King Kong – a poetic film

kingkong33newposterFound– a one page ‘flyer’ put out by a surrealist group in Leeds for a season of ‘Surrealists go to the Cinema’ held at Bradford cinemas in November 1994. It reprints a 1934 review of the 1933 King Kong directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The review was by Jean Ferry a French writer and later ‘pataphysician’ who saw it as a poetic film ‘heavy with oneiric power’ but, curiously, he does not attribute this to the makers of the film… It reads:

I had so definitely given up the idea of seeing a poetic film that, beside any attempt at criticism. I cannot help reporting the appearance of that rare phenomenon, greeted as you would expect by howls of derision and contempt. I hasten to add that what gives this film value in my eyes is not at all the work of the producers and directors (they aimed only at a grandiose fairground attraction), but flows naturally from the involuntary liberation of elements in themselves heavy with oneiric power, with strangeness and with the horrible. … It appears, finally, that the tallest King Kong, for there were many of them, as you may have guessed, was but a metre high. But you see we knew it already. And this is why I think the inept laughter of the public is only a defence mechanism to force itself to think that this is only a mechanical toy and, having succeeded in this, to escape the feeling if unheimlich, of disquieting strangeness, that we cherish and cultivate, for our part, so carefully, and which nothing brings to life as readily, and rightly so, as being in the company of automata. I think that the film would be no less moving, no less frightening, if it was not about a supposedly living beast but an automaton of the same height making the same movements. In any case, whether the monster is real or false, the terror he provokes takes on no less of a frenzied and convulsive character through its very impossibility. Continue reading

Stuntmen- a ‘respected heavy’

IMG_1966Found in Spotlight’s Register of Stunt Performers and Stunt Arrangers: 1991-93 this entry on the ‘respected heavy’ Michael Crane. A fascinating book, mostly men, some listing the equipment that they can provide (Abseiling equipment, Air Bags, Fire Suits etc.,) Michel Crane, a formidable figure, also worked as a bodyguard in those inevitable resting periods in the life of a stuntman…minding Heads of State, Royalty, Pop Stars- the usual crew. His entry reads:

Michael Crane.

Height: 6ft 7in

Weight: 25st

Chest: 55in

Credits: 

Stunt Arranger: Henry Rawlinson’s End.

Stunt Performer: Brannigan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Legend, Defrosting the Fridge.

Capabilities: Driving Stunts, small arms expert, boxing and all general stunt work.

Acting Experience: twenty-five years experience playing small parts, heavies, giants, monsters, pirates, Scotsmen, Blacksmith etc.

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Sabrina—Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe

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Sabrina on the set of ‘Blue Murder at St Trinians’ being sketched by Ronald Searle

Found in the Peter Haining Archive a small file on the now forgotten fifties British glamour model Sabrina, who in 1936 was born in Stockport as Norma Sykes. The nature of some of the contents of the file, which includes three large glossy prints of the scantily clad model in various provocative poses, suggests that Haining was one of the thousands of young ( and not so young) men who had fantasised about the bosomy blonde in her heyday, when she was compared to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. His curiosity may have prompted either by research for a possible book on Arthur Askey, in whose TV shows she had appeared, or by another clipping in the Archive—-a double-page spread in The Mail on Sunday for September 1st 2002.

In this article Sabrina, who following her unsuccessful bid for Hollywood stardom had settled for a life of leisure as the wife of a wealthy LA gynaecologist, only to lose most of it following her divorce, was tracked down by reporters to a seedy corner of Beverley Hills :  Continue reading

Gillian Hills–Beat Girl

For someone brought up with the Beatles, it’s difficult to understand the attraction for teenagers of what came immediately before the Fab Four transformed pop music for ever. Here, for instance, is the back page Film Review promo for Beat Girlbeatgirl_poster a movie released in 1960 that purported to show ‘ squares ‘ what their ‘beatnik’ teenage sons and daughters were getting up to behind their backs. Starring the pop singer Adam Faith ( his film debut at the age of 18 ), horror star Christopher Lee, a young Oliver Reed and the fifteen year old bilingual starlet Gillian Hills, it was also the debut of John Barry, who went on to forge a glittering career in film music.

