In this latest reviews update: a scintillating, sad biography of a theatrical great, the Isle of Man, and the continued adventures of the young Fairuza Balk.
Damned in Paradise – The Life of John Barrymore (John Kobler, 1977) – I like a good actor biography and this is one of the best: a brilliantly researched, superbly written tear through the life of John Barrymore, the charming stage comedian who became the most celebrated Hamlet of his generation, before selling out the stage for the movies, and descending into an alcoholic abyss. Kobler is a fond but even-handed chronicler, and lays out some convincing mitigation for both Barrymore's consummate misogny ("I’ve fucked her. She’s nothing but a whore," he says of his brother's second wife) – he was seduced by his stepmother at the age of 14 – and his drink problems, which flow through the family. Still, the last hundred pages are almost unbearably sad, as Barrymore is consumed by his demons, with some help from his fourth wife, and winds up playing a caricature of himself, boozy and bloated, in low-rent Hollywood potboilers. By contrast, the chapters dealing with Jack’s nine years of theatrical triumph, from John Galsworth’s Justice to Peter Ibbetson, Richard III and Hamlet, are absolutely thrilling, crackling with life and atmosphere as they chart the meteoric ascent of a singular talent in a vibrant, masterfully-evoked Broadway. Though Barrymore’s take on Hamlet was a greater success in the US than in the UK, it was seen by both Olivier and Gielgud in London and formed the basis of their celebrated interpretations.
Throughout, the narrative is peppered with cameos from the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, and a succession of stinging one-liners. My favourite is either Jack losing his temper with warbling opera star Jeanette MacDonald – “If you wave that loathsome chiffon rag you call a kerchief once more while I'm speaking, I shall ram it down your gargling throat” – or his father, Maurice, snapping out of a growing paresis to deliver a withering putdown to a Shakespearean actor. When Jack's dad appears in outlandish garb, a decision attributed to his illness, the ham asks if he's wearing it for a bet. “Yes, I am,” he replies. “You must have given the man long odds, Barry,” the actor says. “I did,” answers Maurice, “I wagered him that you were not the most mediocre reader of blank verse alive on the globe, and he proved me wrong and won.” Zing.
According to those who saw him tread the boards at the peak of his powers, Barrymore’s films don’t seem to have quite captured his gifts – or indeed stoked his imagination – and Kobler isn’t overly concerned with them. He does praise the Pre-Code drama Counsellor at Law, which features arguably Barrymore’s best dramatic performance, but, while acknowledging that Twentieth Century was Jack’s “funniest” work, the author doesn't give that screwball classic the praise it really deserves, and his implicit dismissal of the superb romantic comedy Midnight, which boasts a colourful supporting performance from Jack at a time when he was accepting all offers of work, suggests it might not have been an easy one to find when the book was written in 1977.
There is the odd minor lull across the book’s 400 pages – the sections dealing with Barrymore’s crackpot spiritualism occasionally drag and I don’t think we needed the unabridged, slightly racist honeymoon diary – but it’s nevertheless a gripping, exhilarating read that takes you to the very heart of its subject: in other words, definitive. (4)
Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat (Edward McPherson, 2007) – McPherson is a skilful, amusing writer, but his Buster book is largely just a rehash of second-hand material – and the odd newspaper cutting – a recap of the star’s silent films, with some trivia from other sources thrown in. I learnt a few new things – like the fact that Buster added the boulder climax to Seven Chances after the second preview audience laughed at something he’d done by mistake – but a lot of it is merely elegantly-phrased synopsising. His summary of the difference between Buster’s greatest film and his most successful (The Navigator) is wonderful, though: “To love Sherlock, Jr., you have to love movies, anyone can laugh at a guy falling of a boat." (2.5)
The Bride Wore Red (Dorothy Arzner, 1937) – Joan Crawford grandstands, mopes and plays alternately gooey and unattractively fierce in this tailor-made MGM melodrama, apparently about Spaniards, where her down-and-out cabaret performer is given the chance to masquerade as a lady, then to choose between smug gentleman Robert Young (who treats his fiancée notably shabbily) and poetic, working class postman Franchot Tone. The first scene is a gem, promising plenty, as cynical aristocrat George Zucco sets the wheels in motion by becoming Crawford’s sponsor, but then he disappears and it becomes a conventional story of love vs security, with a notably overwritten script that takes rather too long to wind itself up. There’s the typical MGM gloss, though – Crawford’s white dress with the veiled hood wouldn’t have been seen anywhere else on the planet – Tone is good in a part suited to his talents, and little Dickie Moore turns up as a telegram-delivering blackberry fiend. (2.5)
See also: Crawford and then husband Tone also appeared in Love on the Run, with Clark Gable.
