Wednesday, 21 January 2015

King Charles III at Wyndham's Theatre

Tuesday, 20 January 2015.

King Charles III has been festooned with garlands and approving royalty-based puns by a succession of national reviewers, who’ve heralded it with phrases like “the play of the year” and “a crowning achievement”. Watching it during the final fortnight of its run at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre, I found myself unable to reconcile these plaudits with the entertaining, sentimental, tabloidish drama I was seeing: something like Macbeth + Henry IV + Yes, Minister + The Sun. Perhaps I'd been hoodwinked and all the right-wing papers really want is a cosy, deferential pageant in which every satirical swipe comes from a sabre with its safety cover firmly in place.

The play's gimmick is that it takes the template of the historical, monarchical drama touched with populism – think those classics of the ‘60s, from Jean Anouilh’s incomparable Becket to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and the campy excesses of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter – sets it in the present day, and then loads it with Shakespearean tropes and blank verse, as the newly-crowned King Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) takes a principled stand when asked to sign off his first bill, William (Oliver Chris) is pushed into the limelight by the Lady Macbeth-like Kate (Lydia Wilson), and his other son – Prince Hal-ly, if you will – falls in love with a socialist art student (Tafline Steen).

Pigott-Smith, whose turn as the sadistic imperialist Charles Merrick in ITV’s near-mythic Jewel in the Crown remains a high-watermark of recent British acting, is well-cast and highly watchable as a recognisable, resolute, emphatic but nonetheless conflicted Charles, who has waited so long for the top prize that he now wants to make his mark, if only by refusing to make his mark. And while Chris is flat and increasingly unconvincing, and both Margot Leicester (as Camilla) and Steen unbalance moments of pathos and humour with grating actorly intonation, Wilson works well as the smart, clever Kate – calling him “husband” like her Shakespearean forebear – and Richard Goulding is absolutely exceptional as Harry. Writer Mike Bartlett took a gamble in presenting the younger prince as a hedonist whose muddled, lost soul is invigorated by love, but it really works, largely because in Goulding’s hands this bumbling, jumbled, inwardly honourable man is both admirable and adorable. Whether it gels with the central narrative is another question.

I wonder if the play has attracted such raves because it’s accessible and broadly entertaining whilst appearing highbrow, satirical and insightful. It is all of those things in turn, but it’s also confused, shallow, unfocused, overlong and somewhat smug, especially given its slender achievement. It also isn’t especially timely – it hangs some of its plot on the question of press freedom, but the role of the royal family, the restrictions on monarchical power and the balance to be struck between an elected chamber and an anointed ruler are hardly pressing questions in 2014. And wouldn’t have been in 2004, or 1994, or really any time since about 1651.

Like Becket and A Man for All Seasons, it's also - at least superficially - a play about conscience. The issue there, I think, is credibility. Whereas those works traded on history, where the stakes were real and provable, here the joke is that we are heightening Charles and Kate to the level of Shakespearean drama. A whimsical conceit, but the play can't then dislodge its tongue from its cheek sufficiently well to make us care about what we're seeing, especially when the wider plot developments quickly become so preposterous.

It paints reasonable portraits of its principal players, filtered effectively if not intelligently through Shakespeare, but even at its best, the characterisation leans towards caricature, which, while amusing, rather undermines any serious points it’s purporting to make.

It doesn’t help that those points – that Britain itself is vanishing, slice by slice, that there is a balance to be struck on press censorship, that there exists an insoluble bond between ruler and people, and that Charles probably shouldn’t meddle if he ever gets the big gig – are neither coherent nor original enough to merit these rhapsodies from the critics. Likewise, Rupert Goold’s staging, while clever, economical and swiftly adaptable, is fairly unexceptional, eliciting nary a gasp from the audience, except for one very smart bit of theatre at the end of Act II.

