“Louise Brooks – Portrait of an Anti-Star”


This is one of those books that takes me back instantly to the early nineteen-eighties, when I was just embarking on my love affair with old movies.

I had of course never heard of her until she died in 1985, and the BBC showed an old documentary, Diary of a Lost Girl, Pandora's Box and, charmingly, Overland Stage Raiders (still one of my all-time favourite Brooks movies; still one of the very few westerns I watch for fun.)
I'd just turned twelve, and hitherto my old movie crush had been Marlene Dietrich, who had transfixed me in a BBC Saturday matinee double-bill of Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. But Brooks was something quite different, and my memory, rendered hyperbolic by time, insists that within a few minutes of watching her in Pandora's Box my voice had broken.

The book is a kind of scrapbook of various essays, articles and bits of ephemera. There are loads of photographs, not glossy or glamorously reproduced but, it seemed to me at the time, almost a portal into a world of slightly dark, slightly decadent allure.
I didn't know there were old movies like this, or old movie stars.


How I came upon it is a story inextricably interwoven with the geography of the city of Plymouth.
Plymouth’s city centre has been massively restructured in recent years. It was never the most charming of shopping centres: thanks to our proximity to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport it had been more or less razed by the Nazis during the war, then rebuilt in the Attlee years as a series of distended grey concrete blocks which, viewed from above, had a distinct and ironic touch of the Albert Speers to their fearful symmetry, but from the ground must have seemed unbelievably austere and lifeless compared to what had been there before.
Nonetheless, it was a design that still revealed the touch of a human hand. Not the work of a creative imagination, clearly, but you could still see the brushmarks for all that. What has now replaced it, with no war as excuse for further tampering, is incomparably worse, a drunken computer's nightmare, dominated by an enormous video screen hovering like a War of the Worlds tripod where once the eye was led gracefully through a straight avenue leading to the famous Plymouth Hoe, where Drake famously played snooker while waiting for the Vikings.

And Drake, our city's most famous son (with the possible exception of Wayne Sleep) gave his name to the site of my first encounter with this book: the Drake Circus shopping complex.
This was, depending on who you asked, either an ugly concrete rabbit's warren or a fascinatingly eccentric radiating splurge of subways leading in several directions to and from a central open air tapestry of mainly small, friendly shops. But I always thought that entering it was a bit like entering a secret cave, or passing through one world into another.
As a child, my mother and I would come here every Friday on the bus, get off at the library just on the outskirts, and pass down into the first tunnel which, like them all, offered a mysterious choice of directions (mysterious in that we always took the same route, and it was some little while before I was old enough to be there on my own, and find out where the adjacent passages actually took you).
Always there was a cheery busker, and with tiled walls depicting scenes from Plymouth’s past, these longish, dark and echoing tunnels were not remotely frightening. Week in and out we passed through them, never for a second entertaining the thought that they contained even the latent potential of threat, as indeed they did not at that time.
The first tunnel took you to a kind of central courtyard, where we would stop and feed bread to the pigeons. (This was the highlight of my week, partly because a goodly percentage of the bread ended up in me rather than the pigeons.) We then took the left path, into the Drake Circus complex itself.

The first thing you saw was the back entrance of C&A. The front was right at the other end of the complex, a fact I found incredibly impressive. Sometimes we would use C&A as a kind of unofficial subway into the town proper, but they eventually caught on to this and stopped people using the back entrance, so we had to pass through Drake Circus itself.
First on the left was a cheery, dimly-lit café, where tables would be routinely shared by strangers, and we would sometimes stop for a bowl of 'soup of the day', also known as minestrone. On the right, a wool shop.
Then on the left, the first Tesco supermarket I had ever seen. The exact layout of its two floors remains so vivid in my mind that you could give me a shopping list and I would know exactly where to find each item, something I still can’t do in my local Sainsbury’s after six months of regular usage.
But we will ignore Tesco’s today and march onward still, because we have another destination in mind.We will not even turn right, where at the top of one of the only outside escalators I have ever seen stood my favourite childhood shop: an Aladdin’s cave called Arcadia: two massive open-plan floors with, on the ground, paperbacks, magazines, annuals, sweets and records, and on the top, a wonderland of toys.
No, we are heading straight ahead, to a small but enchanting bookshop called Chapter and Verse.

Here is where my earliest memories of solo book buying are located, where I turned so many vague potential interests into lifelong passions, with careful purchases of judiciously chosen stock. Here is where I bought my first book on ancient Egypt (Romer's Egypt by John Romer) and my first book on Hitchcock, and my first Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion.
It seems to me there are no such bookshops now: they either sell nothing or everything, neither option really conducive to the kind of chance discoveries from which true devotion to a subject is built. Just as multi-channel television has killed the potential for stumbling upon and sticking with a film or programme you would not have chosen to watch but might just change your life, so too has the book superstore. If you know what you’re looking for, great, but stumbled-upon epiphanies are rare.
Chapter and Verse was shaped by human imagination. Space was at a premium, so stock was carefully chosen and the books were all good. And there, staring at me one Friday, was that amazing face I had just seen on television, the provocative, shiny haired, black-red lipped, hypnotic eyed, impossibly beckoning visage of Louise. The films had impressed me, but it was this book that made me her slave. For a few weeks I would simply go into the shop and browse through it, but soon enough I succumbed, as all men did around Louise, it would seem.

Of course all the iconic glamour shots were there, but the one that held my eye the longest was this one, a candid of her on a set, surrounded by books and eating a sandwich:

In later years, there would be other, technically better books about Louise to add to my shelves, but none were ever quite as exciting as this first one: I bought her own memoirs, collected as Lulu In Hollywood soon after, then a few years later Barry Paris's biography came along; just recently Peter Cowie's coffee-table tome became the ultimate photographic record of this most photogenic of all stars. Now, comes the mouthwatering news that her private journals are being prepared for publication.
My own view of Brooks has changed over the years too: my complete initial capitulation to her erotic hypnosis was eventually tainted by cynicism when I realised how well she stage-managed her decline, and how so many of the bad breaks that killed her career were brought about by her own stubbornness and vanity. But the delight I take in flicking through this book has never weakened for a second, and thus it belongs at the very top of my list of film books I cannot imagine life without. I only have to look at the cover to be transported back to that time when the cerebral passions of cinemania were first mixed with the more instinctive fixations that mark the transition from short to long trousers.

As for Chapter and Verse: well, we had many more pleasant encounters to come, but it disappeared eventually, as all things too good for this world must sooner or later do. And eventually, the entire Drake Circus complex was demolished and rebuilt, seemingly freehand, with whatever materials happened to be lying around at the time.
The original was by no means a pretty thing: it was grey, it was shadowy, and cold even in Summer. What it has been replaced by, however, is something only a computer could love, and I'm proud to say it was the 2006 inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the prestigious award given by architectural magazine Prospect to honour the most egregious eyesores in Britain.

Devil Bats In His Belfry: An interview with Peter H. Brothers

When you're obsessed with something to a degree that qualifies as 'medical', it's always a relief to encounter someone else who shares the same problem. Even better when they've got it even worse than you have.

I thought I had plumbed the outer limits when it came to obsessively pondering The Devil Bat, Lugosi's PRC masterpiece.
But even after that occasion when I watched it three times in a row without a break, it never once struck me that it might be a good idea to turn it into a novel.
For that stroke of genius, ladies and gentleman, the gent to whom your fedora must be tipped is Peter H. Brothers.
Peter's name may well be familiar to you already, author as he is of Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda. But now he has come up with Devil Bat Diary: The Journal of Johnny Layton, which as its title suggests is a retelling of the film, from the perspective of its newspaper reporter hero.

If anyone has ever had a better idea before - and I'm including penicillin here - I've yet to hear about it.
When Peter got in touch to tell me about the project, I decided to find out more.

Carfax Abbey: This is a terrific idea for a book! How did it first come to you, how long did it take to write and how many people per day on average told you you were crazy...?Peter H. Brothers: Well I have been a Bela Lugosi fan since way back and The Devil Bat is my favourite film of his (don't tell him this!) And I thought since the story was so zany and the characters so interesting it might be fun to write, and it was. The film was ahead of its time in its tongue-in-cheek and self-parodying tone ("I tell you Layton, the idea of a bat being attracted to the scent of a lotion, is all foolishness!"); in fact its chief virtue is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.
One thing that makes the film so enjoyable to watch is seeing the idle rich getting bumped-off one by one by a guy who spends his whole life with his nose to the grindstone. The Carruthers character is one that a lot of people can relate to: a hard-working grunt who feels he doesn't get the credit or salary he deserves, so he takes revenge against those who wronged him - a premise we can all relate to! It took six months to write it and my wife, who thinks I'm crazy anyway, gave it her blessing.

Can you let us in on any of the book's major revelations? I'm assuming it doesn't go so far as Devil Bat's Daughter and whitewashes Carruthers of all responsibility?

Oh no! Carruthers did what he did all right, but we do learn why he is so resentful of the Heaths and Mortons. It turns out he has other issues as well. I have altered the ending a bit as well, to give it a more cinematic feel.

This is the diary of Johnny, the reporter in the film. Do we get to see an altogether different side to his character, or is he basically the same obtuse wiseacre we fans know and love?We learn more about his character and his relationships with the others in the film; how he feels about them and basically the kind of person he is, how his mind works, a little about his background and so on. He basically comes across in a similar fashion to how he is in the film, but we learn more about him.

Lugosi in The Ape Man: "The finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film"
What other characters come over differently? I see Mary Heath is pegged as a religious lunatic...

Yes. I thought it would be fun to give some of the characters little quirks. For example, "One Shot" McGuire is a rather vulgar fellow who can't stand the sight of Layton (and vice-versa), Martin Heath is devastated by the loss of his son, Mary is a bible-beater who gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on and Chief Wilkins is gay -- strong stuff for 1940!

