Monday, May 16, 2011
Dame Margaret Rutherford, the star/host of my father Frank De Felitta's 1964 documentary which I've posted below, was not quite the quaint and cozy biddy that her screen persona offered. Indeed, I've unearthed (without a lot of effort--thanks to Wikipedia) some rather startling facts about her. Who would have thought, for instance, that Dame Margaret's father "suffered from mental illness, having suffered a nervous breakdown on his honeymoon, and was confined to an asylum. He was eventually released on holiday and on 4 March 1883, he murdered his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, a Congregational church minister, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamberpot; shortly afterward, William tried to kill himself as well, by slashing his throat with a pocketknife. After the murder, William Benn was confined to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Several years later he was released, reportedly cured of his mental affliction, changed his surname to Rutherford, and returned to his wife, Ann (née Taylor)."
Hm. I know Wikipedia has a penchant for simply being wrong, but could somebody have truly made the above up? And if so why about Margaret Rutherford? Here's more:
"As an infant Rutherford and her parents moved to India but she was returned to Britain when she was three to live with an aunt, professional governess Bessie Nicholson, in Wimbledon, England, after her mother committed suicide by hanging herself from a tree. Her father returned to England as well. His continued mental illness resulted in his being confined once more to Broadmoor in 1904; he died in 1921."
Bad enough about her unstable parents, right? But the apple doesn't fall far. Consider:
"Rutherford married character actor Stringer Davis (who appears in "Stately Ghosts") in 1945 and the couple appeared in many productions together. Davis rarely left her side. He was private secretary and general dogsbody - lugging bags, teapots, hot water bottles, teddy bears and nursing Rutherford through periods of depression. These illnesses, often involving stays in mental hospitals and electric shock treatment, were kept hidden from the press during Rutherford's life. In the 1950s, Rutherford and Davis unofficially adopted the writer Gordon Langley Hall, then in his twenties. Hall later had gender reassignment surgery and became Dawn Langley Simmons, under which name she wrote a biography of Rutherford in 1983."
What? They adopted a young man who turned himself into a woman and then wrote her biography? What the hell is going on here? And what's with the "teddy bears" that her husband lugged around for her?
The rest of the film is posted. Enjoy. I need a long rest after this...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 10:34 AM
I have more--much more--to say about George Stevens, my favorite major Hollywood filmmaker of yore. And I'll get to some of it. But I was put off from continuing the series based on the sudden unavailability of youtube clips of "Shane" and the undeservedly obscure "Something To Live For" (both had been posted in complete versions until literally moments before I began writing about Stevens--or so it seems)...and, to be honest, the constant snorts of derision about Stevens work began to become tiresome to me. As a filmmaker, I am less interested in arguing movies with others than many buffs might be. To me films are dreams and you either have them or don't. But the steady stream of negativity I encountered when discussing Stevens depressed me and without the necessary clips to prove my case I found myself developing a massive case of blog avoidance-the very thing that led me to abandon my beloved on-line magazine this past Xmas to begin with.
I hope that in the future the poor schlub trying to convince readers that my work is worth reconsideration (readers? Who knows what they'll be at that awful point in the E-Future) is more energetic and less easily discouraged than I am. I have more to say about George Stevens and will soon do so. Meanwhile:
Behold Margaret Rutherford, beloved dotty English actress famous initially for her marvelous turn in David Lean's film of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" (or really Noel Coward and David Lean's film of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit", a David Lean Joint), and later famous for her peerless characterization of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Rutherford, embraced by the English as a delightfully harmless stereotype and adored by the world as the great English Auntie we all secretly wanted to be offered our first nip of Bushmills by, was an UK institution and her life intersected with mine (well, with my family's more accurately) in 1964. That's the year that my father, Frank De Felitta, was commissioned by his then employer NBC news with creating a one hour television documentary special based on Diane Norman's book "The Stately Ghosts Of England", a look at several great English Manor houses renowned for their history, their beauty and their ghosts. Dame Margaret was the program's host, along with "society clarivoyant" Tom Corbett (now isn't that a job title to aspire to?) and MR's husband/producer/manager/valet/slave Stringer Davis (now isn't that a name-for-an-English-fellow to aspire to?) The film was shot in England shortly after my birth--hence my memories of the on-set shenannigans are a bit thin. But for many years after its completion, my father would show the film to my grade-school classes each Halloween and the kids really dug it. Which says something about kids in 1974 versus kids in 2011 I would imagine.
