
3) Curiously enough, for Miss bankhead was a good friend of Elsa... or maybe precisely because of that?
4) While the odd combination of a love triangle, mad jealousy, exotic settings and submarines may seem a bit contrived, the truth is that The Devil And The Deep mixes those elements with a certain charm... A contemporary film with the same ingredients (plus a few explosions to give the recipe a zeitgeisty zest), would probably give far more silly results.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The last of Ben Harper

"I'm going now, children... Goodbye"

While most obituaries about the recently deceased Peter Graves remember his work in the TV series "mission impossible", many of you may also remember him as Ben Harper, the good man whose only day of dishonesty takes him to the gallows, a short but relevant role in The Night of the Hunter...
I was working with John Ford in a picture. One day I started to say: "About this scene. This part I'm playing. I think that–" Ford snapped me shut. "Don't think in my picture, " he growled. Moving from Ford to Charles was like moving from hell to heaven

So stated Graves when asked about his memories of The Night of the Hunter. Laughton is sometimes pointed as a "difficult" actor by some directors, but Peter Graves' comment makes evident that even actors without a feisty reputation on the sets resented being treated by directors as if they were objects. It should be no surprise that, when Laughton was behind the camera, wouldn't forget what it felt like to be in front, and in consequence, be considerate towards them, to the point that he wouldn't interrupt takes with a "Cut!", and keep the camera rolling, in order to preserve his actors' concentration (this curious proceeding, by the way, left a remarkable lengtht of precious celluloid).

Laughton directs Preacher trying to convince Ben Harper about making a substantial donation to his holy cause

I'll give you again a link to a recent interview with Peter Graves .

Plus a few homages in the blogosphere: Plumas de Caballo , Bright Lights after dark , Screensavers , Edward Copeland on Film.

...And in the online press: The Guardian , The New Yorker , The Times , The New York Times , Los Angeles Times , El Pais.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The senator was undermined

This week is taking place across the blogosphere For The Love Of Film, The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren and by Marilyn at Ferdy On Films. The event is meant to raise awareness (and funds) to help the National Film Preservation Foundation prevent the further disappearance of old celluloid (for those of you willing to contribute with a donation here's the link for donations).

I thought that would be a good occasion to finally finish a post on Charles Laughton's lost scenes from Spartacus whose draft I have kept in the fridge for months. So here it goes:

Gracchus and Caesar's walk through the streets of Rome: a scene deleted from the last edit of the film, but still present in some early lobby cards

The restoration of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) a few years ago, which released a carefully reconstructed version of the film, received much publicity about recovered scenes such as as the "oysters and snails" one between Laurence Olivier/Crassus and Tony Curtis/Antoninus, yet the sad fact remains that, although a good deal of Spartacus' footage has been saved and reincorporated, there were many scenes which have been lost forever: we could say we have oysters without pearls. Among those vanished scenes (some surviving only as stills) there were a few featuring Gracchus, played by Charles Laughton, who didn't precisely have a lot of screen time in the film to start with.

The incredible shifting script
In Howard Fast's novel, the (third) Servile War is recalled by those who were involved, Romans and slaves alike. Spartacus is thus only present in their memories, haunting them. A main theme is the impact of war in Rome and its society and in the balance of power in the high spheres of the republic: Crassus' final victory over Spartacus triggers the transition from a Republican democracy to the dictatorship of the patrician elite, eventually to become the Roman Empire.

Leading the opposing political factions of Rome, Fast presents Sempronius Gracchus, a senator and leader of the plebs and Marcus Licinius Crassus, a wealthy patrician general. While Crassus revels in his victory, and the new order resulting from Spartacus' defeat, Gracchus ponders if the slaves weren't right, after all: the senator recalls a time when the citizens Roman republic were not as decadent as they are now, and stood for themselves the way Spartacus and the slaves stood to fight for their freedom. Both men become obsessed with Varinia, but to Crassus, Varinia is just a trophy: he just wants to possess her. Gracchus, on the other hand, wants to understand her, and Spartacus' cause, realising that the slaves lived for a set of worthy values which for Romans are a long-lost memoir. Empathizing with their cause, Gracchus will orchestrate Varinia's escape and sacrifice himself to honour the old Republican virtues after a lifetime of corruption... and also, of course, because he gets a kick out of screwing Crassus' plans.