This can only be the work of a truly obsessive fan of the movie. Speaking as another one, can you tell me what it is about the film that inspires this kind of devotion?

I'm not too sure when I first saw it but I just fell in love with it and realised there's much more to it than meets the eye. It's an interesting film in many ways. For one thing, Bela was a man who was a cheap hire and who was known to take the first offer rather than hold out for things like better salary and so on; he was not choosy, he just loved to work.
The famous story is that he accepted Dracula for a mere pittance rather than get a percentage of the profits (although such deals were rather rare for the time). In a sense he had no bargaining power and he had to basically take or leave the offer. The Devil Bat follows an ironic parallel is that he plays a a man who settles for a quick cash settlement rather than become a partner of the firm. I'm sure Bela - who was an intelligent and sensitive man - was very aware of this parallel while he made the movie.

It's also an interesting part for him. As you know Bela loved to always give 110% when he performed regardless of the role or the studio or the story. In The Devil Bat he gives a very restrained and realistic performance; there is very little of the theatricality that is typically called for in a Bela role. "Sour irony" is I believe how director Joe Dante defined Bela's portrayal of Carruthers, which also comes across as very appealing; we like the guy even though he is basically a sourpuss!
Bela's greatest moment in the film is near the end, when he gets a wistful look in the eyes and tells Layton, "You wouldn't understand a scientific theory," which is delivered so sublimely I'm not sure I can ever attempt to define it. It is truly an extraordinary moment for him. He was truly a great actor.

Have you seen the sequel?

I have yet to catch-up with Devil Bat's Daughter but I understand that Carruthers is completely exonerated of his crimes and is now remembered as a bit of a local hero(!), which brings up another interesting issue: how people's reputations are enhanced after they're gone: you know, like Ronald Reagan?

What are your views on Lugosi's 'Poverty Row' films in general?

He was a professional who loved his craft, and I personally feel his performance as James Brewster in The Ape Man is the finest performance I have seen an actor give in a film; I mean we're talking Shakespearian stuff, man... just heartbreaking. I also love Scared to Death, The Raven, White Zombie, Chandu the Magician, The Corpse Vanishes, Son of Frankenstein (he should have gotten an Oscar for that one) ... I could go on and on, but yeah, I love the guy ...
In 1971, when I was 18, I saw Dracula on TV during a Saturday afternoon and that was it for me. He is my idol and in fact I visit his grave every year around his birthday and leave him a cigar which I'm sure ends up in the hands of the groundskeeper! (I live in Agoura Hills, about 40 minutes from the Holy Cross Cemetery where he is buried). I love all his films because I too am an actor and appreciate the total dedication he gave to each and every role he played.
So Devil Bat Diary is a tribute to both Bela and a wonderfully entertaining film which was very cleverly-written and has some wonderful moments in it (I can hear those Devil Bat screams to this day!) I hope you and your readers enjoy it.

Leave him a cigar from me next time.
Yes, next time I visit his grave I'll leave a cigar from you and say hello.


“Mother of Tears”, “Giallo” and the decline of Dario Argento




So they built this big theme park dedicated to the films of Dario Argento, and they called it Italy.


I've written about this before, I know, but I've just got back from the place and it feels truer than ever.
Despite my ever-advancing disenchantment with his filmography, the man's shadow still looms over every street, every building and courtyard, every tree and streetlamp.
I've probably watched more Italian movies, with greater pleasure and keener appreciation, than those of any other non-Anglophone nation, but no other Italian director has stamped his signature on the landscape for me with anything like as much force and ubiquity.
With the possible exception of Chaplin, Fellini is to me the greatest film-poet in the history of the medium - but the fact remains that when I'm in Italy I rarely feel like I'm in Fellini's Italy. We watched I Vitelloni while we were in Florence last month, because we knew that it was partly shot there, but not for a second did I connect the images on the screen with the view from the window. It's Fellini-land; he built it himself. But Argento is Italy and Italy is Argento, and in that strange, seductive menace that is uniquely his, man and landscape share each other.
We walked from Florence to Fiesole, and the architecture that seemed merely picturesque to my wife was to me so vividly cinematic as to be almost hallucinatory. All those old houses, their peeling paint, high walls, rusty ironwork and crumbling pillars and shuttered windows, seemed like repositories of secrets - old secrets, nearly forgotten, biding their time.
Why is this? I've been trying to make sense of it for years. There now follows my latest attempt. Does this make sense, I wonder? Perhaps it comes down to this...

Some Italian directors ignore Italy. Antonioni ignores Italy because he's an existentialist and all that matters is the people: that's why his films could be set anywhere and, indeed, why he made a point of setting them all over the world. Others deliberately show you Italy because they want to tell you Italian stories: Bicycle Thieves, obviously, evokes a real and tangible Italy in this sense. While Fellini takes Italy and turns it into something different because he is interested in creating his own universe.
But only Argento uses the real Italy and plonks his own fantasy universe into it, each redefining the shape and limits of the other.
This is what sets Argento apart not just from other Italian directors generally but specifically from Italy's other exploitation horror directors of the seventies. Fulci made a couple of half-good films and some bad ones, but none of them trade in Italian-ness for their effects, and many try to deny it. Argento's work is explicitly Italian - he tends to name his cities and to really show them and use them, while still completely re-imagining them in the process. And it rubs off permanently, for me at least.

Though it's a long time since a new Argento release has actually excited me (not since Stendhal, I suppose; my interest in the man just post-dated his glory years, and Trauma was the first one I saw while it was still new) I always return from Italy with the compulsion to rewatch Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails.
But until this time I've never actually watched one of his films while there. (It seemed superfluous somehow.) Mother of Tears was on Italian general release last time I was in Bologna and I toyed with the idea of seeing it, but having seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player I was in no mad rush, and never quite got round to it. But I did get the DVD and watched it before heading off to Italy this time.

Wow! If it's not the worst film ever made - and it's got to be somewhere in the running - it must be the worst film Argento's ever made. As we speak, linguistic scientists are hard at work inventing a new language containing words capable of conveying how wretched it is.
The most obvious problems have been ably listed by others, notably Maitland McDonagh. The screenplay is by American hacks with no grasp of Argento's style, the gross-out violence is unaffectingly crude in both conception and mechanics, the scenes of diabolic excess are pretty puerile, it's all depressingly mean-spirited, none of it is even remotely scary and too much of it - especially but by no means solely the bit where the Italian branch of the Cyndi Lauper Appreciation Society go razzing at the airport - is just plain silly.
But the biggest problem for me is simply this: it doesn't for one minute make it impossible to believe that anyone but Argento made it. Until now, even his very worst films had at least done that. But this is completely faceless, voiceless, authorless. It doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like Suspiria or Inferno in any detail or regard. It's set in Italy only in the sense that it's set somewhere. Rome it may well be, but it doesn't say Argento and it doesn't say Italy. If anyone can save it, Asia can save it - and Asia can't save it. That patented Argento atmosphere - thick, weird, dusty, cloying, dreamlike but pin-sharp - is gone.
Instead we just have substandard sadism, gore as slapstick (more Three Stooges than Three Mothers), tits and monkeys and intestines, and all so unenthusiastically dispensed.

I instinctively gave Giallo an easier ride because, even though it wasn't Argento back to being good, at least it was Argento back to being interesting. This one I did see in Italy, in my hotel room in Florence as I recovered from the previous night's attack of the mosquitoes. It's bad but fascinating in its badness, and I haven't been able to stop pondering on it.
According to what I've read, the film had a complicated history. In the first place, rather than a project he devised himself, it was written for Argento by a pair of Americans: Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, the latter a Film Threat writer who, to quote the imdb, "played guitar for the Industrial Rock group Hate Dept". (The credits are very strange. First we get 'written and directed by Dario Argento', Argento solely that is, but then, quite a bit later, 'screenplay by...' the two other blokes, and Dario third, presumably meaning that he just gave it a bit of a polish.
But if the fact that it was written specifically for Argento makes you think it's going to be full of the kind of quirks and deviations that would be sure to lure him to the project (as Boileau and Narcejac deliberately wrote Vertigo to attract Hitchcock) let me sit you down and disappoint you before the film itself does.
The title may raise expectations of it being the director's ultimate giallo, both an example of the form and an examination of it, with tricks upon tricks upon tricks upon tricks in the plotting, in place of the director's usual tricks upon tricks upon tricks. But the film itself goes out of its way to frustrate them, and is (to the limits of my experience - I've not seen everything he's done in the last ten years or so) his first and only non-supernatural thriller with no plot twists of any sort - no sleight of hand, no audacious surprises... none of the structural mystery suggested, demanded even, by the title.
This is, I think, Argento's only twist-free giallo, and so arguably not really a giallo at all. It's just your basic police procedural serial killer thriller, fifteen-to-twenty years too late, and rendered ever stupider than the likes of Copycat and The Bone Collector (no small boast) by Argento's habitual (and in other contexts laudable) inattention to realism in scenario, plot development and characterisation.
It's not just the usual daffy criminal profiling stuff (killers who 'like to destroy beautiful things' and leave bodies in significant places because 'they're trying to tell us something', detectives that can see into the killer's mind, that sort of horseshit). It's crazy stuff like the detective knowing the killer uses a taxi on no evidence at all, or the idea that a policeman might interrupt someone in the act of committing a savage murder and, out of sympathy for his motives, give him a job on the force instead of arresting him, or how, after victim upon victim of thumb twiddling, the supposed psychological profiling genius is instantly galvanised into tracking down his man by someone else's idle speculation that the killer might be nicknamed Giallo because he has jaundice.
The casting, too, which in the absence of any non-linear plotting is the only distinctive thing about the movie, was all very last minute and haphazard.
Originally Ray Liotta was down to play the New York cop in the Italian sub-basement, Asia was the tagalong sister of the victim, and Vincent Gallo was Giallo. (Liotta would have been interesting; Gallo would have been very interesting.) Then, as I read it, Gallo dropped out like a big sissy for no better reason than that he and Asia had a bit of a history, Asia got pregnant and pulled out too, and Liotta, I don't know, had to go visit his brother Tarka or something.
Only then was it decided to recast the three roles with a Polanski double-header: his wife - Emmanuelle Seigner - as the heroine, and his pianist - that strange, strange actor Adrien Brody - as both 'tec and killer (and using an anagram of his real name in the latter role).
Seigner fits well, in a role that seems to deliberately evoke her iconic debut in Polanski's Frantic, my favourite Paris movie (albeit in the Harrison Ford role this time). But despite bagging himself a producer credit as well as the two main roles, Brody seems deeply unhappy, gives two totally ridiculous performances, and ended up suing for unpaid wages and trying to stop it being released at all.
Okay, it's a cheap shot to say you have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself. But you really do have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself.
But how odd that the only thing that makes the movie remotely Dario Argentoish - the doubling-up of Brody as both sleuth and sadist - was not part of the original idea. As the story develops, of course, there's no reason why it should have been, other than to do what the film in fact now does: frustrate the hell out of the audience. But that's what makes it all so intriguing.
As it is, even the most minimally Argento-savvy viewer will instantly recognise Brody under the Giallo putty and ready themselves for the totally predictable but still dramatically and logistically intriguing twist ending: that the killer is the detective in disguise. Certainly the most enjoyment the film gave me came from watching the scenes where the two characters appeared to be in different places at the same time, and trying to guess how Argento was going to explain it all away. (Or if not the same guy dressed up then they're brothers, and the one is somehow responsible for, perhaps even complicit in, the psychopathological quirks of the other.)
It comes as the worst kind of surprise to discover they are two different people after all, and the only reason Brody's playing both of them seems to be to get two silly performances out of him instead of just one, and to spoil the big fight at the end with loads of that similar-actor-with-back-to-camera-when-the-other-character's-in-shot stuff.
I suppose had it been two actors it would have been even more annoying, because our minds would have been constantly whirling with possible twists of all kinds, instead of the one we opt for from the start here. How much crueller then, would have been the big bad surprise that there is no surprise at all.
In the light of this, the film's silly-nasty violence is the least of its troubles, though it's a shame to see Argento playing catch-up with the torture prats rather than loftily challenging them to raise their game to his level.

