Laurel & Hardy's Laughing Forties

I have many favourite Laurel & Hardy films.
There are far fewer, in fact, that don't qualify as favourites. I can't honestly put my hand on my heart and say that there are any I don't like at all.

Nonetheless, there is a top drawer and a bottom drawer, and part of the purpose of this post is to nominate the following for the top drawer:
Unaccustomed As We Are (1929), Berth Marks (1929), Men O'War (1929), Jitterbugs (1943) and The Bullfighters (1945).
In so doing, I am not, emphatically not, denying masterpiece status to Going Bye-Bye or Helpmates or Pardon Us or Below Zero or Pack Up Your Troubles or just about any other of the great products of Laurel & Hardy's classic period.
They are all transcendent, heartbreaking, beautiful things. Though I'll admit that Way Out West and The Music Box seem to me somewhat smaller than their reputation, certainly I would quarrel not with the bestowing of masterpiece status on the likes of Sons of the Desert, Blockheads and Our Relations.
Nonetheless, these five neglected films from the two neglected ends of their career in talkies do seem to need a little extra help, and so I shall be putting their case below.

On behalf of Stan and Ollie themselves I am assuming no case needs making.
Stan Laurel, perfectionist and ideas man, Oliver Hardy, superb interpretive actor (and fully Stan’s equal as a comic presence) produced in collaboration a unique comedy – alternately incredibly subtle and incredibly broad – seemingly as without precedent as it is without inheritors.
The appeal of few other comedians is as hard to define, or to convey to those unfortunates not already spellbound. Sheer professionalism has a lot to do with it, natural chemistry a lot more, a happy ability to inspire warmth and goodwill in their audience still more again, but on top of all that is that final layer that defies analysis: like Morecambe and Wise their material is by no means consistently strong yet in both cases that is somehow beside the point, the point being the men themselves and the world they create in front of you, and invite you into.

I love their earliest talkies; most writers on the duo view them as at least inferior, if not actually disastrous like those we will arrive at shortly.
They were stars in the silent era, and many traditionalists insist that this was when they did their best work. But sound added a necessary finishing touch. Indeed, with the ambiguous exception of W. C. Fields (ambiguous because, though he made some silent comedies, it was only really in the sound era that he became a star comedian rather than comic actor) they are the only silent comics to have been actually improved by the transition to sound. Others may have weathered it with varying degrees of success, only Stan and Ollie derived benefit. This was due mainly to the happy accident of their both having not only pleasing voices – Ollie’s with the tang of Old Southern gentility, Stan’s rootless with just the ghost of Ulverston behind the curtain – but also voices that seemed to match their personae.

Yet from the first they clearly vowed to take on the talkies and master them, not reluctantly accommodate them. Their very first sound film, delightfully titled Unaccustomed as We Are shows this determination and succeeds brilliantly: already the film is filled with sound jokes involving off-screen action. At the end Stan falls down the stairs out of shot, and the joke is conveyed not visually but with a massive crash symbolising some horrendous calamity we cannot see.
This is a wonderful example of the team's domestic horror films, later reworked in Blockheads, with Ollie naively bringing Stan home to dinner on the assumption that his terrifying wife will instantly warm to him. It has a sharpness to it that would be smoothed out as the formula became fixed; it also has Thelma Todd as the neighbour who ends up in a packing case in her underwear.

Provided the joke and the comedians are funny in the first place, I have a soft spot for single jokes being relentlessly milked for all they're worth.
This technique reaches perfection in the generally unpopular Berth Marks, which spends most of its running time in a cramped sleeping compartment with the duo as they attempt to get undressed and go to sleep. Like A Perfect Day, another of their one-joke movies, it leaves some audiences tense and irritated, but anyone who finds pleasure in the endless repetition of Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer should get the point, and if you are on its wavelength it becomes one of those dangerously hilarious films that don't leave you enough breathing space between laughs, and leave you beetroot-hued and gasping, often in a crumpled heap some distance from the chair you were sat in.

My favourite of all these early shorts is Men O’War which combines glorious jazz age settings with some fine slapstick in a row boat and one of the team's best dialogue sketches: the soda fountain routine. Stan and Ollie are entertaining two girls and only have enough money for three drinks; the idea is that Stan will refuse a drink and he and Ollie will secretly share. But every time Ollie attempts to pull of the deceit ("Soda... soda... soda... and my dear Stan - what will you have?") Stan requests a drink. Again, the joke lies in repetition, in this case the repetition of a single misunderstanding despite more than adequate attempts to correct it each time. Confused, Stan simply cannot grasp that he should turn the drink down; Ollie for his part does not expect the true situation to become clear no matter how often he summons Stan away, remonstrates with him, and goes through it all again.

These films were all made at the Hal Roach studios, which provided exactly the right creative environment for the team to flourish throughout the thirties. What happened in 1940 is sometimes blamed on sheer bad luck, sometimes on friction between Roach and Laurel, and sometimes on the Faustian lure of the Hollywood sell-out. Whatever the actual motive or cause, the team left Roach in a superficially advantageous move to Twentieth Century Fox; they would also make two films for MGM, who had distributed their Roach films.
The results were a basically inferior crop of films made without sympathy for the team’s methods, or in many cases much awareness of their style, in which Stan soon learned he was expected to take no creative part other than as an actor.

And yet, I watch these films a lot, and there is fun to be had here, though few of the standard books on the duo have anything but venom for them. Doug McClelland’s Golden Age of B-Movies makes an affectionate case for The Big Noise, often said to be among the worst of all, but over-eggs the pudding somewhat by trying to downgrade the Roach films, which he reckons “can often be annoyingly repetitious and long-winded”.

Finally, the right book did come along: Laurel and Hardy from the Forties Forward by Scott MacGillivray. It's the ideal introduction for reluctant fans to the slim but definite pleasures of these final efforts; he never tries to hail then as neglected masterpieces, or even hint that they might surpass any of the Roach work, but he does make much of the received wisdom on them seem unnecessarily severe and carping, and sends you back to them with fresh eyes and perspectives.
I certainly think there is a good compilation waiting to be made from the highlights of these films, and two at least, Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters seem to me to need no special pleading at all.
Certainly, they are not as fine as Sons of the Desert. Certainly, they attempt to reshape Laurel and Hardy to fit the mould of a very different era of comedy: the slicker, brasher, more wisecracking forties style, radio-influenced, typified by Hope and Benny and Bud and Lou. I once wrote, in defence of these films, that "though not a patch on the Roach films they are still eight Laurel and Hardy movies out of a total that is finite and can never be increased: maybe you can be cavalier with statistics like that, but I say any Laurel and Hardy film is better than one fewer Laurel and Hardy film".
But I've just watched Jitterbugs and The Bullfighters again and I think I want to go further. Both have faults, but both are fine comedies with many great scenes in each, and neither disgraces the duo in any way. I hereby elevate them to front rank status.

The Cukor Touch

To say of any director that what one remembers most in their films are the performances may seem a backhanded kind of compliment, but George Cukor was happy to be known as the consummate actor’s director, especially noted for his skill in getting the best from often temperamental actresses.
Katharine Hepburn, Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow all repaid his sympathetic attention with some of their finest work. He once explained that he preferred to watch actors’ faces, as opposed to directors who like “showing doorknobs being turned, things like that.”

He was also one of Hollywood’s subtlest and most literate directors, with an especial gift for perfectly pitched dialogue scenes and for preserving the essence of plays and novels. His David Copperfield (1934) remains the best Hollywood ever did by Charles Dickens, and while he wasn’t quite able to turn Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer (combined age: 82) into Romeo and Juliet (1936) it is hard to imagine any other director in town capable even of trying.
.His confidence in juggling large star casts was first evidenced in Dinner at Eight (1933), a sublime attempt to recreate the all-star success of Grand Hotel, distinguished in particular by a superb comic performance from Jean Harlow. This rare talent for keeping fragile egos happy without disrupting the fabric of ensemble narratives made him the ideal choice for The Women (1939), which manages quite miraculously to show Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine all at or near their best. By the same token, there is no doubt that the vivid spectacle so ably handled by Victor Fleming in Gone With the Wind (1939) would have carried far less emotional weight if Cukor had not been there first to coax and encourage so complete a performance from Vivien Leigh.
He directed Garbo twice and Joan Crawford four times, but the actress with whom he was most fruitfully associated was Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn’s brittle, prickly style only occasionally translated into box office, but Cukor, more than any other director, was able to bring out her more vulnerable and human facets without ever compromising her authority. He also underlined her versatility by casting her in literary adaptations (Little Women, 1935) sophisticated comedy (Holiday, 1938) and such unclassifiable oddities as Sylvia Scarlet (1935) through much of which she is disguised as a boy.

