Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Shiralee (1957)

Director: Leslie Norman
Writers: Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman, from the novel by D’Arcy Niland
Stars: Peter Finch, Elizabeth Sellars and Dana Wilson
I’m a sucker for Ealing films, so this was an easy pick for me to celebrate what would have been the hundredth birthday of Peter Finch. It was made halfway through his career, a long time after his early Australian films for director Ken G. Hall, such as Dad and Dave Come to Town or Mr. Chedworth Steps Out, but just as long before his Academy Award win for playing Howard Beale in Network. Until Heath Ledger won over thirty years later for The Dark Knight, Finch was the only posthumous Oscar-winner in a performing role. He was also the first Australian actor to win an Oscar, though that depends on how you look at nationality. Technically, Finch was British, born in London to an Australian father and a British mother. However, in his forties, he learned that his father wasn’t really his father; he was the result of his mother’s affair with an Indian Army officer who, with a name like Jock Campbell, surely hailed from Scotland. He grew up first with his grandmother in France and then his great-uncle in Sydney, Australia.

He arrived in Sydney in 1926, when he was ten years old; by the time he moved back to England in 1948, he had surely become an Australian in heart and mind. He toured the country as a stage actor and became a major name on radio, the first to portray Ruth Park’s Muddle-Headed Wombat. The Second World War interrupted his nascent film career, as he enlisted in the Australian Army, serving as an anti-aircraft gunner as well as an actor and director touring army bases and hospitals in 1945. He was also allowed to keep making films while serving in the army, many of them propaganda shorts, and he continued his screen career after the war, but he was sent to Britain by Laurence Olivier, who put him under contract; he built a name for himself in movies as varied as The Miniver Story (the sequel to Mrs. Miniver), Othello (opposite Orson Welles) and Father Brown (as the villain). His contract completed, he shot a number of films down under for Rank: parts of A Town Like Alice in 1956, then Robbery Under Arms and The Shiralee in 1957.
This is unmistakeably an Australian film, the vast spaces of that country depicted in beautiful black and white by cinematographer Paul Beeson, very early in his career and long before his Primetime Emmy nomination in 1974 for the mini-series QB VII. The local vernacular is put to good use, without ever seeming like someone from another country had simply borrowed words to make it all appear authentic, even if screenwriters Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman were Scottish and English respectively; the latter was the father of Barry Norman, the UK’s best-known film critic. They were adapting an Australian novel though, written by D’Arcy Niland from Glen Innes, New South Wales, and many of the cast were Aussies too, including the film’s only Aborigine, Gordon Glenwright, whose character is treated just like any other. Yes, people call each other ‘mate’ and ‘sport’ and the ‘real bonzer kid’ is ‘a bit crook’, but the line that spoke to me most was, ‘I wouldn’t touch them with a maggoty cat,’ an interesting phrase to google.

However, it’s really a British film which merely happened to be shot in Australia and that’s not difficult to see either. It feels like a British drama, even before we get to the well-enunciated Rosemary Harris, who was born in Suffolk and sounds like it. This is early for her too, only her second feature three decades before her most famous role as Aunt May in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man pictures. It plays consistently with the other Ealing dramas I’ve seen from this period, which comes close to the end of Michael Balcon’s era at the studio. Surely the most recognisable actor on screen is Sidney James, a British institution, the star of nineteen Carry On films and the top billed name in seventeen. Coincidentally, I introduced my better half to Carry On Dick, James’s last film, this week, as it had borrowed so freely from Doctor Syn, which I reviewed earlier this month for Margaret Lockwood’s centennial. I had no idea he would be in The Shiralee or that cinematographer Beeson also handled the camera for Disney’s version, Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow.
More than anything, it’s an eye-opening portal into another era and I don’t merely mean that of the swagman, an Aussie word that we know from the unofficial Australian national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. Swagmen like Jim Macauley, the character Finch plays, were gentlemen of the road, like hobos and tramps. The opening narration explains that, while some are bludgers or scroungers, others are honest working men who prefer the freedom of living under the ‘friendly sky’, as Mac later puts it. I get the impression that Aussies have more romantic respect for swagmen than Brits do for tramps and perhaps Americans do for hobos, as walkabout is a quintessentially Australian concept, but it’s hard to find sympathy for Mac when we realise that his marriage has broken down because he’s only spent six months with his wife and daughter in Sydney in the five years since the wedding. When he finds a man with his wife, he beats him up, bundles his daughter under his arm and walks out, not saying a single word, and we’re in motion.

Buster is the difference between Macauley and other swagmen, an eight year old girl slowing him down and getting in his way. It’s not difficult to see her as a penance for his dereliction of marital duty, his ‘special cross’, his ‘burden’, his ‘shiralee’. The title really refers to the swagman’s bundle or pack, which we also know from the song as his matilda, but something that weighs him down is apt as a metaphor, especially early on when Mac has to carry Buster often. She’s a scene-stealing young actress called Dana Wilson and she debuted here in a powerful way. She would only go on to two more pictures, 1958’s A Cry from the Streets and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1959, before retiring at the ripe old age of ten. As great as Finch is in this picture, and the liner notes of my DVD suggest he later described it as his favourite role, I’m going to remember it as much for Dana Wilson as for him. She sells her part magnificently, bringing it to life through both little moments and the grand sweep of her performance.
Of course, the story is going to find a way for Buster to humanise her father at least to a degree, but I’m not going to spoil just how that happens. Let’s just say that it unfolds in a very believable fashion that avoids both Hollywood sentimentality and a Hollywood ending. Early on, we wonder why he even took her, given that he neither needs nor wants a child on the road. Certainly, he walks ahead of her as much as beside her and he isn’t exactly a beacon of conversation. ‘I like it when you talk to me,’ Buster says late on but that’s surely as much for the rarity of his speech as the content of it. These characterisations are deep, so there’s much debate possible about motivations but I presume that Mac took Buster as much out of spite as any of his wife’s notably spiteful and bitchy actions. Discussion about who creates this situation and who reacts to it, not to mention who has the right to act and react in such ways, renders The Shiralee perfect for anthropological studies as much as cinematic ones!

