Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Going Spanish (1934) - Bob Hope's Debut Goes South

Bob Hope made his screen debut in 1934 during his spare time whilst on Broadway, in the musical short Going Spanish for Educational Pictures and veteran director/producer Al Christie. After bad reviews, the short got more publicity that it would have perhaps normally received after Hope was asked his opinion on the film by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. His reply, that “when they catch John Dillinger they’re going to make him sit through it twice” made gossip column headlines and has since passed into show business legend, ensuring that Going Spanish was never quite forgotten - though for all the wrong reasons.

The quote got a lot of publicity for Hope but also got him fired from his multi film contract with Christie. While he was eager to break into movies,his opinion of the short must have verged on embarrassment in order for him to speak so candidly about a paying gig. Either that or it was a calculated move on his part to generate publicity for himself and free him up to explore bigger opportunities. Whatever his motivation, it worked out well for him as he wasn’t a free agent for long and quickly signed for a series of Vitaphone shorts with Warners. From there he was picked up by Paramount and his star began its ascent.

However the question remains, Bob may have thought it was terrible but is Going Spanish really that bad? Today is Mr Hope’s birthday (by the way, when is that going to become a national holiday?) so I thought I’d watch his inauspicious debut and find out for myself. The answer? Read on, but I think you can guess…

The premise of Going Spanish is frankly, ludicrous. Basically, Bob, his fiancé and mother-in-law arrive in a South American (not Spanish despite the title) village for a quick marriage and discover it’s the day of the "Don't Do It" festival. This bizarre ritual decrees that townsfolk can insult, attack or abuse anyone they want as long as they sing to them afterwards. Naturally, hilarity ensues. It’s one of those whimsical half formed ideas that only seem to appear in low budget shorts and that are probably the by-product of over worked writing staff desperately trying to throw ideas against a wall to see what sticks. The concept probably sounded tops after three bottles of scotch, eight packs of cigarettes and a night trapped in a writers’ room.

The village, called Los Pochos Eggos (which gives you an indication of how sophisticated the humour is) is decked out for a fiesta full of gay caballeros in puffy sleeves and singing senoritas with roses in their hair as seen in pretty much every 30s and 40s movie set south of the border. The costumes and set dressing are actually quite good and no doubt were recycled from plenty of other similar films for cost cutting. This is all rather let down by the sound, which at times makes it seem like it was shot in a barn. In fact it was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studios in New York, but perhaps in was a more remote part of the facility since some voices seem to echo (echo). Anyway, it goes without saying that most of the men have silly accents and even sillier facial hair.I think there might have been a donkey somewhere too.

Bob Hope plays essentially the character he would be later famous for, though toned way down. He’s the brash American abroad but in this case with virtually no material to work off. I’d imagine if you were watching the film in 1934 with no knowledge of current Broadway stars (Hope had also yet to start full time in radio), Bob wouldn’t have made any impression on you. He’d just be another unknown and soon to be forgotten star in a poverty row short. He breezes through the film, smiles and says his lines and that’s pretty much it. The flashes of the familiar Hope persona are few and far between though it’s hardly his fault. In fact, there are times when he looks a touch bored, as if he realised half way through what he’d gotten himself involved in.

The highlight is an amusing musical number where Bob is wooing a senorita in a shop which despite looking massively under rehearsed starts off sounding like it might have the charm of his later duets such as “Thanks for the Memory" and “Two Sleepy People”. However, this effect is ruined by the gag of someone coming into the shop to ask of something inappropriate that rhymes with the last line. For example: "You sweeten up my coffee, I'm always glad to please. Why, you seem to have the fragrance of..." (Cue the interruption)"limburger cheese". despite this, it’s probably Hope’s best scene and his reactions to each intruder conjures up the first cinematic glimpse of the fabled Hope timing.

The supporting cast is generally competent and amusing. The leading lady, Leah Ray has a good singing voice and a pleasant manner. She’s the sort of actress who is the perfect fit for these musical confections but one that you can’t imagine having much to offer beyond those sorts of roles. Her suitor the mayor is played by Jules Epailly who spends the film decked out like Napoleon and who mugs shamelessly as he attempts to channel Billy Gilbert at his most over the top. It doesn’t quite work, in fact it doesn’t work at all but if falling over, destroying scenery and shouting are your bag then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Strangely the most successful artiste from this mess other than its star is William Edmunds as a deluded gaucho. He would go on to have a respectable career in character roles, as IMDb so archly puts it “a poor man’s J. Carroll Naish” in such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life , House of Frankenstein and indeed with Bob Hope again in Where There’s Life thirteen years later.

