Obituary: Tony Tenser



The death of producer Tony Tenser on December 5th this year robbed British cinema of one of the last, certainly one of the most important, living links with the sixties heyday of the British horror film.

Success to him meant commercial success. He once said he would rather feel ashamed of a movie that was making money than proud of one that was losing it, and when he explained "My films were in a similar vein to Hammer and Amicus but I made them quite a bit cheaper" he did so not matter of factly but with pride.
But as well as cheaper, they were also in many cases a lot more enjoyable.

In an odd little book called Skin Deep in Soho, writer Richard Wortley recalls approaching a film producer who "was actually puffing at a large cigar and greying neatly at the temples" with an idea to shoot a documentary on strip clubs.
He does not name him, but it is clearly Tenser:

He explained a method of beating the censor by using a rapid succession of nude stills, then scribbled a couple of selling titles on a piece of paper which he slipped across the table... We were in the presence of the master publicist who first described Brigitte Bardot as the Sex Kitten, who advertised a Lassie film at Cambridge by importing some animals for a sheep-dog trial, who renamed Love Between Friends as Love-Play Between Friends, and Plucking the Marguerittes as Mam'zelle Striptease...

A manual labourer before the war and an RAF technician during it, on demob Tenser exploited a family connection to get a job as a trainee cinema manager.
From that he worked his way up to head of publicity for Miracle Films (where he helped Bardot into posterity). Needing some strippers for a publicity stunt, he visited the Nell Gwynn strip club in Soho and met the manager, a man who - to quote Wortley again - had "seen a punter spend £30000 in eight months, nightly crawling on the floor in a hunting coat to pick up fruit that a singer was shaking off her body during her number."
The man was Michael Klinger - the manager, I mean, not the chap picking up fruit - and the two struck up a rapport that led to the formation first of the Compton cinema club (which circumnavigated censorship by catering only to members by private subscription) then to the production company Compton Films.
The earliest Compton products were mild sexploitation, coy nudist romps like Naked As Nature Intended and My Bare Lady and the likes of Saturday Night Out (1964), a quickie about a group of randy merchant seamen on shore leave that pulsated to the beat of The Searchers because Klinger and Tenser refused to pay the Beatles' train fare from Liverpool.
They also imported and distributed foreign titles, usually tame erotica but occasionally more prestigious fare, which they sold in exactly the same way. For instance, hiding among the smut in the advert reproduced on the left is an infuriating art-house classic. Can you spot it?

The move into horror production came with Black Torment (1964), a minor but pleasant supernatural melodrama, and a collaboration with Herman Cohen in the Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper pastiche A Study in Terror (1965).
But their big break came that same year, when they decided to bankroll a frankly unpromising script called Lovelihead by a cocky young Pole with little grasp of conversational English called Roman Polanski. Retitled Repulsion, this story of a woman going slowly mad in her London flat became a major critical success, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and worldwide distribution from Columbia.
Not that the production went smoothly; Polanski's resentment of Klinger and Tenser's close attention to schedule and budget still simmers in his autobiography, where he calls them "figures on the fringe of the film industry" for whom he devised a film carefully punctuated with horrific moments because "anything too sophisticated would have scared them off". (This from the man who made Pirates.) As such he deliberately wasted time and money with fussy displays of perfectionism and fits of artistic temperament; when he took 27 takes of a cut-away showing a hand picking up a bottle of nail varnish (on a Sunday, with the crew on triple pay) Klinger had all 27 printed, invited Polanski to dinner, then furiously instructed him to identify which three he had okayed and why.
The acclaim that the film, and to a lesser degree Polanski's follow-up Cul De Sac (1966), achieved left Klinger disenchanted with the tawdry world of strippers and 'orror movies; he left in 1967 to form Michael Klinger Productions, going on to make Get Carter and the Confessions series. (He died in 1989.)

For Tenser it was back to business as usual, first as Tony Tenser Productions and then as Tigon.
He hired British veteran Vernon Sewell for my two favourite Tigon movies, the ludicrous The Blood Beast Terror (1967) and the absurd Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). The first - and there's really no getting around this - is cinema's only weremoth movie, in which Wanda Ventham periodically transforms into a giant death's head moth that flaps about the English countryside drinking people's blood. Policeman Peter Cushing, with impeccable logic, lights a bonfire and poor Wanda is drawn to it like... well, you know what like. If that hadn't worked he would have presumably tried a ten-foot rolled newspaper.
Altar bags Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff and Barbara Steele as, respectively, surprise villain, wheelchair-bound red herring and green-skinned witch revealed at the end to be... no, that would be telling. (But it's good.) Gorgeously photographed in velvet-thick purples, reds and greens it is actually a rather beautiful film, shot entirely in Grimsdyke House, one-time home of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It could easily pass for Hammer, in fact, if not for the crazed plot and typical Tenser touches like having Virginia Wetherell likening the house to something from a horror film, to which Mark Eden adds that he keeps expecting Boris Karloff to pop up.

Tenser was generous in his employment of young, untested talent. (You never knew when they were going to give you a masterpiece - plus they came cheap.) Michael Armstrong had only made a 21-minute short called The Image when Tenser hired him to shoot a film called The Dark in 1969. Armstrong's snappy description of The Image as "a study of the illusionary reality within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity" was not perhaps best calculated to endear him to the one-time head of publicity at Miracle Films, but his script was good, and perhaps even at this stage Tenser knew that he'd change the title come release time.
The film, planned as "a cynical attack on the swinging sixties" emerged, after much re-editing and some reshoots overseen by Gerry O'Hara, as not much of a cynical attack on anything, other than audiences who like to know what's going on (and see it - it wasn't called The Dark for nothing.)
With Karloff in the cast as planned it would have been even weirder, especially when it was mooted that he be revealed as the knife-wielding killer in his wheelchair, but he sadly died and the grafted-on-irrelevant-character duties ended up shared between George Sewell and Dennis Price.
What finally appeared under the Tensertitle The Haunted House of Horror is an endlessly interesting anticipation of the American slashers of the late seventies, but it could have been a great film: listen to Armstrong's fascinating commentary on the DVD.
Still what we have is great fun, with a lovely score by Reg Tilsley and that well-known Swinging London teenager Frankie Avalon heading what could be the greatest cast ever assembled: ex-Preminger protégée Jill Haworth, now British horror's most beautiful and underused screamer, Richard O'Sullivan with short hair and Robin Stewart from Bless This House (who according to Robin Askwith had once tried to excuse his lateness at a rehearsal by claiming that he had hit and killed an escaped camel).

But Tenser certainly got his money back on Michael Reeves, a rather pompous director in his early twenties who made the studio's biggest hit, Witchfinder General (1968) and the silly Karloff film The Sorcerers (1967).
There is plenty to admire in Witchfinder so long as you don't fall into the trap of seeing greatness in it, but both films are maddeningly overpraised. Reeves's naive, petulant response to a bad review by Alan Bennett - in which he claimed that his film was an attempt to show that "violence is horrible" and opined, hilariously, that the more lighthearted kind of horror film that "Mr Bennett... so strangely advocates is surely immoral to the extent of criminality"- is endlessly and approvingly quoted by genre writers.
Tenser responded to this brush with broadsheet respectability by continuing to green-light oddities like The Beast in the Cellar (1971, in which the mysterious beast tearing soldiers to pieces - that experts examining the bodies speculate may be an escaped leopard - is revealed to be a puny man with a beard and long fingernails that his sisters Beryl Reid and Flora Robson had locked in their cellar in 1939 so he wouldn't have to go to war) and Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972, and, if nothing else, Britain's only seaside zombie love story written by a newsreader, in which Susan Hampshire goes on holiday and falls for a Russian in a chunky sweater who dies and returns as a green-skinned zombie to pick up where he left off.)

Tenser claimed to have grown weary of the violence in his films, and disbanded Tigon in 1973; after serving as executive producer on Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) he left the business entirely to sell cane furniture.
But he lived long enough to find himself hailed as a maverick hero by a new generation of horror fans. For all his carny-barker bravado, he was basically a modest man, and this belated reverence and acclaim must have surprised and delighted him.
But it was not un-earned.
In films good, bad and indifferent, there is more diversity, madness, originality and occasional greatness in Tigon's five or so years of horror film production than in the output of any of its rivals in the same period - including Hammer. Tigon's films are wackier in concept - blood-drinking moth women, OAP mind-controllers, rotting but romantic zombies - and boast brazenly and wonderfully crass exploitation titles. At a time when Hammer and their ad campaigns were routinely criticised on the grounds of sensationalism Tenser sent one film into different territories with the following titles: The Blood Beast Terror, The Deaths Head Vampire, The Vampire Beast Craves Blood and Blood Beast From Hell.
This tasteless zest, and the shrewd knowledge of the market that informed it, were what kept Tenser head and shoulders above his competitors. It is also what makes his films, to this day, so much fun.

Tony Tenser, 1920 - 2007

My favourite flappers



You can keep Marilyn Monroe.
If it is true style, true glamour and true sexual allure you are after, pitch your tent in the late nineteen-twenties.

The twenties flapper has survived as an archetype longer than just about every other cultural phenomenon of her times, and here gathered are my five favourites of her many cinematic incarnations.
And in rightful first place is the sexiest film star of all time: Betty Boop.

