Celebrating Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim - ScroogeThis week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Scot who was arguably the most popular comedy actor that Britain ever produced. Alastair Sim, who died on August 19, 1976 at the age of 75, was a comedy genius. He loved to make people laugh and left behind some of the most memorable performances in British cinema history. In just 25 years, he clocked up an impressive 61 films, many of them classics and all of them worth watching for his performance alone.

If the characters portrayed by Sim were assembled for an identity parade, they would make a motley crew. Millicent Fritton, the amply bosomed headmistress of St Trinian’s, would rub shoulders with her male oppo, Weatherby Pond, the frazzled headmaster of the boys’ school in The Happiest Days of Your Life.

Neither Sim’s Scrooge nor Sir Norman, the stressed-out diplomat he played in Innocents in Paris, would have any patience with Bingham, the time-wasting sidekick in the Inspector Hornleigh series of films, or with the dithery middleAlastair Sim - Miss Fritton
-aged man who stands to inherit a fortune only if he gets arrested in Laughter in Paradise.

Although Sim’s celluloid characters are a diverse mob, there are certain similarities in their make-up which are quintessentially Alastair Sim. His rich, commanding voice and heavy-lidded, dark-shadowed eyes lent him an air of menace upon which he capitalised to memorable effect in Scrooge and as various other characters of dubious morals. Sim appeared to play these parts – the lecherous lodger (with dyed black hair combed over to one side) in London Belongs to Me, the initially frightening author in Hue and Cry, and the mysterious title character in An Inspector Calls – with relish and gusto. Indeed, so strongly was he associated with dour, sinister characters that Alec Guinness’s imitative performance as just such a figure in The Ladykillers has often been mistakenly attributed to Sim.

A more true-to-life feature of many of Sim’s characters was the near wicked glee which bubbled just under the surface. Alastair Sim loved to laugh, and once they were underway, his infectious chuckles were impossible to resist. Many of his characters have a mischievous twinkle in their eye. Miss Fritton, who twiddled her pearls as St Trinian’s burned, is an unforgettable example.

Sim could unleash the most manic mirth when required: one of the greatest moments in British cinema history was Scrooge’s childlike Alastair Sim - London Belongs to Me 2joy when he awakes on Christmas morning to find that he has been given a second chance in life. Sim dances around, performs handstands, musses up his hair, kisses his housekeeper, and giggles uncontrollably in a performance that outdoes even James Stewart’s similarly exhilarating “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” routine in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Alastair Sim was born in Edinburgh in 1900. His father was a tailor, and the family lived above his shop on Lothian Road (the Filmhouse on Lothian Road bears a plaque in Sim’s memory). With four children to look after – Alastair was the baby – as well as the shop to clean, it must have been a struggle for his mother, but the family’s fortunes improved around the time Sim was six years old, and they moved to Bruntsfield.

After leaving school (Gillespie’s) at 14 and before he went to study chemistry at Edinburgh University, Sim did a stint working as a messenger boy for his father’s business, but proved to be far too easily distracted from his job and was sacked when he failed to deliver a suit at the promised time. His excuse? He had spotted some of his friends playing cricket in the Meadows and had stopped to watch.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sim was in the Officers’ Training Corps but luckily the Armistice was signed before he saw any action. Shortly after that, he lived rough in the highlands for a year, joining a group of itinerant workers. On returning to Edinburgh, he had various jobs before he eventually turned his attention to speech training and elocution, a subject about which he was passionate. By 1927, he was at Edinburgh’s New College, lecturing parsons on how to avoid sounding like parsons. He was also running his own School of Drama and Speech Training in the city.

It was around this time that he first met his future wife, Naomi Plaskitt. She was 12 years old and her school, St George’s, was staging a production of WB Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire in which she was to feature. Her teacher had met Sim and invited him to play a key part in the production. Over an afternoon tea with Sim and her teacher, who, she later realised, probably saw him as a potential beau, Alastair Sim - Green For DangerNaomi first fell in love with her future husband. He was undoubtedly unaware of this, but he became a friend to her family – her mother was bringing her and her sister up alone – and their marriage, just after her 18th birthday, in 1932, seemed to be the logical next step after years’ of close friendship.

After she left school, Naomi had become Sim’s secretary at his school, where she also studied. She is the first to admit, in her memoirs, that their relationship – although endorsed by her mother – must have looked highly suspect. At one point, shortly after Sim moved to London, he shared a flat with Naomi and her mother. “I wonder now,” she wrote in Dance and Skylark in 1987, “what his friends must have made of our relationship – the tall man looking older than his years and the small, shy girl looking younger than hers. I must have been like a happy dog, always at his heels… I don’t think it occurred to either of us that our relationship might appear unusual.” They went on to have a daughter, Merlith, in 1940, and their marriage lasted until Sim’s death. Naomi died in 1999.