As I get older, I do see less and less of what is essential about Argento in his scenes of frenzied violent excess, even in the masterpieces. The first killing here, in the taxi, looks like it's going to be totally bloodless and I can't tell you how excited I was by that, and how disappointed that we then found the victim still alive, strapped to a table, next to that oh-so-boring trolley of tools and implements.
Doubtless he felt, quite rightly, that without the grue there really would be nothing left in the movie with his stamp on it at all, and it's true that the violence here is less stupid and special-effectsy than in Mother of Tears. But still, I always think there's something a bit sad about horror directors in their dotage still sucking up to the punks. (Look at Wes Craven. He's in his seventies for Christ's sake, and still fartarsing around with cock rock soundtracks and frat house killers. Grow up, man!)
Argento should have become the most stylish and acclaimed director in Italy, as cherished as Fellini; instead he went the fanboy route, which is ironic as well as disappointing, because the blackshirts by and large don't like his new stuff any more than I do.
So what next? Well, apparently, it's a 3-D Dracula. Will I be able to resist that if it's on when I'm next in Italy? Does Berlusconi dye his hair? You bet I won't - especially if Asia plays Lucy. But I'll be amazed if it's any good. And considering this is the director of Deep Red we're talking about, that's a depressing certainty to have settled on.

Norman Wisdom: Goodnight, sweet fool


Don your black cloth caps, gentlemen, for yesterday Norman Wisdom was taken from us.

In truth, he had been lost to us for some time, trapped in the embrace of that skulking coward Alzheimer's. His last few years were spent in a nursing home on his beloved Isle of Man where, it is said, he would watch his old movies but no longer recognise himself in them. (He did still enjoy them, though - which restores the smile somewhat.)

Lest it need be said: Norman was a great screen clown, though I'll admit that the films themselves were often self-destructively undisciplined. Had he been around in the thirties I think it would have been a very different story. In the fifties and sixties the film world had simply forgotten how to do this sort of thing, and as with the Martin and Lewis films, the talent is there but the handling is wrong.
American readers, I fear, will hardly recognise the name though in his day he packed out Broadway, and received an oscar nomination for The Night They Raided Minsky's. In Britain he was loved by nobody but the public, who adored him, spurring the critics on to greater and greater levels of invective and dismissal.
He was easy to resent: they hated especially the gear changes in his work, between slapstick clown, whose physical idiocy was perfectly matched by a vast repertoire of ear-splitting shrieks, and sentimental balladeer, prone to sudden bursts of inky sincerity in self-penned serenades to romantic or social failure, delivered in an almost parodyingly pitch-perfect croon. It was obvious, too, that both personae were equally unreal, and that a third Norman lay behind: a steely professional, enormously ambitious and enormously sure of himself.
His fans, especially children, saw or cared for none of this, however. They were just delighted to be able to go to the pictures and enjoy the continuing adventures of the greatest British screen imbecile since George Formby, and there is no reason to think that Chaplin and Stan Laurel were not entirely sincere in their praise of him. He was brilliant at what he did.

His screen character is the familiar, Formbyesque little man, trying to make something of himself and enduring numerous setbacks before triumphing, and falling somewhat improbably into the arms of the perky leading lady, at fade-out. His funniest trait, and the one with the strongest claim to being uniquely his, is his exaggerated obtuseness in the face of impending embarrassment, exacerbated by his complete inability to recognise class signals or signs of frustration in others. Relentlessly proletariat and crass, yet oblivious of the class system, he assumes instant and extreme familiarity with everyone he encounters. Classic examples include his mistaking his new boss for a fellow employee in Trouble In Store and encouraging him to raid his own drinks cabinet and help himself to his own cigars while Norman inanely keeps watch, the excruciating train journey in One Good Turn where he simply will not take the hint that his upper middle class fellow passengers do not want to help pass the time with a sing-song, or are likely to be amused by his belching, and the wonderful sequence in Up In The World when, as the new window cleaner at a stately home, he mistakes one of m'lady's soirees for the staff canteen, hands out pieces of cake to the distinguished guests and finishes with a raucous drum solo.

Unfortunately, as his fans aged with him, new generations did not take on the mantle of adoration, and so critics were not forced into reassessment as they were with the Carry On films. Though the man himself had been grudgingly afforded British institution status many years back, no effort has been made to reappraise, or even distinguish between the films.
The tendency to view all of his films as one big indivisible lump is shared as much by their fans as their detractors. Even Wisdom himself, when I asked him what his own favourites were, tended to rank them more in terms of the memories they evoked, or their relative box-office performance (though in truth, virtually all of them were copper-bottomed smash hits). When I offered Up In The World as my personal choice, he asked - many, many years before the onset of his memory problems - "was that the one where I drive a little toy car?" (Nope - that was the much inferior, excessively sentimental One Good Turn.)

Most of his films have something to make them worth watching, but clear distinctions can certainly be made. Up In The World was a key film of my teenage that I have watched many, many times for largely incidental reasons, but I still think it the best. Trouble In Store, his first, is not far behind.
As his career progressed, his ambition became more and more counterproductive, and many of the later films are hobbled by unhelpful evidences of it: overlength, multiple characterisations, unwise attempts at seriousness or variation.
But there's not much wrong with Just My Luck or Man of the Moment or The Bulldog Breed or The Square Peg - and it's difficult to come away from viewing any of them without some respect for the sheer energy of the man, and the infectious desire to please..
It will be interesting to see what tone the obituaries take on the films, and whether his death will have any effect at all on their standing. They deserve a fresh look, perhaps even an NFT retrospective would not be inappropriate. His reputation will, I feel certain, grow, if not among the public then surely among the custodians of such things.
If you have children, show them one of his films tonight. I suspect his tricks will still work. You may find yourself enjoying them too.

Harold Lloyd


What follows is no kind of systematic analysis of the work of Harold Clayton Lloyd, but a few random reflections; a kind of stream of consciousness; a work in progress...

I'd always loved Harold: I'd seen a lot of his work in extract, and thanks to a compilation tv series I saw as a child (of which more later) I had got to know him more extensively, and earlier, than I had Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy (and vastly more extensively and earlier than Keaton).
Then there was his own 1962 distillation Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, the most successful product, I would say, of the sixties vogue for feature compilations of comedy clips. (Lloyd's best sequences are often self-contained, or build from simple, easy-to-grasp premises, so their highlights can usually be removed from their narrative context with the minimum loss of meaning or effect: not so easy with other comics, which is why the Robert Youngson films, for instance, sometimes seemed a little spasmodic.)
As I grew older, I began to tick off the full features, and a few shorts, in occasional tv broadcasts, but there was so much of his work, produced over so many years, that my absorption of it was entirely unsystematic. I remained a fan, but never felt confident enough to call myself a connoisseur.
At last, now, I'm in a position to really get to grips with the full trajectory of his work, and to rope it all into critical perspective, thanks to my simultaneous acquisition of a terrific box set of 9 DVDs, containing a good selection of shorts and most of the features and a further two-disc set of still more, rarer shorts.
In so doing, I've also been able to soberly reassess my opinion. Perhaps I might still think Lloyd an important figure, but lose some of my youthful, uncritical love for the man as I gained a more thorough and detached perspective? That this might be possible seemed even more likely when I mentioned the box set to my cinematic touchstone Anthony Blampied, only to learn that he has no time for Lloyd at all. Major disagreements about movies are a rare thing between us.

