Monday, September 27, 2010

Random Notes on Dracula (1931)

As part of a vague idea of tracking what I actually watch I had planned to write a review of some sort of every film I watch for the next little while. However, the film I watched whilst ironing shirts last night was Tod Browning's 1931 classic, Dracula, and I don't imagine that anything I say about that movie is likely to be in any way new or interesting. So instead - some random thoughts (which at least have the benefit of brevity).

1. Transylvania must have insanely vindictive contract law - how else to explain both the fact that the coach driver does take Renfield to make his appointment with Dracula, or that Dracula is so confident that Renfield will turn up at midnight?

2. Renfield starts off being played by Harold Lloyd, then slowly turns into Harry Enfield, before ending the movie as Peter Lorre, complete with vocal impersonation.

3. I bet Steve Reich has heard the incidental music - I spent the whole movie expecting elderly Jewish voices to start speaking, in the style of Reich's brilliant Different Trains.

4. The bats are rubbish, but given the staginess of the entire production, that seems appropriate.

5. It's a far simpler story here than it often is in future, but the longing in Lugosi's "to die, to be truly dead, that must be glorious" is a beautifully layered performance which briefly undercuts Draclua's otherwise iron cast self-belief.

6. Charles Laughton obviously saw this movie - the random interpolations of armadillo, possum, spiders and insects is strangely reminiscent of Night of the Hunter.

7. While there are some very nice shots - Renfield framed in the stairs of the ship full of corpses is a particulary effective moment - the scene where a maid and John Harker, standing on the balcony, see (off screen) a wolf running across the lawn and relate this in detail to the occupants of the dining room is laughably poorly done, like Nick Briggs' early audio plays.

8. The ending is very odd indeed, to those used to modern horror movies. Having found Dracula's coffin and broken off a piece of wood with which to stake him, the camera cuts to the Harkers' reunion and the only evidence of the destruction of the vampire is a sound of hammering from off-stage. Cut back to Van Helsing emerging from the crypt and the Harkers essentially saying 'come on, let's go out of here'. Van Helsing shakes his head and says no, he'll follow on in a minute...and then the film ends, just when you were expecting the obligatory 'twist'.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

9 Forgotten Gems from David Bowie


Would have been ten but if anyone is still reading this blog, they could put any tenth suggestion in the comments!

Tin Machine – Goodbye Mr Ed

As out of place on a hard-rocking Tin Machine album as something like 'After All', this is the single moment when Tin Machine actually created something worth listening to. That it sounds far more like a Bowie solo track than a Tin Machine band effort is, obviously, neither here nor there.

David Bowie – Buddha Of Suburbia

From Bowie's great lost album, a title track which both stands alone as a great song and harks back to previous moments of glory, even to the extent of quoting from 'All the Madmen'.

David Bowie – In The Heat Of The Morning

Best heard on the Deluxe cd reissue of the first album, 'David Bowie' (where you get three different versions for your money), and brilliantly covered by the Last Shadow Puppets, this is a great tune with fabulous lyrics, and deserves to be far better remembered than it is.

David Bowie – Conversation Piece (Stereo Version)

There's an updated version of this seventies out-take, recorded as part of the Toys project and eventually added to the 'Diamond Dogs' re-issue, but this more acoustic version, available as one of the extra tracks on the Rykodisc release of 'Man of Words, Man of Music' is the superior release.

Kashmir – The Cynic

Most times Bowie collaborates it's obvious that Bowie is the driving force - think 'Little Drummer Boy' with Bing Crosby or 'Under Pressure' with Queen - but here he's just a vocalist doing a duet on someone else's album and he turns in a sparkling performance, aided no doubt by the steady hand of Tony Visconti on production duties.

David Bowie – Alternative Candidate (A Demo For Proposed 1984 Musical)

A totally different, and just as brilliant, alternative to the standard Diamond Dogs track.

Inside every teenage girl there's a fountain
Inside every young pair of pants there's a mountain
Fantastic.

David Bowie – When I'm Five - Love You Till Tuesday Soundtrack Version - Mono

I always loved this song, both in the Bowie original and the Beatstalkers excellent cover, but I can never seem to convince anyone of the fact that the lyric is the darkest Bowie ever wrote: the story of a four year old boy dying of some horrible unspecified illness while his parents marriage collapses around him in a welter of recrimination and blame. And then the last verse which would break the heart of a stone man. God, it makes me miserable just thinking about it...