Sim had moved to London in the early 1930s to pursue his dream of working in professional theatre – he had staged many successful amateur productions in Edinburgh and was keen to become a professional director. He was advised to establish himself as an actor first so he gave up his lectureship and closed down his School of Drama and Speech Training. His first job was a small part in a production of Othello starring the great black star Paul Robeson. Before long, he was winning rave reviews for his performances as Shylock, Captain Hook and Prospero.

It was the silver screen, however, which catapulted Sim into the public consciousness. Between 1935 and 1940, he honed his abundant, and largely physical, comic skills in no fewer than 25 supporting roles. His performance as a genie in Alf’s Button Afloat in 1938 left an indelible impression on the future Minder star George Cole who later said that he waited for the end credits to roll in order to find out who this bug-eyed actor was.

Three years later, George Cole made his film debut, appearing with Sim in Cottage to Let. Sim had befriended Cole when they both appeared in a Ministry of Information film about saving fuel. In it, the schoolboy, played by Cole, reprimands Sim’s Nero for “wasting Alastair Sim - Hue and Cry 2good fuel” and hits him over the head with his violin.

Cole, an adopted teenager, became the Sims’ evacuee at their country cottage during the Blitz, and soon became part of the family. He went on to act alongside his mentor in many movies and has described Sim as “a deeply caring person who had a passion for teaching young people to think for themselves”. Sim’s respect for the young was reciprocated: in 1948, he was voted rector of Edinburgh University with a landslide victory over Harold Macmillan. Hundreds of students turned out to greet him when he was installed in his post.

By then, Sim was a British box office star. His first starring role was as the droll Inspector Cockrill in the 1946 mystery Green for Danger. However, his best known work dates from the 1950s when he starred in Scrooge, The Happiest Days of Your Life, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Folly to be Wise, Innocents in Paris, The Green Man and the St Trinian’s films. His performance as Miss Fritton is said to have influenced Robin Williams when he did his own transvestite turn as Mrs Doubtfire.

Merlith McKendrick, who has clearly inherited her father’s impish sense of fun, tells a story about how she used to show a publicity shot of her father as both Millicent Fritton and her ne’er do well brother Clarence, from the St Trinian’s films, to classmates and tell them the couple in the picture were her parents.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sim continued to work – on TV, in films and, mostly, in the theatre where, in 1969, he gave one of his greatest performances – as the hapless title character of The Magistrate. He continued to work right up until not long before his death from cancer.

Throughout Sim’s career, he was keen to be seen as an actor, rather than a celebrity, and he was consistent in his refusal to play the celebrity game: he would not sign autographs and he avoided giving interviews. Nevertheless, he was voted the most popular British star in 1950 and is undoubtedly still one of the best-loved even today.Alastair Sim - Happiest Days


Alastair Sim - THe Green Man


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Adieu Louis Jourdan

Louis Jourdan head shotHis name may not be as familiar as those of other Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 1950s, but, in just a couple of films, the dark, dashing, and devastatingly debonair Louis Jourdan, who has died at the age of 93, managed to establish himself as the definitive charming European womaniser, most famously as Gaston in the lavish, multi Oscar-winning musical Gigi. Later in life, he graduated from playboy parts to suave villains, notably as the wealthy prince Kamal Khan in the 1983 Bond movie Octopussy, and an acclaimed BBC production of Count Dracula in the 1970s.

Born Louis Gendre in Marseilles in 1919, he was one of three sons of hotelier Henri Gendre, whose work took the family abroad: Jourdan (his mother’s maiden name) was educated in France, Turkey and Britain.

Jourdan decided on a career as an actor early on and studied at the prestigious Ecole Dramatique in Paris. With his chiselled features, sallow complexion, and natural grace, he was an obvious candidate for movie stardom and was quickly snatched up for film roles. He made his debut, at the age of 20, in Le Corsaire (which starred Charles Boyer, already established as Hollywood’s original French lover) and landed leading roles in a handful of romantic comedies and dramas during the war. However, not long into the Occupation, Henri Gendre was arrested by the Gestapo, and Jourdan and his two brothers joined the Resistance.

Following the war, Jourdan was invited to Hollywood by the independent producer David O Selznick. His Hollywood debut was in a lesser role in the rather wooden courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1948), which was produced and scripted by Selznick and directedLouis Jourdan - Letter by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was opposed to the casting of “pretty-pretty boy” Jourdan as a creepy valet suspected of murdering his employer, and attributed some of the film’s failure to Selznick’s casting decision.

