Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Skippy (1931) - In Memory of a Dead Dog...

It always surprises me how much child stars remember of their time in the spotlight. I can barely remember a thing about being 8 years old (though to be honest I can barely remember what I did yesterday) yet many child stars would later grow up to write vividly detailed accounts of their formative years. In fact Sybil Jason wrote three volumes of (apparently very entertaining) memoirs based on her brief career in 30s Hollywood. Yet, when I watched Skippy, and more specifically the performance of nine-year-old Jackie Cooper, it was difficult to think of him as anything other than a fully functioning adult in a child’s body. He’s just such a good actor for his age, with an uncanny ability to emote that the only feasible explanation has to be that the best of the child stars are some kind of super race of geniuses wise beyond their years. The reason I mention the matter of memory is that the main claim to fame of Skippy is that it’s the film where director Norman Taurog infamously got Cooper to cry for a scene by pretending to shoot his dog. I guess I’d remember an episode like that but the day-to-day details of life on a studio lot would certainly pass me by at that age.

Ignoring the above digression, Skippy is a pretty fun movie, and this is coming from someone with a general dislike of child stars and their vehicles. The movie was the big-screen adaptation of Percy Crosby’s incredibly popular and influential comic strip and I’d imagine there would have been considerable expectation by the public to see that the character was handled right. Though Percy Crosby himself hated the film, the treatment is about as good as you could ask for with the performance and costume of Jackie Cooper perfectly reflecting the illustrated version. Additionally, the film successfully creates a self-contained world of bright picket fenced houses contrasting with the rickety industrial wasteland of Shantytown, seemingly pulled straight from a printed page. Other than that it’s the sweet tale of middle class boy Skippy and his adventures on the wrong side of the tracks in Shantytown playing with his younger friend Sooky. Though he’s told by his parents to stay away from Shantytown, Skippy enjoys the rough and tumble of life in the run-down area with its good honest poverty and social degradation.

The main plot involves Skippy and Sooky’s attempts to raise $3 to free Sooky’s pet dog from the pound and a certain death. This is perhaps the best part of the film as it highlights so clearly the pains of being a kid. The narrative is told entirely from a child’s point of view, with its underage cast and where the adults are sidelined to the role of the distant yet understanding parent or the vindictive authority figure. Skippy’s friends are portrayed as the sort of easily recognisable black and white archetypes that can only be experienced by a child. From the innocent Sooky, the irritating and bossy Eloise to the show-off Sidney and the local bully Harley, they are all simple characters populating the society of childhood that anyone of any age can understand and recognise.

The heartbreaking saga of the impounded dog and the enormity of raising the $3 are deftly played by the cast and director. Skippy and Sooky do a number of chores to raise the astronomical sum only to find out that (spoilers) the poor pooch has already been disposed of by the uncaring dog catcher. Jackie Cooper beautifully plays what could easily turn into a saccharine display of pathos as he cries at the news whilst glowering with impotent rage at the injustice of the act and the lack of power he commands as a lowly child. The following scene finds him moping at home, unable to summon the energy to even take a telling off from his father, utterly destroyed by the news (and it wasn’t even his dog!). The whole scenario is so expertly played by Cooper, who makes the viewer feel the powerlessness of childhood acutely on his behalf. It’s a powerhouse performance that makes the eventual happy ending all the more sweet, with an air-punchingly good dénouement where Skippy’s father finally understands what his son has been going through and takes action to set it right. Despite this, it’s Cooper that makes you feel the emotions of the film, and it’s Cooper that effortlessly invokes the feeling of being a kid. Considering his youth, the fact he can do this in a naturalistic manner can only be answered by my previous super genius theory. There really is no other explanation!