It’s a fairly good play, with a couple of strong performances and an agreeable first half, but it’s not deep, incisive or believable enough to ultimately take the crown. I suppose you could say that it’s a succession of near misses and a great big ‘king disappointment. (2.5)

John Barrymore, Hold Your Man, and the Great American Novel - Reviews #201


The Great Man Votes (Garson Kanin, 1939) - John Barrymore was the best and quite possibly the laziest actor of his generation. He reinvented Shakespeare on the American stage, with the help of astonishingly talented collaborators Ned Sheldon, Margaret Carrington and Edward Gordon Craig, before making a near-permanent transition to the screen, where he found that while occasionally there was something worthy of his gargantuan talents (The Beloved Rogue, Counsellor-at-Law), most of the time he could just throw an eyebrow and a finger skywards and that satisfied the punters and paid the bills.

By the late 1930s, a string of failed marriages, a disastrous approach to his personal finances and a severe drink problem had left him in the unfortunate position of having to accept whatever work came his way. Like three Bulldog Drummond films, each worse than the last, which is fairly astonishing given how bad the first one was.

Meanwhile, former wunderkind of the American stage Garson Kanin – the 24-year-old assistant who had turned around director George Abbott’s fortunes almost single-handedly – was gearing up to shoot his second film. Having served an apprenticeship as a prospective executive under legendary independent producer Sam Goldwyn, he had risked it all to start a career as a filmmaker over at RKO, where his debut – A Man to Remember – met with rave reviews and emerged as one of the major sleeper hits of the year. Given the chance to pick his next project, he alighted on a dormant project called The Great Man Votes, then somehow managed to persuade boss Pan Berman to let him cast his personal idol, John Barrymore, in the lead.

When Kanin rang Barrymore to speak to him about the part, the legendary thespian asked him to come right over, and greeted him in his customary style: nude. Though it's tempting to applaud the star for a lifetime of carousing, debauchery and being a ‘ledge’ or whatever, it was frankly this kind of behaviour, reinforced by sycophantic acolytes and frequent boozing, that moved Barrymore from the realm of the immortal into the Bulldog Drummond canon. Kanin, though, knew how to handle Barrymore, insisting that his cast and crew foster an atmosphere of formality and mutual respect by calling Jack as “Mr Barrymore”, and firing anyone who brooked the idea. The result, bar the occasional tantrum at little co-star Virginia Weidler’s scene-stealing, was remarkable: an unexpected professionalism on set, and the last great lead performance of Barrymore’s career.

The Great Man Votes is, to all intents and purposes, a smart but standard B-movie, a sweet little story about a down-and-out ex-teacher (Barrymore), on the skids since his wife’s death, who ekes out a living working as a night watchman, so as to support his two kids (Peter Horton and Virginia Weidler). With an election looming, he suddenly finds himself the only voter in a key precinct, and the toast of the town – working the angles to get the best deal for himself and his family.

The story isn’t always exploited as keenly and clearly as it might be and the supporting cast is mediocre, but it’s a solid mix of family comedy and political satire – with a sting in the tail – and presumably a minor influence on Preston Sturges’ films of the subsequent decade, casting Sturges regular William Demarest as a shouty ward boss. Where it excels, though, is in Kanin’s inventive direction – like a simply wonderful sequence in which Horton and Weidler walk to school deep in conversation, Kanin only shooting their fleet feet – and in Barrymore’s performance.

He was working from cue cards, as his memory ailed and his enthusiasm for learning dialogue waned, but he was at least energised about the project, thanks to his spirited, intelligent director, with the pointing, eyebrow-raising and eye-rolling all kept to a merciful minimum. Those tics aren’t eradicated completely – at moments he still goes for the easy gag or the lazy gesture – but this is Barrymore closer to his best than at any other time after Twentieth Century, in which he gave a simply legendary comic performance. One of the most telling things about the star is just how well he played fragility. When he was on top, he didn’t seem to know how to act, or at least how to act well, coming off as smug, broad and triumphal. But when he was vulnerable – as in A Bill for Divorcement, his staggering 1932 portrait of a man beset by crippling mental ill-health, or here, wracked with unhappiness, sodden with drink – he still had it in spades. If you want to know why, read John Kobler’s book about Barrymore, Damned in Paradise, which paints him as a mercurial lost soul, tormented by his father’s descent into madness.