Jourdan’s talents were put to much better use in the sumptuous melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), a sort of period film noir. Directed by the German-born Max Ophuls, it starred Jourdan as a self-absorbed playboy, a famous Viennese concert pianist who is idolised by a young girl in his apartment building. One of the most perfect evocations of unrequited love, the film was not widely seen when it was first released – it was fairly risque for Hollywood at the time – but has developed a cult following over the years. Playing a man learning, over the course of the film which unfolds as he reads the eponymous letter, the cost to himself and others of his reckless, self-serving lifestyle, he brought a poignancy and vulnerability to a character who starts out a stereotypical cad.

Jourdan was not kept particularly busy during his early years in Hollywood and was generally limited to the continental-lover-type roles. Decameron Nights (1952), a British film in which he played four characters, reteamed him with his Letter co-star Joan Fontaine, but with less success, while Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) raised his profile with American audiences. He also made his Broadway stage debut in 1954, receiving positive reviews for his leading performance as a secretly gay man embarking on marriage in a stage adaptation of Andre Gide’s novel The Immortalist. Unfortunately, a young supporting actor Louis Jourdan & LC in Gigi
named James Dean was reckoned to have stolen the show.

In 1956 Jourdan and Grace Kelly made a beautiful couple in The Swan, but it was his performance as the suave Gaston, the bored bon vivant bachelor nephew of Maurice Chevalier, in Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing movie version of the Paris-set Broadway musical Gigi (1958) that sent female hearts a-fluttering across the world and established him as the ultimate French lover. Not only had he never looked more handsome than in glorious MGM Technicolor, but he exuded a peculiarly Gallic ennui and revealed that he could sing – in an endearingly imperfect way (and with a seductive French accent).

However, it wasn’t long after Gigi that Jourdan began to suffer from the sameness of his roles, and he slid back into supporting parts. Between 1960 and 1990 he worked in Hollywood and in Europe, appearing numerous top TV series (Columbo, Charlie’s Angels etc) and in high-profile British TV movies, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1977). He had served as narrator on two Paris-set Billy Wilder films – Love in the Afternoon (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) – but in the 1970s, the Jourdan voice could be heard in, of all things, Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, the Louis Jourdan as the Swamp Thingspin-off of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series.

Jourdan’s career received a welcome shot in the arm when he reinvented himself as a villain – of the camp variety – for Swamp Thing (1982) and the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983). He also made a debonair Dracula in a now-cultish 1978 BBC production. He was last seen in the 1992 caper adventure Year of the Comet, which was partly filmed in Scotland. Married to his French wife (who died last year) from 1944, he had one son, Louis Jourdan Jr, who died of a drugs overdose in 1981. In 2010, he was made an Officier de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award. With a last dash of romantic flair, the screen’s great Continental lover bowed out, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day.

Louis Jourdan, actor, born June 19, 1921; died February 14, 2015

* First published in The Herald, February 17



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Concert review: The John Wilson Orchestra – Cole Porter in Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Thursday November 20th *****

It used to be the Christmas edition of the Radio Times that would work classic movie lovers into a festive frenzy each year, but these days, the biggest pre-Christmas thrill for film fans in Glasgow is the annual visit to the Concert Hall by the man who it wouldn’t be far-fetched to describe as the patron saint of Hollywood musicals: John Wilson.

In previous years, Wilson and his wonderful orchestra have brought programmes themed around the musicals of MGM and Fox, as well as by Richard Rodgers. This time, it was the Hollywood oeuvre of the great songwriter/composer Cole Porter which was celebrated, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death – a fact that prompted one old biddy in the audience to loudly respond “Aw”, as if news of Porter’s death was just breaking.

Good humour abounded, thanks partly to Wilson’s entertaining introductions and largely to the wit in Porter’s lyrics which the quartet of singers clearly relished performing. Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford’s You’re the Top highlighted the fact that the song is akin to screwball comedy banter set to jazzy music. The dark side of Porter shone through on So In Love, while two less familiar ballads – Between You and Me and You Can Do No Wrong – were pure romance.