The Street with No Name (William Keighley, 1948) – After the sensational success of Fox’s The House on 92nd Street, the studio produced a series of films in the same semi-documentary manner, shot memorably on location and featuring scrupulously-detailed voiceovers that hammer home the authenticity of what you’re seeing but – much like the FBI officers woodenly playing themselves – aren’t necessarily very cinematic. This one, which sees Lloyd Nolan reprising his 92nd Street role as FBI Inspector Briggs, isn’t as good as Call Northside 777, but it’s slicker, more confident and faster-paced than either its predecessor or Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! and benefits from a dynamic Richard Widmark performance – he was something special in those early days. Mark Stevens plays a G-Man sent in by Nolan to pose as a lowlife and infiltrate a robbery gang. After a pounding in the boxing ring and a spell in the cells, he’s taken on by Widmark’s local kingpin, and the two generate an apparently accidental homoerotic charge, due to the peculiar, flirtatious way that Widmark commands his subordinates, particularly this new one. It’s well-photographed in the chiaroscuro style, high in suspense and has a nice supporting bit from Ed Begley as Stevens’ grubby shadow, and while the pro-FBI tub-thumping and glimpses into the bureau’s operations do sometimes break the film’s momentum, they’re more coherent and sensible than before. (3)
Keeping Mum (Niall Johnson, 2005) – A vicar’s family appears on the brink of collapse, until a homicidal housekeeper (Maggie Smith) arrives on the scene. After a fun prologue with Emilia Fox as the young Smith, this black comedy proceeds to immediately trample over any hopes you might be holding for it: it’s set in a village called Little Wallop, it features that guy who looks like Rowan Atkinson but can’t possibly be because Rowan Atkinson used to be funny, and there’s a Carry On-style scene in which Patrick Swayze teaches Kristin Scott Thomas to play golf and says he’s going to keep his eye on her hole. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps halfway through, I realised I was starting to rather enjoy it. That’s partly down to some familiar, lovely Isle of Man locales, but also an emotional attractiveness which emerges from beneath the lazy English stereotyping and Arsenic and Old Lace-style shenanigans, and the introduction of some jokes that were actually funny, to go along with all the rubbish ones. Swayze’s performance is a bit of a write-off, but Atkinson really grew on me, and I’ve a perpetual weakness for both Scott Thomas and Smith, the latter clearly relishing the chance to play this murderous Mary Poppins. (2.5)
Imaginary Crimes (Anthony Drazan, 1994) – Touching coming-of-age story set in the ‘50s and sparked by a typically fine performance from the young Fairuza Balk. She plays a teenage writer, recalling her mother’s passing in flashback, who strives to make something of her life – and her younger sister’s – despite feckless father Harvey Keitel, a pipe dreamer always a technicality away from fame and fortune. Like James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Tom Hulce in Parenthood. There’s nothing new here, the script tends towards cliché and the production values seem closer to a TV movie than a feature film, but Balk’s assured, appealing and unglamorous characterisation carries it right through to a very satisfying conclusion, which is beautifully filmed and played. I’m not a big fan of Keitel, but he’s quite good, particularly in the later scenes, and there’s very strong work from Kelly Lynch (as his late wife), Elisabeth Moss – as the other sibling – and Vincent D’Onofrio, playing Balk’s inspirational teacher. (3)
CINEMA: Brave 3D (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012) – Little Rebekah Brooks fights for her freedom against the evil, demon bear Leveson, and the clans of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, in this pungent media satire. I think that’s what was happening, anyway. On one level, Pixar’s latest – concerning a flame-haired princess learning the meaning of responsibility and courage as she tries to avoid getting married, spends some quality time with her mum, and raises the ire of the aforementioned bear – is difficult to fault, with the same clever visual gags, anarchic tendencies and involving plotting as before, but it’s somehow lacking the magic of Up, WALL-E and the studio’s other classics, feeling a touch too mechanical, a little uneven (there’s a 20-minute stretch that seems to dispense with jokes entirely) and, well, a bit too Disney, with an over-baked sentimentality that the studio usually keeps well at bay. It’s still a fun ride, blessed with some thrilling action sequences, plenty of good jokes, and those hilarious – though underused – red-headed triplets; but from the mighty Pixar, that’s not quite enough. (3)
It was screened with this brand new one-reeler:
SHORT: La Luna (Enrico Casarosa, 2012) – Typically wonderful Pixar short about an Italian boy learning the secrets of the moon from two crusty old-timers. It’s strikingly imaginative and original, with a brilliant pay-off, though I wonder if the backwards cap is perhaps a little too American. Still, magical. (4)
Passenger Side (Matt Bissonette, 2009) – Exceptional indie about wry, downbeat writer Adam Scott ferrying around his junkie brother (Joel Bissonette) for a day, all to serve some mysterious mission. There’s little in the way of conventional plotting, and a couple of the later excursions into absurdism feel forced (particularly the sweary, bestial garage attendant), but the characterisation is rich and original, the dialogue is absolutely extraordinary - eloquent, witty and genuinely offbeat - and the whole thing plays to a suitable, striking soundtrack. (4)
Agatha (Michael Apted, 1979) – Interminable, fictionalised nonsense about Agatha Christie’s mysterious 1926 disappearance, which eventually saw her discovered in Harrogate. A similar thing happened to me in 2007, and I still haven't been found. This was originally meant to focus on the relationship between the mystery writer and her husband’s mistress, until the producers decided to crowbar in a (made-up) American journalist, played by Dustin Hoffman, to sell the film across the Atlantic. Not to worry, both narrative threads are equally terrible, while the film itself is poorly directed, dreadfully photographed (everyone seems to be either in shadow or standing in front of a window) and has some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. The performances from Vanessa Redgrave and Hoffman aren’t much better. The film was shot partly in Harrogate – yeah, Harrogate! – though there are some brilliant anachronisms for anyone familiar with Yorkshire. York railway station doubles for both Harrogate and London King’s Cross, while Hoffman’s mercy mission sees him sprinting to save Redgrave by going from his hotel room in Harrogate to the nearby spa, via the city of Bath. (1)
The House Bunny (Fred Wolf, 2008) – Don't judge me. I know it's hard not to. Confused, offensive comedy, produced by Adam Sandler, about centrefold wannabe Anna Faris being booted out of the Playboy Mansion when she hits 27, and ending up as house mother to a fraternity of nerds. Faris and Emma Stone are both quite good, particularly given the material, which contains a couple of laughs but is - overwhelmingly - both insultingly weak and muddled beyond belief. (1)