For Barrymore, there was to be no grand revival. After a charming supporting part in Mitchell Leisen’s classic rom-com, Midnight, he slipped into sad, self-parodical projects, as his life slipped into the abyss. The Great Man Votes, though, is something like a great, low-budget hurrah for the actor that was: a tender, touching characterisation that showed what he could still deliver when he stopped being a dick and just did his job. (3)


Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954) - A glossy drama about big business – peopled by big-hitters of the ‘50s screen – that ultimately reveals itself as a state-of-the-industry statement, arguing that America needs to innovate, produce and grow, not just cut costs to keep shareholders happy. That might sound dry, but it’s actually the most arresting material in the production, the rest of it highly entertaining but barely remaining in the memory: two affairs, a couple of revelations, a bit of insider trading.

Launching with a very effective PoV sequence, it’s skilfully directed by Robert Wise (and was produced by fellow Orson Welles alumnus John Houseman), with a solid script by regular Hitchcock collaborator Ernest Lehman, but really you’re watching it for the performances. They’re good across the board – pun intended – though the real standouts are William Holden as a muscular up-and-comer, Shelley Winters playing a lovelorn secretary, and Fredric March in one of his best mid-period roles as a supercilious, blandly detestable financier.

Barbara Stanwyck, my reason for watching most films nowadays, is rather overwrought but has a couple of nice quieter moments, as a major stockholder thrown over by the head honcho now lying on a slab. (3)


Hold Your Man (Sam Wood, 1933)
- In the immortal words of Sven-Goran Eriksson: first half good, second half not so good. Hot off the back of their phenomenally successful first teaming, Red Dust, MGM put stars Jean Harlow and Clark Gable into a second vehicle. At that point, though, the Hays Office was expressing severe concerns about Harlow’s hyper-sexual image – especially in the wake of the Paul Bern scandal that had unfortunately engulfed her – and the result was this slight botch job, in which a fantastic opening 40, rich in irreverent wrongdoing and flirtatious badinage, gives way to a stodgy, slightly dreary drama of reformation.

Gable is a cocksure conman who, fleeing from the cops, meets his match in the hot, funny good-time girl (Jean Harlow) who agrees to shield him, the pair trading zingers from the unmistakable pen of Anita Loos, a brilliant – though erratic – screenwriter responsible for everything from early Doug Fairbanks vehicles to Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and most of Harlow’s key credits. But after a (confusingly conceived) encounter with a drunk, Gable finds himself wanted for murder and Harlow finds herself in the reformatory, alongside a socialist, a minister’s daughter (the smoking hot Theresa Harris) and her own arch nemesis (a borderline psychotic Dorothy Burgess). Cue much moping, hand-wringing and sub-Ladies They Talk About melodrama, partially rescued by Sam Wood’s handsome direction and particularly Harlow’s brilliant performance.

The star was at the peak of her popularity and – aside from one ill-judged sequence where the tone-deaf actress talks her way through a song – is at the peak of her considerable powers, vaulting contrived plotting and some unaccountable changes in characterisation with consummate skill, and proving that by 1933 there was very little she couldn’t do. Her scenes with softly-spoken Stuart Erwin (essentially doing his bit from Make Me a Star) are beautiful, with both players in their element, and her chemistry with Gable in those early scenes is just exceptional, crackling with sex while eliciting a succession of belly laughs, as she bats away his advances, mocks his grin and pockets his cash. She also punches his ex-girlfriend.

Ultimately it’s half a screwball classic, half a laboured morality tale in which people shout, sulk and walk around a lot, but that’s kind of good enough, especially with a star like this. (3)


Mandalay (Michael Curtiz, 1934)
- I hate it when you go for a date with your boyfriend and then he sells you to a nightclub. That’s sadly the situation facing Kay Francis (she of the slender talent and soft ‘r’) in this largely incomprehensible Pre-Code movie. Reinvented as hostess (prostitute) ‘Spot White’ (is that even a pun? What of?), she spends her evenings seducing men, having them buy her jewellery, taking off the jewellery whilst doing a sad face and just generally being in montages. Then she blackmails a police chief and leaves town with 10,000 rupees, falls in love with a doctor, renews her acquaintance with her ex-boyfriend and is accused of murder. This film is 65 minutes long.