The star, however, was the band with its joyful playing, its obvious devotion to its conductor and its brilliance creating both a sumptuous, MGM-worthy sound and a swinging big band vibe. It seduced the audience with its glorious opening medley, and enthralled throughout – notably on the swoonsomely romantic Silk Stockings ballet. As Mr Porter might have said: “You’re the top, you’re the Hepburn posture. You’re the top; you’re the Wilson Orch’stra … ”

* First published in The Herald, Monday November 24th

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Top Hat – Movie & Musical

Top Hat the MusicalYou may know Top Hat as the most famous of the movies made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1930s – but for the last three years it has also been a stage musical which has notched up a trio of prestigious Olivier Awards and bedazzled audiences up and down the country with the same scintillating blend of great songs, breathtaking dancing, knockout performances, and jaw-droppingly glamorous sets and costumes that made the original film such a smash back almost eight decades ago.

This was the film credited with saving RKO Studios from financial ruin. It is the film which features Astaire’s iconic Top Hat, White Tie and Tails number plus one of the most romantic dance sequences in movie history. It was the first of the Astaire-Rogers films to not already exist as a Broadway show: the songs – which include Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain) and Cheek to Cheek – were written by no less important a figure than Irving Berlin specifically for Fred Astaire to sing, and were instant hits and longterm classics. It’s a musical which fizzes along between song ‘n’ dance numbers with moments of screwball comedy performed by some of the best comic actors of the day. It inspired standing ovations at its first wave of cinema screenings, back in 1935. How could anything dare to follow in its nifty footsteps?

Well, it’s a sign of just how elegantly and thrillingly the stage version has been realised that it has been given the wholehearted blessing of Fred Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie. Despite the fact that she and her father’s estate have no financial interest in the project, Top Hat, White Tie & Tailsshe has become an enthusiastic champion of the show and has even been willing to grant a rare interview ahead of its return to Scotland later this month for the first time since before its West End run.

McKenzie was first approached in 2009, when the show’s producer Kenny Wax outlined his idea and explained that he was having trouble convincing the Irving Berlin Music Company to grant permission to use the songs. She recalls: “He talked to me about my feelings because it is so associated with my father that he was interested in my reaction. Since it had never been a stage show, I thought it was a wonderful idea so I wrote to the Irving Berlin Music Company saying that I felt the timing seemed right, and I’d have no objection. Never did I expect it to be as wonderful as it is – because they added so many more Berlin songs to it which was great because there were only five in the movie.”

Only one aspect of the idea troubled McKenzie. “There was always one hesitation on my part, which I made clear to everybody – that I would not have been happy seeing the leading man trying to play my father rather than the character Jerry Travers. And they’ve all made it their own. So I’m really, really pleased.”

That said, the songs were written specifically for Astaire to sing. Irving Berlin upped sticks from New York to serve as composer in residence, and brought with him what he called his “Buick” – an oversized upright piano with a special mechanism for shifting the keyboard and transposing his melodies into any key – since Berlin had taught himself to play piano in only one key. Also, there was an element of collaboration between Astaire and Berlin: Astaire was keen to recycle a tap routine from a disastrous stage show and his description of it inspired the composer to produce the glorious Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

Was Astaire at all proprietorial about the songs which were written for him to sing – not just in Top Hat, but also in subsequent films when he introduced Gershwin and Jerome Kern standards? “I don’t think he felt proprietorial about anything,” says McKenzie, pointing out that her multi-talented father was always delighted when others – such as Tony Bennett – sang some of the 40-odd songs he had composed.

Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch, who play Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont, may not be playing their characters as Astaire and Rogers did, but other aspects of the movie have been retained in the stage show – not least the feathered frock which Rogers designed for herself Ginger's feather dressto wear in the swoonsome Cheek to Cheek number. The filming of this particular dance was the source, says Ava Astaire McKenzie, of the rumours of a rift between the movie star dance partners – because Astaire reduced Rogers to tears with his angry outburst when wispy feathers kept detaching themselves from her gown and floating off in his direction.

While he was singing “Heaven, I’m in heaven ..” Astaire was actually, as he later described it, in hell. “It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote,” he said. McKenzie says: “Most of the time they got on very well but he did lose his temper on that occasion because he had not seen the dress – only sketches of it – and nobody took into account that those feathers were not going to stay put. They literally blinded him, got up his nose, and in his eyes – and he lost his temper. Which he would – if anything got in the way of his work. He had a very quick temper about that. So I think that whole rift thing is based on that.

“Of course you know the end of the story is that after it was all over, daddy and Hermes Pan – the choreographer and his best friend – presented Ginger with a little gold feather from Cartier for her charm bracelet and sang a song to the tune of Cheek to Cheek that went ‘Feathers, we’ve got feathers ..’ and he did in fact write a note saying something like ‘Dear Feathers’.”

Understandably, McKenzie has been paying close attention to the Cheek to Cheek dress in the stage show. “There have been two different dresses – one has more feathers than the other, but I did watch to see if they were coming loose, and last time just a few were floating around!”

