Archive for July, 2009

The Best-Loved Bandit of all Time!

Two worlds collided for me on telly the other week when Russell Crowe turned up in Sky’s commentary box at Lord’s, fresh from a day’s filming of Robin Hood and present to watch the Aussies achieve a rare collapse against England. A bemused Nasser Hussain clearly didn’t know what to say to the actor, who is renowned for kicking off at a single wrong word yet turned out to be a rather affable figure who was happy to discuss his love for cricket. Either Nasser didn’t press, Crowe wasn’t talking or it was considered to be an unsuitable topic for the Ashes, but the details of his current film project didn’t crop up much. Robin Hood, as directed by Ridley Scott, is still very much in production and details on it are scarce, but by all accounts it’s an affair for revisionists, imagining the folklore character as an avenging angel who, along with the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fervent believer in the dead Richard the Lionheart’s dream of England and is prepared to fight to preserve it.

The Adventures DVD coverHopefully, it won’t go the same way as the insipid King Arthur, the 2004 attempt to reconfigure the legendary monarch along more historically likely lines, which sounds good but produced a dull film from material that should be just about impossible to fail with. Scott has a real opportunity to create a genuinely fresh perspective on Hood, whose story been filmed many times and nearly always portrays him as the classic, noble-hearted hero who steals from the rich and, well, you know the rest. One of my favourite versions is the HTV television series from the 1980s, perhaps because it was the one I grew up with but also due to its heavy use of mythology, of setting Robin up as a hero of ages whose burden is to do right for the timeless land. True, Michael Praed looked like a L’Oreal commercial in forest green, but he was well supported by the likes of Ray Winstone as a gritty Will Scarlett, whilst Nickolas Grace made for a superb, unbalanced Sheriff.

It’s perhaps a shame for Grace that his take on the character was so effortlessly overshadowed by Alan Rickman, just about the only good thing in the otherwise terrible Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves from 1991. Rickman’s Sheriff is a glorious ham, a pantomime villain who lights up the screen whenever he’s on it, though this is partly because the rest of it goes on and on through its tired motions, all Costner vehicle and that bloody Bryan Adams song that was number one for the entire summer I was home from University, and as we know University summers last a long time. Of the rest, I have a soft spot for the 1976 Richard Lester film, Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery as an ageing hero who returns from the Crusades to try and win Marian’s (Audrey Hepburn) heart one last time. Is this even a Robin Hood film in the truest sense? The characters are present and correct, but it’s about quite a different thing from the usual fare and its closing scene is heartbreaking. On a quite different tangent is the recent BBC series, which portrays Robin as a Hollyoaks character who has stumbled into the twelfth century to fight Lily Allen’s dad and a bloke who has a penchant for eyeliner and dresses as a gimp. My son loved it. He’s 9, and I suspect he was the target audience for just this sort of nonsense.

In reality though, the version any new movie finds itself squaring up to is The Adventures of Robin Hood, made in 1938 and available on a spiffing, two-disc DVD. Scott’s production will no doubt be an entirely different animal from the Errol Flynn starrer, but that’s no bad thing considering there’s very little that can match the sheer joie de vivre of the latter, while it would be sheer folly to try and recreate its sense of innocent fun for more cynical audiences. The Adventures has stamped its authority on cinema as a supreme example of how to get matinee movies absolutely right. It was an enormous hit with contemporary audiences, a marvel in Technicolor, whilst its Oscars for Art Direction, Editing and Music showed it hit all the correct notes with critics technically (it was also nominated for Best Picture). It’s still an absolute pleasure to watch, to melt in the luscious score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, admire the ravishing use of colour and the way Flynn’s easy charm juxtaposes beautifully with the acting chops of Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as Sir Guy and Prince John respectively.