If you are not (or are only vaguely) familiar with Dame Margaret, take one minute and fifty-three seconds and check out this charming little tribute reel. But don't stop there...
Now move onto the first two parts of the delightful "Stately Ghosts of England", made a in then-new "living color" (dig the opening promo) and broadcast on the Peacock network on January 25, 1965. I defy you not to be enchanted and to want to swallow the whole delicious one-hour dish in one big gulp. In which case go to my youtube channel and...you know the drill...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 10:04 AM
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
I had a plan: to work our way through "Shane", my favorite Stevens film and my favorite western, in order of the film's narrative. There's much to discuss after all--the magnificent fight scene of course, the methodology whereby Stevens creates multiple stories within a given scene simply by allowing the main conflict to play out while tracking reactions of other people looking over at others for their reactions. (I'm surprised this isn't done more--was Stevens surprised too?) Most importantly, there's the fact that Stevens somehow made a movie wherein two people fall in love--Ladd and Jean Arthur--never act upon it, never exchange a word about it and are clearly affected for life by the encounter. How this is transmuted--is it through the boy?--remains a mystery to me. But it's there and I mentioned it to George Stevens Jr. who seemed to agree that it was very much at the heart of this mysteriously powerful films emotional resonance.
But I'm abandoning the chronological plan. The reason? I found the last ten minutes of the film on youtube (the entire movie doesn't appear to be posted currently) and watched it and was so moved by it--I always am but usually I've just sat through the preceding two plus hours of it)--that I simply need to share it immediately.
The Self Styled Siren recently posted her favorite Stevens scene--the fight at the end of "Giant"--and I too have always loved that climactic scene though without quite knowing why until reading her rather brilliant analysis of it. As she points out, Hudson's fist fight--which he realizes he's losing in the middle of it--becomes a moment of growth, a rite of passage if you will as he finally stands up for what he knows to be right. The "Shane" climax may appear to be quite different--Shane, after all, soundly whips ass and handily rids the town of evil as Joey (Brandon De Wilde as if you didn't know) watches with fear, awe and satisfaction. But it too is a moment of character development--only not growth so much as death. For its Shane who is dying--and his ritual killing of the bad guys is, in a sense, his self-immolation. There is no celebration possible nor any future with the family--even though he's made their world a brighter place. For Shane, in that fight, sacrifices what's left of his own humanity to save the lives of the others. When he leaves, I feel the death of a soul--and that's the reason for the painful no-last-glance back at Joey. He has nothing left for him. He isn't the future. He's the past.
The scene inside the saloon is comprised of at least twenty seperate camera set-ups and is edited in what had by then become Stevens singularly quirky style. The much feared "line of axis"--typically never violated in textbook filmmaking of the time--is crossed constantly, causing actors to appear to occasionally be looking at each other in different directions. It not only doesn't matter--it works to the scenes advantage. I always feel a creeping sense of not quite knowing where I am in this scene, of who's lurking behind me or around a corner, what's about to happen--all directly attributable to Steven's disorienting screen direction. In fact, look at what I just said: I feel myself to be in that saloon--not watching from the perspective of an interested on-looker. There's one stunning shot that is a straight POV of Jack Palance staring dead on at Shane. It pops on the screen for about three seconds and is never used again. Stevens saves these stunning shots for just the right moment and snatches them away from us as quickly as he offers them up. Palance is looking at us--we are Shane--for just a short enough time for it to be unsettling, for us to not get used to the convention of a POV. And I do love the dog that slinks away as Ladd and Palance square off...
The ending of the film--Ladd and De Wilde outside the saloon, Shane's farewell--speaks for itself. Or does it? In Marilyn Anne Moss's merely okay bio of Stevens ("Giant--George Stevens, A Life on Film") she writes, "A few years before his death, Stevens watched the ending of "Shane" in an auditorium full of students and as he described the film, shot by shot, his narrative seemed almost to be an artful dream as he constructed it one more time..."
Following is Stevens nearly stream of consciousness rendering of the majestic end to his greatest work. I find it especially moving and worth quoting at length largely due to the strange and almost mystical way Stevens had of combining technical conversation with emotional considerations. In some ways the following verbal rendering of the scene is just as moving as the scene--and Stevens speaks in much the same way as he edits. A certain line of thought is pursued, the information that he's interested in imparting is given in his own time and manner, and then--suddenly--a jolt of emotion lands where you're not quite expecting it. This is the speech of a man who is both a virtuoso technician and a poet.