Adam’s Rib (1949) is the best of her co-starring vehicles with Spencer Tracy and arguably Cukor’s last masterpiece, but their finest collaboration of all is The Philadelphia Story (1940), with Hepburn’s Tracy Lord an unforgettable mix of ice and fragility and Cary Grant and James Stewart similarly responding to Cukor’s touch by contributing performances that combine their customary qualities with new found nuances and subtleties. With Cukor, even such seasoned supporting players as Roland Young and John Halliday, who couldn’t give a bad performance if they tried, manage to raise their game a notch and turn in their finest work. Watch it again and you will notice that not only do the three stars have great scenes separately and all together but also in every combination of two. The same applies in The Women, which stages a menagerie of star performances as a series of attractive pairs and trios.

His best work is additionally characterised by an unfussy precision in all technical details. Camera placement, set dressing, lighting and composition are always as unobtrusive as they are perfectly judged. For Cukor good direction is invisible, the director who announces his presence with showy technique and effect without meaning has failed in his job. Something like Gaslight (1944), for instance, essentially a barnstorming melodrama quite unsuited for him, becomes in his hands a thing of sheer elegance, sumptuously detailed and magnetically performed by Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and, safe in his hands, the untested Angela Lansbury.

As with several of his peers, the collapse of the studio system left him with little option other than safe, expensive ‘prestige’ films. Glossy handling, big budgets and attractive stars were not enough to turn My Fair Lady (1964) or The Blue Bird (1976) into projects worthy of his gifts, though his instinctive rapport with actresses did coax some nice work from Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love (1960).
Under the circumstances it hardly mattered that Rich and Famous (1981) was a basically unsuccessful update of Old Acquaintance: the point, surely, is that it was made at all, and that the 82 year old Cukor was still around to make it.

At last! A film about a duchess or something

When did things start being 'about' other things?

By which I mean, when in everyday speech did things first become routinely described as 'about' things, and just as importantly 'not about' other things, as in "it's not about you, it's about me!" or "this isn't about your career, it's about our marriage"?
My memory puts it not much earlier than 1990 or so, round about the same time that "she said" mutated into "she was, like", the origins of both probably to be found in the weird, quasi-naturalistic scripts of the tv programme Eastenders. If I'm right, it must qualify as the most ubiquitous anachronism in modern film and drama. No period is too distant, no speaker too formal, for things or situations to be about or not about other things or situations.

Now we have Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire doing it. But then, so much currency has been made of this film's parallels with more recent experience that it could be deliberate. Other common anachronisms in which this film likewise indulges most certainly are.

It is obvious that certain everyday aspects of distant history are now so remote from common experience that they have to be ignored by modern dramatists simply so as to make sense to modern viewers. But it is less widely acknowledged, but just as clear, that certain aspects of the contemporary worldview are deemed so essential to our basic sense of ourselves as humans that they must be grafted on to all historical narratives, willingly sacrificing verisimilitude to avoid the hoots of derision that would arise from characters not conforming to them. Shouting at each other in public is an example of this, and all other manifestations of the inability to control emotions, impulses or desires, and keep thoughts and opinions private. Ditto sexual promiscuity, the free granting of sexual access at the initial stages of courtship and swearing.
We know from old television that even as recently as the 1950's the middle classes spoke with the kind of cut glass precision that would now be laughed off the screen even if uttered by, say, a Victorian aristocrat. Joanna Lumley is about as posh as even the poshest historical characters are now allowed to sound.

Something else we insist upon is conformity to contemporary standards of physical attractiveness, not in women so much as men. The oily-quiffed Roman centurions of the Tony Curtis era may strike us as hilarious now, but still we insist on having 18th century characters ripping off their shirts to reveal the kind of absurdly deformed bodies that speak of many a long and narcissistic hour in those temples of Hitlerian perfectionism known euphemistically as 'health clubs', as if the basically sedentary life of the average Whig aristocrat, massive banquets and long days of attending to business interspersed with the occasional mannered dance and stag hunt, could possibly leave him with the pectoral definition of an Action Man doll.

The Duchess is basically the usual sort of thing.
It's not much better or worse than the others, barring one brilliantly directed scene in which Keira Knightley's hair catches alight at a party. But I still lost interest fairly quickly: it's basically the usual story of idiots ruining their own lives and the lives of others in an ever-widening circle of selfishness and emotional incontinence. Such twerps were comparatively rare in the eighteenth century, that greatest of all centuries, but rest assured: if any existed at all, we of the twenty-first will find them and make celebratory movies about the messes they made.

The other thing you have to quickly come to terms with about this film is that it's about Whigs, whom years of reading Johnson have conditioned me to view as essentially comic figures, like Jehovah's Witnesses. No doubt there were greater and lesser ones as there are in all clubs, but still I hear the Doctor snapping impatiently at my magnanimity: "They are vile Whigs, and there's an end on't!"
The earlier parts are interesting, and there are some very good chilly meal scenes, filmed in longshot with the characters at either ends of an absurdly long table. But it all got pretty silly by the end, with the characters yelling at each other in public and staggering about weeping. No doubt the sequence of events is historically accurate, but as to the character motivation: I just don't believe it.

But still, it's Keira.
Some say her best performance yet, and quite possibly so. Who cares, really? It's Keira. Let her give any kind of performance she wants, I say. Have her come on reading her lines off sheets of paper; see if I care.

"The quickest way to bond with another woman is to ask them what they think of Keira Knightley."
I heard two women saying this as they walked past me in Muswell Hill the other day. I didn't get to hear what the adhesive opinion would inevitably be, but from the tone of voice I'm guessing it's not favourable. The review of this film in The Spectator takes issue with "her distracting quirks, like the pout, and the way her nose pinches in at the end when she is about to cry."
Who does it remind you of? This talk of mannerisms and affectations, coupled paradoxically with boundless fascination in the print media, endless close-ups on screen, and the general ability to open just about any film purely on the strength of what Variety used to call 'the femme ticket'?
It's Bette Davis. Keira is not Bette Davis, of course. But then, who is? So she'll do while we're waiting.

Arthur Askey: He showed symptoms of being able to amuse

Arthur Askey's autobiography reproduces the following review of an early stage appearance:

Mr Arthur Askey is a very short man with red hair and a pair of very large horn-rimmed spectacles... He showed symptoms of being able to amuse in a way of his own... He did not dance, but looks as if he could.

Not the most auspicious critical hurrah ever penned perhaps, but there have certainly been worse, and it's more or less right in its essentials: he was a very short man with red hair and glasses, he could dance, after a fashion, and those symptoms of being able to amuse would soon develop into a full-blown case of delighting several generations.
Physically, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey is a quite amazing specimen: five foot two, with slicked-back hair that falls in lanky curtains when the comedy gets physical and round glasses set in slightly abnormal, undeveloped features; he looks pale and misshapen, covered in liver spots and freckles.
But when he’s in flight, your eyes never leave him; he knows how to play the imagined cinema audience as surely as he commanded a live one.

Today, I suppose, he is most famous for being the man who sings “The Bee Song”, and other less instantly hummable comic numbers. (Of all his comic songs, my favourite is “All To Specification”, an ode to jerry-built housing:

Our bathroom’s rather small but really all that we require,
The plughole’s always bunged up so I poke it with a wire,
We’ve got two taps marked HOT and COLD but one of them’s a liar
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!
The gable-end fell down today and messed things up a bit,
The builder he came round and said, I knows the cause of it,
The bricks ain’t had no mortar on, they stuck them on with spit
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!)