You see, Mac is very much a man’s man. He thinks of himself as a decent soul, someone who’s willing and able to work for a living; he often says that he ‘won’t scrounge off anybody’ and he lives up to his words. He’s no muscleman but he’ll stand up to anyone to further what’s right and scupper what’s wrong and, some pretty terrible choreography aside, can use his fists to good effect. He’s loyal and has a set of strong friendships that survive the infrequency of visits. Finch sells the physical side of this picture capably, believably a man who shrugs off the uncomfortable and walks on. He also sells how much Mac has excised the sentimental side of his character, to the degree that we wonder why he ever got married. Even things that could be read as sentimental really aren’t. When his daughter goes down with a fever and he spends an uncomfortable night breaking it, it’s because it’s a job that has to be done rather than because it’s his daughter. He doesn’t seem to know what love is, though the story shows how he learns.
A friend of mine talks about how America has changed over the last few decades because men nowadays aren’t brought up by men any more. He doesn’t say that to be macho or sexist; he’s just making an intellectual point that makes a lot of sense, especially with any political subtext removed. It used to be that boys were brought up outdoors, taught by their fathers how to do everything that we see boys doing in old movies: hunting, fishing and camping for a start but also, on a far deeper level, learning how to do things that aren’t safe. Buster is thrown right into this sort of upbringing and, with only a touch of sentimentality, enjoys the heck out of all the freedom that it involves. However, it’s glaringly obvious that this sort of thing would be difficult to put on the screen today. I’m not even talking about the naked butt of an eight year old girl in a shower scene or the lead rubbing eucalyptus oil on her chest when she’s feverish, things that would spark a debate nowadays because someone would interpret them sexually.

Talking about the film, my better half suggested that men would appreciate The Shiralee much more than women. I can see exactly what she means, because women watching today aren’t going to care about walkabout and swagmen and the romanticised road of freedom, they’re going to see Marge as a neglected woman and anything she can do to Mac as justified. However, the point of the story is to show this quintessential man’s man that there’s more to life than working and moving on, that emotions are important and that relationships aren’t just for buddies. Have we moved so far away in sixty years from this rough world of masculinity that the lessons Mac learns just aren’t enough any more? I haven’t seen the 1987 mini-series based on the same source novel, starring Bryan Brown as Mac, but it seems to reprise the same territory without any updates to cater to modern sensibilities and it was the most popular show of that year. Maybe in traditionally masculine Australia, this conversation is still active.
There are subplots to both keep things moving on and deepen the plot but I won’t spoil them. Suffice it to say that each character, each location and each scene has resonance that gradually and collectively builds into the force to change him just a little. It’s fair to say that, while Mac is the most masculine, stubborn and uncompromising male character, those properties are active in each of the others too. We’re really shown a scale of masculine behaviour and asked to figure out where the marker should be set. Mac is too masculine, apparently unable to truly love, so it should be shifted well away from him. However, it shouldn’t be moved as far as the opposite end of the spectrum, which is Donny, the successful coward who’s been having an affair with Marge while Mac is away. Should it be set to the helpful Jim Muldoon, the loyal Beauty Kelly or the charismatic Luke Sweeney? Perhaps it should be set to the honourable W. G. Parker, a successful working man who can lay down the law but also admit when he was wrong.

If we’re following that train of thought, we can ask the same question about the women. Marge may be a wronged wife but she’s a bitch with no apparent redeeming features beyond Scots actress Elizabeth Sellars looking rather pleasing to the eye. The opposite end to her may be Lily Parker, who is very much a woman though one who often acts like a man, making decisions and riding the range on horseback to herd sheep on her father’s ranch. There aren’t too many female characters in between, but one is certainly Bella Sweeney, who runs a bed and breakfast with her husband and rules the roost with her cheeky grin. As politically incorrect as their conversations often are, the Parkers are good people: loyal, caring and willing to speak their minds. ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea is a delight here as Bella and she was a discovery for me here, even if untold millions saw her as the other guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 that introduced America to the Beatles, the most watched show ever on American television at that point in time.
I really wonder how modern audiences would see this film because there are so many things that they’re not going to be used to seeing. The morality isn’t clear but not because the filmmakers wanted to go dark and moody but because it’s a slice of time and a starting point for discussion about topics like masculinity and femininity or freedom and responsibility. With our modern mindset, we often wonder who we should sympathise with, when the answer is everyone, just not all the time. Surely the most sympathetic character isn’t Mac, especially during the first half of the film; I’d suggest that it’s Buster, the title character, who is thrown into a tough situation at an extremely impressionable age but comes through it all with a smile. The biggest problem may be in just how free range she’s forced to be. Everyone watching today would rail at Mac’s choice to leave Buster fishing in a billabong with a poet while he goes looking for work in town. Things like this impact our ability to empathise, especially given what happens next.