It’s largely complete nonsense, but sufficiently tawdry, barmy and good-looking to hold your interest, with the talented Michael Curtiz finding atmosphere where others would find only embarrassment, and the usual familiar faces turning up in bit parts: Lyle Talbot, Warner Oland, Ruth Donnelly, Etienne Girardot and Ricardo Cortez – who, I shall never tire of relating, was a Brooklyn-born Jew who changed his name from Jacob Krantz during the silent era so as to cash in on the boom in ‘Latin lovers’ like Rudolph Valentino.

Francis is one of those gargantuan stars of the 1930s who – like Eddie Cantor or Warren William – are virtually forgotten nowadays, beyond circles comprising complete nerds. Unlike those two, it’s difficult to quite comprehend her appeal – which saw her become the highest-paid actress in America – beyond her fashionable looks and competent performances, though she does appear in a handful of all-time classics, all released in 1932: Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and two films with regular co-star William Powell, One-Way Passage and Jewel Robbery. (2)



"Basketball was never like this, Skip."
American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) - Oh, someone wrote the Great American Novel. Well done them. Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 work - the first of his I've read - is a mammoth accomplishment, a dizzying, jawdropping story, spun with bravura style, that deals with immigrant identity, the unknowability of everyone, the disappointments of adulthood and the utter chaos of existence, as a legendary high school sports star turned upstanding citizen has his life exploded by an unexpected act of violence. It is his daughter “who transports him out of the longed for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter-pastoral — into the indigenous American berserk", as Roth unforgettably characterises it.

He is "Swede" Levov and his fat, stuttering, psychotic daughter Merry is his flipside: the girl whose rejection of his country, their country, makes him question everything he has ever done in his life. An unwise joke. An unwise kiss. The even-tempered appeasement of her burgeoning, spittle-flecked rebellion. And his perfectly ordered, doggedly restrained, all-American existence, an idyll blown to bits along with a doctor, in a general store. Merry was the fourth generation of immigrant Jews. She was supposed to perfect the art. And now this. Lit by twists that astound and yet ring utterly true, blessed with slivers of black comedy and bitter humour, and loaded with faultless symbolism - from the glove industry that defines his father's life to the cattle business and face lift that reshape his wife's - it's as good a book as I've ever read about America. (4)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Ten things I learned about Warren William

Sort of. It turns out that while William excelled playing a series of rogues throughout the Pre-Code era, away from the screen he was self-effacing to a fault, while devoting his time and energies to inventing and sailing. Sounds like a nice guy, but not perhaps the best subject for a biography, especially as most of the people who could fill in the rest have long since passed on. That makes Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood (John Stangeland, 2010) an admirable attempt to plug a key gap in film history, but a less than gripping tome. It also means that I had to look beyond his life for 10 things truly worthy of your attention. If you do still want to take the plunge, you’ll find some rare candid shots, a few insights from William’s nieces and a biographer with a fair writing style and a decent grasp of cinema’s past.

Big floaty Warren William head.

1. Satan Met a Lady was named by an office boy. Despairing execs offered $25 to whoever could come up with a decent title for the 1935 screwball remake of The Maltese Falcon. The devilish moniker presumably came from author Dashiel Hammett’s description of his hero, Sam Spade, as “a blonde satan”.

2. William’s wife Helen was 17 years his senior. She claimed just seven. It’s unknown whether he ever found out.

3. Bette Davis may have been sacked from The Case of the Howling Dog – the first ever Perry Mason film – because of her boobs. “Be sure that Davis has her bulbs wrapped up. If she doesn’t do it we are either going to retake or put her out of the picture,” said a memo from studio head Jack Warner. She was replaced by Mary Astor shortly afterwards.

4. Davis, that big-eyed, multi-faceted walking argument, claimed that William repeatedly tried to seduce her. He doesn’t seem to have bothered with anyone else, aside from his wife.

5. In Smarty – an abysmal, appallingly sexist 1934 movie that majorly contributed to William’s slide out of the big time – the star was forced to hit co-star Joan Blondell. He described filming the sequence as “the most embarrassing moment of my life”.

6. The film was promoted by a pressbook in which exhibitors were encouraged to sponsor a local newspaper contest gathering stories about domestic abuse – “but make ‘em funny!”

7. In 1935, after William was passed over for the lead in Captain Blood (in favour of the guy who played a corpse opposite him earlier that year, Errol Flynn), the star wrote a furious missive to the studio lawyer, Roy Obringer, demanding to be released from his contract. He left the next year.