After success in concert parties and variety, his big break came with the BBC radio series Band Waggon, the most popular and anarchic comedy show of the thirties, performed with the impeccable assistance of the great Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, a beautifully stylish performer, later co-writer and star of the impossibly perfect Much Binding In The Marsh.

Purporting to be an account of how the radio series first came to the air, Band Waggon the movie (1939) is a joy because it is basically a revue; like the Crazy Gang’s Okay For Sound it eschews plot and just threads together set pieces and turns from stacks of top, middle and lower variety acts of the time, headed by Jack Hylton and his orchestra. The great Pat Kirkwood (who died on Christmas Day last year) joins Big and Stinker in a splendid number called “The Only One Who’s Difficult Is You” and leads the chorus in a joyous rendition of “the rage of two continents – that crazy number “Boomps-a-Daisy”.”
It’s a totally successful translation of the radio show to the screen, full of the kind of energy and sarky confidence typical of performers who know damned well they’re the hottest thing around just now.
Askey’s unfamiliarity with the process of making movies – in his autobiography he recalls how he turned up for the first day’s shooting having learned only the first few pages of script on the assumption that films were shot in sequence – has no visible effect on his performance, which hums with confidence and energy. And as it is a British comedy film made in 1939, there’s also a haunted castle and Moore Marriott. And an exploding goat.

Askey inherited both Marriott and Graham Moffat from Will Hay, and makes sound use of both, but you always notice when Murdoch’s not around. All three enliven Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940), one of those great hybrid titles like Alf’s Button Afloat, and not a straight adaptation of the play but a kind of riff on it. (That’s Phyllis Calvert, no less, doing the high class clowning as Stinker’s girlfriend – Askey even gets to kiss her full on the lips in drag.)

It was a brave try to launch Askey as a full-fledged movie star, but it was the next, The Ghost Train (1941), that struck gold: it remains Askey’s masterpiece. Odd, because there was really nothing new about it at all: Arnold Ridley’s famous play had already been adapted twice for the screen under its real name, as well as serving as obvious inspiration for two consecutive Hay-Moffat-Marriott films, Oh, Mr Porter! and Ask a Policeman.
It’s not a faithful adaptation by any means: the villains are predictably now fifth columnists, and Ridley’s main character has been split in two to accommodate Askey and Murdoch. But it remains the best version, as well as the spookiest of all the baddies-pretending-to-be-ghosts comedies, thanks to great sets and real atmosphere. The moment when the ghost train rushes through the deserted station rivals anything in The Cat and the Canary, aided by the intense performance of that great British actress Linden Travers.
Some of the best of all British comedy has relied on the surefire formula of one irritating comic stuck in a confined space with an assortment of irritable people: think Hancock in The Railway Journey or its unacknowledged remake The Lift, or Norman Wisdom on the train in One Good Turn. But both are amateurs alongside Askey here: he mercilessly pummels his victims with crass observations, end-of-the-pier gags and groundless good cheer.
The joke is partly that Askey’s faith in his likeability never falters now matter how often his efforts are repulsed, but mainly the fun of the attack itself: Askey’s barrage of quips, impersonations and inane suggestions for passing the time versus the undentable contempt of his fellow travellers, at least one of whom teeters constantly on the brink of doing him serious physical harm. The one song in the film, Askey’s delightful performance of “The Seaside Band” ends halfway through when the gramophone he is using for accompaniment is thrown on to the line. It is one of the supreme comic performances of British films.

Let’s hope Ridley had a sense of humour because Back Room Boy (1942) remade the story yet again, this time in a lighthouse (the surprise high-class cheesecake coming courtesy of a thin-gowned and soaking wet Googie Withers: British low comedy was an invaluable opportunity for posh leading ladies to kick off their corsets).
But in between came I Thank You (1941), easily the most graceful and satisfying of the Askey vehicles created expressly for him.
It’s a pot-pourri again; basically a sitcom but with several breaks for revue turns from the supporting bill. (Lily Morris, who plays a stuffy aristocrat all through the film steps out of character at the end for a lap of honour rendition of “Waiting At the Church”.) It fudges the decision of what Arthur the film character actually does by making him a theatrical; many of the later films falter in their efforts to account for this essentially impossible personality in reasonable narrative terms. No such trouble here, though: this is – for the last time, really – Askey at the height of his powers.
The first scene, with Askey waking up in Bond Street tube station and singing “Hello To The Sun” must have had an incredible impact at the time – and not even Formby could have pulled it off quite so infectiously. (A fascinating weird joke, too, as Arthur spots a dead ringer for Hitler among those sleeping, and is visibly relieved to discover he has a copy of the Jewish Chronicle.)
It’s also the best-proportioned use of Askey, Murdoch, Moffat and Marriott as a four-man team. There are some good lines for all of them, but more importantly, this is the film in which they really spark visually. They look like a team, not least in a large-scale slapstick scene, strong in both idea and execution, involving tins of brown paint and several dogs.
All this and the sheer joy of Askey and Murdoch singing together at the piano:

I’d share my last penny with you,
I’d split my last farthing in two.
We’ll go fifty-fifty on all I’ve got,
Half of everything is yours.

Then just when you think it can’t get more enchanting, they both tap dance. (Stinker’s really good.)
The film ends with a tube station full of air raid shelterers vigorously joining in with a vicious, incongruously jaunty singalong that goes:

Let’s get hold of Hitler,
String him up on high.
Anyone in favour?
Aye, Aye, Aye!

Part of Askey's appeal through the war years is attributable to the fact that his distinctive comic persona – the inveterate perfomer, irrepressible and irreverent even when circumstances demand sobriety – seemed to symbolise the preferred British attitude to adversity.

As already noted, it was back on the ghost train for Back Room Boy, with Moffat and Marriott but no Stinker, and you do miss him, especially when Askey inadvertently draws attention to the loss by conversing with himself. At last the writers have taken the plunge and made Askey a real man in a real world, with things to strive for and a girl to get: the only way from here is pathos, as nervously tried in King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942).
It's not too bad, but it's not vintage either, with Arthur as a weakling soldier who finds heroic reserves of bravery when he wields a sword he believes to be Exclibur. He eventually discovers what we knew all along - that the sword was a prank engineered by his fellow soldiers and his courage was all his own - but in an ending so funny and so right that nobody bothered to point out it totally undermines the entire film, he flings it into a lake, whereupon it is caught elegantly by a woman's arm.

Askey's film decline was inevitable in a sense: he was a revue comic with no business in movies, and we should be grateful that such was the professional excellence of British comedy cinema at this time we have even as much imperishable Askey celluloid as we do. From here, however, there was only one way to go, exacerbated by a foolish desire to launch him internationally, resulting in a pair of garish, pseudo-American odities: Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944), with musical guests aping Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters, and poor Arthur forced to crack wise in painfully obvious imimtation of Hope and Crosby.

Wisely, he hurried back to the stage, and then to television, where he triumphed in several series of Before Your Very Eyes in the early to mid fifties. The shows were deliberately under-rehearsed so as to conveny an infectious sense of fun, and Askey later claimed they pioneered the now standard television techniques of addressing the home audience, acknowleding the presence of cameras, walking on and off the set, and retaining fluffed lines and corpsing.
The programme's other great innovation was Sabrina (real name: Norma Sykes), a protegee of Askey's with platinum blonde hair, a cute, giggly personality and a pair of breasts that even today retain the capacity to startle and transfix audiences encountering them unawares or for the first time.
Endearingly unprofessional, Askey claimed she was deliberately chosen because "she had a lovely face and figure but could not act, sing, dance or even walk properly."

Stage success in a farce called The Love Match led to the chance to appear in a film version in 1954: though relentlessly frenetic it was a big hit, and led to another round of movies, alongside uninterrupted popularity in stage and tv.
His last film appearance (in the British sex comedy Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse) came in 1978, and he was still doing the Royal Variety Show in 1980 (at the age of 80). He published his autobiography Before Your Very Eyes in 1975. Entirely unghosted, it mixes the expected fascinating theatrical detail with some surprising revelations and deviations. There's an anecdote about Enoch Powell sending Askey a letter apologising for not knowing who he was when they met at a function, a rant about hooliganism at sporting events, a moving chapter about his late wife’s losing battle with senile dementia, and this about his hatred of horse racing:

I loathe owners, trainers, jockeys, bookies, commentators, punters, betting shops – anything at all to do with racing, except the horses themselves. Having seen the Grand National, it was always my ambition to throw a saddle over Mrs Mirabelle Topham and ride her over the appalling Aintree fences. I think that racing attracts the layabouts from every strata of society and if I were a dictator, I would stop racing of every kind. There is only one motive for the racegoer, and that is how to make money without working for it.