"I notice in taking it apart there's very little unity to the film as shot; because there are so many different pieces. They're inside the saloon with a variety of shots around the room...the boy's face coming under the door--all shot in the studio; then, outside there is the shot where Shane is sitting on a horse and the boy is talking to him, shot on location so he can leave the front of the saloon.There, again, is the camera around from Shane's point of view into the boys face, taken in the studio at another time--somethime after the work that was done in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There's the shot, shooting up at Shane on the horse, seated in the saddle in front of the saloon. And then a strange "Ring-around-the-rosy" business in which Shane leaves the front of the saloon and heads from another angle, then back to the front of the saloon when the boy comes around in the end of the saloon heading toward the Teton Peaks, the grand Teton in the background there, at the right time, when the cloud happened to be with us, with a long focal-length lens to give the mountains some structure and some height--because it's a grand thing, with the horse moving into the distance. Then the boy coming around the building--a wide angle shot; then a reverse angle with the boy in the foreground and the horse in the middle distance going away toward the Tetons; and then around for what became the major aspect of the scene--the boy's face...as he sees he's not convincing Shane. Further shots with the camera now moved away from the saloon, following the horse and rider--it's the horse and rider and the mountain. The same shot on the boy, back into his face, and, eventually Joey weakens--having the first experience in his life when something really doesn't work his way--when he realizes Shane is not coming back. And his spirit dims a little bit and he grows up a lot..."
Here is that scene.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 5:25 PM
Monday, May 2, 2011
If in some theoretical desert island scenario you were forced to pick only one ten minute youtube clip with which to live with for the rest of your days, I would strongly suggest part four of "A Place In the Sun" which contains three of Stevens most daring and ravishing scenes and certainly two of cinema's all time greatest close ups.
The other day I posted the long take of Clift getting two phone calls in his rooming house, shot from the other room and with the actors face (and hence his emotional responses) not visible. That scene resides squarely in the middle this chunk of the film. But this section begins with another daringly long take similarly designed to make you feel the static quality of George Eastman's shut-down feelings--his overall numbness--when stuck with Shelley Winters woefully unexciting Alice, the girl-who-would-prevent-him-from-having-Liz/Angela. This is the night that Eastman returns to Alice's shabby room for the pathetic birthday party she's made him, after meeting sumptuous Angela at the sumptuous party at her family's sumptuous home. The sad "celebration" is covered in a single static four minute shot which makes no attempt to accommodate itself to the action--spare though it may be (Clift and Winters literally just sit at a tiny table). Winters face isn't, in fact, visible in the scene at all--Stevens uses no cutaways to her though he doubtless filmed ample coverage. Indeed the camera is curiously located as if spying on the couple from a corner--Clift is so far away that his expressions barely register. And when she confesses to being "in trouble" Clift is off screen next to her, rendering the shot one of a mostly empty room.
Yet how eloquent this drab and empty portrait is and how clearly Stevens is dividing George's mental state between the two women--the arid static shots of him alone or with Winters are thrown into stark relief when matched with the lush, long focus close ups of the ravishing Angela--which in turn give way to the equally lush shots of the ever more beautiful George, newly awakened and enlivened by Liz/Angela's rockingly erotic presence. (The scene at the dinner dance ends part four and bleeds over to part five which I've posted as well, thus making a mockery of my meaningless desert island youtube experiment).
Butl its the rush off the dance floor to the patio that always startles me. The bolt of love that strikes them causes Angela to look off ("they're watching us") before running away, pursued by George. But note that short interim angle that carries her in profile as she bolts through the party. This is Stevens in his montage-as-story mode, where individual shots make sudden shocking appearances not so much to further the plot or explain the geography but almost as rhythmic snaps, as if he's finding a cinematic equivalent to the state of mind his characters find themselves in. (There's much of this in "Shane" which we'll come too next.) The famous close ups that follow are unusually shot for their time--on long lenses as opposed to jamming the camera into the actors faces, and from beneath the eyeline which was considered bad form in Hollywood at the time--the theory being that the lower the camera is placed, the heavier the actor looked.