In theory, Betty should be grossly unattractive: no man, if asked to design the perfect woman, would give her a head many times too large for a tiny body, with a spiky crown of black patent hair and huge eyes set much too far apart in a face that abruptly ends beneath her cheek bones, leaving her mouth hanging in the space where her chin should be. Yet it is as the perfect woman, somehow, that the blending of these peculiar features ends up.
Her design in fact reflects her slow evolution from her original incarnation, which was as a cartoon dog. But through superb accident, the curious hybrid that was finally christened 'Betty Boop' in Stopping the Show (1932) came to embody the ideal flapper as surely as the illustrations of John Held.
The character that emerged in her classic early thirties cartoons was both innocent and coquettish, knowing and naive, and far more attractive than a drawing has any right to be. Betty is an innocent, not unaware of her sexual attractiveness but somehow frustrated by it and as powerless to moderate it as the lounge lizards or street-car romeos who court her so relentlessly are in its thrall.
Fate, too, conspires against her: in her earliest films she is always struggling to preserve her modesty in the face of gusts of wind and trips and tumbles that raise her hemline and expose her garter and frilly underclothes.
Male audiences instantly took her to their hearts, greeting her presence on the bill with the same drooling rapture as their counterparts on screen. They in turn were explicitly catered to by the film-makers, who included flashes of nudity and much sexual innuendo. As such, Betty remains the only cartoon character to have been seriously compromised by the institution of the Hays Code: like Mae West, she was never quite the same again.
You can't go wrong with any of these early cartoons; my favourite is probably Betty Boop's Rise To Fame (1934), from the very end of her pre-Code golden era, because it is a useful compendium of some of her finest moments, and a fascinating example of early combined animation and live-action.
The film begins with her animator Max Fleischer being interviewed by his brother Dave, who asks him to draw Betty. He does so, whereupon she comes to life, addressing him as Uncle Max and asking that he put her into the 'sets' of some of her favourite past films. This he does, leading into a series of clips from Stopping the Show (in which she sings That's My Weakness Now and does charming impersonations of Fanny Brice and Maurice Chevalier), Bamboo Isle (in which she does her hula-hula dance in a tiny grass skirt with visible breasts) and The Old Man of the Mountain (in which she sings a duet with Cab Calloway, gong-kicking references and all).
The Hays Code would soon rob her of her more provocative outfits and characteristics, but it did little to dent her popularity with audiences. Indeed, as an animated star, Betty was granted a luxury not extended to her real-life counterparts. She was allowed to weather changes in fashion and remained a star long after the flapper boom itself was forgotten; indeed she is a ubiquitous presence on stationery and novelty items to this day.

Alas, the same cannot be said of Helen Kane, the original 'Boop-oop-a-doop Girl' (though what she actually says always sounds more like 'poo-poo-pa-do' to me) and one of the most charming talents of the late 1920's. Kane is unquestionably the inspiration for Betty: she looks like her, sounds like her, acts like her and has the same catchphrase. They even sing the same songs.
Kane was a Broadway star of the twenties who enjoyed a brief burst of success in movies during the pre-Code years and had a number of hits on record (including I Wanna Be Loved By You, reprised by Monroe, complete with boop-oop-a-doops, in Some Like It Hot). She faded fairly quickly, because it was felt that her bag of gimmicks - the squeaky voice, the girlish giggles, the pretence of naivety, above all the boop-oop-a-doops - was quickly emptied.
Actually though, if you listen carefully to her songs you'll find that 'boop-oop-a-doop' rarely means the same thing twice. Sometimes it is mere musical punctutation, sometimes a means of establishing any one of a dozen moods, sometimes overt euphemism, as in Aintcha, where a plaintive request for jewels and lingerie from her new beau is backed up with the threat:

Now if you don't, I'll get mad,
And I won't be nice and sweet to you.
You know what I'll do?
I'll get the blues, and I'll refuse
To boop-oop-a-doop,
Boop-oop-a-doop!

She is extremely funny, and while not exactly pretty - she is well-rounded and has a head not unlike Betty's in shape - is suprisingly athletic and, like Betty, she transcends her physical oddness to project a persuasive if unlikely sex appeal. (Though I could be just speaking for myself here; I'm not sure.)

All of Kane's movies are fun - Dangerous Nan McGrew, Sweetie and Heads Up combine her talents with those of several other Broadway top draws, and the results are superb, fast-moving Paramount musical comedies with a flavour very similar to the early Marx Brothers movies.
If I have to choose one favourite I guess it has to be Pointed Heels (1929), if only because it is the one that gives her the fullest chance to do a bit of everything - singing, dancing, comedy and character acting. And as a major bonus, it happens to catch Fay Wray at her loveliest, too, and seeing these two in the same film - let alone in bed together - is surely more than we might reasonably have hoped of any one film. Their bantering relationship is a treat throughout (they play sisters-in-law); when Fay says that her husband is leaving for Europe, Helen replies: "Europe? That's in England isn't it?"
The film is a backstage saga revolving around chorine Fay and her troubled marriage to a disinherited millionaire composer, her irritating brother (Skeets Gallagher) and his wife (Kane), a lowbrow vaudeville duo, and the Broadway producer (William Powell) who is staging a show for the latter purely so as to pursue Fay. It all ends happily but a little anti-climactically, since the film as it exists now is missing a reel of the show itself in two-strip Technicolor. Still, what we do have is magnificent: a feast of theatrical style, cloche hats and beautifully primitive early-talkie film technique.
Kane gets two great numbers in the film, Aintcha and I Have To Have You, which she sings twice, first in a hilarious 'highbrow' manner when her character, suddenly struck pretentious, decides to cultivate a new sophisticated image, then again in knockabout fashion after Powell deliberately gets her drunk to cure her of her affectations. This latter performance is perhaps her most physically uninhibited in any film; at the end she falls on her behind with such force she visibly bounces.
Not for the first time she seems a cartoon character come to life, and with a face and shape as unreal as Betty's and often uncannily similar, I don't mean any old cartoon character either.

Indeed, much as I love her, it has to be said that Betty was basically a rip-off of Helen Kane. But when Kane took her creators to court for a share of royalties, slippery tactics were employed to squeeze her out of the picture. Betty's lawyers (she did not herself appear in court) pointed out that Kane was only one of several flapper artists who used the contested mannerisms, squeaky voice and phrases. Kane's career soon burned out, and it must have been galling to her to see Betty's popularity endure.
To this day Kane is often erroneously listed as the voice of Betty Boop. In fact, the Kane impersonation was supplied by Mae Questel, another of the legion of Kane wannabes whose existence enabled Betty's creators to renege on their obligations to her. Questel sounds uncannily like Kane and wasn't a bad match physically, either, judging by her appearance in the wonderful Rudy Vallee short Musical Doctor. In her old age, she played Woody Allen's ghostly mother in the Oedipus Wrecks segment from New York Stories and sings the pastiche song Chameleon Days on the soundtrack of Zelig, still impersonating Kane, this time openly.

Of the other great flapper stars, the most iconic is Clara Bow.
Bow is remembered less for her films than for her nickname ‘the It Girl’ and, sadly, for a number of cruel and unfounded rumours and scandals. (No, she didn't do it with an entire football team; no, she didn't do it with a dog. She did, however, have a by-all-accounts highly passionate affair with Bela Lugosi, who kept a nude painting of her until his death.)
She was born into grinding poverty in Brooklyn in 1905, enduring regular beatings from her father and dependent upon a violent, mentally unstable mother who once attempted to kill her while she slept. By age ten she had watched her grandfather collapse and die while pushing her in a swing and her best friend burn to death in a domestic accident. Her salvation came when she won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1921) in a magazine competition. She was fresh and natural, and connected with audiences instantly. Stardom followed swiftly.
The great myth about Clara is that her career faded in the early sound days because audiences objected to her strong Noo Yawk accent. In fact, the public enjoyed her early sound films just fine, but she herself was terrified of microphones and hated the restrictions imposed by the new technology. Though her best films (and performances) are probably to be found among her silent work, I personally prefer the early talkies, especially her first, The Wild Party (1929). It's one of the great pre-Code films, fresh, joyous, sexy and ridiculous, as delightful and utterly of its time as its fashions and opening song:

When I am old and you are old, we'll fall asleep at nine
But until that distant day, let's make whoopee while we may
Wild party girl of mine!

It's directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was Hollywood's only major female director at the time, one of its most stylish, and a lesbian - fortunately enough for male audiences, who are rewarded with an obsessive focus on revealing costumes, lingerie and naked thighs.
Clara is Stella Ames, the most popular girl in college and leader of the self-styled 'Hard-Boiled Maidens'. They decide to crash the annual college dance (or, according to an intertitle, 'the annual "Costume" - the feminine equivalent of a stag') in shockingly brief and clingy outfits and are promptly ejected again by the head girl, who is dressed as Bo Peep. ("Anything for a thrill! You never think of the example you set the younger and weaker girls!") Still in their provocative costumes, they enter a sleazy roadhouse where Bow is abducted and almost raped, but is saved at the last moment by Fredric March, their psychology professor, out for a midnight stroll in plus-fours, and displaying an unexpected streak of Hemingway masculinity. And this is just Act One!


Though my personal favourite of all Clara's movies, it was sadly the beginning of the end.
Nervous, untutored and insecure, she was adored by the public but openly shunned by the Hollywood community, who considered her uncouth and stupid. Crippled by bouts of depression, she came to loathe her career, retiring in 1933. But as well as an iconic star she was also a genuinely gifted actress, as natural and expressive as Louise Brooks. It is significant that Brooks was one of the few to recognise and acknowledge her talents, and consistently champion her cause.