But fate at its cruellest eventually levelled him, and Askey died in 1982.
Since then, his popularity has fallen away, and his reputation is now sport for the ignorant. You may remember the Arthur Atkinson sketches in The Fast Show. Your grandchildren won't: a key difference between it and he.

Horrors enough

The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn.
Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.

No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.

Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.
It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.

And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. 
The code word is 'realism', the excuse that audiences have 'seen it all before' and need the cattle prod cranked up to a higher and higher voltage every time, just so they can feel anything at all.
Merrily we go, from the the fear of death to the threat of death to the enactment of death to the merciless savouring of death, and the torment of hopelessness. The more real the better: the more it should make us think - hang on, this could be happening to me - the less we seem to.
And the ride never stops, though every generation seems quaintly to assume that it will, that there is a height from which the bar cannot again be raised. That height of course is always: just where they want it. Which to the next generation means: just where those squares left it.

Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath. Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. Honestly I am.
I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did.
Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen.
In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose.
The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger.
You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disembowelled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer.
He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."

Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.

Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

Ah, yes: Anthony Newley. And ah, yes but even more so: Hieronymus Merkin. How small can a minority be before you have to find a new word to describe them?
An experiment: Take everyone in Britain and say 'Anthony Newley' to them. The majority, I suspect, will not know who you are talking about.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them for an opinion. The majority, I suspect, will not have one.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them what it is. The majority, I suspect, will express more than typical distaste.
Then take the minority who like him, whittle that down to the extreme minority who love him, and ask them what they think of Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).
The majority, I suspect, will say it's terrible.

That leaves perhaps the smallest minority of all time.
But nice to meet you, all the same.

I've had a thing for Newley ever since I saw him as a guest star in the tv series Fame and instantly recognised an entity utterly different from his surroundings. I asked my mother who he was and learned he was an old singing star with a spectacularly false performing style. I was hooked from then on.
We who love him understand why others find him so grating, yet are transfixed by the very qualities that others find so repellent. (People who like Barbra Streisand must be in the grip of something similar.) With his massive eyebrows, gurning facial expressions and flapping hands, his is one of the most uninhibitedly weird stage presences ever. Ditto his tremulous voice, alternately howling and confiding, with Hollywood schmaltz suddenly giving way to glass-cracking cockney. The songs, many of which he wrote, are odd mixes of old-style crooning, obscure jokes and gloomy introspection. He did movies, Broadway and Las Vegas. There was nothing he could not do, and all he did he did uniquely. I saw him live only once, as Scrooge in the Bricusse musical: no performer on any stage has ever impressed me as much.

For years I dreamed of this notorious film, an alternately self-worshipping and self-excoriating autobiographical art house musical extravaganza, starring the great man, written by the great man, produced and directed and scored by the great man, with his wife playing his wife, his kids playing his kids and Milton Berle playing the devil, in a wild and overblown mix of allegorical fantasy, X-rated sex scenes and rousing musical numbers. It was after a decade and more of imagining it that I finally got my hands on a copy - how could it not disappoint? The answer: somehow. For against all the odds it did not. It is everything they say, and more, more, more.

Hieronymus Merkin is undoubtedly the most controversial project with which Newley was ever associated. Slated or dismissed out of hand even by his staunch supporters and, to the rest, one of the great, bona fide disasters of film history, for Newley fans it is frequently criticised as pretentious, overblown, cynical and tasteless.
Yet it is also, inarguably, a work into which Newley poured an awful lot of himself, not just in terms of the level of commitment required of an actor-writer-songwriter-director but also in the often searingly revealing autobiographical elements of the screenplay. If you like the guy you simply have to accept that, whatever reservations you have about it, it is clearly a magnum opus, one of the most serious, revealing and personal works Newley ever created.

Parts of it are indeed naïve, and others try too hard to impress; nonetheless it's a remarkably ambitious and confident leap into yet another field of creativity for Newley.
It's essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand the man behind the music, and it's unlike any other film Hollywood has ever made. What on earth did Universal make of it when he showed it to them? On what pretext did he get the gig in the first place? Hollywood really was flailing in the late sixties: it is a mark of just how much Easy Rider had walloped the place that projects like this and Myra Breckinridge and The Last Movie and Zabriskie Point and The Seven Minutes even got a hearing, still more a green light. Yet even in such company, it is Newley's film that emerges, triumphantly, as the weirdest, least fathomable, most preposterous. It's fantastic, in every sense.

And it’s got terrific music. The songs in Merkin are as great as any he ever wrote and performed, mixing serious autobiographical lyrics with tunes to set you whistling for days as only he could. From ‘Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am’ (a jaunty confession of indiscretions past and predicted, with Newley merrily hailing himself as outsinning Dracula and Jack the Ripper), to the simple and incredibly poignant ‘Lullaby’, and from the haunting, indeed disturbing ‘Sweet Love Child’ to the raucous ‘On the Boards’, the film displays something like its creator’s full range of mood and expression in the medium of popular song.
When Newley the director finds visuals to match the music the film can be stunning: witness Merkin at the top of a mountain bellowing ‘I’m All I Need’.

A man is alone from the day he's born
To the day that they close his eyes.
And if anyone tells you anything else,
He's telling you a pack of lies.
I need no God, I believe no dreams,
And it seems that I've always known
That we laugh and cry,
That we hope and sigh
And we live and we die

The song, like most in this collection, exists in a variety of versions, and while the expression of atheism in the soundtrack version is clear enough other recordings go even further (‘There is no God, and if any poor clod thinks otherwise he’s a fool…’).

As with Newley’s theatre work these songs of great immediacy and appeal are inserted into an audacious allegorical framework, which here takes the form of the recollections of an entertainer undergoing a mid-life crisis.
This many-layered structure begins with Newley/Merkin telling the story of his life to his family on a beach next to an enormous pile of ephemera relating to events in his life. This then leads into reconstructions, songs, fantasies and deviations, frequently interrupted by other sequences that fictitiously depict the film itself being shot, argued over and changed even as we watch it. The result is a mess of bizarre imagery and strange ideas, shot through with autobiographical reminiscences of Newley’s/Merkin’s marriages, career, fantasies, fears and even specific events such as the death of his first child.
This is not to say that Newley was altogether happy about the film being viewed in this way; in promotional interviews he went out of his way to stress that it was not an autobiography, merely a personal fantasy informed inevitably by what he called the flotsam and jetsam of his life. Such protestations must ultimately ring hollow in the light of the work itself, however, and in particular the film’s take on what was at the time his ongoing marriage to Joan Collins would on its own have given him ample reason to want to distance himself from the film’s naked honesty. (Joan Collins has cited the film as contributing to their break-up.)
It is hard, also, not to detect at least as much self-doubt as hubris in Newley’s delightfully bizarre attempt to describe the film to a BBC interviewer in 1969:

It is not an autobiography… I guess it’s more like a poem, really, in as much that a lot of it is pantomime and visual. And don’t be put off by the ‘pantomime’; I can’t think of any other word to describe the sort of thing that Charlie Chaplin did, which was just pictures. It’s a musical too; it has music to it. It’s a story with music is what it is but that’s so dry. But that’s what I’d like people to call it.

But a later suggestion in the same interview showed how thoroughly Newley viewed the techniques of European art cinema as a means of unfettered personal expression:

I think the movie is moving into a much more personal area…I’d like to be part of that brigade of men who create pieces for the cinema, and direct them and sometimes appear in them, that are very personal things. You probably couldn’t have made them twenty years ago.

Parts of the film seem almost too honest, too painful, too cruel. The occasional excesses of style and lapses of taste also suggest inexperience, unchecked by any collaborator with the talent and influence to hold him back. The film is deliberately confusing and bizarre, and in sequences such as that in which Merkin confesses to his love of underage girls (and again in the number, cheerfully described as utterly irrelevant within the film itself, about a princess who falls in love with a donkey) the lack of a more sober collaborator is especially apparent.