Australia, of course, looks great here and the bush sounds just as enticing as it looks, even outside of any attraction of the simple if tough life that the swagman leads. I’ve long been a fan of the cinema of Australia and New Zealand, but little of what I’ve seen goes back to this era. I know the seventies and the eighties pretty well, especially in genre film, but should look further back, especially as Australia produced the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, and was a prominent player in the 1910s, before falling prey to cheap American imports in the 1920s, a cycle of over-production and under-production that continued for a long time. One of its most enduring problems is that whenever it generates new stars, they’re easily drawn away by Hollywood. It happened recently with Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchette, Nicole Kidman and Toni Collette, but that isn’t a new thing. Go back through the decades and it happened with Errol Flynn, Rod Taylor and Peter Finch.

Sunday 18 September 2016

The Bobo (1967)

Director: Robert Parrish
Writer: David R. Schwartz, from his own play, in turn based on the novel, Olimpia, by Burt Cole
Stars: Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Rosanno Brazzi and Adolfo Celi

Such are the dangers of selecting pictures that I haven’t seen for my centennials project! Today would have been the hundredth birthday of Rosanno Brazzi, an Italian actor who became a success in the English language too. His international fame was sparked by Three Coins in the Fountain in 1954, quickly followed by a lead role opposite Katharine Hepburn in David Lean’s Summertime. He made prominent pictures with prominent actors: South Pacific opposite Mitzi Gaynor, The Story of Esther Costello with Joan Crawford and The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Aiming more at interesting but more obscure titles, I thought about Legend of the Lost, in which Brazzi hires John Wayne to guide him towards a city of gold, but I’d heard bad things. He was the lead in Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, but I have a bunch of horror movies coming up. So I picked The Bobo, a Peter Sellers comedy, in which he co-stars with Sellers’s wife of the time, Britt Ekland. It’s a fascinating film to review, but Brazzi is hardly in it!

The script was written by David R. Schwartz, as an adaptation of his play of the same name, but the novel upon which it was based was called Olimpia, the name of Ekland’s character; she’s prominent early and often and is inextricably woven into the plot. Sellers plays the lead, of course, which role involves many scenes with his wife. Brazzi, however, third credited, gets less screen time than Hattie Jacques, Ferdy Mayne or Kenneth Griffith, who all languish down in the ‘with’ section of the opening credits. His part is also far less substantial than that of the remaining ‘co-star’, Adolfo Celi, who does at least drive the plot. Of all these, Carlos Matabosch of Matabosch Tractors, who is only in the film so that he can lose his new Maserati to Olimpia, is the easiest to lose and so Brazzi is the easiest to replace. He may be in the final shot, but that doesn’t mean that this is about him in the slightest. I’ll need to go back to his career and pick out a more appropriate title when I collate these reviews into book form at the beginning of next year.
We’re in Barcelona, Spain and Olimpia Segura is a piece of work. In the admittedly beguiling shape of Britt Ekland, she wears mini-skirts, drives fast cars and does a powerful job of keeping her many older, richer beaus at arm’s length. The friend of one describes her as ‘the most desirable witch in Barcelona’. According to Pepe Gamazo, he had ‘two ecstatic months together’ with her, but now she’s kicked him out of the apartment his grandmother left him and changed the locks. She drives his sports car and won’t let him anywhere near it. He’s a complete wreck and not only because Kenneth Griffith’s Spanish accent is far from pristine. She has such power over him that, before he knows it, he’s playing a journalist for her to blackmail another sucker, Silvestre Flores, into giving her that Maserati, a special order that took nine months to acquire for Matabosch and cost 800,000 pesetas. He does get a new key for his troubles, but it turns out that it doesn’t fit the lock to the apartment. What a piece of work she is!

Into town and into the cafe opposite Olimpia’s apartment, where Pepe Gamazo blubbers like a broken man, comes Juan Bautista, a matatroubadour as he puts it. ‘I am Spain’s greatest singing matador,’ he pronounces with authority, and he’s here to audition for Francisco Carbonell, the impresario who runs the local theatre, even if Francisco Carbonell doesn’t want him to. In a film with two thoroughly unsympathetic leads, I found Adolfi Celi’s portrayal of Carbonell the most traditionally enjoyable. He channels Sidney Greenstreet as a relatively static but highly characterful character and his expressions while a captive audience to Bautista’s song in the cafe are priceless. I even liked his office, given that his window is part of the vast billboard to his theatre. And it’s Carbonell who places our story into motion, even if he’s inherently absent from its development and returns only once it’s done to start the process of wrapping things up. I know Celi from Thunderball and Danger: Diabolik, but I’ll remember him from The Bobo too.
I should pause to attempt a definition of the title, which is never explained in the film beyond a supposed gypsy proverb quoted at the beginning that, ‘It is said in Barcelona, ‘A Bobo is a Bobo!’’ I doubt it’s real but know it isn’t helpful so I googled around to find a better explanation. Dictionary sites suggest that it’s ‘a member of a social class of well-to-do professionals who espouse bohemian values and lead bourgeois lives’, the word taken from ‘bohemian’ and ‘bourgeois’. In Ghana, it’s the name given to a child born on a Tuesday while, in the Philippines, it’s a fish trap made of bamboo. My better half knows it as a carny term for someone who uses insults to get customers to pay to throw balls at him, in hope of dunking him into something, but the web identifies that as a ‘bozo’. I know it as the pet name we had for my granddad, taken from my cousins playing peek-a-boo behind him. None of these fit, so I’ll go with the Spanish word that translates most politely as a ‘fool’. Why Sellers would name his yacht after that, I have no idea.