In the event, I'm delighted with what I've found, and I'm delighted that I'm delighted. I don't think Lloyd was as important an artist as Chaplin, but I never did. I do think his films are funnier pound for pound, however, and for laughs and formal innovation, I see him as fully the equal of Keaton, with a somewhat more winning screen presence. (I admire Buster hugely, and laugh at him as loud as anyone, but I came to him as an adult and, for whatever reason, that just seems to make a difference with me...)
The thing that Lloyd has over both men - and by and large qualitative ranking of these three giants is as odious to me as to all of good will and stout heart - is a beautifully precise sense of his own place and time. By which I mean not just in the backgrounds to his films, but also in his own characterisation, which is specifically and instantly a thing of the American teens and twenties, as opposed to that something of the eternal that we see in Chaplin and Keaton. This is, of course, part of what made Lloyd so very successful, and part of what counted against him in the Roosevelt years.
It's a good thing or a bad thing; it comes down to taste. Personally, I'm in love with the twenties, and so I am in love with Lloyd and his screen world, and I bless him for preserving so much of the flavour and the iconography of the times in which he worked.

And so, that's what I've been watching lately: Lloyd, Lloyd and more Lloyd. As always, I find myself drawn first to the less acclaimed and the less familiar: the earlier shorts, the later features. I've now seen all of his sound films except for Professor Beware, which is, frustratingly, the only one apart from the widely (albeit multi-generationally) available Sin of Harold Diddlebock not to be included in the set.
And watching the shorts in chronological sequence is revealing too - showing that the switch from Lonesome Luke to the Glasses character may have been an instant visual transition, but a much more gradual one in terms of character and performance.


No question what the most striking discovery has been so far: The Cat's Paw (1934) is one of the most fascinating films of the early thirties I've yet seen. Not Lloyd films - anybody's films. And the early thirties are, after all, where a conservatively-estimated 99% of my most cherished movie experiences are crowded, so this really is something.
The film is a conscious effort by Lloyd to try something new - his character is not called Harold, for the first time in one of his features - and it is also one of the very last Hollywood films to enjoy the liberty of pre-Code censorship (or lack thereof). There's very little of the traditional Harold to be seen here, except perhaps in his obtuseness (that gets more pronounced in the talkies), the sweetness of his naive courting of the leading lady (Una Merkel here: superb as ever), and in an amusing nightclub sequence, that strives for the same embarrassment-at-a-public-event effect that worked so well in The Freshman and Movie Crazy but is chiefly notable here for the eye-opening pre-Code outfits on the girls.


The big reason why the film is so interesting, however, is how it fits into the New Deal era 'Dictator Craze', with Lloyd as a Capra-esque naif accidentally elected Mayor of a big American city, discredited by a fabricated scandal, who decides to become a dictator, rounds up all of the neighbourhood criminals and forces them to confess under threat of decapitation! We get to see a convincing severed head and gory, oozing neck before we are let into the secret that it is all an illusion, a trick to get them to talk... nonetheless, this is one of those 1933-4 pro-Roosevelt movies that today get labelled 'Fascist' - occasionally by people who actually know what the word means.
Cinematically these films are all completely thrilling: it's that juxtaposition of a familiar style and a totally unfamiliar viewpoint: the accepted pre-Code experience, times ten. Beast of the City, Gabriel Over the White House, let's not forget Duck Soup (anti-war satire my arse), and most of all DeMille's unimpeachable This Day and Age are vital, vivid documents of a period of true uncertainty in American history. Others: Vidor's beautiful, perfect Our Daily Bread... Capra's fantastic American Madness... Certainly Capra is the film-maker you'd most be prepared to accept was behind the camera of The Cat's Paw were such a claim made... It anticipates the screwball mode - it was made before It Happened One Night - but also taps into that Mussolini-admiring era of Hollywood/Washington paternalism... plus it's Harold Lloyd, so it's really charming and really funny... Me and the missus are still reeling from it, actually.


Moving on from Capra, we arrive at Sturges. I am unusual in quite liking The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. I think it will inevitably disappoint if you think of it as a Lloyd movie that happens to have been made by Sturges (and admittedly the film does all it can to foster that impression with an opening flashback to the end of The Freshman that achieves nothing other than show how good for his age Lloyd was in 1947). Think of it, rather, as a Sturges movie, for which he had the inspired idea of casting Lloyd in the lead, alongside his other rep players: Conlin, Pangborn, Kennedy, Vallee... Listen to the dialogue: some of it is wonderful; Sturges at his best, and Lloyd delivers it well. Never mind the back-projected thrill finale - remember this was the forties, and communal film-making genius of the sort that could be commandeered for Safety Last was just a memory now.


Lloyd had the greatest Hollywood house of all: an amazing Italianate Los Angeles monstrosity, so exquisitely tasteless... just beautiful. If you want a tour of the property, seek out a tv movie called Death at Love House, filmed there with somewhat indecent haste, given the morbid subject matter, a year after his death. Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson are husband and wife journalists researching the great, fictional thirties starlet who supposedly lived there, and who appears in flashbacks and faked old film clips, and looks exactly as you would expect a fake thirties film star to look in a seventies tv movie: like a fake fifties film star. Is she haunting the estate? Has she possessed Robert? Or is she even not dead at all? Who knows, and who cares, to be honest. It's just fun, inconsequential spook stuff, enlivened all the way and back again by the authentic support cast: Sylvia Sidney, John Carradine, Dorothy Lamour and an especially droll Joan Blondell. But the real star is the house - Harold's house, which is shown in immodest detail. Even his celebrated 'rogue's gallery', an arched corridor lined with autographed photos of Harold's fellow Hollywood royalty, is worked in, and frankly it looked a bit creepy and mausoleumish even in Harold's heyday. No set dressing necessary here. The thought that his beloved mansion would have served as instant Hollywood kitsch would have horrified him. But if you can reconcile your respect for Harold and your innate voyeurism, take the tour. Death at Love House, it's called.


How unknown a quantity is he, really? Whenever I read a book or an essay, or watch a documentary about Lloyd, they always start the same way: by remarking how ironic it is that this giant of silent comedy, who consistently outgrossed his - apparently - better-known and more celebrated peers, should now be more or less forgotten. This always takes me aback. At first I thought it was simply wrong, but lately I've come to accept my astonishing good fortune in being a member of the sole generation in Britain since Lloyd's active years of which this is not true. Everyone who was born in Britain somewhere between the late 1960's and the mid 1970's knows Lloyd. And I don't mean the film buffs solely; I mean everyone; I mean people with only the vaguest sense of who Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy are; people who have never even heard of Buster Keaton and couldn't pick him out of a line-up of four. But not only would they recognise Lloyd and be able to tell you who he was and what he did, they'd be able - and more or less certain, unprompted - to launch into a song that begins:

Hooray for Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)
Harold Lloyd
(d'doo d'doo de-doo d'doo-doo)

and ends:
A pair of glasses and a smile!

See, in the early nineteen-eighties, Britain had just three tv channels (envy us, envy us) and after the kids' programmes had finished on the main channels and we were waiting for our parents to bring the chips in from the kitchen, we all switched to BBC 2 to escape the news. BBC 2 was at this time the best reason for owning a television. (Today, alas, it is just one more good reason not to.) We first saw Chaplin here, and Stan and Ollie, but the big hit was Harold. Everyone loved Harold Lloyd, chiefly, I suppose because of the thrill sequences, and the fact that, unlike the other stars, BBC 2 showed not whole shorts but a packaged tv compilation series, with two extracted sequences per show, and that insanely catchy theme song I quoted above.
Yet Kevin Brownlow's introduction to Jeffrey Vance's near-edible coffee table book Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian not only opens with the usual spiel about Lloyd being now forgotten, it actually indicts these programmes as partly responsible for the man's oblivion:

Two years after Lloyd died in 1971, Time-Life signed a distribution deal for his films and handled them with a tragic lack of understanding. The shorts were packaged with a commentary in the style of Pete Smith ("Poor Harold! It's doom for the groom unless he gets to his room!"), which effectively sank them without a trace. The features were spared the commentary, but insensitive, honky-tonk scores and the elimination of entire sequences often crippled their effect.

True, the commentary was naff in the extreme: I remember one beginning, "Here's our old friend Harold Lloyd; I used to know his brother Cellu..." I also have it on good authority that the programme split the Safety Last climb into two segments, ending the first with, "Hickory dickory dock, Harold's on the clock, We'll finish his climb some other time, Hickory dickory dock!"
On the other hand, we were all doing that voice in the playground next day; it didn't put us off or seem inappropriate... And as for the honky-tonk music, I loved it. In these new versions, it's going to take me a long time to get used to the absence of the infectious musical motif that accompanied the 'call me Speedy' greeting in The Freshman. Another interesting thing the Time-Life programmes did was show the Feet First climb as a silent, slightly re-edited, with honky-tonk accompaniment. I couldn't believe how less funny it was when I finally saw it in its proper form, with no music, just the sound of Lloyd grunting and yelling.

I could go on like this for ages. I haven't, for instance, devoted a dozen or so paragraphs to how adorable Bebe Daniels is. I haven't raised the matter of whether Lloyd reminds anyone else but me of Woody Allen when, in his sound films, he pulls his 'idiot face' (ie: when trying to hide the colt in the taxi in The Milky Way).
But you must excuse me: I have Harold Lloyd movies to watch.

A Tale of Two Bookshops


The Big Sleep could well be the greatest crime film ever made.

Is it the real world?
No, of course not. It is completely artificial.