But what the film occasionally lacks in discipline it more than atones for in sheer invention and idiosyncrasy. As always with Newley, it is his total confidence that strikes you first. After all, it’s not like he’d directed a film before, and here, suddenly given total control over a project as writer-director-star, he has done anything but play safe.
His influences are obvious, often embarrassingly so, but he never tried to keep them a secret, admitting freely at the time that the film was his bid to join the pantheon of European auteurs that included Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and – a reflection of the times - Claude Lelouch (whose reputation for total autonomy Newley especially envied). Taking Fellini’s love of theatrical fantasy, Antonioni’s moody chops and Bergman’s poetic symbolism, Newley blends all three and adds dashes of his own gifts: good jokes, great songs and a sense of genuine melancholy; a kind of painful nostalgia.

The film’s biggest fault – for audiences other than those who simply don’t like Anthony Newley and for whom the experience of watching it will be one akin to that of physical torture – is that it is impossible to achieve a clear understanding of what kind of film it is unless you’ve lived exactly the life Newley himself did. The allusions to and recreations of British music hall and variety would have meant very little in America, and the reflections on the Hollywood showbiz scene would have had similarly little resonance in Britain. As for the bit with him watching a clockwork doll of himself getting it on with a Playboy centrefold... it's a toss-up as to who would understand that least.
It's a film for an audience that didn’t exist, or if they did existed in such small numbers as to make the film a suicidal proposition at the box office. Not only that, but most people simply don’t like Anthony Newley, and wouldn't have turned out no matter what he'd come up with. Pitched in part to the kind of people who like musicals, in part to the Easy Rider counterculture, in part to those who like foreign art films it satisfied none but those who like exactly what Newley likes: arty images and old show tunes, heavy sentimentality and deft irony, experimentalism and old-fashioned showbiz, music hall jokes and meditations on the meaning of life.
That's Newley himself, and me; anybody else?

How would Wilder do it?

The greatness of Billy Wilder seemed unique and unprecedented by the time he made The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1963), but only because all those from whom he inherited it and with whom he shared it - Lubitsch, Leisen, Mamoulian, De Mille (think of the Swanson silents, not of Chuck Heston) - were either long retired or dead.
Wilder was not so much an innovator as a great synthesiser of a particular tradition in Hollywood comedy and light drama: the European-influenced style typical of Paramount under Lubitsch in the early thirties. He may have brought this style to perfection but it was not his alone. (He kept a sign in his office that read 'How Would Lubitsch Do It?')

What is unique about him, however, is that he not only enjoyed longevity but remained a vital force, producing popular works that added more than just bulk to his filmography well into the nineteen-seventies. Whatever one thinks of late works like Avanti or Buddy Buddy, Wilder never seemed indulged in these final films, never a novelty in the way that the Cukor who directed Rich and Famous or the Hitchcock who directed Family Plot were novelties.
Yet the European sophistication, running jokes, sharp dialogue, brilliantly unsentimental female characterisations and tightly effective narrative construction in which he traded were exactly the qualities with which he had set up his stall at the end of the thirties.

The Apartment and Irma have been thrown together for me by repeated circumstance: one is perhaps my favourite of all Wilder's movies, the other is perhaps a lesser work. Were I picking a double-bill of Wilder at his very best I would be forced to team The Apartment with Double Indemnity, which would also offer the incidental advantage of displaying Wilder's gifts in two very different moods.
But a double-bill of these comedies at my local this weekend took me back to my first encounter with them as a Saturday night double-bill on BBC-2 in the early nineteen-eighties.
Back then I preferred Irma La Douce because they showed it first and I was too tired to get the most from The Apartment. It was several years later that I saw it again and recognised it as Wilder's masterpiece, which is to say the masterpiece of sophisticated American comedy, and perhaps the last perfect, entirely faultless comedy Hollywood made.
I have called it the best film ever made before, though that's always a mug's game. If it is, then it is in the slightly lopsided sense that it is really the best screenplay, cast to perfection and always shot in the most effective, least ostentatious way. To me that amounts to the same thing, but many will rebel at this basically literary conception of cinema. For most film buffs, understandably enough, film is a visual medium, and the great directors are those who come up with the great images: Welles or Hitchcock or whoever.
But I tend to feel that perfection does not draw attention to itself, only excellence does that, and excellence can be isolated: the excellent film can be reduced to a list of constituent parts. Perfection, by contrast is seamless, an organic whole, and if any ingredient announces itself or distracts us from any other, perfection has not been achieved. It is in this sense that The Apartment is perfect.

There are great visual touches for sure: the opening scenes, reminiscent of Vidor's The Crowd, of Lemmon's inhumanly mechanical office existence, for instance, or the amazing romantic shot of Maclaine running through the nocturnal streets at the climax. But they are not gratuitous visual flourishes: their existence is dictated by narrative necessity, the camera itself is invisible.
This, for me, defines greatness far more than the delightful but shallow effects of the great Hollywood showmen. Hats must be tipped, nonetheless, to the beautiful black and white photography of Arthur La Shelle and the immaculate set design: the apartment itself not only looks lived in, and lived in by the character who is supposed to be living there, but it produces - in me at least - the overwhelming desire to clamber into the film and make myself at home in it.

It's also a true crowd pleaser; it was obvious watching it with a live audience that it still grips and delights, and still has the power to make people laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters.
It is, along with Jaws, one of the best jobs of ensemble acting I have ever seen in the movies, in which a brilliant script is delivered with just the right touch seemingly without effort.
Jack Lemmon's junior executive C.C. Baxter and Shirley Maclaine's lift operator Miss Kublelik are both incredibly endearing, the latter the definitive incarnation of her trademark quirkily sympathetic losers, the former a pitch-perfect update of the kind of wistful ordinary-joes at which Fred MacMurray used to excel.
And MacMurray, of course, is present too, as the reptilian Mr Sheldrake: only Wilder sensed the actor's potential for playing conniving lowlife. In Double Indemnity we caught a glimpse here and there of the traditional MacMurray, made mercenary by temptation, but Sheldrake is beyond redemption: the embodiment of the mechanistic, inhumane world in which Baxter and Kubelik are stranded, to both of them a malignant Faust who almost succeeds in distracting them from the realisation that their only hope of salvation is each other.
It still surprises audiences, I think, with its sharpness and penetrating characterisation: though romantic, it is far from bland.
A 1980 review in The New Yorker notes that "Billy Wilder directed this acrid story as if it were a comedy, which is a cheat, considering that it involves pimping and a suicide attempt and many shades of craven ethics." It still feels modern in its essential attitudes and the lack of naivety in its character motivation; the only thing that dates it, really, is its fundamental decency and belief that it is possible to find personal contentment so long as luck prevails.

Irma La Douce is broader, more frankly bawdy, rich coloured, rambling where its predecessor was tight and set in a postcard fantasy Paris rather than a sharply realistic New York. It is ten minutes longer than The Apartment and perhaps half an hour too long overall.
It was Halliwell who perceptively noted that while Some Like It Hot never quite taxes the patience, it frequently threatens to, dragging each idea to the limit before saving the day with something surprising and new. The only element of Wilder's craft that seemed to desert him as he and the golden age parted company, actually, was his mastery of pace and editing: despite their many and varied merits, Love in the Afternoon, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti and Irma La Douce would all benefit from pruning.
But once adjusted to its leisurely tempo, Irma is good fun in an uncharacteristically whimsical vein, with a pleasing sense of wacky farce. In particular it contains one of Wilder's zaniest trademark endings, and a rare case of the fastidious Wilder sacrificing narrative consistency for a gag. The last line of The Apartment remains his finest curtain-closer: so, so much better than Some Like It Hot's more celebrated "nobody's perfect", because it is moving as well as just funny. But this one - a ridiculous invalidating of the entire plot topped by a reprise of the film's running-line "that's another story" - should be enough to bring down any house. If you love absurd, plot-ruining joke endings, you'll find this one second in greatness only to that of After the Fox (1966). Overall it is Wilder's lighest, least sharply observant comedy since The Seven Year Itch.