David Bowie – Remembering Marie A.

Well, there has to be something from Bowie's frankly mildly bonkers decision to release an EP of Bertolt Brecht songs - and this is my favourite one. A real tour de force of singing and some great lyrics.

The Beatstalkers - Silver Treetop School For Boys

Sadly not available on Spotify so the link goes to You Tube, but it is on a best of cd which every self-respecting Bowie fan should own. A cover version of a Bowie song which DB never recorded himself, this is The Great Lost Bowie song, especially if you like his early, post-fame stuff.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Wilfred McNeilly's Sexton Blake

I've been reading Sexton Blake Library paperbacks from the 1960s recently. They're as thin as a Terrance Dicks Target novelisation, and come complete with gaudy covers showing a naked woman framed by a a telephoto lens or a screaming pop star partially obscured by lurid green mist. If ever a series shouted out 'cheapo cash-in' the later Sexton Blake stories certainly do.

And they come with a reputation too. A reputation for tackiness and unpleasantness, with Blake - once the nemesis of super-villains and criminal geniuses - reduced to sorting out blackmailers and rapists, finding lost kittens and working for insurance companies. A depressing mix of the utterly mundane and the unnecessarily visceral.

But they're not like that at all, at least in the case of those written by one Wilfred McNeill.

According to a post on the Groovy Age of Horror McNeill was a hard-drinking hack for hire (in the best possible sense), turning out whatever sort of story he was asked and contented that he died with a new advance partially spent on whisky! War stories, tv tie-in novels, horror fiction and Sexton Blake were only part of a career spent writing millions of words at speed and to dealine.

Which experience possibly explains the deft way he handles the more constrained, less extravagant sixties Sexton Blake and contrives to make a real silk purse form a definite sow's ear.

I love the way that, in the absence of proper super villains, he populates his books with grotesques and oddities - the middle-class, middle-aged kitchen table abortionist who turns up early in Death in the Top Twenty for instance, or the recurring characters of the crafty, but destitute Duke and Duchess of Derwentwater.

I love the way he drops meta-fictional asides into the text bemoaning that very absence of proper bad guys (in each of his Blake books, he has Blake himself muse about the good old days when he tackled real villains instead of the tiresome insurance work which makes up the bulk of his 60s work) and explaining other jarring elements of the Blake Library (brilliantly the sole explanation for Tinker not being about 100, given he was born in the last century, is that he's very young looking for his age!). Particularly great is an aside form Blake about the fact that writers never get paid enough!

I love the characterisation of the regulars - Blake is essentially the same character as he was in the 1920s, with the same attitudes and morals, only now living in the Swinging Sixties, like an early precursor of Austin Powers or a contemporary of Adam Adamant. Tinker, now more generally referred to by his name, Edward Carter, is a real ladies-man, given the task of seducing anyone from pub barmaids to spurned girlfriends.. And Paula Dane is far more than the sort of stock female weakling you would expect in such a novel, proving herself to be a doughty fighter and a master of disguise, infiltrating the villain's lair more often than Tinker and frequently suffering quite extreme violence for her efforts.

I love the plots - Death in the Top Twenty, for instance, is about someone trying to kill a 60s pop star who uses a body double for every part of his life, including his sex life and living in his mansion, because he prefers to live with his mum!

Most of all I love the arch humour of lines like "Riparian rights are liable to enter the leasehold and no riverside dweller can be absolutely sure that by immemorial custom swan-upping does not take place on his front lawn every third Tuesday of September." Really, how unexpected is that in a hard-boiled crime thriller? And how brilliant?

I have to find more of McNeilly's books - I think he did some Danger Man novelisations for a start...
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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Torch Singer (1933)

It's an odd sort of film, this. For one thing, reviews on the internet call it a soapy comedy, even though there are only a few jokes and the story is about a woman left alone and pregnant by a wealthy blueblood, who can't get a job, gets evicted from her apartment and then gives up her baby for adoption, before finally becoming what one character describes as 'the most notorious torch singer in town'. For another, the story the film is based on is called 'Mike', the name of the
blueblood father - a character who doesn't appear until the final quarter of the movie and even when he does he says and does almost nothing. For a third, there seems to be a chunk of th movie missing, even though, in fact, there isn't. Finally, a one year old baby gets star billing for reasons which utterly elude me. Like I said, it's an odd sort of film all round.