Brooks herself is the great lost flapper.
Remembered most for her moody work in two gloomy German silents, she was in reality an almost infuriatingly high-spirited and free-spirited twenties socialite, a former Ziegfeld girl and dancer. Her cult has depended for its longevity on the serene and penetrating beauty of her black bobbed features and the ease with which she can be slotted into fashionable myths of brutal, artless Hollywood devouring its individualists.
Such mythmaking both underrates her true achievement and overplays her tragedy. More than merely beautiful, she was a great actress, one of the very greatest of the silent era. And while the elder Brooks who presided so carefully over her revaluation would never have embraced victimhood, she was happy to endorse the fiction that her estrangement from Hollywood was caused by studio philistinism.
In truth, she was the architect of her own downfall. Refusing to do retakes on The Canary Murder Case (1929) after it was decided to convert it from silent to sound was a typically self-defeating gesture that earned her a justified reputation as a troublemaker.
It's a convoluted murder mystery in the Philo Vance series, and the solution doesn't really play fair, but what is not at all hard to believe is the central conceit that Brooks's character, a show-girl known as The Canary because of her gimmick of performing on a swing high above the stage, is fatale enough to provide an entire suspect-list of sugar daddies, each potentially driven to murdering her out of sexual jealousy. Long after she leaves the film - she is killed in the first fifteen minutes - she remains a vivid presence in it, and the most lasting impression left by the film is of its first scene: Brooks in feathered wig and costume, kicking her legs and swinging over the audience.

The other attraction in this somewhat fragile relic is an adorable performance by Jean Arthur from her own squeaky flapper period. (She's equally charming as Clara Bow's sister in The Saturday Night Kid [1929].) The only thing that spoils it is the crude dubbing (and physical doubling) of Brooks's role - and for that we have nobody to blame but Brooks herself.
As a result of such bloody-minded obstructiveness, the pre-code era lost the performer who, perhaps more than any other, embodied its every attitude and affectation. As great a presence as she is in those masterpieces of Expressionist tragedy upon which her culthood rests, it is in her absences that we see the real tragedy of Louise Brooks. Watch her in God’s Gift To Women or It Pays To Advertise (both 1931), then think of all the Lubitsch and Frank Tuttle and Mitchell Leisen movies she should be in.

If Brooks is the lost flapper, Joan Crawford is the forgotten one. Long before she became the big-shouldered queen of women's pictures, before Grand Hotel gave her class, she was a ex-chorine, boisterous hoofer and "the spirit of all that it means to be young and gay today" - the foremost screen flapper in other words.
This is a role she perfected in the twenties and carried through to the early thirties (until Mayer decided to upgrade her image) , most famously in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and its sequels Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) - the latter my favourite, and the only talkie of the three.
Around the main plot-line - which is one pre-Code fans will have already encountered about a hundred times: pretty shop-girl trying to make ends meet in the big city falls for the dashing son of the shop's owner - swirl a host of interlinked subplots relating to Joanie and the two girls she flat-shares with. They all work in the same department store, modelling lingerie for snooty women and their lascivious sons and husbands. The cast of characters is the usual mix of predatory wolves, arrogant floorwalkers, unsuitable boyfriends, landladies and love-rats.
Beginning as comedy and ending in tragedy, it is a soap opera cunningly concocted for what Variety would have called 'maximum femme appeal', opening a fascinating window onto vanished mores, fashions and customs, and studded with lovely spiky dialogue: "You don't know it, but I've just slapped your face", says Joan to one ardent admirer. When her flatmate swoons, "I just happen to be going out with a hot number who throws hundred dollar bills about like confetti," she shoots back: "Does he make 'em himself?"
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I'll close with a great picture of my other favourite flapper: Lillian Roth. Lillian's finest appearance is as Trixie in DeMille's Madam Satan (see my post Pre-Code DeMille) but she is equally - that is to say sensationally - sweet, charming, sexy, funny and talented in The Love Parade, Meet the Boyfriend (an adorable short), Animal Crackers (with the Brothers Marx, of course), Sea Legs, Take a Chance (in which she does a striptease number) and Ladies They Talk About - basically in anything she made in the thirties, actually. After much personal trauma she re-emerged in the fifties as a brassy torch singer, but it is the thirties Roth that really captivates.
Here she is giving thanks, Hollywood style. The broad on the left is none other than Jean Arthur, who was more than happy to do weird cheesecake like this, before she became the face of Frank Capra's social conscience.
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Whatever happened to all this glamour?

Looking for Fellini



Just back from Italy, and thinking inevitably of Fellini's films, which have done so much to define the country to outsiders. But memories they tend to remain; I'm not sure I've ever found myself actually in Fellini's Italy, whereas Antonioni's, say, is ever present, and any left turn down a side street can land us unexpectedly in Argento's.
Our guidebook goes so far as to describe Parma as "Fellini-esque", but try as I do, I'm never fully transported into the maestro's world. Occasionally something vaguely evocative flashes by the window of the train, quiet stretches of simple habitation that might once have been something like the open, dusty landscape of La Strada (1954) or Le Notti de Cabiria (1957)
But we tourists rarely end up where Fellini's characters do. It's when I'm back home that the link starts to take shape: Fellini's is an imagined Italy, a remembered Italy, an Italy of the soul rather than the senses.

His critical reputation has fluctuated over the years; acknowledged in the sixties as one of the great international masters, his work has more recently come under attack for being over-sentimental, insufficiently critical, too whimsical, lacking in political engagement, too pretty visually, and more entertaining than the work of a serious artist has any business being.
The qualities in his work which once seemed daring and new – the celebration of misfits and outcasts, the lurches from realism into fantasy and back again, the non-condemnatory presentation of decadence and criminality – tend now to be overshadowed by those which once seemed reassuringly traditional: the commitment to narrative and characterisation, the communication of emotion, the underlying optimism, the love of showbusiness and artifice.
All these things conspire to relegate him in the age of alienation that his work anticipated, explored, and prematurely forgave.

He entered the film industry in the early forties as writer and occasional actor, often apprenticed to Rosselini. His early films as director gave notice of his preoccupations, but what now seems the instantly identifiable Fellini style was perfected in three consecutive masterpieces, La Strada, the lesser known Il Bidone (1955) and Cabiria.
All three feature his wife Giulietta Masina, an extraordinary actress - half Doris Day, half Harpo Marx - and few artists in history have been fortunate enough to find so perfect a muse.
In their collaborations she developed a unique screen persona: broad, often brash and loud, defiantly unrealistic yet affectingly vulnerable and sincere. She could be naturalistic when necessary, but her speciality was the girl who belonged in the circus yet was somehow washed up in the tenements of post-war Rome, a misfit whose simplicity acted as a magnet for misfortune. She died a few months after her husband in 1994; her clown-like face remains one of the key icons of world cinema.
La Strada has her as a simpleminded young girl sold by her mother to a travelling strongman (Anthony Quinn); he mistreats and rejects her, only realising her true worth when she dies. Il Bidone is the picaresque story of a band of travelling conmen who rob the poor disguised as priests (with Masina wasted in a subsidiary housewife role). Cabiria returns Masina triumphantly to centre stage as a naïve prostitute whose dreams of love and happiness are constantly rewarded with sorrow and bad luck.

The scenarios sound like something Thomas Hardy may have rejected as too depressing, but Fellini’s handling elevates them from mundane realism almost to the level of fairytale, aided in every case by beautiful use of locations, stylised composition, a rich, often grotesque gallery of supporting players, Nino Rota’s hauntingly distinctive scores and Masina’s amazing performances.
Their dramatic climaxes – Quinn’s enigmatic moment of anguished realisation on a darkened beach in La Strada, Masina stoically walking in step with a band of strolling musicians after yet another crushing betrayal in Cabiria – transcend their pessimism to become deeply moving, cathartic experiences for the audience, more epiphany than tragedy.

La Dolce Vita (1959), which both confirmed and consolidated his international reputation, is glossy, stylish and still relevant in its scepticism towards a society proudly cutting itself loose from its core values. Its pose of total objectivity, standing back from itself and observing without comment, remains its most striking feature, along with its now iconic visual highlights (the massive airlifted Christ, Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain et al). But there is a brazen self-assurance that was new for the director, a kind of methodological shorthand that seems to suggest Fellini knew he was now established and could afford to play the maestro, to be a little showier and less rigorous.
He was famous now, an arthouse celebrity whose name was familiar not just to his followers but also to the wider public, for whom he became totemic of world cinema to those with no time for it. There is a superb episode of Steptoe & Son in which Harold takes Albert to see (1963), though the latter would prefer Nudes of 1963. Galton and Simpson were always astute monitors of fashionable intellectual traffic, Colin Wilson and Bertrand Russell having provided lively inspiration for some of the best Hancocks. That Fellini had now penetrated their world of British bourgeois aspiration indicated his ascension to the ranks of cult hero, and the status couldn't fail to influence the work.

With his gaze turned inward completely, and there is a similar sense of self-indulgence in its attempt to turn director’s block into existential crisis, despite the customary mastery of style.
Both are major and important works, and full of good things (including an appearance by Barbara Steele in the latter), but they lack the emotional resonance of the less autobiographical films.
There is no point in denying the man’s keen sense of himself as auteur, and it could be argued that it got the better of him after 1963: whatever else Fellini Satyricon (1970) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) may be, they are certainly as hubristic as they sound. Fellini at his best wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to be deemed naive, and he was never better than in the the exceptional works made immediately prior to La Dolce Vita.

(Postscript, 2013: Were I writing this now I would certainly make mention of Variety Lights, The White Sheik and I Vitelloni which, to my embarrassment, I had not seen at this point! Indeed it is Vitelloni, rather than Cabiria, that I would now assert is his masterpiece.)

The overpowering feeling that any second he may suddenly appear


Look at this house we saw in Ravenna. It is next to a river so long-dried that trees grow in its bed, but over which grey stone bridges still cross at regular intervals. Overlooking this dead river was this incredible dead house: still occupied, I think, but with the balconies so overgrown with ivy they cannot possibly be used.
And my instant first thought is: what a great location for a Dario Argento movie.

Everywhere I go in Italy reminds me of Dario Argento. The spookier, more run-down parts recall the empty house of Profondo Rosso. The more modernistic, faceless parts evoke Tenebrae. The streets of Florence seem inseparable from the events of The Stendhal Syndrome. Every hotel I've ever stayed in, every street and narrow alley, seem like locations in some real, or imagined, or forthcoming example of the man's work.