It also more or less pulls off the potentially hazardous ploy of reteaming Maclaine and Lemmon, both excellent in roles very different from their characters in The Apartment. They were to have been joined by Charles Laughton as Moustache, the wine bar owner and narrator of the story. Wilder had directed Laughton to magnificent effect as the cantankerous elderly barrister in Witness For The Prosecution (1957), ably drawing on the actor's considerable gift for impish humour, by that time rusty from disuse after two and a half decades of villains and misfits. Alas Laughton died, still sporting the large moustache he had grown for the role, before shooting began.

Though a little lumpy by comparison with Wilder's own earlier work, alongside other Hollywood comedies of its time it still seems pretty nimble: compare it with the contemporaneous work of Blake Edwards, for example. Anyone coming fresh to Breakfast at Tiffany's on the strength of its reputation will see - and no doubt be surprised by - the difference almost immediately. Hollywood comedy in the sixties was a pretty flabby beast, all exotic location photography in glossy colour, and toothy stars on big wide screens. Lubitsch-style precision is a tricky thing to pull off in such conditions.
Wilder was not at liberty to abandon these new imperatives, but he, perhaps alone among directors at work in these years, retained the skills needed to transcend them. Both of these films, and The Apartment in majestic particular, remain testament to those skills.

Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell was born 102 years ago tomorrow: as good an excuse as is needed to recall this slightly unusual, always enjoyable regular of thirties Hollywood.

Born into a vaudeville family and on stage from the age of three, her abundant talent and sassy style made her perfect for the Jazz Age and flapper musical revues that defined Broadway in the late-twenties (and twenties culture generally), leading to a number of headlining performances and a stint with the iconic Ziegfeld Follies.
When Al Jolson revolutionised Hollywood practices in 1927, killing off silent movies overnight and catapulting all of the major studios, quite unprepared, into the talkie era, desperate producers looked instantly to Broadway for performing talent with a proven track record in vocal projection. Blondell and James Cagney had scored a huge hit on Broadway in 1929 with a revue called Penny Serenade; both were put under contract by Warner Brothers and appeared in the film version of the show, re-titled Sinner’s Holiday (1930).
They were teamed again the following year in the gangster classic The Public Enemy and a further six times through the thirties. But though Public Enemy made Cagney a major star, Blondell would only ever rise to supporting roles in major releases (supplemented by leads in ‘B’ films).
She could do comedy, musicals and intense drama and, without conforming to anyone's definition of beautiful, conveyed an earthy sexuality that made her ideal for the risqué pre-Code years and always left her looking somewhat constrained thereafter, delightful though she is in films like The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) and Topper Returns (1941). She has enormous eyes and a cute quality in stills that is totally belied on film by her sure gift for rapid-fire dialogue and uncompromising air of independence and cynicism, of vivacity made weary from too many broken hearts and broken promises. City life has made her a realist.
But in the forties she is an essentially comic presence; the old danger is gone because Hollywood no longer has any room for it; the realism is gone because the world in which she is a realistic figure is essentially off-limits.

Her roles tended to fall into one of three categories. The first of these is the chorus girl in Warner backstage musicals that differ from later Hollywood musicals (and those of other studios at the time) in their avoidance of showbizzy gloss and feathers; typically they will involve struggling producers and sharply-etched Depression-era backgrounds, with chorus girls dancing as an alternative to poverty. Blondell (and others, such as the young, pre-Fred Ginger Rogers) are not gotta sing, gotta dance-types but smart-aleck dames who have been around the block and know all the angles.
Her work for Busby Berkeley included the startling 'Remember My Forgotten Man' number in Gold-Diggers of 1933; she appeared in four of his films, and many similar variations for other producers.
This type segued into that of the gold-digger, as most gold-diggers tended to be ex-chorus girls who had left the stage and married their sugar daddies, or are on the lookout for one. They tend to travel in pairs or trios, wisecracking and earthy in each other’s company but able to instantly turn on the helpless little girl routine when they spot a rich sucker. This type is associated with the real life Peggy Hopkins Joyce and the fiction of Anita Loos, who wrote the gold-digger classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As well as appearing in the Berkeley musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gold Diggers of 1937 Blondell had helped define the type in the hilarious The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932), later re-titled Three Broadway Girls and based on the hit Broadway play Gold Diggers.

Her second distinct type was the friend of the heroine, again something of an archetype in the early thirties, when no pretty leading lady was complete without a smart-mouthed girl-buddy, who tended to be much more pragmatic and cynical in matters of love and romance. In 1931 alone Joan was best pal to Barbara Stanwyck in Illicit, Bebe Daniels in My Past and Loretta Young in Big Business Girl: always the bridesmaid and never the bride, both as character and performer.
The best of these roles are her performances in two still-jawdropping classics of pre-Code excess. In Night Nurse (1931), again with Stanners, she's the fellow nurse helping to uncover a really creepy plot to murder two wealthy children for their inheritances. Joan chews gum from first scene to last; as a more experienced nurse her function is to show Stanwyck's novice the ropes; how to pull a fast one under the nose of the formidable matron and how to deal with the predatory machinations of wolfish interns. Their rapport is wonderfully real; the scene in which they share a bed because a practical joker has left a skeleton in Barbara's is highly reminsicent of Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
And in the incredible Three on a Match (1932), Joan is the emotional centre of a film that plays as a female version of the kind of Warners gangster film that starts with the characters as children and follows them through their divergent life paths. Here it's three girls and the two other points of the triangle are hard acts to shine alongside: Bette Davis has the smallest and least consequential role, but she looks amazing in her Hollywood-conformist period, platinum blonde and never less deserving of Carl Laemmle's famous verdict given when she was briefly under contract at Universal: "I can't imagine any guy wanting to give her a tumble". And Ann Dvorak, another cut off at the knees when the Code was enforced, gives one of the most amazing performances in Hollywood history, fearless in its courting of audience enmity as she helter-skelters into despair, degeneracy and death. Despite this, Joan's is the central character, the main point of identification for the audience and the character with the most interesting life-story. Her performance is extremely canny in its recognition of this: she knows the others have the better close-ups and the bigger outbursts and the sexier swimming costumes and the splashier deaths, so she contrives simply to get it right: relaxed and natural and necessary. I say 'simply' but obviously this is not simple and the majority of actors and actresses cannot do it, because they lack the judgement, or the subtlety, or temperament gets in the way.

An especially notable feature of these films is the license allowed and taken with regard to erotic imagery: not for nothing are these sometimes termed ‘the lingerie years’. Thomas Doherty notes one memorable example in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: “in Office Wife (1930) the camera follows Joan Blondell’s legs into a bathroom, where her lingerie drops to the floor as she disrobes. The camera remains focused on her legs as she slips out of her chemise, her arms entering the frame from above, thereby conjuring an image of the naked actress bending over… Under the Code, so explicit a mental image – that is, an image not even depicted on screen but merely planted in the spectator’s mind – would be too arousing to summon up.” Pre-Code, however, it was par for the course.

Finally, she proved a natural for another early-thirties favourite: the wisecracking reporter. The most famous example of the tradition is the male Lee Tracy, but many of the others were women, their characters a variation on the ‘heroine’s friend’ and often engaged in high-decibel, insult-laden spats with crass editors (whom they would sometimes end up marrying at the fade-out). To emphasise their status as partially de-feminised women in a man’s world, these characters were often given masculine first names: Joan is Timmy (for Timothea) in Back in Circuit (1937). (Another key exponent of this type was the physically similar Glenda Farrell who, because she was also under contract at Warners, was paired with Joan in a variety of films on eight occasions.)
Very much an icon of the early thirties, Joan’s career stalled a little from the forties on. But she kept working continuously until her death, both in movies and, with greater individual success, on stage.
In the seventies she became one of the comeback queens of the tv movie, giving delightfully skittish performances in The Dead Don't Die (1975) and, alongside Sylvia Sidney, Dottie Lamour and John Carradine, in Death at Love House (1976). These roles led to nostalgic turns in Michael Winner's Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and Grease, and a last chance to really act in Opening Night (1977) for John Cassavetes.