With that in mind, we wonder who the fool is in this film. Is it Francisco Carbonell, who is pressured into giving Bautista a chance at landing a week’s contract for 2,000 pesetas when he’s clearly told this matatroubadour to go back to his village? Is it any one (or even all) of the various men of means who Olimpia has so capably wrapped around her finger? Is it Bautista himself, who takes on the challenge of conquering such an unconquerable woman, specifically to remain in her apartment for long enough for the lights to go off and remain off for an hour? Is it Olimpia herself, who has no idea that she’s being used for someone else’s benefit just like she’s used so many others? Arguably, it could be applied to every character in the picture who has a line of dialogue, except only Eugenio Gomez, who runs the cafe. Al Lettieri, an Italian American actor playing very much against type, given that he portrayed so many villains and heavies in seventies Hollywood, may here play the only character who isn’t a Bobo.
I’d start talking here about the story finally finding its way, given that Sellers doesn’t even show up for ten minutes and Carbonell doesn’t issue his challenge until almost half an hour into the picture, but we’re about to be detoured into an odd diversion. Just as Bautista begins to win over Olimpia, we’re ripped away to watch a five minute chunk of flamenco. Patrick Boone, writing at From the Sidelines, ably describes the sudden prominence of Antonio Santiago Amador, known as La Chana, and Los Tarantos Flamenco Company, as a misstep we would see as ‘unforgiveable if it weren’t for how hypnotically fascinating La Chana’s staccato footwork is.’ I couldn’t tell if this Catalan gypsy was in severe pain or the heights of ecstasy, but she’s so magnetic that I couldn’t look away. Boone astutely points out that, ‘Unlike the filmmakers’, every one of her steps is executed with amazing power and precision.’ I’d second that, because there isn’t another magnetic moment in The Bobo unless we watch it not as a film but a layer over reality.

As she tells it, Britt Ekland was a fat and ugly Swedish child who used humour to get past her looks. After some travelling theatre and a brace of bit parts and walk on roles, she was cast in a small role in Guns at Batasi, which was shot at Pinewood Studios. Over at MGM British Studios, Peter Sellers was finishing up a fraught shoot for the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark. The story goes that he saw her picture in the paper and knocked on her door at the Dorchester Hotel to invite her to his suite. Next morning, he took her to Kensington Palace to meet Princess Margaret and ten days later they were man and wife, a marriage which Ekland has said she should never have entered into. This was their third of three films together, after a TV movie called Carol for Another Christmas and After the Fox, but as riotously funny as the latter was, the marriage had found rocks almost immediately, crippled by Sellers’s jealousy and paranoia. Even when Victoria Sellers was born in January, 1965, things didn’t get better.
Like many comedians, Sellers was a highly troubled man and Ekland has suggested that he was bipolar. Certainly he clashed with many of his directors and fellow actors. He had trouble understanding Vittorio de Sica, the director of After the Fox and attempted to have him fired. He had trouble with his wife’s performance in the same film and arguments escalated to his throwing a chair at her. He left his next film, Casino Royale, before completing the shoot because of clashes with Orson Welles; he demanded that they never share the same set. Before quitting that film, he was honoured with a CBE but an argument the day before his investiture at Buckingham Palace required a make-up artist to cover up the scratches on his face from Ekland’s nails. Three weeks into The Bobo, according to Ed Sikov’s Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers, he’d already had the script girl fired when he told director Robert Parrish, ‘I’m not coming back after lunch if that bitch is on the set.’ He was referring to his wife.

Kenneth Griffith, a friend of Sellers who played Pepe Gamazo, told Sikov that when he arrived on set, Sellers was directing rather than Parrish. Asking the latter how this had come to pass, he was told, ‘He just announced that he was taking over and I felt that I had a duty to sit quietly and be a servant to the film. You know, the number one job is to get this film finished.’ It cost a friendship and Parrish’s wife explains that they saw the film as ‘a disaster that we considered a death in the family and never mentioned.’ In such a light, it’s hard to hurl barbs at Parrish or his writer, David R. Schwartz, who was, after all, adapting his own play. Sellers is surely the appropriate person to take the credit or blame, depending on how you view the film. And, to focus back on my point, I found that this knowledge flavoured my take on the movie to the degree that its real value is neither as art or comedy but as the documenting of a powerful love/hate relationship.
I should note that I make no suggestion that there’s a parallel in how their relationship begins. Ekland told the Daily Telegraph that, ‘I was very young and he swept me off my feet. He gave me a puppy for God’s sake.’ She can’t explain why. ‘What was he thinking? And what was I thinking? You can’t bring up a dog before you’ve brought up yourself.’ Olimpia, on the other hand, is easily conned because her Achilles heel is so obvious: money. Her unashamed gold-digging heart visibly perks up when he unfurls words such as ‘royalty’, ‘wealth’ and ‘position’, while suggesting that his master, the Count of Something or Other wants to pay her to meet with him. No, it’s in how this real life couple interact on screen that the honesty shines past the fiction. In a scene at a romantic retreat, there’s real charisma between them, suggesting that they really cared for each other, but in another, an argument over a 275,000 peseta fur coat at Castillo’s, shows how much they also hated each other too. They divorced soon afterwards.