Argento was at one time my favourite director in the world, and nobody else has quite dislodged his supremacy as my ultimate reference point for the architecture and mood of Italy, but I'm not the fan I once was of these films. I'm older now, and can see why viewers with no particular liking for horror as a genre find them rather silly.
Argento, like his killers, does get carried away with himself. The films are hysterical, and often careless. Even some of the features that once seemed so innovative, like the murder scenes set to prog-rock, I can now just as easily do without. (Rewatching them all recently, it seemed to me that even Profondo would be better off without its main themes: the more straightforward portions of the score are far more effective. The drums and guitars run the risk of distancing the audience from the power of the film - as the atrocious synth score of Tenebrae does almost entirely.)

Argento is at his best, for me, when he injects a dash of the bizarre in an otherwise recognisable reality, which is why, though I admire them in many ways technically, I find the likes of Suspiria and Inferno less satisfying in their anything-can-happen-ness than Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails. The plots of these are certainly improbable, but they have a logic to them that makes their corkscrew development and brilliant surprise twists worth the effort of following.
These two are certainly now my favourites, along with Profondo Rosso, his best-balanced marriage of solid content and showy techniqueThe plot is engrossing, the twist audacious (it is the only film I know which, like Poe's purloined letter, leaves the face of the killer in plain view and challenges us to spot it) and the murders - though excessive - are genuinely skilled and frightening pieces of cinema. At university, my friends and I watched this film over and over again, and delighted in introducing newcomers to its pyrotechnic terrors and delights. It never disappointed; it is still the best illustration for those unfamiliar with Argento to what he can do and how he does it. Few directors, good or bad, can honestly be said to have a truly unique style, so that it is impossible to mistake their work for that of anybody else: Argento does, and here is where it achieves perfection.

Argento has echoed Poe's assertion that the most poetic topic in the world is the death of a 
beautiful woman by frequently playing the black-gloved killer's hands in the murder scenes ("I love my killers", he offers by way of explanation), and few directors since Hitchcock have so repeatedly subjected a single erotic ideal to such relentless debasement. (His, however, tend to be brunettes: Jessica Harper, Jennifer Connelly, Chiara Caselli, two daughters and an ex-wife among them.)
The most famous image in all his work remains that of Cristina Marsillach in Opera, a row of pins taped beneath her eyelids by the film's killer, so that she is unable to close her eyes to the murder being committed in front of her.
It is probably Argento's own revenge on audiences who prefer to flinch, or peer through their fingers, or look away entirely and wait for the music to stop, rather than watch the murder scenes. "Violence is Italian art", he once said, and if I now find myself gravitating increasingly toward the ranks of the flinchers and the eye-closers, I can at least still appreciate the imagination, skill and commitment to a singular vision that Argento's filmography represents.

Meanwhile, if anybody actually does live in that house by the dried-up river in Ravenna, my advice is: count the windows and count the rooms.

With Charlie in Bologna



I’m in Bologna, because that’s where the Charles Chaplin Archive is housed.
I’ve come to do some research on Stowaway, the film he planned in 1936 as a vehicle for his then-wife Paulette Goddard. He scripted parts of it, but for whatever reason the project was abandoned, until it was taken out of mothballs in the sixties and re-jigged to form the basis of his final film, A Countess From Hong Kong.

It’s a project that’s always fascinated me, since it would have been his first all-talking film, and his first comedy vehicle for a star other than himself.
I had been forewarned that little original material survives on the venture, presumably because whole chunks had been taken and converted into the Countess script. I found far more than I was expecting to, however, and what I did find all pointed to it being a far more adventurous and provocative project as originally conceived than in its later incarnation as his generally dismissed swansong.
The original treatment is, like the remake, a farce comedy, but it aims far more than the later film to texture the comedy against a realistic backdrop of Shanghai and its underworld. It deals frankly with prostitution, drug addiction, crime, corruption and politics; as with his squabbles over the working status of the Marilyn Nash character in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin seems to be baiting the censor without even realising it, through his inability to accept that there is a prohibition against references to prostitutes. (There are prostitutes in life, why not in drama, seems to have always been his plaintive appeal.)
There is frank discussion, too, of communism (the Paulette character is a 'White Russian', fled to Shanghai to escape the Bolsheviks) and a great deal of the kind of philosophical conjecture of the sort to which he was addicted in life, but usually held in check in his screenplays.

What if any of this would have remained in the finished draft even before the intervention of the Breen office is of course a matter of pure conjecture, yet the more I struggled with the scattered fragments, scrawled in pencil on yellowing notepaper, the more I became convinced that this could have been the most ambitious departure of all his aborted projects.
Quite why he abandoned it is to some extent a mystery, and I speculate on the most likely alternatives in my forthcoming essay on the subject. The simplest being usually the most satisfactory, it was probably a combination of Goddard’s blossoming career elsewhere and his mounting fascination with Hitler, soon to be the subject of The Great Dictator, the film that became his first all-talkie in Stowaway's stead.

What a critical essay cannot convey is the specific pleasure to be found in archival research. The working notes of one of the half dozen true masters of the cinema establish a bond between author and reader that is not to be found in transcripts or secondary accounts. It is the laying bare of the creative process that fascinates, which is why the passages that are crossed out or abandoned, or rewritten in variant forms, are often the most interesting sections of all.
His handwriting takes a lot of getting used to: you’re tempted to give it up as indecipherable at first, but over time you become accustomed to the shape and idiosyncrasies of it, and there is a rush of joy when a few words suddenly fall together as a sentence, and sentences fall together as paragraphs. The writing sprawls over pages, sometimes just a few words to the page, often rendered even more opaque by the frequent spelling mistakes that remind us again that this Hollywood millionaire, the world’s most famous man, began his days as an ill-educated Dickensian child in the poverty and squalor of Victorian London.
But this is all part and parcel of the energy of it, the sense of ideas falling over each other in the race to the page. This, too, is a whole new kind of discipline for Chaplin, who was accustomed to thinking of a story in visual terms, and developing it via on-set improvisation. Here he seems to be doing with words what he once did with film stock: trying things out, seeing how they look, fine-tuning some, discarding others. For all his natural inclination toward pantomime as story-telling method, all accounts concur that he himself loved to talk and to expound ideas, and in these notes you can sense a excited infatuation with dialogue as a means of conveying them.
How well he succeeded at this divides even sympathetic commentators, and the general view of his sound films is that they are, at the very least, beneath the standard of his silents. I’ve never really found them so; one must make major adjustments for the change of pace, but once locked into their rhythm they display that same combination of sophistication and naivety that made his earliest films so entrancing to the overwhelming majority of the cinemagoing world.
But whatever you make of them generally, I was left with the vivid impression that Stowaway was an absence from his filmography much to be regretted.

Happily, our visit coincided with the final days of a major Chaplin exhibition in Bologna’s centre, a wonderful assembly of stills, posters, projected extracts and memorabilia, and it was heartening indeed to read so many expressions of affectionate enthusiasm in the visitors’ book, and hear the laughter of teenage girls in the screening rooms. It was the sound of rediscovery; the realisation that these are not merely museum pieces but comedies, put together by a man who knew what he was doing.
How would such an exhibition fare in London, I wonder?

Why I Love Censorship



When I started writing about films, it was in magazines and books devoted to exploitation cinema, that idolised Argento, Lucio Fulci and Jesus Franco.
We were unbelievably pretentious in our desire to cloak prurience in the mantle of serious artistic connoisseurship, and some pretty bold claims were made, even for Franco.
Whether we did any harm or not, I don't know. I doubt it: we preached to the choir. But we were wrong.

Censorship enraged us: article upon article savaged James Ferman (the then head of the BBFC) and bemoaned the idiocy of our not being allowed to watch anything we wanted with the full blessing of the law. Some of us wrote faux-learned treatises on pornography, I specialised in horror, but our message was the same: Censorship is an insult to adult sensibilities and the enemy of art.
The joys of exploitation cinema are hard to describe but potent indeed, and you either get it or you don't. If you do, Lugosi's heartfelt delivery of Ed Wood's meaningless dialogue in Bride of the Monster or the spectacle of Mickey Hargitay running rampant in The Bloody Pit of Horror stay with you forever; they are part of a vital, dynamic cinematic tradition that makes a virtue of its deficiencies and makes up for in sheer eccentric creativity what it lacks in genuine artistry. Men like Wood, or Herschell Gordon Lewis, or even Lucio Fulci are artists of a sort, certainly they are passionate about their work in a way that the average Hollywood hack never was.
But on the whole, what really counts in movies is what Halliwell had always said counted: solid, careful professionalism, infused with the characteristic touches of a distinctive presiding imagination.
Which basically means Hollywood in the twenties and thirties.

This instantly calls into question the anti-censorship position I had adopted and retained so blithely throughout my film writing apprenticeship. After all, how do we square the notion that censorship is opposed to artistic excellence with the fact that the greatest films of all time were made under the most strictly censored conditions in film history? Would they have been even better without it? If so: why? How?