Blondell made just under a hundred films between her debut in 1930 and her death on Christmas Day, 1979. Her thirties roles are characterised by wit, sparkiness and strong characterisation, and she was always somewhat bemused by the vapidity of many leading ladies who achieved superstardom with none of her professionalism or hard graft, once remarking: “I’d hate to see them on stage with a dog act”.

Gloria Stuart is 98 today

In 1998, Gloria Stuart became the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Titanic. The film itself has not held up at all, but Stuart deserved the recognition: after the death of Fay Wray (who turned the Titanic gig down) she became perhaps the last of the great thirties Hollywood stars.

A philosophy graduate from Berkeley and a gifted exponent of Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage, she was an intelligent and serious actress encumbered with Hollywood glamour. She came to films reluctantly, and was never certain she had made the right decision, particularly as her much announced superstardom never materialised.
“When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed,” she once said, “I didn't realize it would take so long.”

The attempts to turn her into a production line Hollywood sexpot were often so blatant they seem deliberately antagonistic, as if intended to break her independence and feistiness.
She appears in a 1932 Hollywood on Parade short in a cheesecake line-up of Hollywood’s unanimous choice of 1933’s starlets of tomorrow: fourteen girls, one from each studio. “I’m an all-American girl,” she says, in answer to her one question. (The 14 chosen proved a meagre crop, with only Ginger Rogers built for the long haul. Others included Patricia Ellis, Mary Carlisle and Lona Andre, who tells us she got into pick-chas bah bein’ the pantha woman. They didn’t realise when they said stars of tomorrow that they meant Monogram’s stars of tomorrow.)
At Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr was enraptured (“I have never seen such poise, such delicate beauty, such depth, why she almost scares you”) and insisted that “We’ll have to find some truly distinguished stories for her, in fact the finest, because… it would be foolish, and rather embarrassing all round, to put her in, well, a trivial story”.

But none of her work, either freelance or contracted to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox, made anything like full use of her talents. She looks stunning in the Eddie Cantor farce Roman Scandals, and does her best singing ‘I’m Going Shopping With You’ with Dick Powell in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1935; at Fox she worked with Shirley Temple and the Ritz Brothers, and gave one of her best performances in one of her best films: John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).

Today, apart from Titanic, she is probably best known now for her roles in Universal horror films. In The Invisible Man (1933) she is purely decorative, essentially reprising Mae Clark's worried girlfriend role from Frankenstein.
But Secret of the Blue Room (1933), the least known of the bunch, at least has the sense to keep her the centre of attention. Adapted from a successful German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, no effort has gone into Americanising it, so Paul Lukas is our hero, Captain Walter Brink, and Gloria is our heroine, Irene Von Helldorf, doting daughter to Croydon-born Lionel Atwill. (At least Lukas has an accent: Irene is German by way of Long Island.)
We open in a large and imposing Germanic mansion, almost a castle, where Irene, younger, prettier and more kittenish than the Teutonic sobriety of her name might lead you to suspect, has chosen to celebrate her 21st birthday by inviting the three men who most fancy her to dinner and have them squabble over her. (We’ve all met girls like this.)
Stuart is coquettish and haughty here; with little in the script to bite into she plays the part as a prim tease; indeed, with Lionel Atwill on hand as master of ceremonies, we’re beginning to wonder just what kind of coming of age party this is going to turn into.
“And now,” he says, “Give us all a nice birthday kiss”; Stuart first kisses her father full on the lips, then all the other men in turn. But before Atwill has time to get the snake out of the cupboard, the contest between the three eligible bachelors (that’s Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber and Thomas Brandt: stout Germanic types all, especially young Tommy) takes a sinister turn when it is discovered that the castle has a sealed bedroom, in which two guests were murdered years before, their killer never identified and his method of entering and escaping never found. In an only barely sublimated courtship display, it is mooted that they each spend consecutive nights there. One dies, one disappears, and one puts two and two together.

There are no surprises here. But it’s got the full compliment of panels and passages, it’s got red herrings of a sort, it’s got Gloria Stuart done up like Harlow in platinum curls and clinging satin nightwear… and how she must have hated teasingly delivering lines like “Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave; thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience!”
The masterpiece of her Universal years, and probably of her career, is James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). (As well as The Invisible Man director and star also teamed on The Kiss Before the Mirror [1933], a stylish murder mystery, between the two horrors.)

How she must have relished the chance to begin a film not cooing in luxury but trapped in a car in the pouring rain, already deep in a bitter argument with her screen husband. She gives an excellent performance throughout The Old Dark House because she can see it’s worth the effort; she’s also at her most beautiful on screen here, too, which may not be a coincidence. The film is among the more authentically pre-Code of the early Universals, and the potent atmosphere of weird eroticism in the scene where she is subjected to sexual interrogation at the hands of Eva Moore is still disquieting and extraordinary.
Deciding to change out of her wet clothes, Stuart is taken upstairs by Moore, who sits on the bed and harangues her with lurid reminiscences of her hated sister, who had died in the same room at the age of twenty-one. She was wicked, “handsome as a hawk”, and “all the young men used to follow her about with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck.” As each tragic episode of this poor girl’s life is recounted as if evidence of her evil – she fell off a horse and broke her spine, then lay screaming on the very bed on which she is now sitting (Moore gives the pillows a satisfied pat to make the point), begging to be killed for month after month, before finally expiring “Godless to the last” - Stuart is slowly undressing to her satin underwear, fixes her stockings, then dresses slowly, just her shoes first, then pulling on a fantastic (if quite inappropriate considering the temperature and the company) clinging white satin dress. (Like a white flame, director James Whale envisaged.)
The juxtaposition between the horrible narrative, recounted with obvious glee by Moore, and the alluring visuals is deliberately emphasised by Whale, who brings it to a memorable dramatic coda, as Moore concludes her diatribe against “brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins” by circling Stuart and ending up staring into her face:

You’re wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly, and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you? (She grabs the material of her dress.) That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot. (She pinches Stuart’s skin.) That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time!

Whale finishes with a great shot of the curtains, and Stuart’s dress, billowing in the wind as she runs down a corridor on the beautiful, Cat and the Canary–ish set. Bravura, pre-Code tours-de-force from writer, director and cast alike, and one of those scenes where you most long for a look at one of those gleaming first run prints. (The Old Dark House survives only in a ratty old print resembling a DVD bootleg.) Stuart, her hair neatly parted and half-lit, half-shadowed, getting a chance to really perform while being photographed so magnificently, looks as beautiful as any actress has ever looked at the movies.

All of which helps make Gloria Stuart the world's most important living film star.

Why France is different

The story so far...
Hollywood has announced that from now on it will produce only Batman movies. Britain stopped making films of any sort in the early nineteen-seventies. Film critics still talk in excited tones about the New Iranian Cinema, but they don't really enjoy watching it any more than you would.

This means that only France continues to support a thriving national film industry, producing routinely good and distinctive films.
By distinctive I mean characteristic of the country of origin. And by good I do not mean masterpieces but films with nothing much wrong with them.

One such is Les Femmes de l’ombre, which someone must have had high international hopes for, because it has been rewarded with Amelie-style saturation publicity and a particularly crass re-title (Female Agents).
It’s a very good war film – not great, just very good, and that’s fine – with excellent but unfussy period detail and the refreshing lack of the smug revisionism required by law in Britain. Great. Now the French are showing us how to make World War II movies. Compare it with the vile Dunkirk scenes in that monumental piece of crud Atonement.

Like no other national cinema, France can still surprise.
Blunted a little now by relentless imitation, Amelie was plainly the most original and distinctive movie of its decade. And as Audrey Tautou reminds us, France is also the last country to maintain, support and renew its own stable of iconic stars, who put the silly boys and girls of Hollywood to shame.
Somehow, France finds stars, knows how to present them with real old-fashioned glamour and mystique, and to hold on to them by giving them regular work suited to their talents. They do occasionally pop over to Hollywood to scare the crap out of an amateur-hour co-star or two (recall Béart dwarfing little Tommy Cruise; Marceau gobbling up Mel Gibson and spitting him back into the sea; Tautou and Hanks, the double-act nobody cheered for) but they soon return to the country that knows what to do with them.