Consider either of the scenes set in the second hand book shop: the one where he pulls Dorothy with the corniest routine in the manual (you'd look beautiful without your glasses, Miss Malone) and coaxes her into closing up the shop for a boozy afternoon in the back room, or the one where he affects a lisp and tries to needle Sonia Darrin into admitting that her store is a front for Geiger's porno and blackmail racket.
Both sequences are surprising: Malone's for its sexual frankness, Darrin's because Bogart is unmistakably pretending to be homosexual. But they are also perfect little nuggets of cinema; scenes that exist - like all scenes used to do - purely to advance the plot, but which through the utmost professionalism of everyone responsible for them before and behind the camera, emerge as little mini-masterpieces in their own right.
Like the whole film, these sequences are a lesson in how to achieve and sustain mood, style and excitement without once setting foot outside a studio sound stage. And never for a second do we think in either one of them that we are in a real bookshop.

This latter point reminded me of an email I received last year from an American visitor to this site called Joe Kenney, who wrote:

What I love about old films is their artificiality: rather than go to Paris they built a replica on the lot... You know that scene where John Barrymore sneaks out the window in Grand Hotel, and looks over that German cityscape? It's obviously a painting, yet its artificiality (for me) only serves to further the "fairy tale" ambiance of these old movies.

As well as everything that people love about old Hollywood, I also love everything that people hate about old Hollywood. I love the studio system and the tyrannical moguls. I love censorship.
And most of all I love the artificiality.
What is it with this cult of realism? I go along with Mamoulian.

Mamoulian's worth listening to on most any subject. I'd say he was the greatest creative artist in cinema, a supreme stylist whose best films, hugely diverse in genre and mood, are made one by their innovation, their clear commitment to the transformation of the material - away from realism, into poetry, into art - by use of all the stylistic (that is, artificial) resources available to the film-maker. And if those resources were not there he invented them, and all, never let it be forgotten, within the strictly commercial framework of popular Hollywood narrative.
Mamoulian knew that lack of restriction shrinks aspiration. He realised, for instance, that censorship, for all his brushes with it and the inevitable pettinesses and double-standards that must rise from it, was a guarantee of high creative standards as much as - in fact far more than - moral ones. And in particular, he hated realism, which he identified as the art of the obvious.
I've quoted him elsewhere on this subject but it stands repeating:

I've heard that films are a reflection of life. Is that all? Is that what the films are, is that what theatre is, a reflection of life? Is it enough just to put a mirror and reflect what you see? I don't think it is. Films are not as much a reflection as a revelation of life. While obviously we are of our time and we have to function within the texture of the times we live in, and portray the world as it is, it is very important for us also to indicate in that same film the way the world should be, the way we would like the world to be.

The greatest cinema has often been the most artificial in style and effect - what, after all, could be more artifical than Hitchcock? Our current fad for realism of presentation seems to sit paradoxically alongside the greater and greater infantilisation of subject matter (the idea of a Batman film prohibited to the under fifteens says something profound about us, I think) until you realise that both reflect the shrinking of the imagination.
We do not want to put any effort into the illusion; we need to have all the work done for us by the product itself, and if it falls short in any department we are incapable of engaging with it at all. Yet modern audiences who object on principle to watching silent or even black and white movies, because they lack that necessary degree of reality, rarely note how weird it is that they are perfectly happy to watch films they are completely unable to smell.
Do they really expect us to believe that last scene was set in a coffee shop? Oh, come on! You couldn't smell anything!
I've never heard someone say that. Yet the logic applies.
(By the same token, it is odd how easily people who could not possibly cope without a mobile phone or an i-Pod seem to get by without a single 3/Ralph.p(p)ps. What is a 3/Ralph.p(p)ps? I've no idea - but once everybody's got one they're going to think us ever so cute for struggling by without any.)

'Good' acting has become synonomous with naturalistic acting, so the likes of Tod Slaughter, Robert Newton, Vincent Price, George Arliss, even Bette Davis or Charles Laughton, are often termed 'bad' actors, because their style is theatrical. (This particular cult goes back to the laugh-a-minute method school to which modern actors remain in thrall.)
I have no idea - but it would be fascinating to find out - when that dismal little term 'overacting' was first coined. If it means, as it appears to, acting that is poor, that reveals limitations, that falls wide of its intentions, then it is invariably misused, applied rather to a no longer fashionable type of acting: that of expressive acting, with its roots in theatrical and pantomime tradition. If overacting is truly the crime - that is to say too much acting, acting that is inappropriate in its own context - then the handcuffs belong on Tom Cruise, not Bela Lugosi.

Theatre is as artificial as can be, but nobody complains about the fact that the castle ramparts weren't real when they went to see Hamlet at the National. Why must cinema be any different? Movies are just filmed theatre. They have more scope for adventurousness, but this need not be narrowed into the pursuit of realism at all costs.
The more work the audience has to do for themselves, the more rewarding the experience. This is why, whatever the relative merits of individual films, as a whole silent films are a higher art form than sound, black and white is higher than colour, restraint is higher than explicitness. So what if it doesn't reflect real life? Er... movies aren't real life, you know...
Realism is an illusion, and nothing dates faster than that which pursues it most assiduously. It's also a willo the wisp: you think it's there, but then you come back to it a decade later and you can see that all it was is all it ever is: that which happens to be fashionable at the time.

Which brings me back to the bookshop.
Last November I watched a film being made.
Or rather, a scene from it. A bookshop scene.
How long did it take to shoot the bookshop scenes in The Big Sleep? An afternoon, perhaps. A whole day at most. But not a second was wasted shooting it, that's for sure.

I have no idea how important to the plot or how enjoyable in its own right the bookshop scene of Stephen Frears's new film Tamara Drewe will be - but I do know what a song and dance it was to shoot. Though it is hardly a set-dresser's nightmare to turn a corner of a studio into a convincing bookshop, the cult of realism demanded that a real bookshop must be used. For some reason they chose the one opposite where I work, in London's Muswell Hill. We were warned in advance that they would be commandeering that side of the road, but were also asked if we could avoid parking on our side too, the excuse being that the camera would be shooting through the window and the scene is supposedly set not in London but rural Dorset. (So instead of creating exactly the settings and effects you want in a studio for a fraction of the cost, reality was demanded - and then faked anyway!)
But in fact, the bit about shooting through the window was a fib: they blacked out the windows, so it didn't matter in the least what was happening on our side of the road, they just wanted an excuse to take possession of it too, blocking it off with (presumably) illegal parking cones, so that the film's stars could pull up in their taxis and get out without any inconvenient waiting around for, or brushing shoulders against, the ordinary people. At one stage a car pulled up with just a dog in the back.
The other side of the street was full for its entire length with enormous trucks and heaps of equipment, of the sort that would have been instantly available, without expensive transportation, in a studio. A huge table was bedecked with food, and most of the crew did little other than stand there eating it all day. Though it was Armistice Day, the 11 o'clock silence was observed by nobody.
The trucks arrived the night before, and were still dismantling their equipment the following morning. They left behind the lighting they had put up in the shop.
The total cost of the exercise was probably more than the whole of The Big Sleep cost to shoot. Will that bookshop scene be worth the trouble it took? How can the expense possibly be justified? How can such a colossal lack of imagination even qualify as realism?

It's that kind of thinking that did this to the MGM backlot:

Modern films


In his essay The Decline and Fall of the Movie, Leslie Halliwell uses the following quote from Jonathan Swift to encapsulate his attitude to the cinema, and in particular to explain how his love of Hollywood's golden age could sit happily alongside an almost total disinterest in and disdain for its present:
."I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."
.It's an opinion I more or less share. I too have my Peters and Johns, but the overwhelming majority of post-sixties cinema leaves me cold.
In particular, I have a loathing for the supposedly great works of seventies Hollywood - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, that one in space with the laser swords and the little robots, forget the name of it for a minute - that verges on the certifiable.
Even films I saw ten years ago and liked rarely hold up for me once a little water has flowed between us. Titanic, for instance, I initially had pegged as a glorious, old-style tear-jerker: the petty resentments of stuck-up critics who mocked the script and performances, I confidently predicted, would come to look as transparent and silly as those few who tried to write off Gone With the Wind. I was amazed to watch it again recently and see that they were right: it's a terrible film. Even the effects no longer impress overmuch: what we took to be realistic was in fact merely state of the art, and the trickery already looks almost as distancing, and fully as much a product of its time, as that of a fifties sci-fi movie.
.Now, by and large, nobody gets uppity when I say that I hate the taste (and indeed the thought) of mushrooms. But for some reason I've often noticed people getting strangely resentful when I say that I don't watch new movies, listen to modern music or watch any television at all, as if I was expressing a judgement about their taste rather than mine.
Some of the more popular responses:
I'm being pretentious.
I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It's a shame I'm so unyielding, because I don't know what I'm missing.

Though it baffles me personally, there is of course no a priori reason why a person cannot like both classic and modern cinema. The thing that strikes me as odd is the almost automatic supposition that if one likes the former, one would, or should, like both.
It's a supposition that rarely works the other way round, I've noticed. I wouldn't expect anyone who rushed out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ("screenplay by Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro's Transformers action figures": now there's a credit to fill you with hope for the future of the medium) to enthuse about Monroe Owsley, have strong opinions about whether Charley Chase is better in silents or talkies, or feverishly collect Irene Ware films.
Yet when I, to whom all of the above applies, say that I'd rather spend a week underground with a mobile phone salesman than another minute looking at Will Ferrell's face... suddenly I'm the one with the big attitude.
I have known people laugh when I say I regularly watch black and white films, as if I'd said I liked reading Beowulf by candlelight in a Hebridean cave. Black and white! The idea! I've met people who thought I was joking when I said I liked silent films. (Often old people, dismayingly enough.)
Well, choosing to spend ninety minutes in the company of Tom Cruise, or Lars von Trier, or Ken Loach, or Wes Anderson strikes me as pretty wacko too.