What makes these scenes so powerful is that they appear to be honest. Outside these moments, I never bought into Juan Bautista as anything but an act. Sure, Juan is lying through his teeth for most of the film, but I never felt like I saw the real character once, just Sellers putting on a Mediterranean tan and a dubious accent. The only times I bought into what I was seeing was when I was watching Peter Sellers rather than Juan Bautista and, to a lesser degree, Britt Ekland rather than Olimpia Segura. For all the great talent of the man, Ekland did the better job here for no better reason than I think she wanted to. And that said, both of them were easily outdone by Adolfo Celi, Hattie Jacques as Olimpia’s maid and Ferdy Mayne, whose own centennial I celebrated in March, as the car dealer, Silvestre Flores. Only when both these unlikeable and unsympathetic characters are taken down a peg or two are they really enjoyable to watch. I was fascinated for an hour and a half but I only really enjoyed Juan and Olimpia towards the end.
So, this is a really odd film. It’s not particularly funny, Sellers trying too hard without particularly getting anywhere. I felt like he was often flogging a dead horse with his dialogue because each explanation was so overdone. It succeeds much more as a tragedy than a comedy, the well-deserved come-uppances providing a belated grounding to the characters that was so sorely missing for so long. The sets are immersive, but most of them are obviously sets, this being shot at Cinecittà Studios in Rome rather than the memorable streets of Barcelona, regardless of how much of them we see behind the opening credits. The retreat, at least, is wild and wonderful, a grotto bathed in blue light until we pan over to lush red interiors. The music is forgettable and the direction no better, given that the film seems to exist primarily to let Sellers do his thing while his wife serves as decoration. No, this is much more interesting a film than it is enjoyable. Watch if you’re more interested in Sellers and Ekland as people than as actors.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Doctor Syn (1937)

Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Roger Burford, from the novel by Russell Thorndike, with additional dialogue by Michael Hogan
Stars: George Arliss, Margaret Lockwood and John Loder

Alfred Hitchcock was hardly one to heap praise on his actors, whether or not his famous quote about actors being cattle was ever spoken or not. However, after working with Margaret Lockwood on The Lady Vanishes, he was highly complimentary of her talents. ‘She has an undoubted gift in expressing her beauty in terms of emotion,’ he told the press, ‘which is exceptionally well suited to the camera. Allied to this is the fact that she photographs more than normally easily, and has an extraordinary insight to get the feel of her lines, to live within them, so to speak, as long as the duration of the picture lasts.’ He was optimistic about her future as well, albeit in oddly paradoxical fashion: ‘It is not too much to expect that in Margaret Lockwood the British picture industry has a possibility of developing a star of hitherto un-anticipated possibilities.’ How an un-anticipated possibility could be thus anticipated, I have no idea but I’m not going to argue with the master, especially on what would have been Lockwood’s hundredth birthday.

To celebrate her career on such an auspicious day, I selected the first film adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s stories of the Kentish smuggler, Doctor Syn, made in 1937 by the British company, Gainsborough Pictures. Doctor Syn apparently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the thirties, the original novel of 1915 starting to generate sequels: two in 1935 and another in 1936, with three more following this film version. I picked it in part because it was a major stepping stone for Lockwood, who stepped in when Anna Lee dropped out and earned a three year contract with Gainsborough for her troubles, but also because it’s the last movie role for the fascinating actor, George Arliss, who was the first Briton to win an Academy Award and the first actor from anywhere to win for portraying a real person, Benjamin Disraeli. I’d like to see a lot more Arliss movies than I have, but two have especially remained with me over time for his performances in them: The Green Goddess and The Millionaire. He’s memorable here too.
Some might see this as a mystery, but they’ll be sorely disappointed because it’s pretty clear from moment one what’s going on. It is 1800 and the very first thing we see in Dymchurch is the gravestone of Captain Nathaniel Clegg, pirate, who was hanged at Rye. We pan up and jump into the church above it to discover a packed house with an eager warden taking collection. Imogene Clegg, the lovely young beauty played by Lockwood, is batting her eyelashes at Denis Cobtree across the aisle and J. Mipps, stone mason and coffin maker, is watching the surrounding area with a telescope from the bell tower. When he spies a detachment of revenue agents from the Royal Navy on their way, he rushes down to warn Dr. Syn, the local parson, who’s about to begin his sermon. The first thing that we wonder as we get underway is why everything seems to be about Captain Clegg when the movie’s title is Doctor Syn and the answer we give ourselves is the obvious one. When Hammer remade this in 1962 they called it Captain Clegg.