* Top Hat is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen from September 23-October 4; the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from October 7-18, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow from December 2-13.

First published in The Herald, Friday September 19


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Kevin Brownlow: The Voice for the Silent Era

Kevin BrownlowKevin Brownlow is the Indiana Jones of the cinema world. Over the course of a six-decade obsession with silent movies, he has scoured the globe in the quest for lost gems of silent cinema. When there were still silent era movers and shakers alive, he tracked them down and gave them a voice. He has restored and resurrected some of the greatest films to emerge from the 1910s and 1920s. His services to cinema have earned him many plaudits but few as prestigious as the honorary lifetime achievement Academy Award with which he was presented at the 2010 Oscars.

Brownlow’s love affair with silent cinema began when he was a schoolboy and silent films were not only unfashionable, but regarded as a bit of a joke. Now, as a septuagenarian, his love is as strong as ever – but it is now widely shared: silent film seems increasingly to be celebrated (The Artist anyone?), not least by dedicated film festivals such as our own Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness which Brownlow will attend this week to introduce his definitive documentary on silent star Lon Chaney.

So, how did a boy hitting adolescence in the era of splashy musicals, glorious Technicolor and Ealing’s golden age become so obsessed with films made in the earliest years of cinema that it became his life’s work? And how was he even exposed to them, given that they were already out of vogue before he was born?

Brownlow explains: “I was sent to boarding school– a grim place. The only good thing the headmaster did for us was every Sunday Edna Purviance & Charlie Chaplinevening in the winter he would show us films in the chapel. He couldn’t afford a sound projector so we saw silent films which you could, then, still rent from photographic shops. So I saw the films of my parents’ generation and they made a great impression on me. I loved Harold Lloyd, and Chaplin – because his leading lady Edna Purviance (left, with Chaplin) looked a bit like my mother, and I loved seeing her.”

Not only did these screenings introduce Brownlow to silent films; it also planted a seed in his brain. “I realised that you could easily turn any room into a cinema with a projector, so I went on and on at my parents for one. They eventually got me a projector for Christmas when I was ten, and I realised I’d made a ridiculous mistake – I’d forgotten to say ‘movie’ projector; I got a still one.”

Aged 11, Brownlow finally had the right projector but only two films to play on it so, as he puts it, he “had to go out into the streets of London and look for more”. In his first port of call he found a pile of films that fitted his projector. “I didn’t know any of the people in them but my parents recognised Douglas Fairbanks at once – he was their favourite – and I was thrilled.” The 1916 film was entitled American Aristocracy.

“Later on,” adds Brownlow, “I discovered that the man who played the villain was living quite close by, in London. He was now an agent and he knew exactly who was coming in and out of London. He used to tell me things like: ‘King Vidor, Hyde Park Hotel – tell him I sent you!’ That’s how it all started.”

“It all” refers to Brownlow’s weird and wonderful navigation through the scattered society of silent movie folk who were still around when he was beginning to make his name as a film historian and restorer. Through tip-offs, mutual acquaintances, his own initiative and lots of what he calls “happy accidents”, he managed to meet many of the greats – the likes of Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson – long before he made his landmark, and epic, 1980 television documentary Hollywood.

Indeed, the first big silent star Brownlow met turned out to be working a few streets away from his family home. By 1954, Bessie Love Fairbanks & Pickfordwas working as a stage actress, touring Britain. Brownlow spotted her name on the playbill for the local theatre and, in disbelief, sent a note to her asking “Are you THE Bessie Love?”. He told her he had a 9.5mm film of her from 1916, and she asked to see it.

Brownlow recalls: “We were all a bit concerned because the house we lived in had been very beaten up by the Blitz – bits kept falling off. My mother had put a very heavy curtain across the door to keep out the cold, and when Bessie came in, the whole pelmet fell on top of her. Luckily, we heard giggles coming from beneath and she thought it a huge joke. She turned out to be absolutely delightful, and became a friend for the rest of her life. In fact, on the Hollywood series, we took her with us to Los Angeles to help us with difficult people – and she got us Mary Astor!”

Having been stood up by Mary Pickford (pictured above, with her husband Douglas Fairbanks) during his first expedition to Hollywood, in 1964, when he notched up 28 interviews in ten days, Brownlow finally managed to interview her during a visit to Britain in the 1960s. “Luckily I met a film man here who was married to her niece. She used to come over frequently to visit her so I was included in one of those meetings. What got me the invitation was my promise to show her a film starring her brother. She wanted very much to see him again – he’d died in 1933. So it was very moving.”