8. "They gave me a script; I told them it stank.” So said director Andre de Toth about Counter Espionage, the Lone Wolf series entry he had been assigned to direct. He asked for two weeks to shoot the movie – twice what had been approved – and was berated by Columbia chief Harry Cohn. If they removed the clause in his contract requiring him to produce films “to the best of his ability”, de Toth suggested, he’d be happy to go faster.

9. In 1942, Fox planned to mount an all-star mystery called The Four Star Murder Case, featuring Philo Vance (William), Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler), Mike Shayne (Lloyd Nolan) and Mr Moto (Peter Lorre), with the latter helping out from within an internment camp. I have a new favourite movie and it has never been made.

10. William’s tragic early death was due to multiple melanoma, probably caused by his relentless woodworking in confined spaces.

... and so as not to end on such a gloomy note, I loved Alexander Woollcott's magnificent dismissal of the 1926 Broadway show, Fanny: "written by Willard Mack and Mr Belasco and they both ought to be ashamed of themselves and each other."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Birdman, Jean Harlow and a bear called Paddington - Reviews #200

Yes, that's right! Look on my works, ye mighty, and rejoice, for this is the 200th irregularly-sized reviews update since I started Advice to the Lovelorn five long/short years ago (do not delete as applicable, time is a mystifying abstract entity). Which is your favourite? All of them?! You are too kind or I too deluded. I've done some more reviews, here you go:


CINEMA: Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)
- A former movie icon (Michael Keaton) strives for respectability by adapting, staging and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway, his endeavours periodically interrupted by crashing drums and a bass-heavy voice in his head telling him what to do, and by the nagging questions of middle-age. Is his life in vain? Is his girlfriend really pregnant? Is his play rubbish? And how come he can levitate, and move things with his mind?

In crudest terms, it's like Unbreakable - a grubbily real superhero origin story - on the set of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, with its nervy ingenues and pretentious thesps; but it's a far better film than either. For one thing, it's a true original, in its distinctive dialogue - as unusual and flavoursome as, say, Brick - its virtuosic direction, comprising almost nothing but unbroken, Ophülsian tracking shots, and its completely unpredictable storyline, bursting with brilliant characters.

The key three are played by Keaton - giving the performance of his life as the insecure, arrogant, quite possibly insane protagonist - Edward Norton, who hasn't been this good in years, as a kind of immature, unprofessional, permanently horny stage-era Brando, and Emma Stone as Keaton's daughter, fresh from rehab and increasingly centre-stage as her self-possession and maturity finally arrives. Lindsay Duncan is also worth a mention as a waspish, poisonous critic.

Boyhood was my favourite film of last year. Birdman is clearly a very different proposition, but it did give me the same feeling of euphoria that comes from seeing something utterly new and startlingly ambitious. Whereas Linklater's movie was wise, universal and steeped in contemporary Americana, this one is pin-sharp, blackly comic and streaked with greasepaint, with at least two scenes of fantastical wonder, one of underpants-based humiliation, and a dozen comprising stylised human drama between vivid, unforgettable characters.

It'll take some beating this year. (4)


CINEMA: Paddington (Paul King, 2014) - I came to this movie not as a film fan, but as a fan of Paddington Bear. During my 30 years I’ve read each and every Paddington book, from A Bear Called Paddington to Paddington Here and Now – including even that anthology of stories where Blue Peter is either directly or tangentially involved – revelling in their sense of simple, ingeniously-drafted escapism and underlying warmth (effortlessly sidestepping the sentimental), and finding in Peru-born Paddington a paragon of Englishness, in every good sense of that word.

I also came to the film with reservations. I’m fiercely protective of any art that I truly love, and having seen the utter, disgusting travesty that Disney has made of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s immortal Winnie the Pooh – akin to watching someone lie about your best mate to seven billion people – I was concerned that a genre as rightfully discredited as the British family film might be about to do something unspeakable to Windsor Gardens’ finest.

I needn’t have worried.