Fast presents Gracchus and Crassus as political archetipes which have a continuity in our days. For him Gracchus resembles an old Irish politician like Tip O'Neill , and Crassus resembles those born with a silver spoon, like George Bush... I hope it is clear, by now, that in Howard Fast's original novel, Gracchus and Crassus are presented as two main characters in the plot, equal in importance: How come then, that in the final film, Crassus is one of the principals and Gracchus a secondary character? One reason might lie in the convoluted gestation of the script.

Once Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis set their eyes on Fast's novel, they felt they had to secure the property, for there was talk of United Artists producing a film titled The Gladiators, starring Yul Brynner, and there were even promotional stills of Brynner dressed as a gladiator. They saw that getting big names for the production would be good way to beat the rival project: thus, a script needed to be produced without delay.

Howard Fast was initially asked to adapt his novel, but since the producers weren't enthusiastic about the script he was writing, they requested the services of one of Hollywood's most expert writers, Sam Jackson: actually a nom de plume of Dalton Trumbo, unable to sign scripts with his real name because he was in the blacklist (1). Trumbo wrote the script in three weeks, and later considered that the further changes brought over by the adventurous making of the film didn't significantly improve his first draft.

As soon as the script was ready, copies were sent to the chosen stars, who agreed to work in the film.

A promotional still from the same street scene: notice the grafitti here and in the previous image

Backstage manoeuvres in the dark
One of the challenges Trumbo faced in adapting the novel was that, since Spartacus was the protagonist and was played by the producer of the film, the use of the recollections and flashbacks in the novel had to be changed from past tense to present, and Spartacus' actions narrated in chronological order: if Spartacus now was no longer a ghost, the rest of the story (and subplots) had to be squeezed accordingly to leave space. Simon Callow wrote in his Laughton biography that Kirk Douglas, in order to secure his dream cast, sent different versions of the script as a bait to the actors he wanted to be in the film, in which their characters seemed to be the most interesting part of the movie. John Baxter, in his Kubrick biography, denies it.

I am of the opinion that Callow is nearer the truth... for one, it well might be that there could be early rewrites, considering that Trumbo claimed to have written over 1400 pages of rewrites of the script. On the other hand, Peter Ustinov also stated the tension when, during the first rehearsal, Charles Laughton realized that the script he had read wasn't apparently, quite the same Laurence Olivier and the others were working with. Ustinov also said that Olivier came a week before the rest of principals, and it seems that he didn't waste time in suggesting improvements on his character. It is alleged that Olivier was interested in playing Spartacus: if so, it's not unlikely that Douglas, in order to secure the interest of the knight, guaranteed the importance of his role as Crassus.

Another factor was that, while Trumbo was the main writer, he wasn't the only one involved: as he puts it, the final script was the result of a comitee's work. It is obvious that the star/producer and the director, whose own opinions over the story differed, would have their say, and besides, all the performers would ask their parts to be improved.

Now Laughton may have been in disadvantage for many reasons: one being the fact that his own working schedule only allowed him to work for three weeks in the film. Obviously, those who were available for a longer time were in better position to add scenes and phrases that improved the roles they were playing. Still, it may be not well known that when Laughton played Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty (1936), he had a similarly tight schedule due to contractual obligations with Alexander Korda. But then producer Irving Thalberg and director Frank Lloyd were aware of the relevance of his character to the film, so Bligh's part wasn't cut or reduced while Laughton was away working in other films. Sadly, in Spartacus he wasn't in serious, contract-abiding company, so neither his character or himself received the respect he had got from Thalberg or Lloyd.