Lon Chaney, the subject of the documentary A Thousand Faces which opens the Hippodrome Festival on Wednesday, died during the transition period from silent movies to talkies and is, says Brownlow, an immensely important figure in film history. “Why? Because he had the most extraordinary ability to wear make-up as though it was natural, and as soon as you saw his character, you believed him. The fact that he could transform himself into The Phantom of the Opera (below) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame just fascinated audiences at the time who had never seen anybody conveying the disabled self so powerfully.”

To begin with, the young Brownlow couldn’t understand his appeal – until he saw a print of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “You felt a sympathy for this hideous looking character that only a great actor could convey. It was repeated years and years later – that Lon Chaney approach – by John Hurt in The Elephant Man. He was able to put on a make-up which would make people run out of the Lon Chaney - Phantomtheatre normally, but he put such humanity into it that you were quite fascinated and touched by the man.”

What’s clear from talking to Brownlow is that, as much as anything else, it’s his infectious and inexhaustible passion for silent film that has opened doors for him – and which drives him onwards. Asked if there’s a single lost film which tops his (vast) Holy Grail list, he immediately replies: “Yes, a film called Hollywood, from 1923, starring everybody in silent Hollywood. Everybody you think of has cameos and it’s very tongue-in-cheek and full of experimental scenes. It would be really fascinating to see.”

* Lon Chaney – A Thousand Faces, followed by Q&A, is screening at the Hippodrome, Bo’ness, on Wednesday March 12. Tickets for all events are available from www.hippfest.co.uk or the Hippodrome Box office on 01324 506850

First published in Scotland on Sunday on March 9th, 2014

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Concert review: The John Wilson Orchestra – That’s Entertainment

The John Wilson Orchestra: That’s Entertainment, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Friday November 22nd *****

It’s unlikely that there will ever be an orchestral concert that’s as thrilling to this movie fan as the first MGM Musicals concert that conductor John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra gave in Glasgow in 2010, with a quartet of singers including Curtis Stigers and Seth MacFarlane. But Friday’s return to the Concert Hall with a programme drawn from the same source came close on a number of occasions.

It’s not just the fact that Wilson has lovingly reconstructed the lost orchestrations by the great arrangers and composers who worked for MGM’s Freed Unit and who gave the studio its luxurious, distinctive house style. Nor is it the fact that he always has the best musicians in his band to play them. It’s the thrill of hearing songs you have only ever heard on TV or record, in your home, being brought dynamically to life with the utmost attention to every detail of the original version of which everyone is so fond.

In 2010, Singin’ in the Rain and The Trolley Song produced this magical effect. On Friday, the stand-outs were A Couple of Swells – brilliantly performed by Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford – and High Society’s I Love You Samantha, with trumpeter Mike Lovett in the Louis Armstrong role.

Other highlights included a spectacular I Got Rhythm, with the orchestra giving the fabulous Dorsey band a run for its money, numbers from Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, and the entire An American in Paris ballet. Lowlights? The £7 programme price tag, and the borderline scary crush as a good proportion of the full house tried to leave the Concert Hall onto Killermont Street – via one exit.

First published in The Herald, Monday November 25th

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Ray Harryhausen: The Architect of Childhood Nightmares

Ray HarryhausenI was lucky enough to interview Ray Harryhausen (who has just died) back in February 2005, for Scotland on Sunday. Here’s the article:

IF the name Ray Harryhausen doesn’t conjure up images of sword-wielding skeletons, many-headed monsters and super-size apes then you clearly had a misspent youth. This master animator, the most famous exponent of stop-motion animation, is, to his art, what Hitchcock was to the thriller and what Disney was to the feature-length cartoon. The list of films which boast special effects by Harryhausen includes many of the most imaginative and dazzling of their era, and such is their timeless appeal that this long retired 85-year-old is still asked about them on an almost daily basis.

Despite being far too young to have worked on it, one film with which Harryhausen has long been linked is the original, 1933, version of King Kong. His well-known passion for the film has led to his becoming, over the years, something of a spokesperson for it. Now, with Peter Jackson’s new take on the story due in cinemas next week and with the original film coming out on DVD, Harryhausen is relishing the chance to relive the thrilling experience of seeing King Kong the first time round.

He says: “I was 13 when I saw it and it changed my life. It had an enormous impact on me. Afterwards, I found out all about the glories of stop-motion animation – and I haven’t been the same since! It wasn’t just the technical aspects of it: it was the story as well. We had never seen anything so outrageously fantastic before.”