It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t necessarily always Paddington as we know him and his world, but it is an exceptionally charming, touching and funny film, directed not with the perfunctoriness of a cash-in, but with the considerable style of a rising star, in this case Bunny and the Bull’s Paul King. He litters the movie with ingenious effects, from a flashback scene played out on a table top, which hints at Mr Gruber’s past as a Holocaust refugee, to a wondrous, intensely moving sequence in which Paddington – seeing grainy monochrome footage of Peru for the first time since his hasty departure – walks towards the screen with paw outstretched, then passes through it into a world of glorious Technicolor. Which British kids film – scratch that, which British film – of recent years would attempt something so artily, emotionally ambitious, let alone pull it off in such luxuriant fashion?

The story combines elements of Michael Bond’s first novel, A Bear Called Paddington, with bits cribbed from the Paddington Bear: My Scrapbook spin-off book, Pixar’s Up and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. In the opening newsreel footage, a British explorer teaches a pair of Peruvian bears the ways of Englishness, and it is their descendant, a marmalade-loving bear by the name of “Oooooaaaarrrrgoooohhhhgggghhh” (voiced by the wonderful Ben Whishaw), who flees his home after a ruinous earthquake, pitching up in the near-mythic ‘London’, a place that doesn’t prove as friendly as he’d expected. Enter the Brown family, led by grouchy risk assessor Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville), hippyish, open-hearted Mrs Brown (a delightful Sally Hawkins) and their kids Jonathon and Judy. Enter also a complete psycho (Nicole Kidman), sort of reprising her Golden Compass role – or else updating Cruella de Vil – who wants to stuff Paddington for the Natural History Museum, at which she is the director. (I actually do some work with the museum, and she hasn’t come to any of the meetings, so she’s not only horrible, she’s also lazy.)

The movie starts rather shakily and gambles heavily on a somewhat unpleasant, hackneyed subplot, but from 15 minutes in, it’s something like a complete delight, comprised of involving plotting, marvellously moving interludes and an abundance of absurd, literate and genuinely funny gags. “What are you planning to do?” Hawkins asks Paddington when she first meets him at the eponymous train station. “I thought I might sleep in that bin over there,” he says. Such cheering exchanges are combined with imaginative sight gags augmented by comedy-savvy editing, including a cleverly heightened version of the book’s bathroom sequence, and a scene in which an accidentally airborne Paddington does battle with Peep Show’s Super Hans, playing a pickpocket frequenting Gruber Antiques. Those visceral delights are offset by a thoughtful pro-immigration message that doesn't whack you over the head, rhythmically reinforced by a calypso band who are often to be found on street corners, accompanying the action.

As the voice of Paddington, thankfully replacing Colin Firth at the 11th hour, the multi-faceted Ben Whishaw is just about perfect, with sound comic smarts, a beguiling naïveté and a gift for moments of rug-pulling pathos that’s just about unmatchable. Though the first appearance of the CGI Paddington on posters sparked a #creepypaddington meme, I’d heard from a couple of people at Elstree that the film was about to knock everybody’s socks off, and this computerised creation is indeed a wonder: amusing and completely credible, with an understated expressiveness that lights up just about every scene. In comparison, not all of the cast fares so well. The minor changes to characters are mostly sensible – Mrs Bird is now a relative, not a housekeeper, Mr Gruber serves tea from a cool toy train rather than sticky buns and cocoa, and Judy is fleshed out as a troubled teen – but Jim Broadbent is an unconvincing Hungarian, the kids are a bit wooden and Kidman is one-note as the icy amateur taxidermist with the blonde bob. The sight of Julie Walters pretending to be an old woman will also delight a sizeable demographic who I will never understand, nor do I want to.

On the plus side, Hawkins is perfect, playing a selfless soul alternately enraging or embarrassing her family, without a note of caricature. Bonneville is also very good as a man made boring only by his love for his children (a slightly mawkish idea on paper, but it’s sweet – and funny – on screen), and Peter Capaldi makes for an amusing Mr Curry, transformed from a selfish busybody into a lovelorn, stingy plot catalyst who’s putty in Kidman’s scalpely hands.