One of the characters which is the most benefited from the novel to film transition is Lentulus Batiatus, played by Peter Ustinov. In the novel, Batiatus is only relevant in the part of the story where Spartacus is trained at the gladiatorial school, disappearing once the slave revolt takes place. The scenes which Ustinov/Batiatus shares with Laughton/Gracchus in the film do not exist in the novel: Cracchus confidants and assistants are his political lackeys. Not that melting all this characters in one, as Trumbo did, is bad for the film: Batiatus is left as an entertaining, multilayered character capable of evolution in the course of action. The bad side is, this overshadows even more Gracchus' role. When Laughton felt crossed about the way his character had been diminished, Ustinov offered to rewrite his part, and Laughton was rather satisfied with that: there is, in fact, a great chemistry in their scenes together.

Dalton Trumbo was ambivalent about Ustinov's rewrites: on one side, he thought they bring considerable wit and humour to the script, thus balancing the tragedy and drama in the film. The bad side, Trumbo believed, was that Ustinov's rewrites belittled Gracchus, something Trumbo suspects Ustinov did on his own best interests to boost his part at the expense of Laughton's. Trumbo wrote that "Charles put himself into Peter's hands for certain rewrites in this scene. He could not have bee unluckier in his choice since Peter was determined to give Charles a screwing, and did so". Trumbo resented certain humoristic additions to the character, as Gracchus character "is far more important to the film as a whole than a few cheap laughs from the audience (...) The part of Gracchus can be amusing by reason of the character's wit and attitude, but it cannot be called truly comic" as Batiatus part is meant to be.

Still, I believe that Trumbo's complaints about the final script diminishing Gracchus' intelligence, for not feeling the change of tide (i.e. as when he is caught by surprise when his pupil Caesar defects him to join the cause of Crassus) should be somewhat mellowed by the fact that Laughton was perfectly capable to suggest what the written script had taken away from him. If you remember the scene in which Crassus leaves Rome to fight Spartacus you'll see that Laughton suggests, with just a glance, that Gracchus is perfectly aware that the winds no longer blow on his sails.

Laughton's Gracchus: far more perceptive than the final script allowed him to be

Lillian Gish, being interviewed about The Night of The Hunter, declared that in her view "an artist is like a six-moth kitten in business matters usually, and he needs someone he can trust, someone to manage the business for him". Preston Neal Jones believes that she must have had Laughton in mind when she said that... The truth is, Laughton was never apt at backstage manoeuvring and backstabbing: he was of the innocent opinion that, if one should strive to do the best possible work, one's efforts should receive recognition... But for this to be possible, one's efforts must reach the light, and what we can now see of his Gracchus is what survived a fierce behind-the-cameras war for the best lines and the greater screen presence.

The vestal and the strumpet
Ustinov liked to recall the events under a jocose light: he laughs at everyone and particularly seems to enjoy poking fun at Laughton. Mind me, not that this isn't fun to watch, but he often makes remarks about Charles which I find dangerously reductive. Ustinov states that Laughton would be in an intensely morose attitude throughout the shooting. These statements have been often isolated to highlight Laughton's "difficult temperament", as if, you know, he was pouting just because. In fact, Ustinov himself explains some reasons for Laughton's sulk which, curiously enough, are not highlighted half as often (2).

As opposed to a stereotyped image of a non-commital, whimsy prima donna, Laughton had done his homework: he was knowledgeable on classic history (at school he excelled in Latin) and had played two caesars earlier in his career. Laughton was always thorough in his preparation, and would usually read the original literary sources of a script (as well as any related books), so it is highly likely that he had read Howard Fast's novel. At any rate he was certainly aware of the importance of Gracchus in the original story, and according to Ustinov, "Laughton was very unhappy with what they had done to his part (...) it really didn't give him ammunition to deal with the other things. He had many ideas of his own which were incorporated vaguely into the mass of the thing: He felt he'd been taken advantage of and got to play this part which, to his mind was a really minor part by means which were not absolutely fair". In fact, Laughton would have agreed with Trumbo that the final script seriously downgraded Gracchus intelligence. Kirk Douglas used to tell with amusement, that Laughton would come and say he was going o sue him, pretending, in genuine "who? meee?" fashion that he would not know what Laughton was talking about.