But the much more important point is this.
Of course there are some modern films that I have enjoyed, especially from non-English-speaking Europe, where, for the moment at least, both depth and style remain fashionable, but even these do not strike me as examples of the same thing as the classic movies with which I am obsessed.
I mean, what do they really have in common?
Just this (and, increasingly, not even this): they are both forms of visual representation created by passing a beam of light through a strip of celluloid on which photographic impressions of human activity have been recorded.That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's the common factor. That's the obvious and vital link that makes Mr Deeds Goes To Town an example of the same thing as Being John Malkovich, and makes me a crank or curmudgeon for loving the one like a firstborn child and hating the other with the kind of passion I ordinarily reserve for religious fanatics and salad.
How dare I?

Yet as I understand it, if you love old Hollywood, not just the list of approved masterpieces but the whole world and scent and flavour of old Hollywood, then you are in love with something that simply does not exist anymore, regardless of how good the occasional half-watchable film may still be on its own terms.
Classic Hollywood cinema is - and I mean this not as a judgement but as a simple statement of fact - a unique phenomenon, product of a unique set of circumstances and individuals, operating in a unique way at a unique point in time.
The studio system, long gone, produced a body of work that is to cinema generally what an illuminated medieval manuscript is to books generally. Shot almost entirely in studios, by contract artists, operating under an imposed censorship system, so that each studio had its own instantly recognisable atmosphere, regular stable of players, and totally artificial style.
This is what I love.
When that changed, as first the studio system and then the Hays Code collapsed, a clear before and after line can be drawn in the product.
The stars migrate from studio to studio, individual studio styles disappear, real locations, widescreens and other forms of pseudo-realism replace the artistic creations of the old studio photographers and set designers with drab singularity, and uniformity of manner and message gives way to a thousand discordant voices all vying to see who can shout loudest for your dollar.
These things, that make the earlier films so fundamentally different from what followed, are the specific things that attract me to them.
I have no passion for modern cinema. Even among the films I admired, hardly any have added something to my life, or given me any strong desire to see them again. Whereas if you told me I had just watched The Old Dark House for the last time I'd cry and fall over. Films are an interest, old Hollywood is a passion.
That's the difference.

Now, this all seems so straightforward to me that I wonder if the problem isn't somewhere in the very terminology we use.
'Classic' is a slippery term. On the one hand it can be used as a judgement - to be deemed a classic is a marker of quality - on the other it is used as a description, to mean films of a certain age. (Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide covers all films pre-1960.)
For most people I think it means a combination of the two - a retrospective bestowing of approval on a film that has been around long enough to have stood the test of time, hence the tentative use of phrases like 'modern classic' or 'future classic' to refer to Fargo or American Beauty or Christ knows what other ordure happens to be flavour of the month this month.
I'd like to see these two meanings divorced, so that we can talk about classical and modern cinema just as we talk of classical and modern music. Yes, everyone knows classical music is better than modern music, especially those who claim otherwise, but that's not what the term means. It refers to a style only, and any related associations of higher quality spring incidentally from the terms of the drawn distinction itself.
So how about continuing to use 'classic' as a qualitative term to recognise individual quality, but 'classical' as a quantitative term to define that whole world, and way of doing things, that existed between the creation of American cinema and the collapse of the original structures and strictures, somewhere in the fifties.

One final point. I do realise I have spoken only about old and new mainstream Hollywood.
Many have written that yes, American pop cinema is a parched field of rotting weeds, but salvation is at hand in the great third way: avant-garde, art and independent cinema.
Personally, I find even less here to attract me than in the average Hollywood blockbuster. If classical Hollywood is Mozart - or at least Puccini - and modern Hollywood is Justin Timberlake, then this lot is Stockhausen. (I even saw Peter Greenaway's name come up - a sobering reminder that there are indeed corners of the world where this pompous buffoon retains the respect long withdrawn by those of us who have to share a country with him.)
I really don't mind whether I see Marley and Me again or not, but if you wanted me to sit through Broken Flowers a second time you'd have to nail me down.
More genuine creativity, inspiration, effort and love of cinema went into Police Academy 6 than Being John Malkovich.

Tod Slaughter, the villain they loved


In 1956, at the very dawn of Hammer horror, a British actor passed away more or less without notice at the age of seventy.
One of the most unlikely of thirties film stars, with his round, teddy bear face and tubby physique, at a first glance he seemed most suited to kindly, paternal roles, and had indeed often played such characters in his earlier theatrical days.
But in a long career on stage and screen, Tod Slaughter had established himself as the nation's foremost villain and fiend, revelling in his status as the star audiences loved to hate: for him hisses and boos were like laughter to a comic. Without him, there may have been no Hammer horror at all.

He had been born Norman Carter Slaughter – yes, Slaughter was his real name – in 1885. He made his acting debut at the age of twenty, becoming an actor-manager in the grand tradition. In the twenties he ran his own theatres in Chatham and Elephant and Castle, where his revival of many of the old melodramas of the Victorian music halls cemented his reputation as (to quote the publicity tag appended to one of his later films) “the villain they love”.
One of those imperishable one-offs who seem simultaneously to debase and enrich the culture that begets them, he is an acting law unto himself; he stalks across the screen, leaps, cackles, leers, looms, rolls his eyes and rubs his hands together.
Sometimes he addresses his lines directly to the audience rather than characters; in one film, after some especially dastardly bit of evil plotting, he looks at us and slowly nods his head. And no actor before or since has matched the glee and panache with which he delivers lines like: “Be loyal to your trust and it will repay you handsomely, betray me and I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!”

His films invariably follow a strict theatrical pattern. He’s usually a wicked squire or some other trusted authority figure engaged in a secret life as a master criminal (often with names like ‘The Tiger’ or ‘The Spine-Breaker’). He always kills for profit or gain, yet takes clear sadistic pleasure in the act of murder, cackling and gloating beforehand. He is also lecherous, and obsessed with the conquest of beautiful virgins.
Typically, his lust for some innocent girl leads him to frame the man she loves for one of his own crimes. His villainy is usually revealed to the audience from the outset, and he shares it with them from then on, Christmas pantomime-style, even as he attempts to deceive the other characters. About half way through the hero and heroine get the true measure of him but are not believed; he is arrested, she is put in mortal or maidenly peril, and only some last minute intervention saves the day.
Then, when confronted with the often pretty flimsy evidence of his criminality, Slaughter instantly switches from swaggering arrogance to ranting, gurgling madness and screams for mercy. (Mercy which is needless to say not extended: the audience would have rioted if it were.) .

The subjects of his melodramas were the same that preoccupied the authors of penny dreadfuls and sensational ballads; that residue of grim English folklore stretching back to the highwaymen and grave-robbers, and on to Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper.
His debut, Maria Marten, or: The Murder in the Red Barn (1935, note the bill-board theatricality of the title) was based on a notorious murder that took place in the Suffolk village of Polstead in 1827. (Maria was a mole-catcher’s daughter made pregnant out of wedlock by a wicked local squire named William Corder. On the pretext of eloping, he arranged to meet her at a red-tiled barn on his property, where he murdered and buried her. The body was eventually discovered and Corder, who had fled to London, was hanged in public in front of Bury St Edmunds jail. Visitors to the local museum can still see a selection of gruesome relics associated with the crime, including Corder’s scalp and an account of the crime bound in his skin.)
In Britain this sort of thing was considered frightfully tasteless, pandering to the worst instincts of the lowest common denominator. Indeed, the scene in Maria Marten in which he lures poor Maria to the barn and murders her is not explicit in any modern sense, but the inordinate amount of time separating his telling her she is about to be killed and his actually doing it, accompanied by her screams and pleas, give the film a prurient quality that almost anticipates the serial killer movies of the nineties.

As well as Maria Marten, many other of his films give a melodramatic gloss to real life crimes and mysteries, including the story of Edinburgh ‘ressurectionists’ Burke and Hare (The Greed of William Hart), mysterious Victorian villain Spring Heeled Jack (The Curse of the Wraydons) and, by far his most famous role, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936).
.Slaughter played this role countless times on stage, and was still recreating it in novelty spots on tv in the fifties. The film version catches him at his very best, telling his customers how they have “a beautiful throat for the razor”, and concluding with relish “I’ll enjoy polishing you off!” before sending them plummeting through the trap door that takes them to the basement of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop…
But unlike on stage - where Tod delighted the crowds with a prop razor that spurted gore - the British censor has here insisted that the horrors be toned down to a point where it would be difficult for audiences unfamiliar with the story to be sure what is going on. The trap door under the barber's chair is operated before Todd cuts the incumbent's throat, and the ultimate destination of the corpses is never stated outright. The closest we get is an innuendo, as a sailor chomping on a hot pie wonders aloud what the killer does with the bodies.

Just as Maria Marten had begun, rather like Olivier’s Henry V, as a modern stage production which gradually becomes a film; so the narrative of Sweeney Todd is recounted in flashback by a modern day barber, whose horrified customer ends by fleeing, still lathered, into the street and bumping into a hot pie vendor. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), meanwhile, is staged as an episode of the radio show In Town Tonight, beginning with a comic song from the musical comedy duo Flotsam and Jetsam and other irrelevant items before Slaughter is brought on, his interview segueing into the narrative. (Asked about his favourite methods of murder, he replies: "I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter.")
Of course, the chief purpose of all these odd-seeming additions is to distract the censors. After all, Hawke proper begins with a scene in which Slaughter lures a small boy into the bushes and callously breaks his back - were the film to begin that way it would never have been passed.
Perhaps the cleverest of all these tricks can be seen in It's Never Too Late To Mend (1937), which opens with a rolling-caption disclaimer claiming that the book upon which it was based was directly responsible for prison reform, and was read and approved by the Dear Old Queen. As additional insurance, the film is presented in association with something called the Dawn Trust ("under the direction of the Reverend Brian Hession"), at whose instigation, one must presume, the film has been landed with a heroic priest character, who confronts Slaughter at the end Dracula-style, with only an outstretched crucifix for protection.
With this cover safely in place, Slaughter runs riot as Squire Meadows, a sadistic magistrate who gets his jollies visiting prisons and taunting and flogging the prisoners, who he calls "my children".