The conclusion I am forced to accept is that not only is it a myth to say that censorship stunts creativity, it actually inspires it. And the need to imply rather than state or show outright those aspects of the narrative that are not allowed free expression is the more artistic option.
Yet for most film writers, nothing spells fanatic more surely than nostalgia for the Hays Code. You can bemoan the decline of cinematic standards in a restrained, slightly ironic way and just about get away with it. But say a good word about the Code and it's like saying that Joe McCarthy was a nice guy or that they should bring back national service. People will actually throw things at you.
Now, as it happens, my favourite films are the ones made in the early thirties just before the Code was enforced, and I'd have been happier if their standards were the ones that had been codified and enforced, but all the same, the Hays Code is pretty rocking. I'm a fan.
The trouble begins when you start trying to get people to admit that the Hays Code had the kinds of beneficial effects it so obviously did. Most people can go so far as to admit a fundamental difference, at least in the kinds of merit displayed, between older and newer forms of cinema, music and even television, even if it is only to concede that you can get a lot further on a lot less talent these days. Most can see a general decline in creative aspiration, narrative skill, care and style. Yet they will virulently defend the standards of the present, partly because to do otherwise would call their own into question, and partly because they come in a package with equally obvious improvements in special effects, gimmicks and gadgets, things people find it almost impossible to do without.
But surely the day has long since dawned, whether in spite or because of a critical dialogue on the subject that has persisted unchanged on either side since Straw Dogs, when it is no longer possible to deny that a brutalised culture marches hand in hand with a brutalised society?
True, the basic good-spiritedness of Hays-era culture can still be written off by a wily prosecution as an imposed fantasy acting in denial of an external reality far more similar to that of a modern film than any made at the time. It is a seductive argument, and we can all think of something about the thirties or forties that seem to bear it out.
But I think a) that would still make it a good thing anyway, b) we should not rush to underestimate the influence of cultural censorship in helping to contain the incidence of such events (a brutalised culture may or may not 'inspire' crime and violence, but it certainly provides their perpetrators with linguistic and stylistic - and therefore fetishistic - frames of reference), and c) even once accepted, it's not a point that adds up to much.

The mere fact that a film industry, which exists solely to make money, managed some thirty or more years of making censored films which drew adults from their homes and sent them back satisfied, is a far more important point.
Golden age audiences didn't feel demeaned or patronised because they couldn't see Margaret Lockwood and James Mason going at it like knives on the back of a stallion. They didn't skulk from cinemas cursing the censor boards for treating them like children because the Marx Brothers didn't say fuck. They felt like adults, they felt the culture reflected them. So either they were complete berks, or cinema was faithful to their basic attitudes and outlook to a greater degree than we now find comfortable and are willing to accept.
We laugh as we say that people were once terrified by King Kong. But shouldn't the fact - couldn't it, at least - make us uneasy? If children now chuckle at what adults once found terrifying, isn't that a regression rather than an advance? Can't we stop being so pleased with how sophisticated we are for one second and see how jaded we have become? As Peter Bogdanovich once reflected, the fact that Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise was made for the American mass-market should give us all pause. When were the movies, when was the world, that subtle?

Arguments against censorship add up to nothing; none of them are any good at all. Here they all are:

1. Censorship is immoral. If people want to watch violent or sexually explicit materials, they should have the right to do so.
Says who? Why should they? And why do they want to? And is this regardless of consequences or in denial of any? If consequences could be demonstrated, would this seemingly unequivocal position be challengeable?

2. But explicitness in culture has never been proved to be the cause of crime or disturbance in real life.
It is too simplistic to speak of one-way causation. The anti-censorship straw man argument of the rational viewer who suddenly goes on a killing rampage after watching Reservoir Dogs deliberately reduces to absurdity, so as to run away from, the more substantial argument: that the relationship between culture and society is symbiotic. It is not a case of cause and effect; they reflect and sustain and encourage each other. What we watch says important, empirical things about who we are. So, by definition, does what we are prepared to tolerate.

3. But no piece of research has ever proved any such correlation.
Define 'proved'? Or rather, tell me in advance what standard of proof you are prepared to accept. Not 'reasonable assumption', that's for sure. How much anecdotal evidence do you need before it starts to look like proof? Seriously, let me know.

3. Censorship is a slippery slope, and the banning of 'offensive' popular culture is the beginning of a process that ends with the suppression of free speech and the right to air inconvenient or anti-consensus views.
That's (almost certainly) rich coming from you! Of course this is not true. Film censorship boards are entities entirely separate from any other form of authority; the idea that their jurisdiction may somehow be extended - in fact, theory or even desire - is ridiculous.

4. Censors are basically perverts getting off on what they don't allow us to see.
Your evidence being what? What was that about proof again?

5. Censors are basically hypocrites: if what they see doesn't affect them, why should it affect us?
Because they are not perverts, murderers, misfits, thugs or sadists. Some people are. You might have seen them on the news or read about them in the papers. Censors are bureaucrats doing a job in an environment utterly separate from the vicarious experience of seeing a film as a consumer. We are not all the same, and it is madness to legislate as if we were, especially if we take the most well-adjusted and restrained among us as standard. Do you apply the same logic when choosing a baby-sitter?

Now I've got a question for you:
What great film of the twenties, thirties or forties was seriously compromised in its effects or achievement by imposed censorship?
It's not that you can't think of any. It's that you can think of the exact same three or four that I can think of. The ones you always hear about. But as a general rule...

The only real problem with the Hays Code is that it wouldn't work anymore. Film-making is no longer in the hands of four or five canny but fundamentally respectable old men. Anyone with a camera and internet access is in the production and distribution business. The only way a production code of any sort could regulate the tide of crapulous drivel thus unleashed is by a degree of force that would be as unproductive as it is unthinkable.
To work today, a censorship code would have to be voluntary. But each generation automatically views the standards of its elders as too repressive and moves them on again, and their chasing after sensation will always be characterised as the heroic defiance of pettiness, bigotry or irrationality by wimpy intellectuals ever happy to ascribe the highest motives to cheap pornographers and sadists.
So the endless push towards greater and greater freedom, ending, presumably, in a return to the spectacles of the Roman arena may be slowed, but it cannot be stopped. It's a sobering reflection, and it makes the flickering delicacy of golden age cinema seem like objects not just of fascination but almost of reverence.

The Hays Code never restricted anybody. Not being able to do something the easy way gives tremendous impetus to the creative imagination, and imagination is the defining declining commodity in cultural regress.
Ever noticed how every change, every advance, must bring with it a reduction in the amount of work the audience must themselves contribute to sustaining the illusion? It is practically how the word 'advance' in this context is defined. Theatre to film, silent to sound, black and white to colour, imagining an act of violence to having it recreated before our eyes. But why should these changes be considered advances? It is all gimmickry, as surely as Cinemascope and 3-D. Such things are props, crutches - they have nothing to contribute to the art of storytelling.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that what modern film-makers and their defenders in print are telling us is basically that it is impossible as well as insufferable to expect them to be able to produce competent work under the shadow of any commonly agreed code of conduct as to what may or may not be shown. That censorship of any kind is a kind of tyranny, and that they have a moral duty to fight it, as well as a professional interest in the outcome. That the great masterpieces of Rouben Mamoulian or Cukor or Chaplin or Frank Tuttle or Lubitsch or Wilder or Hitchcock or King Vidor or Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or Norman Z McLeod or Busby Berkeley or De Mille or Von Sternberg or Tod Browning or James Whale or Val Lewton or Mitchell Leisen were flukes, achieved with all the odds stacked against them. And the fact that the stew of idle sensation that passes for product in the creative wilderness of modern cinema seems so infantile by comparison is... well, is what, exactly? I don't know. Irrelevant? Not true?
I go along with Mamoulian. In 1977 - as early as 1977! - this crazy old genius got up on his hind legs at some film luncheon or other and came out with this:

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.

Modern film-makers either do not recognise any such obligation (nor feel any creative impulse in its direction), or else they are such gorillas that they like the modern world just fine, or else they simply don't have the talent to do anything other than point a camera at whatever boring provocation comes easiest to them. (Or a combination of all three.)
I don't care which, actually. But I do know that for Mamoulian, as for all the names listed above, censorship was a creative aid, and when any modern director comes up with something a tenth as good as the worst film he ever made, maybe we'll sit and discuss the matter again.
In the meantime, I salute the Hays Code in the name of all the great film-makers it inspired, and all the great stars it helped to immortality. It demanded resourcefulness and inventiveness of the writers and directors, contributed immeasurably to the mystique, the glamour and the eroticism of the great screen icons, and it led to works that delighted everybody who saw them.
Isn't it time we grew out of pretending achievement of this order is somehow comic, and somehow beneath us?

Public domain: Now the White Gorilla growls again!



When a film falls out of copyright it costs next to nothing to issue on DVD.
This is why there are certain films that turn up over and over again, endlessly repackaged and reissued by different budget-price distributors.
The accident of their public domain status in no way determines their quality; His Girl Friday, The Outlaw, Of Human Bondage and many more figure among the most ubiquitous titles.
But the majority are of titles that slipped through the net because nobody cared, which means obscure works from independent companies or distributors, second feature crime films from the likes of Chesterfield and Grand National, obscure black interest titles from the thirties and legions of cheapie horror mysteries.
Many of these prints derive from the early days of television, when film companies, jealous of the medium, retained their important titles for theatrical reissue and sold off the second features and bottom-of-the-bill fillers. (Notice how often the prints on these DVDs have superimposed credits saying things like 'Movies For TV presents...')
Sold to a captive home audience happy to watch anything and long since deemed inadequate even for that, they are the staples of the new breed of multi-film box sets (50 great thrillers on 12 discs for only £18.99!) and three-on-a-disc combos.
The picture and sound quality is often poorish to dreadful, mastered as they usually are from prints many generations removed from their source, and the target audience, I suppose, are suckers, for rare indeed is a film too poor to be played up as an all-time classic on the hastily-designed and often deliberately misleading packaging.
So '50 Drive-In Classics' includes the tv movie Snowbeast, '50 Tales of Terror' includes three Tod Slaughter movies, and 'Dark Crimes' includes Things Happen at Night, a broad British comedy-drama from 1948 about poltergeists. The blurbs and imagery are always designed to disguise rather than advertise the fact that a large proportion of the films featured will be low-quality dupes of bad-quality prints of incredibly obscure thirties rarities of purely archival value to very specialised collectors.
But when you read the online reviews, they usually don't say "I got suckered", nor do they lapse into the 'Golden Turkey Awards' type of lazy mockery. Instead they seem to speak knowledgeably and respectfully to a community of like-minds who, while under no illusion as to the objective value of these films in themselves, love the thrill of discovering new old movies.