There's another famous statement by Ustinov in which he compares Olivier and Laughton, seeing Olivier as a a pure vestale devoted to the art of Thespis, and Laughton as a Hollywood whore. It is true that one may share some disappointment about what could be felt as Laughton's waste of his talents in certain lesser films, but regardless of the quality of the film he might be working in, Laughton would generally toil to get the best possible performance. Besides, the comparison is hugely unfair considering what Laughton did in 1933, saying no to opulent Hollywood offers in order to be able to work for months at the Old Vic with much lesser wages. More examples? He would struggle to stage Brecht's Galileo (in 1947!), and making The Night of the Hunter isn't precisely the kind of film one does to get big bucks. After Spartacus, incidentally, Laughton would devote months to prepare for the part of King Lear... Honest, none of this makes me think of Laughton as the rent-by-the-hours type.

Whorish or not, Laughton's performance was certainly well appreciated by the writers: it certainly pleased Dalton Trumbo, and Howard Fast declared that Laughton "elevates whatever he's in, wherever he is"

Gracchus gives Caesar a few practical tips about buying votes at the public house: another scene lost forever

The film expands in Spain
Saul Bass said that "as the picture went along, it tended to expand". In fact, after the film was considered nearly finished, Dalton Trumbo issued a scene-by-scene memo analising the film and suggesting improvements. Trumbo complained that, while the life of the Romans was depicted in rich detail, the slaves were treated as a generic group of anonymous, undifferentiated people, and no clues as to their way of life and beliefs were given. To keep the balance, and strenghten Spartacus' reasons for revolt, he felt that the film needed extra scenes depicting the life of slaves.

So the crew and part of the cast went to Spain for further shooting (3). It is sadly ironic that the shooting of these scenes about slaves fighting for their freedom was done in a country living under a dictatorship not unlike the kind Crassus wanted for republican Rome. Edward Lewis recalls, not without compunction, that in order to be in the dictator's good graces, they donated money to the favourite charities of Franco's wife.

Spain became a popular location for big Hollywood productions during that period (4), mostly because of the weather and the benefits of monetary change, which helped to keep the budgets tight. The availability of trained Spanish conscripts for mass and/or battle scenes also came handy in the case of Spartacus. George Sanders, shooting Solomon and Sheba in Spain around the same period, was seriously concerned about the poor Spanish boy soldiers, often being used for dangerous stunts without proper protection and without getting any of the profits their generals got for hiring them (5).

Once the Battle scenes and the extra slave footage were added to the early edit, the film had swelled considerably and Kubrick was asked to reduce footage. Ironically enough, among the first scenes to be cut away were the depictions of Roman life Trumbo had praised to demand an equal treatment of slaves, and along with them, the scene where Gracchus/Laughton gives Caesar/Gavin practical lessons of how to earn votes (basically, by buying them). Kirk Douglas recalled that as a wonderful scene, whose cutting could only be explained for time reasons.

John Baxter writes that Kubrick didn't give much thought to cutting away Laughton's scenes, and maybe he relished that as well, not having found Laughton as a cooperative, or even worse, obedient performer. Peter Ustinov remembers how Laughton and him would rehearse the scene thoroughly at home, and on the following day, they would arrange the furniture of the set and perform the scene in such a perfectly finished way, that Kubrick had little option but film them as they had contrived. "It was difficult" said Ustinov "for even Kubrick to start from scratch and suggest we should do something different". Not that Kubrick would easily forget such breach of directorial authority: when the time came, Stanley grinded his ax and started to chop Gracchus footage mercilessly: "Here's Johnneeee!"

Any scene with Laughton that was cut is lost forever, except for a sound clip of Gracchus' suicide and last instructions to one of her liberated slaves. Nothing more.