But a great little movie, nonethless. It has the wonderful Claudette Colbert in it for a start. Made only a year before scooping the Best Actress Oscar for her comic role in 'It Happened One Night' and a couple before her nomination for the same award for 'Private Worlds', this film shows Colbert at her magnificent best, equally adeptly dealing with the dramatic and the comic elements in the story. Really, if you've never seen a Claudette Colbert movie, you should watch this one just to stare at cinema's most expressive eyes - she can do more with one frown than most actresses in the early 30s could do with their entire body - and one of the movie's great sexy voices (probably the best scene in the film features Colbert in the role of Aunt Jenny, a radio presenter for small children (a position she combines with that of the most notorious torch singer in town) saying"naughty boys have often tried to tease your Aunt Jenny - sometimes they've teased her until she had to give in', a line which would send shivers down the spine of all but a corpse).

The rest of the cast are basically functional at best. Errant rich kid Mike is played perfectly adequately if two dimensionally by David Manners, and to be fair there's not a lot of meat on the bones of the character, but I can't help thnking that in the hands of a Jimmy Stewart something more could have been made of his obvious selfishness and occasional harshness, even after he comes back after four years and goes looking for the woman he left behind, than Manners manages (('Please stop acting' he tells her when he comes back and then blames her for becoming hard and cold - 'like glass', she counters' 'and only diamonds can cut glass so come back with some'). The rest of the cast are much of a muchness, though it's worth highlighting the absolutely gorgeous Mildred Washington, in the role of Colbert's black maid.

To return to the odd nature of the movie, it does have *some* comedic sections. There are sundry excellent one liners throughout and this exchange between lily white Colbert and a five year old black girl Sally, the same age and with the same name as Colbert's lost daughter
is beautfully done:

Colbert: "I used to have a little girl named Sally'
Little Girl: "Was she black like me, Aunt Sally?'
Colbert: "Darling, it was so long ago I can't remember.'

The fact that the writers are willing to make even a small amount of humour from the plight of an unmarried mother does highlight the fact that, as a film from 1933, this is a pre-code movie (the print I watched is form the Pre Code Hollywood box set - well worth buying, incidentally). The film opens with Colbert and another unwed mother giving birth in a charity hospital run by nuns, but there's no suggestion from anyone that their state is in any way a sin or a subject of opprobium. Instead, the nuns are sympathetically drawn, her fellow unwed mother Dora supports her while she is able, a doctor wonders aloud where the fathers are when they're needed and when Colbert gives away her daughter, no-one blames her for doing what she
has to. Instead, all the main barbs are aimed at the wealthy - Colbert's rich, trendy pals run her down the second she asks them to leave her flat because she's tired and upset, Mike's rich, patrician aunt refuses to help Colbert with some money to prevent her nephew's only son being placed in the adoption system, and the wife of a wealthy (and admittedly sympathetic) businessman never misses a chance to insult her, all but accusing her of being a whore, now that she's - horror of horrors - a torch singer.

Which brings up the issue of the missing section of the movie. There is no missing section obviously - it's a standard 70 minutes long and always was - but there's a massive and unexplained jump between Colbert's first attempted audition without her daughter, in which a
male promoter tells her that "a woman must suffer a lot to sing a little" (she replies that she'll be back in year but 'in the meantime watch me suffer') and the very next scene in which she's a successful torch singer and signs up with the same promoter, presumably having suffered plenty in the fade out in between. It's a clumsy bit of tell not show which jars in amovie otherwise very nicely directed (for instance, there's a lovely brief scene just after she signs up to be a big star in which all you see are her feet walking in new shoes, with plasters on both her heels, suffering for her new prominence).

Perhaps the oddest thing in the movie though is the fact that the name Baby Le Roy appears on the card announcing prominent cast members at the beginning of the movie - I assumed that was the name of one of the flapper types who befirend Colbert after she makes it ig - but it
turns out to be the name of the one year old kid used as Colbert's daughter. Baby, real name Ronald, obviously became something of a minor child star, appearing in a couple of WC Fields movies and alongside Maurice Chavalier in 'A Bedtime Story', but enough to makethe titles aged 9 months?

Odd.

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