Of course, this is a passion we have acquired by sheer circumstance. These just happened to be the public domain films available; they certainly weren't released to meet a need. But just as certainly, they seem now to have created one. I'm not alone.
I think the people who make these things should try, just once, aiming it directly at us, rather than the casual browser who just might be conned into thinking that Laurel and Hardy's Atoll K is an all-time masterpiece of comedy. If it doesn't work, fine; go back to pretending that nobody could possibly feel short-changed by a three-disc box-set called 'Masters of Horror' featuring an alcohol-raddled Lon Chaney Jr in The Indestructible Man, one of those films Karloff made back to back in Mexico just before he died and Ghosts On The Loose, an East Side Kids comedy with Bela Lugosi as a Nazi spy. ("Wow! Three of the greatest horror stars of all time at their terrifying best! Plus they're classics! Great! I'll be really scared and perhaps even learn something about film history. How much? Only £5.99! I'm getting that!")
But seeing as I'm not conned or disappointed by delightful releases like these, how about targeting me directly next time?
Instead of pretending that Rogue's Tavern is a classic horror film, just tell it like it is: it's a fun old dark house cheapie and it stars Wallace Ford, silent star on the skids Clara Kimball Young and Barbara Pepper, gold-digging Sally from Our Daily Bread. That's enough to rope me in. Anyone else like Wallace Ford? What a lovely actor, and what an amazing life-story this man had before he even made a movie! Releases like Rogue's Tavern help keep alive names like his, names that should be kept alive, careers that deserve to be remembered. I'm sure there are fans out there who are dedicated to this kind of exhumation.

There is danger as well as a quick buck in trying to slip one past us - the market becomes saturated and the poor quality of many prints deters serious collectors. There are only so many suckers in the world and only so many times you can play them. It's not so different from the ethics of the pirate dealer, and we all know how resourceful and downright droll they can be. (A friend of mine was sold a DVD of what claimed to be the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong before it had even reached cinemas: it turned out to be King Kong Lives, the virtually unseen sequel to the de Laurentiis remake.) A little imagination is all that is needed to keep us all happy.
Release the public domain movies, but just spend a little on good packaging, informative notes, the best print you can find (or at least, not simply the first), perhaps an extra or two. Consumer loyalty will surely follow, and the takings will pay for something a little harder to find.
The result could be a label we look out for, as happened with Redemption in the last days of tape: they started with the usual suspects - Nosferatu, Caligari, The Vampire Bat - but made the sleeves collectable and distinctive, and before we knew it they had created a new audience for European exploitation, tracked down a world of rareties, and single-handedly invented Jess Franco the Auteur where Franco the Hack once stood.

Specialism will always find adherents. Of course it is important above all to attend to the classics, those that earn our attention merely through excellence. But there is so much waiting for us in the dross, in the vast store of simple, production-line fodder that cannot fail to yield insights six decades on. Here among the simple story lines and simpler technique are vivid examples of the purely popular, lost icons of a vanished civilisation. The masterpieces tend to span the years, but the ephemera act like a sponge that soaks up the transitory fads and styles, and instantly recreate the vanished age in which they were first received.
A good example, from dozens of alternatives: The White Gorilla (1945).
Thanks to the internet pioneers that preceded me, I now know, and am able to pass on to you, far more about this film than I could have gleaned from any reference books, and certainly more than the packaging volunteers. It was in the 'Tales of Terror' box set but a tale of terror it is not nor ever was: it's a hybrid of new sound scenes, silent action sequences from a 1927 serial and library footage of wild animals.
It stars Ray 'Crash' Corrigan, owner of the 'Corriganville' movie ranch, as both the hero and the white gorilla. As well as a frequent cowboy hero (he was one of the Three Mesquiteers), he does ape-suit work in loads of films, including Tarzan & His Mate (1934), the 3 Stooges short Three Missing Links (1938), Karloff quickie The Ape (1940), Captive Wild Woman (1943), The Monster & The Ape (1945) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Important in itself? Of course not. But it is of tremendous value as an example of a once staple film genre: the expeditionary film. The Tarzan series remains the most famous off-shoot of this lost semi-genre, in which gun-happy heroes go blazing into nature reserves and either bring 'em back alive or leave 'em where they drop. There were serious documentaries, fake documentaries, fictional narrative dramas and all manner of inter-generic cross-breeds. (King Kong was just one of many horror films that took the template of the expeditionary film and turned it into a horror thriller. Carl Denham is based on these expeditionary film-makers and as such would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary audiences, for whom much of the film's effect would have resided in the way in which elements of the fantastic are slowly introduced into a typical expeditionary narrative. Now that the conventions of the genre are no longer familiar it plays all of a piece, and the rug-pulling effect is lost.) One of the most famous of these films, the documentary Africa Speaks! (1930) was still current enough in 1949 to have its title parodied in Abbott & Costello's spoof of the genre Africa Screams! (featuring two of the screen's real-life Carl Denhams, Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty, as themselves).
Already, then, The White Gorilla can be seen to be of socio-historical value. As to aesthetic value, that's in the eye of the beholder, but it's hard not to warm to a film in which - while insistent music whips up excitement and Corrigan's voice-over intones "I hoped without hope that the brutes would kill each other as they fought" - a man in an obvious black gorilla costume and a man in an obvious white gorilla costume wallop each other with sticks.

The lost art of exploitation advertising (1): If your film's a dud, go for broke and call it "The Greatest Wild Animal Picture Ever Made!" It's either that or "SEE! Ray Corrigan in a zip-up ape suit! " Needless to say, the babe in the blue mini-dress is conspicuous by her absence in the film itself - and don't hold your breath for that slavering lion, either.


Suddenly you realise you have resumed dialogue with a totally vanished species of mainstream popular culture. For that is what it must have been - any film with proper credits had a proper audience, once. Out there, somewhere, were people who left their homes to go and see it. Some may be living somewhere still. And it is pleasant to feel not just as one with them but somehow honouring them by tracking down these films and watching them with delight and respect.
There's another one called Devil Monster (1946), another 'Tale of Terror', and another hybrid expeditionary yarn, cobbled together this time from footage shot ten years earlier as The Sea Fiend. This fiendish monster is in fact a manta ray, and its belated appearance combines both unpleasant documentary images of real sea life learning the true meaning of human decency and hilarious special effects in which an actor, clearly kicking about on the floor, is spectrally superimposed over footage of the ray. The rest of the film sees our heroes travelling about strange lands, talking to the elders of obscure native tribes (grainy black and white documentary footage when they don't say anything, white actors in a studio if they have dialogue).

The lost art of exploitation advertising (2): Devil Monster claims "an all-star cast" but suspiciously declines to name any of them, and promotes itself with the tag-line "DARING ADVENTURE MAN'S LOVE FOR A WOMAN" which wouldn't mean anything even if it meant anything.


The gloss of documentary realism also allows real bare breasts on the tribeswomen, and this yielded the film's most delightful and unexpected bridge to the past. At these moments, the surprisingly good condition print of the film suddenly explodes into fragments; jumps, scratches, a flash of an image here, two thirds of a sentence on the soundtrack narration there. These abundant cuts are clearly evidence of removed nudity but not I think, in their crudeness and disruptive effect, of censorship. Only one person had means, motive and opportunity to make these excisions yet make them so badly - step forward, Mr Cinema Projectionist.
These DVDs are duped from long-circulated exhibition prints that must have been passed round the exploitation cinemas for years. After all, films about manta rays don't get misleadingly titled Devil Monster for nothing: such expert showmanship speaks of a colourful lifetime in the grind houses. The snips were made by the projectionists, taking minute quantities of the sexiest shots, presumably for their own private collections. (Did they project them as slides? Or did they splice them all together to create a succession of flash-frame images, no single one discernable long enough for individual delectation but all combining to produce a subliminally meaningful mosaic of sensationalism and prurience - and thus invent television?)
Whatever, here again a little fragment of American cinema history comes vividly back to life. Another reason to take these ludicrous old relics seriously, and to be ashamed for ever thinking them ludicrous old relics.

Clearly, both The White Gorilla and Devil Monster owe their presence in a box-set called 'Tales of Terror', indeed they probably owe their exhumation in the first place, to the fact that they sound sufficiently like horror films from their titles to be sneaked into a 50 film horror set. But there is no need to resort to such deception (however in-keeping it may be with the original exploitation ethic.) Package them as 'lost rarities of the expeditionary film' and we'll still buy them, plus you'll feel better about yourself by actually serving a collectors' community rather than trying to hoodwink them.
These films, seemingly so fresh now for being so long out of circulation, are like delicious desserts that complement and complete the meal for which the true classics of their time serve as main course. To the historian of cinema they are of clear and certain value, to the fan of old movies they offer, if not quite revelations, then at least pure pleasure and a valuable sense of fleshing out the backgrounds and details of canvases dominated by the big studio heavyweights.
And the raw material never runs out. There is ton upon ton of this stuff hiding in vaults, waiting for its day to come again.
Keep going, chaps - and how about that Irene Ware box set?

Peter Benchley: Don't make the shark the villain



There's a film I haven't seen out at the moment, based on a book I haven't read.
Both are called And When Did You Last See Your Father? For all I know, they may both be brilliant.
But there's a moment in the film, and probably in the book, which, if I understand it correctly, cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
In this autobiographical story by Blake Morrison, the young author (Colin Firth) is at a literary party. The story concerns his relationship with his difficult father, played by Jim Broadbent, who for some reason is also at the party. With acute embarrassment, Jr observes Sr buttonholing Salman Rushdie at the other side of the room, and imagines what crass thing he might be saying to him. And the nightmare fantasy line he comes up with is: "So, have you read Jaws, then, Salman?"