Baz and Errol sort it outTo appreciate The Adventures fully on DVD, you are invited to watch it as part of Warner Night at the Movies, a delicious ensemble of supporting features that reflects how contemporary cinema audiences would have enjoyed the experience. This starts with a trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces, the sort of flick that Warner was better associated with, before offering some vintage newsreel footage. The items on display concern a custom-built miniature tank for machine gunners, which looks horribly uncomfortable for its passengers, and a piece on Nazi Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, complete with ominous music. An eleven-minute music short follows, which features a series of quick-fire pieces by Freddie Rich and his Orchestra. My heart sank when I saw this coming on, but it happened to be lovely fare. Particularly memorable is the rendition of Loch Lomond sung by Nan Wynn who doesn’t sound as though she would recognise the Loch if she fell in it but gives a sweet performance nonetheless. The final support is Katnip Kollege, a Looney Tunes cartoon about the School of Swingology (just down the corridor from Zoology) in which the class dunce eventually gets the beat and woos a Betty Boo-esque dame. Altogether, it’s a deliberately twee and nicely compiled body of work, and shows just how different the 1930s moviegoing experience was from the corporate ads-trailers-feature routine we get today. All that’s missing is the opening and shutting curtains, and usherettes selling choc ices and Cornettoes at the front of the stalls.

The Adventures opens with some exposition about the oppression of Saxons by their Norman overlords, before moving on to Sir Guy catching Much (Herbert Mundin) as he kills one of the king’s deer. The bloodthirsty knight is all for killing Much as he stands, but fortunately Robin just happens to be in the area with his friend, Will Scarlett (Pattric Knowles, the one wearing, er scarlet) and he quickly sees off the ruffians. It isn’t long before Robin has got on the wrong side of Prince John, an oily regent who is plotting to usurp King Richard’s throne as the monarch is being held to an impossibly high ransom by the Emperor of Austria. Though impressed with Robin’s general roister doisterousness, the Prince vows to do away with his status as a focal point for all undermined Saxons, outlawing him, though this only serves the purpose of making him even more of a figurehead. Richard’s ransom also gives John an opportunity to raise more cash, though it’s obvious this is going straight into the Royal Treasury than for its public purpose, and the Saxons are squeezed further for taxes. Ultimately, people gather to Robin. As well as the well known Merry Men, like Little John (Alan Hale, who took the same part in the 1922 and 1950 Hood films) and Friar Tuck (a dry-witted Eugene Pallette), the outlaw puts together an army of Saxon outlaws, who turn Sherwood Forest into a fortress of manned branches and sliding poles made from vines. Shortly after, he kidnaps and humiliates a seething Sir Guy and also comes across Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), who is initially repulsed by him yet comes around once she realises his cause is just.

Marian asks why Robin is blending into the backgroundOne of the film’s many pleasures is that it takes a complicated story about the difficult relations between Saxons and Normans in an England ruled with iron by the latter, and makes it easy. In part, this is because the Norman rulers are so obviously the bad guys, self servers all whilst the noble Anglo-Saxons are reduced to serfs. Robin becomes an easy man to follow. In the lead role, Flynn oozes charisma, even though his inclination to throw his head back and laugh heartily comes across as more than a little theatrical. It’s amazing to think that the part was initially intended for James Cagney, then the biggest star in the Warner stable, whilst Flynn was just on the rise thanks to his fine turn in Captain Blood yet didn’t appear to be the obvious man for the job until he donned the green tights. Born in Tasmania and capable of speaking like a perfect English gentleman, Flynn was in fact at an ideal age and point in his career to play Robin. His lusty take on the part is sublime, particularly as it quickly becomes clear that he can’t die - even when Sir Guy captures him - and there’s a resulting tongue in cheek element to his turn that’s just irresistible.

Flynn had already appeared in films with his co-star, de Havilland, in two productions prior to Robin Hood. Still several years away from becoming dissatisfied with the parts offered to her by Warner, de Havilland makes for a comely Maid. She has one of the hardest roles in the film as the sole character who changes sides during its events. Whilst everyone else is either typecast easily as a goodie (Saxon) or villainous Norman, she starts as a haughty Norman ward before slowly being won around by Robin. Considering the simplicity of the script, she actually makes this process look quite natural and organic, though once on the outlaws’ side she’s there for keeps. The scene where she demonstrates to Robin that she can chew on mutton in the traditional way is absolutely sweet.

As for the villains, Rains is excellent as Prince John. Machiavellian and shrewd, he’s every inch the John we grew up reading about in stories, the wheeler dealer who is fine as a cloak and dagger usurper yet collapses once the chips are down. His henchmen are Rathbone as a suitably nasty Sir Guy, and Melville Cooper who provides some significant comic relief as the Sheriff. I think Rathbone is quite the best thing in The Adventures. A superb swordsman who only ever hints at the assiduous intelligence he clearly possesses, he has in many ways a thankless task as the black-hearted Norman knight but is electrifying whenever he’s on the screen thanks to a suave cool that only occasionally erupts.  