While Jackie Cooper holds the picture together, many other members of the young cast lend able and very entertaining support. In the role of Sooky is Robert Coogan, the younger brother of Jackie Coogan who at the tender age of seven is the youngest of the leads. In comparison to Cooper he’s awful, but his lack of ability works wonderfully well with the naïve character he’s given. He has such a lost look on his face, as if he has to concentrate really hard to remember his lines, and his regular fluffs are quite charming, as is a brief scene where he falls over mid sentence and everyone carries on regardless. He made me think of Jacquie Lyn in Laurel and Hardy’s Pack Up Your Troubles and the scene where she has to read Stan a bedtime story. She takes an age to get through it, constantly looking off camera for prompts between the blank looks as Stan desperately scratches his head and smiles to cover for her. It’s the sort of charming amateurism that you only see in early 30s films and in Robert Coogan’s case really lends an air of spontaneity to the movie

One other notable addition to the cast is the incomparable Mitzi Green as Skippy’s bossy friend Eloise. Although she doesn’t have much to do in the film, merely a handful of scenes, she lends a great sense of comedy and whimsy to the proceedings. She plays a variation on her usual character, a pushy know it all constantly badgering all around her to listen to her. In other film appearances (see Girl Crazy among many others), she usually pleads to sing, dance or do her much famed imitations, but this time round her character has a literary bent as she constantly composes odes and poems to the general annoyance of everyone else. On her first appearance she recites her new masterpiece “In Memory of a Dead Dog” to Skippy’s father, strangely foreshadowing events to come. The purple prose is typically awful, yet this fact doesn’t stop her reciting an endless stream of verse to Skippy’s confused dad, all the time beaming with pride. When the end of the poem comes, Mr Skippy gets up to leave, only to be told, “That was only the beginning. There’s a lot more” as he turns away from her in an effort to ignore her and read the paper.

However, Eloise has an important part to play in the ending of the film as when Skippy is at his lowest point after the death of the dog, she turns up (yodelling for some reason) with, - wouldn’t you know it, a new dog! Skippy convinces Eloise to swap her new dog for his new bike because, in the best line of the film “This dog looks like it would bite a girl, and then die of rabies”. So Skippy gets a new dog for Sooky and Eloise rides off on her brand new bike. She wobbles away, already staring a brand new poem in honour of her new possession.

At the 4th Academy Awards in 1932, Skippy was nominated for four awards and walked away with one. Skippy lost out to R.K.O’s Cimarron for best picture, which was understandable but the fact that it was even nominated (and was the second most nominated picture of the year) shows what an “event” movie it was. Jackie Cooper was nominated as best actor and lost out to Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul. Despite Barrymore’s inestimable talents and undoubted seniority as an actor, I’d actually give the nod to Cooper after comparing the two performances, though generally drama always wins over comedy in these cases. The third nomination was for Joseph Mankiewitcz and Sam Mintz’s script, which although well written and at times quite witty, in no way stands up to the majority of it’s fellow nominees like Little Caesar, The Criminal Code or eventual winner Cimarron.

Luckily for Paramount, Skippy did win one Oscar, the best director statue for Norman Taurog (still the youngest director to win the award). In retrospect it’s a puzzling decision because although the movie is well made, aside from a lovely tracking shot at the start, the only Oscar worthy aspect of the movie is how successfully Taurog managed to work with his young cast to get the most out of them. In terms of what we traditionally think of as merit for direction, the fact that Skippy beat out Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page and Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco is, to say the least odd. It goes to show that these decisions are made in the here and now with no thought to posterity, and that more importantly the Oscars are not and have never been primarily about the “best” films of the year. As I say every year, the Oscar ceremony has a story to tell, and in this case I get the feeling they wanted to give the movie something, so it got the director award. Then as now, there is always an element of politics and tokenism.

In the end, all is right with the world. The film could add the prefix “Academy Award Winner” to its advertising, Skippy and Sooky have a new dog each, Skippy’s father finally understands his son’s problems and stands up to the dog catcher and Shantytown is saved from development (after all, they are happy being poor and living in squalor, why build over it!). It’s corny and silly but after the emotional highs and lows in poor Skippy’s life, it’s just right that everyone lives happily ever after. Probably the most important part of the puzzle is that it was Skippy that propelled Jackie Cooper to greater things – a contract with M.G.M and the start of a career as one of the greats of the screen. I’m still not too keen on child stars but I have another name in my list of kids that I’ll make exceptions for.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Eric Sykes 1923 - 2012 : Britain's Last Comic Genius

Eric Sykes, one of the most talented and influential comedians in British entertainment history has died today aged 89 after a short illness. An actor, writer and director Sykes, along with Spike Milligan was largely responsible for the shape and form of post war comedy. Though I’d imagine he is virtually unknown outside of Britain, the importance of his work in the development of modern humour really cannot be stated strongly enough. While Spike Milligan single-handedly brought comedy out of its stale music hall roots and into a modern world of surrealism, anarchy and satire, Eric Sykes’ work served as the needed contrast, still surreal yet delivering more structure to the unstructured, and replacing Milligan’s free-wheeling wrath and bite with good natured whimsy and believable situations.