As for our boy Bob, he certainly doesn’t embarrass himself but for the most part the recognisable screen presence isn’t there regardless of the lack of good material. What’s strange about him is that although he would go on to establish a cowardly, slightly feminine character, this version of Hope is actually quite fey and almost camp. He has a strange habit of clasping his hands together at chest height in the manner of Jack Benny, and in fact a few of his mannerisms echo Benny’s body language. Just like Benny, he seems to have a dilemma over where to put his hands while talking as they flap about all over the place and he spends a lot of the movie fidgeting with his hat. While Benny worked out a way to use this as a cornerstone of his act, regular hand clasping really doesn’t suit Bob’s character.

Luckily, Hope quickly found the right formula (and somewhere to put his hands) as evidenced by his later Warner shorts. By the time they ended in 1936 with Shop Talk, the Bob Hope persona we know and love was pretty much all there albeit needing some refining. Going Spanish can be by no means described as good yet its contents are really no different from the majority of short musical comedies churned out by the smaller studios of the time that weren’t Hal Roach. In 1934 Bob Hope was a man of ambition with a successful stage career upon him, and with his talent and a bit of time there is little doubt that he would have made it as a star before too long. That he became the magnitude of star he did couldn’t have been predicted, and certainly not based on the strength of Going Spanish. At the end of the day, and with a tip of the hat to Mr Hope, I’m loathe to say that any film is truly bad so in this case I’d prefer to label it a ‘curio’. What’s more I actually sat through it twice and I enjoyed it more the second time. Maybe Dillinger shouldn't have bothered with Manhattan Melodrama...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The First Born (1928) - Miles Mander's Masterpiece Restored

Miles Mander is perhaps best remembered (if remembered at all) as a character actor in Hollywood in the 1940s, but in Britain during the silent era he was a leading light of the film community. He was friend and contemporary of Alfred Hitchcock, a noted actor, writer and producer and a pioneer of early sound techniques. He eventually made his feature directorial debut in 1928 with The First Born, co-writing the screenplay with Alma Reville (Mrs Alfred Hitchcock), adapted from his own novel and play. It was the culmination of a decade spent in the burgeoning British film industry yet a statement that arrived too late to really be noticed amongst the oncoming changes to the industry brought on by sound.

Set against a backdrop of the British upper classes, the story charts the disintegration of the marriage between Lord Hugo Boycott (played by Mander himself) and his younger wife Madeleine (an impossibly young and dark haired Madeleine Carroll). Hugo is a caddish would-be politician whose irritation at his wife’s inability to provide him with a son and heir drives him into the arms of a succession of willing women. In a desperate attempt to keep her husband Madeleine agrees to secretly adopt her manicurist’s illegitimate baby and pass it off as the son her husband desires. However, once this has happened she finds it is not enough to hold their marriage together and the relationship quickly descends into mutual suspicion, infidelity and lies. The tensions between Madeleine and Hugo are complicated by the interference of their conniving friend Nina, who seeks to seduce Hugo and tell him about Madeleine’s secret. Hugo, on the other hand suspects Madeleine to be secretly having an affair with David, a playboy with a bad reputation (played by John Loder at his most debonair).

What on paper seems like a polite and vaguely absurd drawing room drama is in the hands of Mander a keenly observed portrayal of the realities of marriage and the consequences of selfish behaviour on the surrounding society. Though the world of the British ruling classes in the 1920s is hardly something that today's average viewer can identify with, the hypocrisies and frailties Mander’s characters reveal are universally recognisable. Both Mander and Carroll are mesmerising in their roles, with perhaps Madeleine Carroll giving the performance of her career as the increasingly desperate young wife. The inherent selfishness of the group is nicely summed in a short scene where Nina drives away from Hugo’s home and in her hurry her limousine knocks over a small bicycle, spilling its basket of fruit. Like Hugo and Madeleine, she leaves unaware of the consequence of her actions.

What makes the film so compelling is that complexities and contradictions of the lead characters force the viewer to switch their loyalty as the story progresses. Hugo is selfish, a serial cheat who treats Madeleine with distain whilst using her for his own ends, yet is likable enough that we want to believe he can escape the mess he has made of his life. He is fiercely protective of his ‘first born’ (though uninterested in their second child) and is driven to rage and obsession at the thought of his wife’s infidelities despite ignoring his own fatal flaws. Madeleine on the other hand is blind to Hugo’s faults and her need to keep him is such that she is forced into an increasingly complicated web of deceit. When her lies eventually catch up with her she reacts selfishly, showing a lack of concern for those in the path of her thoughtlessness. Ultimately it is their tragic love that makes us pull for the characters, and the misguided need for both of them to have a ‘normal’ family life even though neither of them really knows how to achieve it, let alone hold onto it. Both Mander and Carroll have a great chemistry throughout the film, with Madeleine Carroll betraying her lack of cinematic experience with a sensitive and subtle portrayal. The climactic scenes between the leads sparkle with the sort of heart stopping intensity that only the great silent dramas can manage. Such is the power of the drama that when the final reel plot twist appears, at the screening I attended a collective gasp rung out through the audience to what in reality is a particularly contrived piece of melodrama (I won’t spoil it, but it’s amazing!).