Although, as Harryhausen points out, it wasn’t a “eureka, I’m going to work in cinema” moment, he did begin to take a serious interest in this new form of animation which he had first encountered when he was taken to see the dinosaur movie The Lost World, back when he was five. The stop-motion animation in both it and King Kong was done by Willis O’Brien and by a stroke of luck Harryhausen discovered that one of his classmates was O’Brien’s niece.

“I called him up and he invited me to his office to see his preparations for a film entitled War Eagles. I walked into his office, and saw three rooms with every inch of wall space covered in drawings of War Eagles. I almost flipped. There weren’t many people interested in stop-motion at that time so I guess he thought I was rather unique.” Although Harryhausen had pals – including the future sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury – who loved King Kong, his own experiments with animation were pretty much solo efforts. “I did everything myself. If I wanted something I had to make it, so I had to learn how.”

O’Brien shared his technique – of editing together shots of a jointed model in a succession of subtly different positions in order to suggest independent movement – with Harryhausen. It gradually became apparent that Harryhausen’s hobby was his vocation, but he was aware that special effects alone do not make for a rewarding cinematic experience. He explains: “I had to learn many different skills – I took classes in writing, film editing and art direction.”

After serving in the Army Motion Picture Unit, where he worked with the great director Frank Capra and Dr Seuss creator Theodore Geisel, Harryhausen embarked on a series of short films based on fairytales before joining O’Brien to work on a project which would reunite many of the members of the cast and crew from King Kong. Mighty Joe Young (1949) had a similar storyline to Kong but its plot and characters were clearly inferior to its spectacular, Oscar-winning, special effects.

During the 1950s, Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation – which he went on to christen Dynamation – found a home in the blossoming sci-fi genre. He brought his love of dinosaurs into play by devising the special effects for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story about a prehistoric creature which is awakened after an atomic explosion. The film’s success guaranteed Harryhausen work in a string of monster-on-the-rampage movies in the 1950s.

However, he was soon ready for fresh challenges. “I got tired of destroying cities,” he jokes. “In 20 Million Miles To Earth we destroyed Rome, in It Came From Beneath the Sea we destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and in Earth Vs Flying Saucers, we destroyed Washington. In fact, I knocked over the Washington Monument long before Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks!”

But it was in the world of mythology that Harryhausen had the most fun – and produced some of his most unforgettable fantasy sequences. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) blew audiences away with its cast of mythological monsters. He says: “I loved the Arabian Nights films they made in the 1940s. They would always talk about the Cyclops and the roc but you never saw them on the screen – they were always offstage.”

The Harryhausen sequences that most people remember best are those of the sinister skeletons sword-fighting with live actors in The Seventh Voyage of  Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 film which Tom Hanks said was, for him, “the greatest picture of all time”.

Harryhausen laughs as he shrugs off the charge that he was responsible for a lot of childhood nightmares: “We tried to make the skeletons so that they weren’t too frightening but skeletons have always been associated with death, and of course this causes problems when you use a skeleton in a film – how are you going to kill it, if it represents death? So we had to have it fall off a staircase and break into pieces in The Seventh Voyage, and then they leaped into the water – and of course skeletons can’t swim very well!”

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City of Stars Exhibition, Glasgow

Back in February I curated an exhibition for the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, of photographs (from The Herald newspaper’s archive) of stars of the movie, music and entertainment worlds who visited the city between 1920 and 1990. It’s been a great success – so much so that the run has been extended indefinitely. The extension coincided with my brother offering his video-making skills to me for my blogs. So, here is a film about the exhibition – which features a cast including Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Mae West, Danny Kaye, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant,  and Glasgow’s own Hollywood star, Mary Gordon.

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Hollywood’s Forgotten Man: Gregory La Cava

It’s not often these days that a festival programme makes me squeal with delight – but when I saw that the Edinburgh Film Festival was providing me with the chance to see one of my all-time favourite films on the big screen for the very first time, squealing was the only option.

The film is a 1936 screwball comedy entitled My Man Godfrey. In fact, it’s not just “a” screwball comedy; it is – to my mind – THE definitive screwball comedy. With its central romantic couple who bicker and banter and have zero in common, its supporting cast of eccentric nutcases (played by some of Hollywood’s most memorable character actors), its sizzling script and its lavish Art Deco sets, it is up there with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as a movie that defines the genre.

Like Capra’s film, it also has an edge over subsequent screwball comedies because it doesn’t focus exclusively on the Park Avenue set; it deals with the Depression head-on, and in a very no-nonsense, though poignant and poetic, manner. (Indeed, its revival seems timely, given the current economic climate.) Its hero (the charismatic William Powell) is a “forgotten man”, a once-successful banker who now gives his address as “City Dump , East River “, a cardboard shanty town under the Brooklyn Bridge just a short camera pan along the waterfront from the swanky townhouses where ditsy socialite Irene Bullock (the luminous Carole Lombard) and her set live.