They are also all women, of course. There are male film stars in France, no doubt, but their job is basically to give the women something ordinary to contrast with while they're being magnificent.
The French have always understood what Bette Davis meant when she observed that actors are something less than men but actresses are much more than women. (If indeed she did say it: Paula Wilcox said it playing her in the excellent one-woman play Whatever Happened to the Cotton Dress Girl? so it may have been an invention of the playwright. Is it ever true, though.)
Even Johnson, who had nothing but bile for 'players', liked to hobnob with the actresses at Drury Lane; his favourite was an Irish actress called Kitty Clive, unschooled but possessed of a sharp intelligence and a witty, unpretentious wisdom he found delightful. (He eventually had to terminate the friendship, explaining to Garrick that "the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my genitals.")

From the dawn of cinema the women have always been vastly more important than the men; the masculinisation of cinema is a modern invention, another useless side-effect of the sexual revolution, no doubt. Whatever, French cinema will have none of it. As the ploddingly over-explanatory British title at least makes clear, all the stars of Female Agents are women, and they all have something to do. (American films have trouble finding work for one woman, especially, oddly enough, if they're French.)
Then there was 8 Femmes. Again, the title did not deceive - eight female icons of French cinema (including Danielle Darrieux!) in a jeu d’esprit of a kind I had given up hope of ever seeing in the cinema again, each with their own song number. Huppert does an amazing torch song at the piano, Béart a raucous knees-up, Ledoyen some infectious indie-pop.
Hard to imagine America - or anywhere else - trying this and it not coming out campy and disastrous. Meryl Streep gurning her way through a bunch of stiltony Abba numbers or this gorgeously-coloured, ultra-stylish murder mystery musical? People, you must choose for yourself.

Leader of the female agents is Sophie Marceau, whose career tells its own story about how France nurtures and rewards talent. No British actress would have had so many chances, or been given so much time and room to become iconic. She has been allowed to build a career, with stumbles and wrong turns along the way, beginning as a teen starlet and graduating to costume epics, appearances for Michelangelo Antonioni and Bertrand Tavernier and loan-outs as a combined Bond girl and villain in The World Is Not Enough and what could well be the definitive Anna Karenina. Her performance in Les Femmes de l'ombre is a vindication and a triumph.
Here then is my totally subjective list of favourite performances by great female icons of French cinema:

Arletty dans Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Nowhere else to fairly begin but here, with Carné's masterpiece, made in extraordinary circumstances under Nazi occupation. A defining example of the lyrical realism that remains part of the enigmatic appeal of French cinema to the present day, Arletty's performance is just one of a thousand attractions in this totally unique and transfixing three hour exercise in audience transportation. It is ironic, but not relevant, that Arletty was briefly imprisoned for a wartime affair with a German officer: that art can achieve a perfection impossible to find in the messy confusion of real life is one of the film's key themes.

Brigitte Bardot dans Une Parisienne (1957)

French cinema entered its lumpen international phase in the fifties - just before the nouvelle vague came in - and Bardot was by far its most exportable face. But the Vadim movies with which she cemented her reputation have not aged anything like as well as the trifles that preceded and surrounded them. This gloriously inconsequential piece, for example, is a typical throwaway comedy of the period, with Bardot flirty and charming and entirely free of the ennui that forced her early retirement; the photography and colour are impossibly gorgeous, and Brigitte gets to play against a silvery and distinguished Charles Boyer.

Audrey Tautou dans Vénus Beauté (Institut) (1999)

Amelie now seems unimaginable without her, though she was not the first choice and would never have got the part if Jeunet had not seen her on a poster for this film, in which she gives an equally beguiling, and Cesar-winning, performance. One of those heightened slice-of-life films that France does with such arrogant ease, it’s another girls' ensemble (about a Parisian beauty parlour and the women that work there); Tautou, Nathalie Baye and Mathilde Seigner are equally excellent, but it is obviously Tautou that's marked for stardom. The male casting is as weird as the female casting is felicitous: what the Lord gives with one had he takes away with the other.

Emmanuelle Seigner dans Frantic (1988)
Seigner hanging from a Parisian roof top trumps Beatrice Dalle in the flashier but less enduring 37°2 le matin or Adjani in Subway to become the key image of impossibly stylish French femininity in the eighties. It was a pretty dank decade all in all, and only France managed to make anything out of it. Seigner was tested with a meatier role in the ridiculous Bitter Moon and found wanting, but here, in the underrated masterpiece of Polanski’s Parisian exile, she is cool, glamorous and perfect in what is additionally perhaps the best evocation of Paris itself in modern movies.

Juliette Binoche dans Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)

One of the great images of nineties cinema is Binoche’s enigmatic face, staring at us from the thickets of Kieslowski’s doomy yet hypnotic meditation on the sort of stuff directors like Kieslowski like meditating on. Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob in the subsequent chapters are fine, but Binoche's work here is one of the great modern screen performances, with reams of psychological and emotional information conveyed in the tiniest gestures and nuances of speech. Even doing nothing at all, as Kieslowski’s camera simply stares at her staring back, or above us, or to one side, she rivets attention without a trace of mannerism or forced feeling. Imagine what a song and dance any American actress would make of a role like this! Binoche does virtually nothing, and says all.

Isabelle Adjani dans La Reine Margot (1994)

I could have chosen Herzog’s Nosferatu, or Camille Claudel or especially L’Été meurtrier, the latter the first time I ever saw her, and probably the first time I ever got a sense that there is this thing called French cinema that is comprised of something more quantifiable (if elusive) than merely a  body of films that just happen to have been made in France. But this is the most porcelain of stars in her most swaggering star role, in a film with an epic quality that, again, seems to have deserted all other film-producing nations but this one. Nothing that is going to change your life, but all very monumental; extremely vivid period sense; almost grand guignol at times. Then there’s the scene where she's got the little mask on. Yes, you know exactly the bit I mean.

Mathilda May dans Naked Tango (1990)

A work of distinctly minor appeal, but a dazzling turn for the nude space vampiress of notorious British sci-fi disaster Lifeforce, here sporting a Louise Brooks wig in a weird period underworld melodrama. A great French star that somehow slipped through everybody’s fingers, May never quite made her mark but retains a following; she's always worth watching, her films, alas, usually are not, though she turns up in Chabrol and Bigas Luna and a few other potentially starmaking places. This one, actually made by Hollywood but in one of its arty pretentious moments, is basically pastiche, but it's certainly her best showcase.

Emmanuelle Béart dans La Belle Noiseuese (1991)

The most self-conscious glamourpuss of modern French cinema, Béart is, perhaps, the foremost icon of her generation. Not the most talented, but the most impossibly enigmatic, stylish and quintessential; it's a fair bet that we will talk of her when recalling the nineties as we link Bardot to the fifties. So many great, transfixing performances in so many good movies: Nathalie, L'Histoire de Marie et Julien, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, Une Femme Française, L'Enfer, Un Coeur en Hiver... But this was the one that made her, perhaps the Frenchest film ever made. Four lovely hours of pretentious dialogue, moody, uncommunicative characters, beautiful countryside, artistic angst and Emmanuelle Béart as nature intended. The most convincing recreation of the process of creating a work of art in cinema; Michel Piccoli's Edouard Frenhofer is my fourth favourite fictitious painter in movies (after Bogart in The Two Mrs Carrolls, Hancock in The Rebel and Adam Sorg in Color Me Blood Red).

Simone Simon dans Cat People (1942)

Once upon a time, even Hollywood knew what to do with French stars. A wonderful logic informs the casting of this masterpiece of stylish horror: who better to play a woman who turns into a snarling panther when sexually aroused than a French actress who looks like a cat? So the purring Simon was brought over and rewarded expectation. The expected star career did not follow, though she's just as great in the sequel, in Mademoiselle Fifi by the same team, and in Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore, an attempt at frothy, Euro-style comedy from Monogram, the Hollywood studio least up to making the attempt. Some nice work in France, too, but she is best remembered now for Cat People, and for having a series of gold-plated keys made for her apartment, which she handed out to specially selected gentlemen.