His film work goes through two distinct phases. At first he is Slaughter the novelty, in films that deliberately emulate the look and atmosphere of the stage plays on which they are based.
Then, from about 1937 onwards, he is Slaughter the bona fide film star, in (comparatively) cinematic vehicles crafted around his new movie fame.
He was even picking up support work in other movies around this time: a clear reflection of his new legitimacy as a film actor. He turned up as guest villain in a Sexton Blake movie, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, in 1938, and as a sex-pest gypsy in Song of the Road (1937), a lugubrious drama about a middle-aged freelance farm labourer and his beloved horse struggling to find work after the invention of the tractor. (And they wondered why British films lacked international appeal.)
If Sweeney Todd is the defining film of his first phase, the best-remembered title among the second crop is surely The Face at the Window (1939, subtitled “a melodrama of the old school, dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy”), remembered chiefly for receiving a glowing review from Graham Greene in his days as a film critic. (He even went so far as to compare Slaughter approvingly with Charles Laughton.)
The film casts Slaughter as ‘The Wolf’, a killer in nineteenth century Paris, who stabs his victims while their attention is distracted by the horrifying face of his hulking halfwit brother pressed against their window pane. When he's not out staring through windows, Slaughter keeps him locked in a cage. .

Less famous, but even better in many ways, is the last and most impudent product of his golden era: Crimes at the Dark House (1940). By Slaughter's standards it's a prestige production, as befits its unprecedentedly highbrow source. The film is in fact an adaptation of Wilkie Collins's classic Victorian novel The Woman in White, but don't worry: it begins with Slaughter hammering a tent-peg into a sleeping man's ear, and follows it up with him impregnating and then murdering a helpless servant girl. ("So you wanted to be a bride, my dear Jessica did you? So you shall be : a bride of death! He, he, he! Heh, heh, heh!")
The big cliffhanger: will he or won't he rape the heroine? ("Back in Australia I used to break in fractious horses - now I'm going to break in a fractious mare!") In a scene that would surely have been impossible in a Hollywood film under the Hays Code, we begin by seeing him downstairs, preparing to deflower the young bride waiting unwillingly in his bed. We cut to her, crying pitifully. He goes to join her, and a series of disembodied close-ups emphasise his intentions: his feet slowly climbing the stairs, his hands gripping the banisters, then her face again, suddenly lit as the bedroom door opens... Slaughter's joyless laugh fills the soundtrack, and the scene fades. Heh, heh, heh...

The majority of the pre-war vehicles were produced and directed by George King (1900-66), maverick producer of quota quickies and second-features, and one of those enterprising and energetic chaps in which the early British cinema abounds. The war, however, gave him a chance to raise his game: British Aviation hired him to produce propaganda films like The First of the Few and Tomorrow We Live (both 1942). But while King scampered upmarket, his former star, in a corresponding reversal of fortune, was prohibited from producing such unwholesome films during the war years, though he was allowed to tour army camps with his Sweeney Todd stage show.
He returned to the screen for two last barnstormers when the war was over but he was sixty now, visibly older, even rounder, and time had moved on. Neither The Curse of the Wraydons (1946) nor The Greed of William Hart (1948) really compare with the pre-war films except in fleeting moments, such as the beautifully scary close-up of his leering face in Wraydons, filling the screen as he advances on the woman he is about to strangle in a leafy, sun-dappled forest.


William Hart, meanwhile, is most notable for its ingenious response to Slaughter's last ever set-to with the censors. The British censors declared that no film could be made about the Burke and Hare murders that used the killers' actual names. The only trouble was that by the time the producers realised this, the film was already in the can. Obviously it would have been impossible to go back and reshoot every scene in which the names 'Burke', 'Hare' and 'Knox' are mentioned, but the solution they hit upon seems scarcely less difficult: to laboriously post-dub every individual use of each name.
This was plainly a labour of Hercules: hardly a scene goes by that doesn't mention at least one of them, and the sudden substitution of the new names (Moore, Hart and Cox), with tell-tale errors in intonation (rather like those piecemeal voice messages you get on railway stations and telephone answering machines), is often distractingly comic in its obviousness. (Further evidence of this policy can be seen in the British release print of Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher, where every reference to Burke and Hare - though not to Knox - has been crudely excised, from the single word 'Burked' in Karloff's line "This is how they Burked 'em!", to the entirety of his song ["Nor did they handle axe or knife, To take away their victim's life / No sooner done than in the chest, They crammed their lately welcomed guest"]. The version of the film released on video in Britain in the late eighties by VCI is of this British cut, and I had watched it for years in ignorance of what was missing and why, until the revelation of the recent Lewton DVD box set. Note also how, though not filmed until 1985, the film of Dylan Thomas's forties screenplay The Doctor and the Devils retains substitute character names: Fallon and Broom, and Dr Rock.)
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After William Hart, Slaughter returned to the boards, supplementing touring versions of Sweeney Todd and his other great roles with occasional bit-work in supporting films and tv.
He died of coronary thrombosis in 1956, after a good meal and one last performance as the wicked Squire Corder in Maria Marten, a role he had been technically too old to play in 1935, and had never stopped playing since.
Slaughter was, without doubt, the founding father of the British horror film. In the later examples his spirit is everywhere: you can imagine slipping him into, say, Baker and Berman's madly stylised Jack the Ripper (1958) and it hardly missing a beat. Can't you seem him as Dr Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958)? Or the head of the Grisbane clan in House of the Long Shadows (1983)? Or any of the ranting deviants essayed by Michael Gough in the films of Herman Cohen?
Wasn't he born to play Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)?

Frank Tuttle


All the major studios had their own style in the early thirties: MGM had society opulence, Warners had urban authenticity... and Paramount had European sophistication.

I like to think of the studio as an exclusive school: Paramount's early thirties school of European Style. Lubitsch was the headmaster, Mitchell Leisen the art teacher, Rouben Mamoulian the drama teacher (who also did the special effects for the school plays), Dorothy Arzner was the games mistress, DeMille the classics master, and Cukor the head boy.
But what of Frank Tuttle? Well, Frank Tuttle, perhaps, was the caretaker.

Actually, no, he was much more than that; though that, I suspect is as much as his reputation will allow him. David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film warns outright that "there is no reason to build him up as an important director," albeit in the same breath that it calls him"a sign of the quality of Paramount in the 1920s" and concedes to his work "a brisk, sophisticated eye for glamour".
Tuttle is one of those men (Norman Z. McLeod is another) invariably overshadowed by their stars and the efficiency of the formulae with which they worked, but whose individual contributions to the general pot always seem to stand out a little, leaving little recourse other than to say, 'well, maybe this boy really did have something going for him beyond competence...'
Tuttle simply made too many great films to allow to mere chance and the happy assembly of tested ingredients.
Yet he had come to the movies (first as writer, then soon graduating to direction) with altogether loftier ambitions. A Yale man, he co-founded The Film Guild in 1922, an organisation with aims to break the stranglehold of pappy, sappy romances and similar lowbrow entertainments in the movies and offer patrons more elevated work along the lines of New York's Theatre Guild.
It's possible that some of his earliest films have something of this earnestness of ambition, but fortunately he soon succumbed to the tinsel, and by the mid-twenties he was firmly ensconced at Paramount as one of their most reliable handlers of crowd-pleasing froth.
They most valued him, it would seem, as a developer of specific acting personalities, so that he swiftly acquired a reputation as 'the guy that does Clara Bow pictures', or 'that Bebe Daniels feller' or whatever, before being shunted on to the next star.
The choice of artistes is telling: a Dietrich needs a von Sternberg; Bing Crosby gets Frank Tuttle.
He directed Bebe four times in 1924 and 5, their collaborations marking a transitional
phase between her established later persona and the image she had sustained somewhat improbably in DeMille's films as a flighty seductress. He also formed a brief alliance with her occasional DeMille antagonist Gloria Swanson, penning the screenplays for Her Love Story and Manhandled (both 1924) and directing The Untamed Lady in 1926. (His work with Swanson is especially interesting, because this is a woman who existed as a series of directorial allegiances, and posterity's take on her reputation comes to seem almost a punch-up between the versions chosen by each director: will she be remembered as Von Stroheim's drama queen, DeMille's glamourpuss, Sam Wood's thoroughly modern heroine? Ironically it is one-shot Wilder's Swanson that etched itself into history, with a kind of composite DeMille-Von Stroheim phantom, the one that Norma Desmond was rather than is, flitting between the lines. Tuttle chose characteristically to emphasise her comedic gifts, especially as a gum-chewing shop girl in Manhandled.)
The American Venus (1926) began a notable association with Louise Brooks. The film itself is tragically lost, but Brooks and Tuttle got on like a house on fire, and Louise seems to have been one of the few stars to have really rated him as a director.
"Frank Tuttle was a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood," she wrote many years later. "An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of actors - great actors and non-actors. In the first class was Osgood Perkins, who needed no direction. In the second class was I, who, had he directed me to be funny, would have become an immobilized personality... I didn't even know I was playing comedy until I saw it with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that's the way he wanted it."
A fan of hers since her days with the Ziegfeld Follies, he nicknamed her 'babbling Brooks' and personally lobbied for her to get the part.