Guess which of these is Will ScarlettThe action moves quickly; the set pieces winning and inspired by the 1922 version starring an athletic Douglas Fairbanks who performed many of his own stunts. It’s set amidst a Sherwood Forest that appears in glorious, lustrous tones. An early instance of three-strip Technicolor, the film must have looked a real treat in 1938 when the use of colour in movies was largely an experimental process that didn’t always work and was still viewed essentially as a gimmick in order to get bums on seats. Not here. The forest looks gorgeous, due in part to technicians who sprayed the foliage to make it show up better on the film. Even better are the scenes shot against a setting sun, shown principally when the Normans are torturing Saxons against a ravishing, blood-red backdrop. On the DVD set, an hour-long documentary on the Technicolor process is far more fascinating than alluded to here. The sheer painstaking dirge for everyone involved in the film as a consequence of using Technicolor turned out to be entirely worth it, yet getting everything to look right was a tough call for the cast and crew, as explained in the feature. Colour is something we take for granted now, but back then it was new and special, and The Adventures must take some credit for promoting its usage.

For their Sherwood Forest, the production team used Bidwell Park in Chico, California. Pasadena’s Busch Gardens doubled as the site for Prince John’s archery tournament. Original director, William Keighley, was removed by Hal B Walls once it became clear the film needed to be more exciting. At the time, Michael Curtiz was available. The Hungarian born director was a veteran of adventure films, including Captain Blood, and once hired turned The Adventures into the swashbuckling affair it would eventually be renowned for. Everything clicked, seemingly by happy accident, a not untraditional story of a sometimes troubled production that somehow worked out for the best. Key to its standing was a substantial return on its production costs. The Adventures ended up putting Warner out of pocket by over $2m, an extravagant sum for its time even though every penny can be seen on the screen. Fortunately, it was an unambiguous success at the box office, making around $4m in its first year and more with subsequent rereleases.

And it’s easy to see why. The Adventures is quite simply an excellent piece of work, put together with care and love, and with only joy for its audience. True, it’s a simple-hearted yarn about good versus evil, one in which both sides are painted with broad, unmistakeable brushstrokes, but it’s told so winningly and with such lavish production values that there just isn’t anything about it that’s not likeable. Even to 2009 viewers, it has enormous entertainment value for viewers of all ages, looks great and never takes itself too seriously. A more perfect use of just under 98 minutes of my life I would struggle to find.

Posted on 27th July 2009
Under: Classics | No Comments »

‘It will burn itself into your memory forever!’

The 1935 Fox Film Corporation production of Dante’s Inferno cost just under $750k to make. It featured two actors who were due to be among Hollywood’s biggest stars - Spencer Tracy and Rita Hayworth - along with future Oscar winner, Claire Trevor. Production values were high, the movie boasting some spectacular sets and special effects, and it also carried a relevant message for its Depression era audience. Yet the Inferno is largely forgotten, a footnote in the careers of people who went on to bigger and better things. It’s unavailable on DVD, with no plans for a release (I caught it on Sky Movies Classics), neither it seems any great demand. One for completists only, perhaps for Tracy fans who want to see what ‘Spence’ was up to before he moved to MGM and became a star, or maybe those fulfilling a wish to catch Hayworth’s debut performance, back when she was billed as Rita Cansino and put in a brief yet memorable cameo as a breezy dancer.

Actually, it isn’t at all difficult to work out the reasons for the Inferno’s obscurity. The film isn’t a very good one, with its ‘club you around the head’ moralising that soon becomes rather condescending. The action follows Jim Carter (Tracy), a down on his luck grifter who happens upon Pop McWade’s (Henry B Walthall) carnival concession, Dante’s Inferno. Despite the impressive interiors and artwork of the attraction, Pop can’t pay people to enter and it’s Carter’s natural showmanship that winds up putting bums on seats. Instead of mimicking Pop’s promotion of the Inferno as a lesson in how to be good, Carter emphasises its lurid, sensationalist aspects, which naturally works with the public. Soon, he’s made enough money to buy a larger plot and build a bigger inferno, but in doing so he screws over several of his ‘carnie’ colleagues and passes a blind eye over the health and safety concerns surrounding the attraction. The bigger, better Inferno is now all about profit, the bottom line. Carter has lost his way, and only Pop - who keeps his job as the Virgil-esque tour guide - can see it.