It’s pretty clear that Dymchurch is a hotbed of smugglers. While we never actually see any smuggling, we certainly see the things they’ve been smuggling and we watch them talking over them about whether to dump all this fancy French liquor into the sea or run the risk of being rumbled by Captain Howard Collyer and hanged. Nobody hides behind masks; we know who these people are and we watch them move through their secret passages and run rings around the investigators. This isn’t a mystery, it’s more like the origin story of a folk hero. Dr. Syn explains that half the population of Dymchurch was sick and poor when he arrived to begin organised smuggling; now there are neither and there’s a new schoolhouse to boot. If anything is clearer than that Dymchurch is ripe with smugglers, it’s that people are pretty happy about its effects and the continuation of those effects is placed into jeopardy by the extra man that Collyer brings along with his sailors.
He’s generally referred to as a mulatto, though Dr. Syn, hardly politically correct for all his benificent aura, calls him ‘yellow man’ at one point. He’s played by Meinhart Maur, a Hungarian actor active in Jewish theatre, who moved to England to escape the Nazi menace rising in Germany in the early thirties. This is hardly an opportunity for him to demonstrate his command of the English language, as his character had his tongue ripped out immediately before the film begins. We join it as he’s being tied to a tree on a South Sea island and left to die, the sign above his head declaring that this is what happens to those who betray Captain Clegg. For him to arrive in Dymchurch with the revenue agents is the one thing that really worries Dr. Syn, who naturally recognises him, as he’s really... no, I’m not going to give that spoiler even though it’s so obvious that anyone who misses it surely has to be kidding. Maur reminds of George ‘The Animal’ Steele and Tor Johnson. I presume he could act circles around them but not in this film.

If the stirring up of a smuggling town by revenue agents and the real risk of exposure of Dr. Syn’s former life isn’t enough, we get a few subplots to keep this 78 minute feature brisk. Imogene, the daughter of a notorious pirate (not that she apparently knows it) and Denis, the son of Sir Anthony Cobtree, the local squire, are madly in love but clearly from different classes so their future isn’t certain. The aptly-named Samuel Rash, the local schoolmaster, is madly in love with Imogene; he’s ready to have their banns read even though she can’t bear to be around him. In fact, Rash isn’t too popular with anyone, it seems. He butts heads with Dr. Syn on how to keep Collyer and his men away from their goods. One of his students, the unfortunately named Jerry Jerk, hates him with a passion and that leads to both tension and hilarity later on. When the film bogs down in the middle, it’s Graham Moffatt who picks it back up again as Jerry. Most of his films were with Will Hay, but this is a welcome exception.
Moffatt is just one of the actors who infuses this film with character. He may be too old and too big to be particularly believable as one of Mr. Rash’s students but he’s great fun, even when he’s not having conversations with himself. ‘Am I a liar?’ he asks himself for Dr. Syn late in the film. ‘Sometimes. But not now.’ He comes across like a too tall hobbit and I adored him. Muriel George plays Mrs. Waggetts, Jerry and Imogene’s boss at the Ship Inn, and she plays her so well that I recognised the character in at least half a dozen people I grew up with, even though I was born on the other side of the Thames. She doesn’t take lip from anyone, whether it be the kids working for her or the naval captain who’s searching her pub from top to bottom looking for illicit liquor. And then there’s Wilson Coleman, who plays the most unfortunately named character in a movie that includes sinful Dr. Syn, rash Mr. Rash and, well, Jerry Jerk. The latter has to shout ‘Dr. Pepper! Dr. Pepper!’ in the marshes but that’s only hilarious through hindsight.

There’s much to enjoy here, even if the mystery isn’t remotely mysterious. It played to me as a quintessential slice of the British equivalent of Americana. I don’t know if there’s a word for such a thing, but this is so British through and through that it’s easy to see why Talbot Rothwell parodied it so capably in Carry On Dick, one of the better instalments in a series that consistently speared British organisations and institutions. I knew that the title, double entendre aside, referred to highwayman Dick Turpin, another inappropriate British folk hero, but the story is clearly hijacked from Dr. Syn. Sid James merely plays a highwayman who happens to be masquerading as a parson rather than a... no, I still won’t spoil the obvious reveal. I’ll let Capt. Collyer do that when the time is right, because thankfully Roy Emerton is a jovial captain who isn’t quite as dumb as he makes himself out to be. He could easily have played this like the usual inept authority figure but he’s thankfully much more of a worthy character.
Everything here felt like home, with the British character emanating from the good folk and the bad. There’s great hospitality at the squire’s mansion, especially to the drunken doctor. There’s a thriving inn in the middle of town because everything revolves around it as much as the church. There’s organised sticking it to the tax man, which we accept because it’s generally used for the benefit of the people. The smugglers use secret passages, pretend to be marsh phantoms and switch signs around in what should feel dangerous but really feels like jolly good fun. Even the bosun’s bunions are somehow traditional. And, of course, young love surely makes any heart feel like it’s home. Margaret Lockwood and John Loder could have been given much more substance here but they’re both enjoyable to watch and at least the former gets more to do towards the end of the movie than in the build-up to it. Of course, above, behind and on top of everything in town is the title character, played by George Arliss.