Tuttle's complicated working relationship with Brooks would stretch over four films. The second, and the first film in our Tuttle festival, was Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927), with Brooks in full flapper mode as Janie, feckless younger sister of respectable shop girl Mame, played by Evelyn Brent. While Mame is struggling to keep their heads above water in a one-bedroom apartment, Janie is out all night, winning male admirers and dolls in Charleston contests.
If the premise sounds familiar, that's because it was remade only two years later as one of the best Clara Bow talkies, The Saturday Night Kid, with Clara as Mame and a young and squeaky Jean Arthur as Janie. Oddly, Tuttle was not called back for the rematch, though he would be assigned Clara duties on her subsequent four films, and had already directed her twice in silents.
The two films make for interesting comparison pieces. Brooks is more kittenish and less bratty than Arthur, and she and Brent really do seem a generation apart, whereas in Kid we end up resenting Arthur much more because we can see that Clara is a young, fun-loving gal too, whose responsibilities won't permit her the freedoms her sister flaunts and takes for granted. Where Arthur's Janie is a sullen manipulator, Brooks - as usual - is the victim of forces beyond her control: "I can't help it, can I, if he likes me the best?" she asks after swiping her sister's boyfriend. (She plays it like Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex.)
As William K. Everson wrote: "What a marvelously exciting film it would have been had Clara and Louise been co-starred in the original version... One just can't blame the hero for straying from Evelyn to Louise - but having to choose between Clara and Louise would really provide food for thought."
"You may not be real bright, Jane, but you're some snappy dresser," the big sap tells her at one point, and Tuttle cuts to long-shot to show us Louise sashaying and turning like a catwalk model as she basks in this highest of praise. At the end we see her at the department store's annual fancy dress ball, wooing the big boss and dancing the Black Bottom. (As one contemporary reviewer put it, more than reasonably: "At the end of the film she goes to the store's masquerade ball sans skirt and does a Charleston: who could ask for anything more?")
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Never again would Tuttle and Louise work together in such joyous circumstances. It was Tuttle who directed the retakes and new scenes of The Canary Murder Case (1929), after it was decided to convert it from silent to talkie. Louise couldn't have hoped for a more sympathetic overseer of her first venture into talking cinema, but she petulantly withdrew from the project, and more or less killed her Hollywood career. (More on this film here.)Nonetheless, Tuttle retained his admiration and affection for her, and when she was given a demeaning cameo in It Pays To Advertise (1931) in order to work out her Paramount contract, he ensured that she dominates what screen time she gets.
As showgirl Thelma Temple (of the Broadway revue Girlies Don't Tell), she is the star of the opening scene; she's funny, perky and gorgeous. In her one chance to shine in a film she will almost immediately exit we see her surrounded by a crowd of journalists ("just raise the skirt, just a trifle...") awash in adoration. She reduces the audience to the same degree of helpless rapture - and then she's gone.
It Pays to Advertise, however, remains another of the great, great Tuttle films, and I discuss it further
here.

Another star that Paramount was somehow finding far more troublesome than was necessary or warranted was Clara Bow, and for a time, Tuttle became her regular director in talkies. My favourite of their collaborations is probably True To The Navy (1930), one of her lightest and most inconsequential confections, rushed into production to capitalise on the unexpectedly delighted public response to her song number I'm True to the Navy Now, directed by Tuttle for Paramount On Parade (1930).
Here she gets another song (There's Only One That Matters To Me
) and seems generally at her most relaxed and perky (the Tuttle factor again?) as an employee of Harry Green's drug store (she makes eyes at all the customers, he sells them out-of-date, rock hard marshmallows as presents for her; it's probably Green's funniest performance too.)
As opposed to the sailor with a girl in every port, Clara is the girl with a sailor on every ship, until, after much farce, she settles for Fredric March, also in lighter than usual mood, as the good-natured gob who falls hardest for her.


 Which brings us to Sweetie (1929), another in Paramount's legion of college pictures, crossed with the chorus line musical. (Send for Tuttle!)
As well as the full gamut of college film clichés, with which Horse Feathers had such sport, we have Jack Oakie rewriting the staid school song as a Jolson pastiche, Alma Mammy, and above all we have Helen Kane. And Helen Kane, what's more, at her most infantile and absurd (fellow Kane-worshippers will know that this is no small claim) as a pupil of 'Miss Twill's School For Girls', where the young ladies sit in rows of desks on the lawn saying things like "cream or lemon?" in unison. She sings Prep Step and He's So Unusual
 and makes her entrance in the film falling out of a tree.
As well as the matchless majesty of Helen Kane, there's tons more about the big football game, and Nancy Carroll becoming president of the college, and more songs, and a major plot thread about Nancy's on-off romance with one of the freshmen, and a lively subplot about Stuart Erwin trying to pass an exam... and oh, you just wish it would never end.



Tuttle was briefly assigned to the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business in 1931 but lost out to Norman McLeod - the thought of this near-miss between the Tuttle and the Marxes is so much more frustrating than if their names had never been linked at all - but don't despair: the switch-over freed him to take on a run of wonderful pictures climaxing with perhaps my favourite of all Paramount society soufflés: a glorious thing called This Is The Night (1932).
As general familiarity with the Paramount house style recedes further into prehistory, the critical standing of this film sinks ever lower.
No mention of it fails to dismiss it as an imitation of Lubitsch, as if any Paramount film of this time was anything but! Yet even on these terms I find it every bit as good as the master's own work.
It is one of those infectiously delightful films (DeMille's Madam Satan, made in the Paramount style with MGM resources, is the other big example) that belie their low critical standing so obviously and all-encompassingly that to bother constructing a critical defence is pointless. All you have to do is watch the film. Far better simply to celebrate it, and let the naysayers catch up at their own pace.



Among other things, it was Cary Grant's first feature film, and he gives a very funny, totally untypical performance as an Olympic javelin-thrower who catches his wife - Thelma Todd! - in the act of planning a dirty weekend with her lover - Roland Young!!! - forcing Young to invent a fictitious wife whom he must then hire an actress to impersonate. Charlie Ruggles is around too, effortlessly hilarious as ever, Lily Damita is the hired wife, and the whole thing plays out as a series of beautiful farcical episodes in Venice and Paris.
As with Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight and several other Paramount films around this time there are some absolutely wonderful sequences in which characters drift in and out of song, songs are passed around from character to character and extra to extra, and ambient noise becomes subsumed within the music. Grant's first appearance as he catches Ruggles attempting to deliver the tickets for Thelma's tryst is played hilariously in part-spoken, part-sung dialogue and there is a glorious opening sequence where Todd's dress is caught in a taxi door, stripping her to her underwear, as the watching crowd launch into a jaunty number called Madame Has Lost Her Dress ("Whoops! In stepping from the car her dress caught / I only wish that I were Madame's escort!")
Obviously Lubitsch is the reference-point, obviously Trouble In Paradise and Love Me Tonight are being evoked... but obviously - this film is fantastic.
Variety, at least, got the hang of it, calling it a "smartly produced and directed Frenchy bedroom chase" even though in its "satirical application of music to comic situations and the tongue-in-cheek treatment from start to finish, Frank Tuttle's meg work cannot escape comparison with Lubitsch brand." The paper went on to note, in its own evocative vernacular, that "dialog on the whole is spicy for the screen, with a strip that's somewhat Minsky by Miss Damita, and some leg stuff for comedy and other purposes boosting the s. a. total... Thelma Todd is tall, blonde, stunning and perfect. It's hard to tell about Cary Grant in this talker due to limitations of his role, but he looks like a potential femme rave."



Through the thirties, Tuttle was Paramount's resident Mr Light and Frothy, always on call for a college film or a Big Broadcast, a Crosby picture or Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939), a film that manages by no common alchemy to be even more enjoyable than it sounds. He corralled Eddie Cantor, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting in Roman Scandals (1933), and Martha Raye, Burns & Allen and a screenful of Paramount starlets in College Holiday (1936). The latter, some seventy-odd years after it was first seen, remains the funniest film ever made about eugenics.
As the shadows lengthened in the forties, he rounded out his career in thrillers, to which he was ill-suited, but which he always brought in professionally in the absence of more suitable assignments. (It wasn't so much that he was no longer being considered for the kind of films he did best, more that they just weren't making them any more.)


Still, one of this final batch, at least, is a bona fide classic, so we round out the festival with This Gun For Hire (1942), the first and best teaming of Lake and Ladd. It's fully as sharp and riveting as anything Warners were doing with Bogart at the same time, even though Ladd looks too delicate and baby-faced to be a tough guy, and at five-foot-five was even shorter than Bogart. Here, however, he cuts an impressively unsympathetic figure as Raven, a hired killer whose aims correspond with those of the American government when he goes after a double-crossing client attempting to frame him for robbery, who also just happens to work for a gang of fifth columnists. En route, his path crosses with Lake’s nightclub novelty chanteuse, acting undercover for the government and after the same man, whose policeman boyfriend is after Raven.
The whole film has a bleakness that makes it a most unusual product of the war years: the villains may be enemy agents, but good guys are in conspicuously short supply. Ladd’s Raven, though he does redeem himself to some extent, is a cold-blooded professional killer, pursuing the film’s main villain for reasons of purely personal revenge. We first see him at work in a chilling sequence in which he turns up at the apartment of his next hit to find the victim’s innocent girlfriend unexpectedly present, and mechanically murders both.
The real hero is Lake’s spunky Ellen; by no means merely decorative, she is intelligent, brave and resourceful (note how she creates a trail for the police to follow when Raven abducts her) and acting from selfless and honourable motives. And there are no prizes for guessing that she's Tuttle's favourite half of the partnership: the only time the film stops frowning is during her fabulously eccentric nightclub numbers (dubbed by singer Martha Mears): Now You See It, Now You Don’t, sung while she pulls cards, silk scarves and canaries from nowhere and appears and disappears impossibly with trick photography, and I’ve Got You, performed with a fishing rod, hat and heart-stopping black PVC outfit.
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To recap: my recommendations for a Frank Tuttle film festival are:
1. Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927)
2. Sweetie (1929)
3. True to the Navy (1930)
4. It Pays to Advertise (1931)
5. This Is The Night (1932)
6. This Gun For Hire (1942)
And if you only have time to see one: This Is The Night.
So here's to the great Frank Tuttle - have a big cream cake with Clara on me.