Now, as I say, I've not seen the film, so I may have misunderstood the point of the moment. And I haven't read the book, so I can't simply dismiss that. (Though it is true that As If, another book by the same author, remains one of only two that I have disliked so much I had to actually destroy it rather than just throw it away.) But there is no point in pretending that Peter Benchley's Jaws is not a universally dismissed book, even by fans of the film, and largely, it would seem, because it was so incredibly popular.
Through most of my childhood, though alas no longer, it seemed to be the most omnipresent paperback in the world: every house had it, every jumble sale had at least three. Basil Fawlty reads it in bed. Mike Abbott, Sid's son in Bless This House, reads it at the kitchen table. In fact, I date the end of my youth by the first time I went into a charity shop and didn't see one. (It was the Friends video of its day.)
I still read it once a year, and every year I enjoy it more. More than that, though: every year I admire it more. It is, I am certain, a terrific book. I'm tempted to call it the best book Hemingway never wrote.

It's much more rambling and contemplative than the movie, which was a deliberate exercise in streamlining and paring down the original work so that all that remained was the bare bones story of a town menaced by a giant shark and the three mismatched individuals who set out in pursuit of it.
The book, by contrast, uses the shark almost as a backdrop, as counterpoint to the main body of the tale, which is a portrait of the paunchy, middle-aged and vaguely dissatisfied police chief of a seaside town who finds himself called upon to react to an inexplicable crisis and behave with honour. The book is filled with characters either written out or vastly reduced in the film, and with sub-plots and tangents.
Of the three main characters, Quint is pretty much as film fans will recognise him, but Hooper is an unprincipled, rather smug rich kid, and is killed in his shark cage, while Brody himself is a much more complicated, flawed and less instantly likeable character than Roy Scheider's version.
History has recorded it as a cheap, trashy paperback but it is anything but: it is filled with sharp, bare Hemingwayesque detail and some wonderful dialogue. Where it does not match the standard of the film - because it is not its business to - is in suspense and action. The whole second half of the film occurs in the final eighth or so of the novel, and while the initial shark attack has something of the shock of the film's, the climax is remarkable for its lack of drama and suspense. The whole business with the exploding gas tanks is not to be found here. Again, what we have is straight, clean, matter of fact; the shark dies, unspectacularly, as most things die.

What matters most are the people, and how they react under pressure.
The first half, which dwells on Brody's uneasy relationship with his wife (who, crucially, is not a newcomer to the island but a rich summer vacationer who married beneath her and stayed on), with Mayor Vaughan (who here has connections to organised crime), and with Hooper (who here has an affair with Brody's wife) are not padding: they set up the web of phoney relations between the characters, dictated by wealth and status and position, which the arrival of the shark makes obsolete. The shark is merely the catalyst, a metaphor almost, symbolic of that kind of crisis which erases artificial hierarchies and restores the primacy of courage and resourcefulness. Again, all very Hemingway.

Neither is it Benchley's only significant work. Though its immediate follow-up, The Deep, was - in both film and book versions - a calculatedly commercial endeavour of only light interest, his next, The Island is a really rather brilliant sociobiological meditation about a gang of seventeenth century buccaneers still living in Darwinian isolation on an island in Bermuda, the scientist who studies them and the journalist who is captured and imprisoned by them. Strangely, it made a lousy movie, partly because of the miscasting of Michael Caine in the lead, but also - despite Benchley's sole screenwriter credit - because of the stripping away of the novel's philosophical elements and the bizarre decision to make the pirates comic rather than terrifying and repulsive, as they are in the book. Again, it has a deliberately anti-climactic ending, jazzed-up only slightly in the film. It is his finest novel, better even than Jaws.
Of his later works, the gentle ecological fable The Girl of the Sea of Cortez and Beast, a return to Jaws territory with a marauding giant squid instead of a shark, are also far from negligible. Beast, incidentally, has Benchley's cleverest anti-climax, when, just as all seems lost, the squid is abruptly eaten by a whale. Needless to say, this was swapped for a big explosion when the story was filmed, most enjoyably, as a tv movie.

Admirably, Benchley used the rewards of Jaws to raise the profile of shark conservation, to which he devoted the rest of his life. In a late-nineties article, he went so far as to write:

I couldn't possibly write Jaws today. We know so much more about sharks - and, just as important, about our position as the single most careless, voracious, omnivorous destroyer of life on earth - that the notion of demonizing a fish strikes me as insane.

In accounting for the success of Jaws he was fond of quoting E. O. Wilson: "We're not just afraid of predators, we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters." In this light, it is clear that all of Benchley's major works are concerned with Wilsonian sociobiology, as applied to the natural world (ecology) and human psychology (Hemingwayesque existentialism).

Peter Benchley died, well before his time, of pulmonary fibrosis, in 2006. He was a fine writer whose misfortune was to have had one enormous popular success that pigeonholed him as the kind of writer he in fact never was, nor had any inclination to be.
His later works are, perhaps, uneasy compromises between what he wanted to write and what publishers demanded. As a result, they fell between stools and none repeated the amazing commercial success of the first.
This may have added to the misgivings he sometimes expressed over the content of Jaws in later life. Not long before his death he said: "Any story about an animal that I would write today would have to portray the animal as the victim, not the villain."
Which, sadly, is not the kind of story they hand out million dollar advances for.

(Postscript, 2013: My reference to Friends videos in charity shops already looks as nostalgic as the memory of such establishments being stuffed to the gills with Jaws paperbacks! I suppose the 2013 equivalent would be the autobiography of that insufferable turd Russell Brand, though I pray as well as expect that this will itself seem an equally esoteric observation with time. Hopefully even by the time you're reading this.)

The Female Laurel & Hardy



Deciding what endures as classic and what is left to moulder in the can is an essentially arbitrary process, informed as much by such factors as availability of prints, individual tastes of archivists and restorers, the accident of whatever was most popular at the time and the short memories of audiences as by anything approaching objective consensus. And the spectacle of lost films being rediscovered and belatedly taking their place in the pantheon of greats is hardly rare. 
So it is odd to reflect that there exists an entire body of work – nearly forty short films – that has completely fallen off the map, yet is so manifestly of interest to historians, cineastes and general audiences. By whatever criterion of worth one wishes to adopt – historical significance, artistic merit, importance to students of the genre, funniness – they are as rewarding as the works of any other thirties comic artists.

Thelma Todd, an ice cream blonde with a persona that chimed perfectly with her times, did fine support work for Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers and a few straight roles on pre-Hays women’s pictures. (Alas, she is perhaps best known for her mysterious death, which was certainly nasty, almost certainly murder, and sufficiently shrouded in rumour and conspiracy to warrant a chapter in Hollywood Babylon and a tv movie.)
Zazu Pitts was a durable supporting character comedienne who upstaged a number of headliners (among them Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Francis the Talking Mule and the entire cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) between 1917 and her death in 1963. (Her early dramatic appearances including lead work in Von Stroheim’s Greed and The Wedding March were swiftly forgotten when her forte for comedy was discovered, and by 1930, it is claimed, her straight appearance in All Quiet On The Western Front had to be cut after preview audiences laughed at the sight of her.)
Bringing the two together for a series of double-act short farces was the brainchild of producer Hal Roach, whose production company supported a vast array of star and supporting comics. The most famous of all were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and in Todd and Pitts Roach was convinced he had found their female alter egos.
So Thelma is the savvy girl about town who knows the angles but somehow seems to miss out on the lucky breaks. Zasu is slow, gangly, and accident-prone and a constant threat to Todd’s attempts to appear sophisticated. Working, rooming, socialising with Todd’s smart city-girl, Pitts has trouble opening sofa beds and tins of milk, is scared of mice, and says things like “I’ve only been away from the farm for about a year.”

The most widely seen of their films, because Laurel and Hardy make an in-joke appearance at the end, is, thankfully, a beauty. On The Loose (1931) begins with the two returning from yet another visit to Coney Island: apparently the unimaginative choice of every single pair of city slickers that takes them out on a date. Zasu has sand in her shoes, and both are griping about men, and reflecting on the line of knick-knacks on their shelves, each a prize from previous trips to Coney. With slow, naturalistic languor, they keep up this running commentary as they undress and get into their shared double-bed where, beautifully picked out in moonlight, their recollections gradually change tone from resentment to nostalgic amusement, and as the scene fades they are helpless with laughter.

After twenty or so films, Patsy Kelly replaced Zasu’s measured, nasal musing with raucous machine gun wisecracks and graceless comments in inappropriate settings. She is brash, far more attractive than she is supposed to be, and like Stan Laurel she can hit a spoon in such a way as to make it fly in the air and land in a wine glass.
(Despite only taking the lead in one feature film [1936’s Kelly the Second], Irish-American Kelly enjoyed a long career in comic support, often in servant roles, and finished in elderly character spots, mainly for Disney but also in Rosemary’s Baby and Sam Fuller's Naked Kiss; she died in 1981.
Actually, to call her comic support is a little disingenuous: she’s a shameless scene-hogger, even without dialogue. Cast as Billie Burke’s maid in Topper’s Return she spends the greater part of the film stood behind her pulling faces while she speaks.
An outspoken, unabashed lesbian, Kelly contributes a delightful interview to Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians (in which the author exercises his moral duty to hector unwilling, elderly actresses into revealing aspects of their private lives they wish to remain private while simultaneously asking them almost nothing about their fascinating films and careers). But Kelly's chapter is a joy; she's happy to talk openly, and you can hear her voice barking out every snappy reply. Asked if she had a crush on Jean Harlow she replies, “The Pope Catholic?” And here she is on Mae West: “the dame’s illiterate and she’s got whole generations believin’ she wrote her own movies – bullshit!”)