In 1960, most pop music fans were more interested in how teen idol Faith would cut it as an actor, than they were seeing ‘ the second Bardot ‘, as Roger Vadim hyped the fifteen year Hills, but looking back, it is odd that latter’s acting career never took off. Here was an actress, whose striking blonde beauty and obvious acting talent should have propelled her to greater things. In ‘Beat Girl’ Hills plays the ‘ bad girl ‘ Jennifer, the sulky-looking beatnik, who rejects the values of her respectable parents and lives for the kicks she gets out of dancing in night clubs and hanging out in milk bars. In the opening scenes of the film she is a pouting, free-spirited presence as she descends the stairs to the basement dance floor, where, seemingly oblivious to everything and everyone around her, she begins a freestyle dance routine. On her website ( which is worth a visit ) Hills describes the dance thus: ‘ my brain flipped, my feet followed and I was off’. As for her role as Jennifer, she saw it as a protest at her treatment by her Lycee in Paris, who expelled her for taking on a debut role in Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereux ‘.

 

‘I could vent my frustration, my disgust, the helplessness and despair, and the anger at what had happened to my life in the recent months.’

‘Beat Girl’ proved popular in Britain, but was banned in France. However, this did not prevent Hills from taking roles in a number of French films in the early sixties and from recording pop songs in French, including the annoyingly catchy ‘ Zou Bisou Bisou’ (1961), which was later used in ‘Mad Men’. But in Britain the film roles were small. She was a brunette in the cultish ‘Blow Up ‘(1966) and in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ she had a cameo. She also appeared occasionally on British TV.Gillian Hills pic

In 1975 Hills decided to stop making films and left for New York City to try her luck as a book and magazine illustrator. Judging from the artwork on her website, she appears to have genuine artistic talent too! At 72, Hills now lives in England with her husband Stewart Young, manager of AC/DC and Cyndi Lauper, among other artistes. [R.M.Healey]

 

 

Hollywood bookplate (1928)

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A bookplate from Hollywood 1928 right at the end of the silent movie era. It was done for actor and film director Robert G. Vignola (1888 - 1953) and was found in his copy of Emil Lucka's Eros. The Development of the Sex Relations Through the Ages (Putnam's , N.Y. 1915.) It was drawn by the film costume designer Walter Plunkett, presumably a friend of the distinguished director and 26 years old at the time. By this time Vignola had acted in many movies and had directed at least 60, some of which are no longer to be found.

Vignola's  career seems to have come to and end  just after 'talkies' came in, a not uncommon fate for older directors. The figures in the bookplate represent stars of the time and probably relate to movies he had made. Other film  directors who had bookplates include George Cukor, Bryan Forbes, Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B de Mille.

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Samuel Fuller and 144 Piccadilly

Found- a British paperback 144 Piccadilly (NEL, London 1973) a novel by the American film director Samuel Fuller. It concerns a group of London hippies who barricade themselves inside a decaying Mayfair mansion and resist all efforts to evict them. One cataloguer notes that the American edition rather obscures the fact that it was based directly on an actual event — “ripped from the headlines,” as Fuller might have put it. In September of 1969 a radical group known as The London Street Commune, formed to highlight concerns about rising levels of homelessness in London, took over a large house at the corner of Piccadilly and Park Lane (just across from Hyde Park); they occupied the building for six days before being forcibly evicted by the police. Fuller’s literary conceit was to insert himself into the situation, “playing” the narrator, a cigar-smoking American film director (in London for a BFI retrospective of his films) who gets involved with the squatters by accident. Unlike most of Fuller’s books, it’s not just a novelization of one of his own film treatments; as he tells it in his posthumously -published memoir, he actually had been in London when the occupation was taking place, had witnessed the initial break-in while out on a late-night walk, and with his “newspaperman’s nose,” had contrived to have a chat with the occupiers. “The disheveled squatters invited me to stay on,” he wrote ‘(if)…I hadn’t had prior commitments, a wife, and a flight back to the States the next day, I would have.” He subsequently got “damn mad” about the treatment accorded the squatters by the British media and the police, and knocked out a novel in which “an American film director very much like me participates in an illegal entry in London, then tries to bridge the generational gap by becoming the group’s mascot and witness. The fictional ‘me’ does what I was tempted to do but couldn’t, abandoning his hotel suite for a mattress on the floor with the flower children.” He never made a movie of the book.