The overall effect for a Paddington fan is as if we’re seeing a fictionalised version of his life, but one that’s admirably and unexpectedly inventive, exceptionally entertaining, and contains much of his unique persona, an accomplishment that’s not to be underestimated – and one that I can’t wait to enjoy again. (3.5)


Downstairs (Monta Bell, 1932) - John Gilbert was the most popular male star of the late silent period, but the talkies wrecked his career, revealing that the great lover had a thin, nasal and laughably high-pitched voice, a real-life Lena Lamont.

That's the story still told almost 90 years on, and it's complete nonsense.

Actually Gilbert was undone by hubris, a drink problem, a $250,000-a-picture contract and the emnity of all-powerful MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer. What Downstairs proves beyond any possible doubt is that Gilbert had everything an actor in the nascent sound era could possibly have needed to succeed - were acting all it took.

As a thoroughly unscrupulous, skirt-chasing chauffeur using a mixture of roguish charm, sexual magnetism and blackmail to get money, power and laid, he's absolute dynamite, his expressive face - educated in the silent era - allied to a confident, almost Colman-esque sense of delivery. Subtle but commanding, alternately sympathetic, deliciously immoral and utterly appalling, it's a rare treat of a performance. And for all the showier moments, it's a quieter one that shows his range. As his employer, an adulterous baroness, slams a door in his face, he registers first humiliation, then fury, then a sinister, offhand playfulness as the cogs whirr, and he considers how best to turn the situation to his unique advantage.

The film was actually based on an idea by the star, and is as provocative, mature and comically raunchy as any made during the Pre-Code era, even that paean to sadism, Call Me Savage. Gilbert not only has his bottom rubbed by a smitten, surprisingly wealthy cook, but also inspires married maid Virginia Bruce (his real-life wife) to speak about feminine desire in a graphic, straightforward manner not heard anywhere else in Golden Age cinema.

It isn't always as strikingly written, and not all of the performances score - Paul Lukas is a bit stiff as Bruce's husband, while my tolerance for Reginald Owen's toneless yelling is practically zero - but it's a pointed, fascinating and enduringly entertaining film with a startling central performance that destroys at a stroke the story we've all heard of John Gilbert's demise. (3.5)


China Seas (Tay Garnett, 1935) - Red Dust on a beat-up boat, with good Gable, bad comedy and amazing Harlow. He’s an absurdly manly captain running from his Navy past, she’s a fearsome showgirl who loves and hates like no-one else, and Rosalind Russell is – somewhat improbably – the dame who comes between them, a clipped, upper-crust Englishwoman who knew Gable way back when. You’d never mistake it for great art, but it is great fun in that stylish MGM style, with a bit of everything thrown in, including – but not limited to – a typhoon (a promising action sequence squandered on weak gags), a torture set-piece and an explosive battle with pirates, as outwardly avuncular Wallace Beery tries to save Gable the worry of carrying all that gold on his boat, with the help of some faceless Chinamen.

In 1930, Jean Harlow had pitched up in Howard Hughes’ aviation epic Hell’s Angels, only her second role of any note (after The Saturday Night Kid) and her first lead. The critics absolutely savaged her, and if that’s ever justifiable, then it was then, as she’s bloody awful. Beneath those striking if now no longer fashionable looks, though, lay a keen intellect and an almost matchless desire to learn – and learn quick – and by 1933 Harlow was one of the best actresses, and best comedians, in Hollywood. In Dinner at Eight, she stole the show from Beery and Marie Dressler (then the highest-paid actress in America). In Bombshell she traded wisecracks with the immortal Lee Tracy, and threw tantrums like they were going out of fashion. And here she simply destroys the competition; not that the sweet-natured, self-effacing and alarmingly insecure Harlow would have acknowledged it.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that, like Warren William and Lee Tracy, Harlow’s star would have waned with the coming of the Hays Code, those strict, joyless censorship restrictions encouraged by the Catholic League of Decency. And yet she adapted effortlessly. Indeed, the best moment of China Seas is a very Code-y bit in the denouement that showcases her remarkable emotional sensitivity, turning a potentially contrived coda into something extraordinary. As for the rest of it, she’s simply in her element, playing raucous, impetuous and flirtatious, all those things that she wasn’t in real life. The other leads acquit themselves well too. I’m not a huge fan of Gable, but he undeniably had presence, and he makes a very strong fist of his role here, while Beery – who was quite possibly the most loathed man in Golden Era Hollywood – is extremely good in a rather broadly-written role, playing his final scene with a panache and a subtlety not usually attributed to him.