As a director, he was known for creating a handful of short silent films starting with 1967’s The Plank through to 1993’s under rated The Big Freeze. His films, in which he also starred and wrote, are beautifully constructed pieces of comedy filled with the sort of brilliantly realised physical gags only really seen in the golden age of the silent era. The films reveal Sykes as a true modern day practitioner of a comic lineage started by the great silent clowns. A friend and confidant of Jacques Tati, his careful, meticulously paced and layered visual approach to comedy not only echoed Tati’s (albeit on a smaller scale) but he was really Tati’s only true heir, and as it proved, the last of that particular line.

Eric Sykes got his start working as a script writer for radio in the late 40s with the B.B.C and he soon found himself as an in demand gag writer for virtually every big name in 50s entertainment in Britain. His penchant for painting visually surreal pictures with his words, particularly when writing for the popular comic Frankie Howerd marked Eric out as stylistically new and different from his contemporaries. Sykes eventually honed his style to a smooth mix of loosely structured situation and whimsy, which then gradually led to his return as a performer in his own sitcom for BBC television. Paired with Hattie Jacques, a large character actress who played Eric’s identical twin, his show Sykes And a… (and later just Sykes) set the bar for situation comedy in a household setting. I would go as far as to say that in terms of the domestically set sitcom, the sheer quality and variety of his work has yet to be bettered. Sykes is an endlessly creative show, cosy and gentle yet with each episode brimming more ideas than most shows had in a season. It’s no coincidence that Peter Sellers chose to make a rare 1970s television appearance on Eric’s show in a particularly memorable episode.

As an actor, Sykes was always in demand on the stage and in films and television. He had been a regular in movies from the 50s with particularly noteworthy appearances in Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers, the all star Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Shalako with Sean Connery and Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price. More recently he was seen in The Others with Nicole Kidman and as Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He specialised in portraying a certain type of nervous and jittery everyman in his few lead roles, and later in support played the same type typically as a manservant or sidekick. Despite this typecasting he was an excellent comic actor who played the full range on the stage from modern farce to Shakespeare.

In interviews Eric displayed a great understanding and affection for the work of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and their ilk, and a deep understanding of the fact that comedy was not a job but a calling, something that you have to do and which is worked on and honed over years of practice. He also echoed Stan Laurel’s views on comedy being like putting together a watch in that when works perfectly, you can never over analyse what make it work in the first place lest it breaks forever. Someone, I think the writer Denis Norden called Eric “the master craftsman of comedy” which is an apt description if ever there was for his work and truly reflects the care and attention put into perfecting not just his job but also his craft.

He continued to work on television and stage until very recently and despite being virtually deaf and blind had lost none of his ability or energy. I saw him a couple of years ago at a question and answer session at a comedy festival, and even in his mid eighties and quite infirm, brought the house down with his razor sharp wit. It was one of the funniest performances I have seen in my life and treasure the experience to this day.

However, despite a stellar career as a stage, film and television actor, a writer, an author and a director, and by all accounts one of the only truly nice guys in show business, Eric Sykes was always somehow overlooked or just taken for granted. Even his autobiography was amusing called “If I Don’t Write It No One Will”. Sadly, I feel this will continue with his passing. He had no scandal in his life, both the public and his peers loved him and he was ridiculously good at what he did. Yet his gentle, good-natured, universal brand of comedy never truly found an audience to the later generation brought up on a comedic diet bad language and bad taste. He was admired but I get the feeling that few comedians around today truly understand his significance and genius.

Yet until he died today, Eric Sykes was the only man in Britain that could rightly be called a comic genius. I try to think who is left in the world of comedy that can take his place but he was the last of his generation and the last of his kind. Believe me, I’m not overstating it, but in terms of post war comedy and it’s evolution, and in terms of performers who just instinctively knew comedy like the back of their hand we have lost one of the greats. I feel that with him, an era has passed and sadly the world is a poorer place for it.