Laughton would play a senator again in his last film, Advise and Consent: on that occasion, the director respected the actor's performance and the film certainly benefited from that. And certainly Spartacus could have be a better movie with a bit more of Gracchus in it. I certainly agree with Trumbo that the loss of importance of the senator's role is a great loss to the picture.

(1) But not for long, Trumbo was credited with as the author of the script of Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960), and Kirk Douglas would acknowledge him as well as the writer of Spartacus.
(2) There's something which is not mentioned by Ustinov and may explain further Charles' feeling annoyed... Remember I mentioned in the previous post someone didn't allow Don Juan in Hell to be played in London? Well, that someone was present in the shooting of Spartacus: The nimble reader will no doubt be able to deduce the identity of the culprit.
(3) Something rather evident for any Spanish viewer of Spartacus who recognizes in the background village houses as the ones in which their grandparents and parents dwelled, and many still live in: frankly, these rural buildings hardly look Roman.
(4) As many other producers did, as Stanley Kramer (i.e. The Pride And The Passion, 1957) or Samuel Bronston (i.e. El Cid, 1962).
(5) Sanders remembered when he accidentally ran over a young soldier with a chariot. Fortunately the soldier's injuries weren't too bad, but Sanders noticed that they wore no protection apart from their costumes, and were given no choice about wheter they wanted to be in a film or not, being under military orders. Incidentally, Yul Brynner (who wouldn't make The Gladiators, after all) was playing King Solomon susbtituting the recently deceased Tyrone Power.

:: Spartacus Special edition DVD (Criterion's version, released in Zone 2 by Universal), containing a Peter Ustinov interview; Track with comments by Kirk Douglas (actor and producer), Peter Ustinov (actor), Howard Fast (writer), Edward Lewis (producer), Saul Bass (designer) and Robert Harris (film restoration expert); Track with Dalton Trumbo's notes to the script read by actor Michael McConnohie.
:: "Spartacus" by Howard Fast
:: "Charles Laughton. A Difficult Actor" by Simon Callow
:: "Stanley Kubrick: A Biography" by John Baxter
:: "Dear Me" by Peter Ustinov
:: "Heaven and Hell to Play With" by Preston Neal Jones
:: "Memoirs of a professional Cad" By George Sanders

Some links
:: A review of the Criterion DVDA edition at Filmsondisc.com
:: Review by Roger Ebert
:: Review at Bear, Schmear!
:: Promotional illustrations by Tom Van Sant
:: Article by SuperSantiego in La realidad Estupefaciente (in Spanish)
:: Review by Jonathan Rosembaum
:: Review by CSE Cooney
:: Review at Dynamic 01
:: Review at American left History
:: Review at Cinema Debate (in Portuguese)
:: Review at aVoir-aLire.com (in French)
:: Mark Farnsworth reviews Spartacus at Global Comment
:: Review by Major Reisman (in Spanish)
:: Review by Pepe Gutierrez-Álvarez in Kaosenlared.net (in Spanish)
:: Review by Bob Aldrich in The Great Unmade Robert Aldrich Romantic Comedy

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One hell of an mp3

Well, I have good news Today! The 1952 Columbia recording of "Don Juan in Hell" has been re-released. Not in CD and not by the current owners of the rich Columbia catalogue who, I fear, are not particularly interested in re-releasing the many precious jewels in their vaults. Luckily, Saland Publishing considers that this recorded play will interest modern audiences, and has released the original two-vinyl set in two downloadable mp3 files, which are available at Amazon and iTunes at an irressistible price: let me tell you, these could be the best spent two dollars in your life.

"Don Juan in Hell" would deserve a real hugue post devoted to it, but today I'll just do a briefing.

The original Columbia cover of the recording

By the beginning of the fifties Laughton, through his association with Paul Gregory, was touring the States doing highly successful literary readings in whatever available space a stage could be improvised and an audience assembled. Laughton would mesmerize the public with words with just a bunch of books and a stool as props, declaring that "contrary to what I'd been told in the entertainment industry, people everywhere have a common shy hunger for literature", which was (and I fear, still is) a daring statement to make.