Just as I’m thrilled to be getting to see MMG – which exists on DVD only in such a poor quality print that I binned mine – on the big screen, so Chris Fujiwara, the Edinburgh Film Festival director, is delighted to be showing it, along with 11 other films by its director, Gregory La Cava, himself one of Hollywood’s forgotten men. 

Even the most cinema-savvy might ask “Gregory La Who?”. After all, terrific as My Man Godfrey is, it is not often shown on TV and is undoubtedly La Cava’s best and best-known film. However, as Fujiwara explains, this is a director who has long been close to his heart – indeed, he’s been waiting a long time to give him the retrospective treatment. “This is the first film festival I’ve been the director of, and I always thought that if I had the chance to do a retrospective – any retrospective I wanted – then I would do La Cava.”

Gregory La Cava on the set of Stage Door, with Ginger Rogers & Katharine Hepburn

Why? “Because he’s a director who really needs a retrospective. He’s one of the great directors from what we consider to be the classic period of Hollywood and he made a number of great films, most of which are very little known even among people who are real film buffs.”

A one-time cartoonist, La Cava, who was born in 1892, began his movie career
making animated films before switching to live actioners in the 1920s, the last decade of silent pictures. Unlike many of his contemporaries he made a smooth transition to talkies. Indeed, as Fujiwara says, “what’s interesting is how well he did that. A lot of directors couldn’t make it and failed, or their careers declined rapidly. It was also a time when Hollyood was bringing out new directors especially from Broadway and from legitimate theatre because they thought that these directors would be better equipped to handle dialogue than people who’d been directing films during the silent period. But La Cava did make this transition and I think that’s a testimony to his incredible imagination, his ability to conceive of what sound could add to film, not just as a sort of extra, but as a sort of dimension of film.”

You only need to watch the “scavenger hunt” sequence of My Man Godfrey – which is reminiscent of the much later work of Robert Altman (MASH etc) – to see what Fujiwara means. The effect of all the hysterical, drunken chatter of a
group of over-excited, brainless socialites is total aural chaos – in the midst of which our man Godfrey is quiet, logical and the calm voice of reason. Some of the dialogue in these scenes get lost amongst the hubub of hyperactive voices but it doesn’t matter – though luckily we do get to hear one wisecracker’s comment that “All you need to start an insane asylum is a room and the right kind of people.”

Gregory La Cava with Irene Dunne on the set of Unfinished Business

Another of Fujiwara’s favourite La Cava films is Unfinished Business (1941) which, he says, shows that he was “very interested in doing something experimental with genre. He mixes pure comedy with very pure drama in this film, and very successfully. It’s a film which looks forward to a lot of the things that Hollywood would do years later, films like The Apartment.”

Ginger Rogers and James Ellison in Fifth Avenue Girl

The genre-mixing is a trademark of several of the films in the retrospective – and another common link is Ginger Rogers. “She was one of La Cava’s favourite leading ladies,” says Fujiwara. “She’s in Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl and Primrose Path – and she’s great in all of them. I think she worked really well with La Cava because he encouraged his actors to improvise. Stage Door was practically invented in rehearsal by Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and the other actors and I think you can see it in her performances. Ginger was always great but there’s something extra in the way she performs when La Cava is directing – and those are three of her very best performances.”

Given all of this, why then is La Cava not better remembered? “I think part of it is that he didn’t live long enough,” says Fujiwara. “He died in 1952 and his last film was made in 1947 and there was a five year gap before that. So his career went into decline, obviously. Also, he died at the beginning of the 1950s, just as Hollywood filmmaking was going through a period that was more receptive to the kind of creativity that he had. In the 1950s, there was a real flowering of creativity in Hollywood. It was the period when directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks made some of their greatest work and I think that La Cava could have done that too – had he lived into that period. The fact that he didn’t meant that a lot of people with that sort of interest just overlooked him because he wasn’t working during that period of creativity.”

Is there a case for La Cava as an auteur then? “Oh definitely. I’d call him an auteur – no question. There’s a definite style you can see if you follow his films, even if you just see three or four of the ones we’re showing you can see tht they were made by the same person, that there’s a similar sensibility at work in them. He’s a director I would love the audience in Edinburgh to discover and I’d love to find out what people here think of his work.”

* The Gregory La Cava retrospective runs at the Edinburgh Film Festival from June 26-July 1, then at the Filmhouse from July 7-12.


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Christmas Crackers, Hollywood Style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

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