This isn’t a top-tier MGM movie, but it’s arguably the best example of those rip-roaring, star-heavy productions in which the studio specialised from the mid-‘30s to the mid-‘40s: easy to take and in some ways easy to forget, were it not for the efforts of one extremely talented 24-year-old woman. (3)

See also:

BOOK: Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow by David Stenn (1993) - This exceptional book by Clara Bow biographer Stenn is brief and suffers from his penchant for presenting credibly-assembled conjecture as unassailable fact, but it is extremely well-researched and written within those limitations, creating a vivid portrait of a sweet, immature soul subjected to unspeakable tragedy, as well as the obsessive attentions of her own overbearing mother - the last word in stage parents.

It's upsetting at times, as it should be given the subject matter, but also extremely readable and admirably lacking in sensationalism, with even the photographs of a weeping William Powell and a dead Paul Bern justified in narrative terms, the former for the sake of characterisation and the latter in order to posit Stenn's conclusions as to his killer. For fans of the doomed star - adored by everyone she ever met, except from Joan Crawford, who doesn't count - it's simply as good as it gets, circumventing the trashy approaches of Arthur Landau or the notorious Kenneth Anger to present something that often reads very much like the truth. You'll finish it mourning the loss of a lovely lady, quite aside from her staggering talent. (3.5)


A Medal For Benny (Irving Pichel, 1945) - This heartfelt story of American 'paisanos' and wartime heroism, devised by John Steinbeck, is ultimately too unfocused, patronising and artificial to get anywhere close to achieving its goals.

It's something like Hail the Conquering Hero relocated to Tortilla Flat, as a town - and in particular a young couple there - exists in the shadow of good-hearted hellraiser Benny, who got kicked out a year back... and winds up a war hero.

Not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but that isn't very far, and the execution is singularly unconvincing. Everyone in the town speaks in the generic 'foreign' accent favoured by Spencer Tracy in (the admittedly amazing) Captains Courageous, where every word is said in full and every inflection in every line-reading is the same. And while on paper the cast is promising, including the chameleonic J. Carrol Naish - who played every race except Inuit during a frankly bizarre career - regular Bing-and-Bob love interest Dorothy Lamour, and character comic supreme Frank McHugh, no-one really stands out, largely because the material is so spotty and vague.

One or two satirical jabs do land, including a dark gag about Native Americans losing their land, but it's slim pickings, and in the end it's a film that despite a certain something in its premise, its atmosphere and its polemicising, is almost insultingly unsatisfying. (1.5)

See also: This movie ended up in my 'Worst films I've seen this year' list for 2014.



Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818) - Anne Elliot has decidedly lost her 'bloom', seven years after being talked out of marrying kind-hearted sailor Captain Wentworth, but after fate demands that she decamp from her childhood home to nearby Uppercross, she finds him back in her life, and romancing a relative, while a mysterious stranger takes an unexpected fancy to her...

This is only the second Austen book I've read, after Pride and Prejudice. Though occupying the same world - of likeable young women, capricious fools, noble sailors and the odd utter, utter bounder - its purpose is altogether different, and therefore so is its approach. Austen's intention here seems greater and more absolute: not to serve up a delicious entertainment laced with pathos, but the articulation of her entire worldview, albeit within the boundaries of a conventional romance.

Her language is more varied ('felicity' and 'sensibility' litter Pride and Prejudice), her jokes more sparing, the gleeful absurdism of Mr Bennet jettisoned, and in their place? A more serious story, perhaps a little less light in touch, but with her purposeful diversions into the twee and trivial unfailingly undercut by some stinging, sardonic or self-aware one-liner, and the whole plot - for all its sudden clumps of action - commandeered to serve her aims. Those aims? To exalt selflessness and honesty, to damn duplicity and vanity, and to forget about that on the last page and go on about the navy instead.

It remains a masterful book: affecting, engrossing and with an extraordinarily appealing heroine whose attitude to life - while defined to some degree by 19th century parameters - remains a blueprint that most of us might live by. (4)


Thanks for reading. And Happy New Yearly 200th reviews update.