I’ve been fascinated by Arliss ever since I saw The Millionaire, a 1931 pre-code that I watched for Jimmy Cagney but left as a fan of George Arliss. He’s an odd duck who doesn’t quite seem real. His head is too big for his body, which sometimes makes him appear to be a walking caricature, but we only laugh with him when he wants us to and we never laugh at him. He underplays for most of the film’s running time; he’s relentlessly calm, even when things aren’t going his way, and he lets others act around him and take the spotlight throughout. Yet we can’t stop watching him, because there’s a presence to him that’s impossible to miss. He’s always the most important person in the shot, whatever the scene and whatever he’s doing in it. As a man with a number of huge secrets, he’s the one who sits there and listens while others sit there and talk, but however quiet he gets and however close Capt. Collyer’s investigation gets, we never believe that he’s not in charge of the situation with a backup plan for his backup plan.
I like that this film marked the end of one career but the ascendance of another. Arliss had made 25 films over 17 years, playing an impressive array of historical figures, including Benjamin Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, Voltaire, the Duke of Wellington and even Cardinal Richelieu, so many that his fictional characters like Dr. Syn feel as grounded in reality. Margaret Lockwood, however, had only been in film for four years and her most important pictures were still ahead of her: Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes in 1938 and, turning her persona upside down, The Man in Grey, The Wicked Lady and Bedelia in the forties. She did well in film, becoming the highest paid actress in British cinema in 1952, but she increasingly returned to the stage. 21 years after Cast a Dark Shadow, she was talked out of retirement for The Slipper and the Rose, a retelling of Cinderella that gave many big names a last hurrah, and even with only that one picture made in the last sixty years, she’s still well-remembered and well-respected today.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Director: Norman Taurog
Writer: Elwood Ullman and Robert Kaufman, from a story by James Hartford
Stars: Vincent Price, Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Susan Hart, Jack Mullaney and Fred Clark
In high school, he joined a science fiction fan club alongside Forrest J. Ackerman, with whom he produced a fanzine centred on the fantasy genre. After graduation, he managed two movie theatres in Omaha, NE until being made redundant when the chain which owned them went out of business, but he moved on to run revival houses in Los Angeles. He joined Realart Pictures and was tasked with inventing advertising campaigns for re-releases of old movies. A threatened lawsuit from Alex Gordon about similar titles led to a meeting with the latter’s lawyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff. They became friends and, later, business partners in a distribution venture initially called American Releasing Corporation but soon renamed to American International Pictures. Arkoff handled the business end, while he handled the creative angles. Often he would conjure up entire ad campaigns, with titles and poster art in place, even before scripts were written. He was James H. Nicholson and he would have been a hundred years old today.

A.I.P. generally released low budget indie movies, often capitalising on new youth trends, packaged in double bills for the drive-in market. Their first film was The Fast and the Furious in 1955, starring and co-directed by John Ireland and produced and co-written by Roger Corman. It made $250,000 in box office receipts against a $50,000 budget and the new company was off and running. The average fan of exploitation cinema will have seen a whole bunch of A.I.P. movies in a whole bunch of genres: not merely the usual sci-fi and horror pictures but also juvenile delinquent movies, rock ‘n’ roll movies, biker movies, beach movies and hippie movies. I selected Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine to celebrate Nicholson’s centennial partly because I hadn’t seen it before but partly for the reason that it seemed to be the quintessential A.I.P. picture. At heart, it’s what’s called a spy-fi movie, mixing up the spy genre with sci-fi, but it’s populated by a slew of regulars from the beach pictures and stars Vincent Price from Corman’s Poe films.
As such, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. It’s dumb, it’s ridiculous and it’s unrealistic to the extreme. It’s culturally attuned to its time, so that it appears today less like a film and more like a cinematic time capsule. It’s so politically incorrect that modern audiences will be shocked at its viewpoints. And it’s not a good movie whatever criteria you choose to judge it by, except that the presence of Vincent Price is automatically a plus because he would be magnetic even if he was reading the back of a cereal box. It was the most expensive A.I.P. picture at the time, the first to cost over a million dollars to make, but it plays just like the others so the extra money wasn’t well spent. It has been argued, by some of those involved, that it would have been better had the original plan been adhered to, namely to make it a camp musical. ‘It could have been fun,’ said Price, ‘but they cut all the music out.’ Susan Hart said that removing Price singing about the bikini machine ‘took the explanation and the meat out of that picture.’

Of course, Jim Nicholson, who co-wrote the film under the pseudonym of James Hartford, was far more interested in showcasing Hart. Her first major role in a feature had come the year before, when she appeared opposite Tab Hunter in Ride the Wild Surf, and when Nicholson saw rushes from that picture, he promptly snapped her up for an A.I.P. contract. Shortly thereafter, he snapped her up for a marriage license and James Jr., now a composer in New York, was born in 1965. I have to say that Hart, who appears early and often, looks amazing for someone who had given birth that year, and it’s her movie until Vincent Price arrives. Never mind that we’ve seen as much of Frankie Avalon, one of the two A.I.P. beach movie stars (the other, Annette Funicello, has a neat cameo locked in a pair of stocks), it’s Susan Hart that we’re watching. Of course, she has the advantage of being a bulletproof and car-proof beauty wearing a gold bikini (under a raincoat) who flirts outrageously in a southern accent. Frankie who?
Avalon is Craig Gamble, apparently a spy for Secret Intelligence Command, but a completely inept one. D. J. Pevney, Gamble’s boss and Uncle Donald, calls him 00½ to begin with, but downgrades that during the movie to 00¼ because the boy is accident prone and he ends up on the worse side of those accidents. He won’t even let the poor spy carry a gun! The obvious comparison is to Maxwell Smart, but given that Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was shot in the summer of 1965 and Get Smart launched on 18th September, I presume that they combined James Bond and Inspector Clouseau independently rather than influence each other. Avalon isn’t a bad bad spy but he seems to be playing someone else; in the beach movies, he owned the role and anyone else trying the formula elsewhere seemed to be playing him. He’s in the film because Diane, the bulletproof beauty in the gold bikini, seems eager to chat him up and get him home, something he’s hardly going to argue with, given that his date walked out on him for being cheap.