I recall reading that much of the film was rewritten while being shot ( as "Shane" apparently was--a nod to Stevens improvisatory two-reeler days?) and that Clift and Taylor, when presented with the dialogue for this scene, were appalled by the "tell Momma all" stuff. Still Stevens prevailed--as he apparently always did--and a good thing too. The dialogue--if you bother to listen to it--is ludicrous and if lifted from this scene and read in an acting class would no doubt provoke laughter. But Stevens wasn't looking for words to do the job. He wasn't even looking for words that mattered. It's the hush in their voices, the way the words tumble out and disappear into the couples kisses and mounting passion, that make the scene as unbearably beautiful and strangely life like as it is. If you've ever been this close to another person, kissing them for the first time, you will identify totally with the moment--the rush, the fear, the intensity, the suspension of time and consciousness. That's the paradox in a lot of Stevens work that I find so curious. Somehow he used artificial film effects that often flew in the face of established convention--and in this case meaningless dialogue which he seemed to know the viewer would fill in for themselves-- to at once take you out of the "reality" of the scene while simultaneously pushing you deeper into recognizing your own feelings, your own identification with the characters and the moment they're in.
A note on the lap dissolves that "A Place In the Sun" unapologetically bathed itself in. George Stevens Jr. told me that his father grew to mistrust editing on a moviola--that he felt that cuts that seemed to make sense on a small screen often failed to have the same impact when screened on a full-size screen. So he developed a method of editing that sounds to me unbelievably lethargic (this is Stevens the slow-moving bull at work) and yet strangely forward looking; he arranged to have two projectors in a screening room, each holding a reel of dailies. The reels each contained shots that would presumably be cut together. Stevens would line up proposed combinations of shots and then--via a special device that Stevens Jr. said his father developed himself--would flick back and forth between the projectors, getting an idea of where in the action the cuts would have the most impact. Though I only half-understand how he could have edited whole movies this way, I see its effect in some of the "mismatched" shots in the Taylor/Clift scene. For Stevens, its not a matter of where the actors heads, hands etc. actually were that amounts to continuity; rather an emotional continuity and the power of the cut to bring that forward is what he was looking to achieve. This method of dual-projection editing inadvertently gave birth to the super lap-dissolves that the film contains. Apparently one day one of the projectors jammed and wouldn't stop running while the other projector began throwing its image. The two images colliding on top of each other so entranced Stevens that he immediately sent the two pieces of film to the Paramount lab and had them marked as lap dissolves that were easily three times the length of anything the lab had previously gotten. Initially the lab thought an error had been made. Stevens assured them it had not.
Finally a biographical note: I can't help noting that the source for "A Place In the Sun"--Dreiser's novel--calls the main character Clyde Griffiths and that Stevens renames him George Eastman. Picking his own first name for his protagonist might be explained away as coincidence. But picking the first and last name of one of film's founding fathers--the real George Eastman invented roll film and founded Eastman Kodak--is simply a flat out case of the sub-conscious mind working a tad too close to the conscious mind for comfort. Stevens might as well have named Clift's character "George the Film Guy" and with good reason; in choosing to film "A Place In the Sun" (and he had to battle Paramount to allow him to make it), he was embarking upon the story of a young and eager man who starts off with modest ambitions at the bottom of the ladder and soon sees a world filled with beauty and opportunity--and recognizes that he mysteriously has been given the chance to enter it. Stevens began as a silent cameraman and moved into two-reelers which, though we love them now, were the bottom of Hollywood's barrel. His B features at RKO are unmemorable and its hard now to know how he was chosen to direct his first A movie, the Katherine Hepburn vehicle "Alice Adams".
But Hepburn provides a clue when she refers to their first meeting (I believe this is in "George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey") and becomes goo-goo eyed at age eighty-whatever remembering the then thirty year old Stevens, describing him as "beautiful". The two began an affair on that movie that continued on and off through 1942's "Woman Of the Year". Stevens ex-wife, Yvonne Stevens (George Jr.'s mother) recounted in an interview going to the "Alice Adams" set, seeing Hepburn and her husband and realizing "that was the beginning of the end for George and me". Though the two remained married for another dozen years,Stevens was openly involved with several of the worlds most famous and desired women, among them Ginger Rogers and Joan Fontaine. With this came his own sense of self-assurance, the blossoming of his talent and career, his ascendancy and eventual predominance in the competitive world in which he dwelt.
So watch this chunk of the film and feel the director's identification with the lonely young man yearning to burst out of the shell which limits him. And observe his sympathy with the young man--indeed, watch him revel in the passion the young man feels-- as he discovers how big a world he's entered and how powerful his place in it could be. "A Place In The Sun" is Stevens first entirely personal film and--if my psycho-reading of the director's life and how it intersects with the story is of merit-- may well be the most personal work of any filmmaker during the years of the studio system.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 3:53 PM