Dante's InfernoSo far, so Selznick, and there’s plenty in the film to keep fans of cheap morality pieces happy. Things really tip over the edge for Carter when he plugs all his money into a pleasure liner, one that promises to be a voyage of endless decadence and pleasure seeking for its high-rolling guests. But the ship is highly unsafe, and he knows it. By this point, his wife Betty (Trevor) has left him, taking their son with her as a consequence of his unscrupulous nature, yet he hasn’t learned a thing, even after Pop shows him what Dante envisaged hell to be like for unrepentant sinners.

It’s this latter element that makes up the high point of the film, a nine-minute tour of the inferno that is described by Leslie Halliwell as ‘one of the most unexpected, imaginative and striking pieces of cinema in Hollywood’s history.’ Inspired by Dante Alighieri’s cantica from The Divine Comedy, the movie changes tone entirely for the duration of the vision, a wordless glimpse into various recesses of hell where the damned linger and are punished. These include scenes of near-naked people throwing themselves into the fiery abyss, suicides who now grope the air pathetically as branches of gnarled trees, the misers in life who are now forced to shift vast boulders for eternity, heretics being crushed by the weight of their own tombstones, fire and brimstone pouring over exposed blasphemers, and so on.

If these scenes appear utterly at odds with the rest of the movie, then it’s possibly because according to some sources the footage comes from an earlier piece, the 1924 edition of Dante’s Inferno directed by Henry Otto that until recently was considered to be lost. Gothic in nature and vast in scope, the grim despair and strange, otherworldly beauty of hell does appear to have been ripped from a different film, and it would be easy to believe this was the case. Aside from some lingering shots on Carter’s pleasure liner of revellers that cleverly mirror the hell scenes (though they’re being about something entirely different), the vision is completely inconsistent with the tone of the overall piece and somewhat superior in terms of its quality. It’s been suggested that the film’s terrible depiction of the afterlife was inspired by the German expressionism that could be found everywhere in the 1920s, yet there’s little of Metropolis’s jutting skyscrapers or the crazy, surreally angled buildings of Dr Cagliari on display here. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the woodcut artwork of Gustave Dore, who produced a series of works in the nineteenth century based on scenes from Dante’s poem.

Dante's InfernoThe film’s director, Harry Lachman, started out as a painter, having emigrated to Paris in 1911 and gaining a reputation as part of the post-impressionist movement. After getting involved in film, first as a set designer within the French film industry, Lachman moved back to America as an established director and was eventually given the job of putting Dante’s Inferno onto the screen. A fan of Dore, it’s clear to see the engraver’s work in the movie’s hell scenes, while it’s also possible to detect the director letting his own artistic vision reign free over these sequences. According to the New York Times, the film employed 3,000 extras - all toned, muscular bodies, which perhaps wasn’t what Dante had in mind when he first put his image to paper but at least ensured that the damned looked good in their tiny loincloths - and an army of technicans to bring Lachman’s terrifying vision to life.

So who did create these scenes? Were they culled from an earlier production, slotted into an otherwise simple-minded yarn where the ‘good’ are those with the least selfish dreams? Or did they come from Lachman, who was allowed to make these visions as he wanted to whilst being saddled elsewhere with a pedestrian affair? Nobody seems to agree, and there are compelling arguments for either side. Neither does it really matter. Otto’s 1924 film survives on a few remaining prints at the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 1935 version has been largely consigned to history, dusted off occasionally for a matinee screening on a backwater of the Sky Movie channels and unavailable for purchase.

Only, it does matter. Though much of the film is forgettable nonsense, the hell scenes are an incredible vision and live on in the inspiration they offered to later film makers. They’re present in the hellish chaos of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia, through to Vincent Ward’s romantic fable about the afterlife, What Dreams May Come, and Lars von Trier’s upcoming Antichrist, besides making their mark on just about every subsequent depiction of hell on screen. Perhaps this imaginative legacy means the film deserves better.

Posted on 19th July 2009
Under: Classics | 3 Comments »

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