Gregory, seeing the box-office benefits of Laughton's literary crusade, wondered about the further possibilities of the act, and whether a play could be staged in such an economical (but effective) way with more performers. Discussing the matter with Laughton, they thought that the third act of George B. Shaw's Man and Superman, detached from the course of action of the rest of the play, would be a good choice for the experiment. This act presented a philosophical debate between Don Juan, The Devil, Doña Ana and the Statue (a.k.a. the Commander, Ana's father), and wasn't performed at all in most stagings of Man and Superman. Laughton and Gregory considered that the Don Juan in Hell act was long autonomous enough to be presented as a theatrical event on its own right.

They assembled three performers: suave Charles Boyer to perform the persuasive Burlador, the brilliant Agnes Moorehead to play Doña Ana, and Shaw veteran Cedric Hardwicke to play the Statue. Laughton would play the urbane Devil and direct the play. The four players would perform on a stage (bare save for the stools and microphones), wearing evening dress, apparently "reading" the play but under its minimal appearance there was a sophisticated dramatic work.

Hardwicke, Boyer, Moorehead and Laughton: The First Drama Quartette

George B. Shaw had clashed famously with a younger Charles Laughton when he performed professor Higgins while being a student at RADA: Shaw told Charles that he thought he was a dreadful Higgins, but predicted him a brilliant career "within the year". Shaw not only predicted Charles' quick ascent to lead parts, but also would, a few years later, consider him the best candidate to play Higgins of film (which sadly didn't materialise: I'd certainly would have liked to be able to compare such a performance with Leslie Howard's fine turn). When Charles asked Shaw for permission, the writer was still of the opinion that the third act was difficult to stage, but gave his blessings -and advice- to Laughton nonetheless. "Don Juan in Hell" is a compendium of Shavian themes, Hardwicke said it contained "the germs of virtually all his plays in one form or another", and Laughton considered it "a cathedral of ideas".

The play toured succesfully through many American cities and towns before its triumphant Broadway debut (a clever build-up characteristic of Gregory), and became a hit that revolutionized the American stage (1) and started Charles' -long delayed!- career as a stage director, a trade in which he would earn a remarkable and well deserved renown in the years to follow.

A few related links:
:: Terry Teachout reviews the mp3 and chronicles the First Drama Quartette's adventures in theaterland at Wall Street Journal
:: "The Happy Ham", an article about Laughton and the Don Juan In Hell tour (Time Magazine, March 1952)
:: A contemporary review of the play at "Time"
:: A post on Agnes Moorehead at Movie Morlocks, featuring an interview with Charles Tranberg, author of I Love The Illusion, a biography of the actress.

My paper copy of the abovelinked Time magazine, Simon Callow's seminal Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor, Cedric Hardwicke's autobiography A Victorian in Orbit and Charles Higham biography of Laughton.

(1) There was a British interval of the Don Juan In Hell Tour during the Festival of Britain, in wich the four actors briefly toured the United Kingdom, but didn't play in London: The apparent reason being that someone in the British scene decided that, since a staging of the complete "Man and Superman" was played at the city, the London public wouldn't be interested in an alternative staging of the third act of the play, and one done by, *harumph*, "film stars". That someone obviously had a low consideration of the London's love for theatre or the fact that the play directed by Laughton had been sanctioned by Shaw himself, and sadly denied the Londoners the chance to enjoy both stagings.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

So this is the woman it took Crassus eight legions to conquer...

Batiatus: Come with us. See to it that I don't misuse the money.

Gracchus: Don't be ridiculous, I'm a senator. Will you please go before the soldiers come in?

Gracchus: Oh, this would really make Crassus jealous.

So you see, Gracchus was second only to Spartacus as far as Varinia was concerned. Eat your heart out, Crassus!

I'd like to think that Charles and Jean Simmons are meeting right now for a cup of tea, after all this time. Not in Picenum but in the Elysian Fields.