Regardless of the skilled handling of the script and acting, what has received the most notice since the restoration of the film has been the visual aspect, highlighting yet again the amazing progression of filmmaking as a visual art by the end of the silent era. What sets The First Born apart from many others, and indeed its British contemporaries is in the stunning fluidity of its camerawork. From early on in the film, where Hugo throws clothes at an unseen Madeleine behind the camera, Mander seems obsessed with the idea of movement and distance. He does this to not only get the viewer inside the film but to also seemingly highlight the fact that as director he has the ability to set his camera free from its stationary position. This enthusiastic flight reaches a breathtaking climax during the scene where Hugo rushes to Madeleine’s bedroom in the hope of exposing her supposed affair. As he approaches the room, the view switches to a full point of view shot as Hugo rushes inside to find it empty, the bed slept in (both sides creased however) and assorted clothes on the floor. As his eyes whirl round the room taking in the detail, the camera moves so rapidly that in fact the frame rate struggles to keep up (no Steadicam in those days!), yet the blurry movement highlights the intensity of the feeling. Madeleine is in fact in the bath, and the camera then slowly opens the door to voyeuristically take a peek at her in the water, before the drama is resumed and we cut to Hugo's face. After tantalising us with the girl in the bath, Mander cuts us off and once again lets only the character see the result. Though undoubtedly the point of view shot had been done long before 1928, the way it is used and the fluidity of the camera movement makes the scene (shot in one take as far as I remember) both shocking and thrilling. It’s like Mander reached into the future and invented all the slasher film clichés in one go, or at least before Hitchcock got there.

Other visual touches include a beautifully lit dinner party scene that looks like one big table lit by several candles or lamps. In this entirely unrealistic yet massively atmospheric setting, each dinner guest peers out from the darkness onto their gloomy spotlight to speak, then retreats, eel-like back into the gloom to eat. It serves no purpose other than it looks great. Lighting is similarly used in an incredible scene where Hugo is seduced by Nina (wonderfully played by Ella Atherton who frustratingly only seems to have made one other film) in his own home as Madeleine sleeps upstairs. In the candlelight Nina lies back on a chaise longue and writhes and squirms like a cat in heat. Hugo is literally trapped in her seductive thrall and visibly shows his tortured mind and he wills himself to take a figurative cold shower and resist her. After the duelling close ups of the seducer and her conflicted prey, the solitary shadow of a beckoning finger cast by the candlelight seals the deal and releases Hugo’s desires.

There are other beautiful moments in the film such as another point of view shot on the hood of a car as Hugo drives up the road to the estate, and the clever use of overlapping fades to convey a conversation without the need for title cards (indeed, it is a film of few titles despite undoubtedly a lot of dialogue spoken by the actors). Near the climax the point of view camera is used one final dizzying time as Hugo falls down a lift shaft to his death. The viewer sees the fall as Hugo sees it complete with a spinning visual effect and a brief montage as his life flashes before him in his final moments. It’s an impressive effect, and guessing how heavy camera equipment would have been in those days, no doubt it was a very complex shot to achieve. These are just a few examples among many throughout the movie and what finally emerges is a film given a very thoughtful and inventive visual touch. In many ways there is perhaps too much crammed into it, but the gamble pays off and as Miles Manter’s only extant directorial work The First Born provides a fantastic showcase for his talents.

That it was Miles Manter’s debut as a feature director is astonishing, but not altogether surprising knowing his deep involvement in the movie world up until that point. Certainly, on the strength of The First Born, Manter was arguably ahead of Hitchcock artistically by 1928 and who knows, given the right opportunities could have been one of the great British directors. He certainly seems to have the potential to have been a great filmmaker. Sadly, though he went on to direct a few sound films, none seem to exist or be available to see, and after a while he decided to concentrate solely on being a reliable character actor. Like so many others his output has historically fallen into the black hole that British movies of the 20s and 30s seem to fall into, where the vast majority seem to be in limbo, either lost forever or sitting unattended in an archive. The First Born was earmarked for restoration just short of ten years ago and the fruits of the BFI’s labours are only being seen now. The restoration, with a newly commissioned score was premiered at the London Film Festival last year and will hopefully continue to get a few more showings on the art house circuit beyond it's current limited run. In these cash strapped times, one can only wonder if a DVD release will be cost effective but with a bit of luck it might get to be seen by more people. The First Born certainly deserves to be more widely viewed and can genuinely be described as a lost masterpiece and a film that will hopefully begin to shine a little more of a spotlight on its creator, Miles Mander as one of the unsung heroes of silent British cinema.