With Kelly's arrival, a new kind of sassiness enters the films, and knowing that she is a lesbian makes the often casual physical intimacy of her relationship with Thelma seem all the more fascinating. This certainly comes to the fore in Babes in the Goods (1934), in which they are trapped overnight in the display window of a department store and must undress and share a bed, with the voyeuristic approval of Roach drunk Arthur Housman, leading an enthusiastic contingent of street-level onlookers.
Their relationship even achieves touching, Stan and Ollie-like proportions in Top Flat (1935), where a disagreement over Thelma's reluctance to contribute the household coffers, and instead to sit around writing pretentious poetry, leads to them going their separate ways. Later, when Patsy sees Thelma in a luxury apartment building she assumes she has become a famous poet; she is, in fact, merely the occupant's maid. Patsy turns up unexpectedly with two musical friends, and their loud, crass behaviour, and obliviousness to Thelma's discomfort, is played beautifully for farce.
.
Roach had in fact already attempted the ‘female Laurel and Hardy’ experiment with Marion Byron and Anita Garvin but it hadn’t taken, unsurprisingly since the chief strength of Laurel and Hardy’s on-screen relationship is that it is accidental, organic, instinctive. No pre-thought could have conceived of so deep and eccentric a marriage, still less attempt to cast it. Producing a female Laurel and Hardy as if from ingredients in a cake was a risky tactic, since what you were liable to end up with is lifeless pastiche, as meaningful as one of those MGM shorts in which all the parts are played by dogs.
Which is to say that the Todd/Pitts/Kelly films shouldn't have worked either, and it's surely true that on a first encounter with them you won't be able to avoid making comparisons.
Dialogue is by their regular writer HM Walker, and incidental music instantly recognisable from their soundtracks plays throughout. Stan and Ollie’s stock company (Arthur Housman, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, Anita Garvin) are mostly present, albeit cast with a little more freedom than usual. The characterisation and writing are often pleasingly subtle, the situations broad.

I thinks it's fair to say that the Todd-Kelly films are by and large superior to the Todd-Pitts ones, even though it is hard to say precisely why. Certainly Pitts is as capable a comic actress in her own idiom as Kelly is in hers. No, the sole difference as far as I can see is that Pitts was cast in deliberate imitation of Stan Laurel, whereas Kelly was a substitute (and an admirably left-field one) introduced when the format was already off and running. So the need to play it exactly like Stan and Ollie had abated, and Kelly could do her own thing.
This also liberates and ventilates Todd’s characterisation; her one-note desperation at Pitts’s general helplessness now replaced by a more varied set of responses to a character by turns infuriating, ingratiating, sympathetic, crass, loud, resourceful, cynical and often in knowing opposition to her social pretensions. Now the films revolve around Todd’s anger at Kelly’s refusal to conform to her standards of social behaviour, rather than Pitts’s mere inability to.
This is not to denigrate the Pitts films. Both series are rich and strange things. They all have the tang of reality about them, in the dialogue, deliciously salted with the slang and clichés and lost topical references of their time and place, in the settings, and in the attitudes displayed by the girls towards the situations they encounter.

It seems obvious that a lot of the dialogue is improvised. You get a sense of it in such scenes as the one in Catch as Catch Can (1931) where Todd and Pitts continue a private conversation while simultaneously working as hotel reception telephonists. While chatting and taking calls they also keep up a fast and detailed commentary on the callers (“It’s the guy in 476 asking for more ice; now what can one man want with all that ice?”) It has the snap and pace of real speech, and it’s very funny.
One is instantly struck by the desire to speak specifically to female audiences via a concentration upon such areas of common experience as the inscrutability of boyfriends, social one-upmanship and the changing pace of city living. (The stars often play shop girls griping about difficult customers and demanding bosses – they are always being fired, giving notice or newly hired.) And sometimes they really do surprise you: Todd and Kelly’s complete inability to take care of a baby in Babes In The Goods contrasts markedly with Stan and Ollie’s casual mastery of parenthood in Their First Mistake (1932).

And since these are at all times Hal Roach films, there’s always a fair measure of clothes falling off and random, fatalistic slapstick.
This latter plays especially oddly - odd for all the reasons that Roach slapstick is odd anyway, plus a whole bunch more because it’s happening to girls. (This is of course largely by force of habit: Hal Roach does slapstick. Like Republic Studios, so used to the conventions of the low budget westerns in which they specialised that even their horror films tend to have lots of barroom brawls and stagecoach chases in them, it’s largely instinctive. The idea that it might play differently when a landlady keeps horrendously banging her head on her window than it does when it’s Charlie Hall would probably have never occurred to Roach, though it’s pleasant to remember that he gave Todd her contract in the first place was because, by his own account, she was elegant and sexy but looked to be the sort of gal who nonetheless wouldn’t mind falling on her ass or taking a pie in the face.)

But Roach, unlike Sennett, say, really did have one eye on social reality.
He seemed to sense instinctively that an obvious way of attracting an audience is to show them aspects of their own lives, and speak in something like their own voice. Chaplin may have made more show of dealing with the human condition, but there is something very abstract and symbolic about his world. Roach’s films lack this universal vagueness. They are set clearly in America, in the twenties or thirties, in times of often harsh deprivation and much struggling to stay above water.
There is something utterly convincing about – to pick an example more or less at random – the disreputable tavern in Our Relations (1936) where Laurel and Hardy are taken to the cleaners by a pair of keenly delineated opportunist good time girls. In One Good Turn (1931) they are knocking on doors offering to chop wood in exchange for a sandwich at a time when thousands of Americans were doing exactly that. Many of these films were made in the pre-Code Depression years and are surprisingly frank in their treatment of sexuality, poverty, drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution and other forms of exploitation.
The Todd-Pitts-Kelly films, by offering a woman’s angle on this world (hesitantly at first but soon with assurance and aplomb and despite all-male credits behind the cameras) seem even more sharp and alive to the pulse of their times.
Asleep In the Feet (1933), for example, is about taxi dancing: Thelma and Zasu are invited by neighbour Anita to supplement their daily earnings by working at a seedy dance hall run by an unusually nervous Billy Gilbert. The sense of depression-era desperation is clear and strong, the matter-of-fact specificity of its socio-historic trappings remarkably potent.
The backgrounds and situations sometimes achieve documentary-like vividness – so much so that when they start slipping on nailbrushes and falling in the bath the effect is almost allegorical. It’s as if the bad luck these characters are afflicted with goes far beyond economic deprivation and into almost cosmic realms, and the films start to look like Schopenhauer had a hand in the writing.

Social status humour is a staple used throughout the films, often in bizarrely contrived set-ups.
Invited to a fashionable birthday party under false pretences in Pajama Party (1931), Thelma instructs Zasu to behave only as others do. She passes a group of bright young things reclining in patio furniture, just too late to hear the line “I don’t care what you say, I know perfectly well a girl can fall off a horse from that position and break her shoulder” but in time to see the two disputants illustrate their respective conceptions of what position a girl would be in if she has just fallen off a horse, and hold the poses as a lively debate ensues. Ever keen to not look out of place, she joins them on the floor, languidly assuming an equally bizarre contortion.
A later Todd-Kelly film, Soup and Fish (1934) restages the same basic premise, but now it is not Zasu’s gaucheness but Patsy’s open antagonism toward social pretension that Thelma has to worry about (always in addition, of course, to those less predictable indignities that the Roach universe heaps on its denizens). Patsy has for some reason acquired a loutish mania for hand buzzers and similar practical joke gadgets, and Thelma ends by suffering the twin embarrassments of having a hand-buzzer down the back of her dress and a companion whose immediate response is to rise to her feet and clap in time with her gyrations, then ring out a melody on the wine glasses with her knife and fork.
Even as the guests make it clear that a woman of her sort is not welcome among their ranks, Thelma still retains a measure of additional embarrassment at being seen there in the company of Patsy. (Though like Ollie she is indomitable in her refusal to crawl away and die: even after falling clothed into a bath in Pajama Party she tries to save face, first by feigning amusement, then by pretending to scrub herself with a loofah fully dressed.)
The series seems to deliberately strive for this kind of cosmic surrealism by building bizarre catastrophes from the most prosaic foundations. The Charley Chase-directed Bargain of the Century (1933) begins with Thelma and Zasu deciding to buy some new sheets. By asking a policeman to help protect them from the crush of other customers they accidentally get him fired and guiltily invite him back to their flat for dinner. Then they mistake Billy Gilbert for a senior policeman and invite him too in the hope of getting the first one reinstated. Instead, he decides to attempt a magic trick with Gilbert’s watch; it ends up smashed to pieces in the ice cream. Then, with what passes for inevitability in Roach’s universe, Gilbert goes berserk and starts destroying clocks. .

The Todd-Pitts sequence ended in an unfortunate and unnecessary way. Though Roach hired both stars at the same time, Todd’s contract ran six months longer to prevent the pair striking together for a pay rise when the time came to renew contracts. With Todd still on his books, Pitts’s position would be weakened, and Roach could always threaten to team Thelma with someone else.
This was in fact standard policy for Roach teams, and is the reason why, when Stan Laurel got a little uppity in 1939, the peculiar Zenobia got made. (A teaming of Oliver Hardy with Harry Langdon, silent superstar long since reduced to lowly Roach gag-writer, it was not a success, thus inadvertently strengthening Laurel’s bargaining position and also denying us ‘The Hardys’, a projected series with Ollie as the harassed head of an all-American household.)
If Roach thought a female Laurel and Hardy would be easier to intimidate he miscalculated: Pitts walked out and continued her successful career elsewhere. Todd remained, and resumed business as usual with Kelly, until fate intervened tragically when she was found dead in her garage in December 1935.
Roach tried matching Kelly and Pert Kelton (who had co-starred with Todd in her last completed feature Lightning Strikes Twice, released only a couple of weeks before her death), then with Lyda Roberti, but after just two films Roberti also died, at the age of twenty-seven.