Unfortunately for him, it’s all a case of mistaken identity. Diane is really a robot working for the mad genius, Dr. Goldfoot, who has just tuned in to discover that he isn’t watching #11 roll around the floor with Todd Armstrong, the world’s most eligible bachelor. ‘Fye on you!’ Vincent Price tells his assistant, inevitably named Igor, ‘You’re an idiot!’ Beyond being a magic line I should program my alarm clock to use, it marks Price truly taking ownership of the film. Sure, Susan Holt is delightful as Diane, changing accent at the drop of a hat. Sure, there are also similarly clad beauties #1 to #9 to feast our eyes upon. Sure, the sets are gloriously familiar, all decked out with old dark house gimmicks and spy-fi gadgetry, including what does look like the pit and the pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum. But all this is subservient to Mr. Price, who stalks his underground lair in gold slippers and smoking jacket, wringing his hands, hurling out cheap gags and telling Igor to shut up. He’s what keeps us watching.
That’s not to say that those robot girls in gold bikinis aren’t spectacular. They’re a suitably diverse lot, which in 1965 means a bevy of white beauties with different coloured hair, plus a token black girl (Issa Arnal) and a token Asian (China Lee). Most of them were regulars in the beach movies and didn’t go on to long careers outside the genre, the notable exception being Deanna Lund, soon to become famous as Valerie on Land of the Giants. Three of them were Playboy Playmates of the Month: Marianna Gaba in September 1959, two years after winning Miss Illinois; China Lee in August 1964, becoming the first Asian-American Playmate in the process; and Sue Williams, who was the first Playmate under five feet and the first to get breast implants, though apparently not the first to commit suicide, as has been frequently reported. It has to be said that Gaba was fluent in three languages and Salli Sachse earned a masters degree in psychology, but this is 1965 so they were hired to look cute in gold bikinis. That’s it.

Oh, and three of them are related to Jim Nicholson. Beyond Susan Hart, his new wife and mother of his son, at the time only a few months old, there are also Laura Nicholson and Luree Holmes, his grown-up daughters by his first wife, Sylvia. Luree was less than a year younger than her new mother-in-law, whose first A.I.P. role was in the very same picture, 1964’s Pajama Party, that Luree’s daughter appeared in as a topless baby model. That makes Joi Holmes, Nicholson’s granddaughter, older than James Nicholson Jr., his eldest son. Boy, those family get togethers must have been a blast! I wonder how long they continued after Nicholson died of a brain tumour in 1972. Certainly, A.I.P. continued on for a few years before his partner, Sam Arkoff, got bored with the movies and sold his stake to Filmways for $4.3m. I’ve documented the shenanigans that went on with the rights to their films in my review of Naked Paradise aka Thunder Over Hawaii, a Corman picture that Hart now owns and apparently refuses to release.
But back to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, a title that might seem unwieldy until you hear the incredibly catchy theme song by no less a recording sensation than the Supremes, still with Diana Ross in 1965, as it will stick in your head and prompt you to start singing it out loud at random moments. The story starts out relatively focused, but it gradually veers out of control, into what can only be described as slapstick comedy territory. By the time we end up in a substantial chase scene through San Francisco in what seems like every mode of transport known to mankind, usually accompanied by horrendous rear-projection, I was half expecting the Keystone Kops to join in. It’s hard to pin down what goes wrong because there’s so much going on and so much of it makes us laugh and roll our eyes at the same time. The chase would have impressed me a lot more if I hadn’t been reeling from the motion sickness induced by the script screaming back and forth like a cat that’s overdosed on catnip.

Price is the traditional lead, as mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot, who’s attempting to get rich by using robots to seduce the wealthy into marriage and the subsequent signing over of all their assets. These are golddiggers in gold bikinis and rather blatant ones at that! Diane lands Todd easily enough but won’t even sleep with him on their wedding night until he signs over the stocks she stole out of his safe. Today’s word is ‘pre-nup’, friends. While Dwayne Hickman is highly billed as Todd, Avalon is the real support, playing the inept spy, Craig Gamble, in a mostly unfunny secondary plot that undoes much of Price’s deliciously camp evil. Fred Clark has far more talent than is shown here as nothing but the victim of Frankie Avalon’s unwitting idiocy. You might think that this would be easy enough to follow, but the scriptwriters focus so much on misogynism and in-jokes that they almost become a plot of their own. Did anyone notice or care that Avalon and Hickman played the same roles in Ski Party a year earlier, merely reversed?
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine seemed to be a timely release, justifying a new high for A.I.P. budgets, riffing on 1964’s Goldfinger and many of the company’s successful series: the Poe movies and the beach movies, many of which featured very similar cast and crew. However, for some reason it didn’t find the audience it sought in its home territory, though it did find a surprising audience in Italy, where it was a huge hit. That prompted the sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, to be shot in Italy, with Italian stars and an Italian director to back up the returning Vincent Price. That director was Mario Bava, whose work was redone for the English language release; given that his next film was the glorious spy-fi romp, Danger: Diabolik, A.I.P. clearly lost out. The stars are Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, a pair of comedians who had already spoofed Goldfinger themselves, in 1965’s Goldginger. Even as a big fan of Mario Bava, I’m not feeling the need to follow this up with that. I’ll just sing the theme tune to myself again instead.