Loosely inserted in the book is a typed postcard (27/11/71)  from Fuller “Am writing ‘Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street’ which I’ll shoot here in Feb. My book 144 Piccadilly just came out… Am at Senats Hotel 5 Koln 1 – Unter Goldschmied”. Fuller has not signed the card but the words ‘Mit Luftpost’ are handwritten in red ink, presumably by the great man…  At the front of the book is the ownership signature of Phil Hardy, the recipient of the card- he wrote a book on Fuller published by Praeger ( N.Y. 1970)


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The Magus – ‘a bizarre and baffling film’ 1970

A contemporary piece about this ill-fated movie, which although often slated, most notably by Woody Allen ('If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus') has become something of a cult. The article was found in PHOTOPLAY (February 1970) a British film and pop music magazine. The long winding part about the plot has been mostly excised.

The Magus - a bizarre and baffling film which winds through a labyrinth of fantastic happenings. 

What is a Magus? According to the best dictionaries it is "one skilled in Oriental magic and astrology, an ancient magician sorcerer."

And so to our story:

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Afternoon Tea with Sherlock Holmes – Peter Cushing interviewed

Found among the papers of Peter Haining this account by him of a meeting with the Hammer Horror film star Peter Cushing. Haining worked with Cushing on several books including Peter Cushing's Monster Movies  (9 macabre short stories  all linked to Cushing's film career) and The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook both with forewords by Cushing. These contributions were written by Haining and then approved by Cushing (after much correspondence, some slightly  rancorous- he appears to have been a perfectionist although all his communications end "God bless you, Peter Cushing")

Afternoon Tea with Sherlock Holmes
By Peter Haining

It was the perfect place to meet Sherlock Holmes: 'The English Tea Room' in Brown's Hotel, Albermarle Street in the heart of London's fashionable Mayfair district. Long associated with the great English tradition of taking afternoon tea - served with the hotel's own blend, home-made jams and clotted cream and tasty cakes and pastries the Nineteenth Century establishment is also steeped in literary tradition and has been patronised by among others Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie who actually based her novel, At Bertram’s Hotel, on Brown's. Founded in 1837 by James Brown, a former valet to Lord Byron who referred to him as the 'gentleman's gentleman,' the hotel has become an oasis of elegance, comfort and fine cuisine in the heart of the bustling metropolis. Indeed, such is the timeless style of Brown's that it is not hard to imagine the great detective paying a visit and no surprise to me that Peter Cushing, associated with Holmes for much & his acting career and a man dedicated to his afternoon cup of tea, should have chosen it as his own haven whenever he was working in the vicinity of London on stage or in films and television.
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Quest for Fire & Burgess (1980)

Found- a press-cutting from 9th November 1980 about Anthony Burgess and the making of the movie Quest for Fire - which came out in 1981. Burgess created a primitive language which is spoken in the movie by the Ulam tribe. The article is joshing in tone. It was published in the 'Public Eye' section of The Observer, possibly a sort of gossip column.

Anthony Burgess Back to Basics

Remarkable things have come off the typewriter off the author Anthony Burgess; but none so odd  as two hours of grunts for a £4 million film about the Stone Age.' Hell of a lot of work creating a language on basic principles', he says.

The grunting, Burgess-style,  has been going on around Aviemore in the Scottish highlands. 14 elephants, heavily disguised as woolly mastodons are also playing their parts, trumpeting as they fancy without literary guidance.

On the telephone from his home in Monaco, the distinguished grunt writer seemed astounded  that the film Quest for Fire was not being shot in Iceland. 'I thought they'd sent the elephants up there'  said Burgess.  'The lights good in Iceland.' [Some info about location problems, cost etc.,] …but there was no stinting on the grunts.  Burgess came to London to show the actors how to have a meaningful meaningless dialogue. Author/ anthropologist Desmond Morris joined him, to teach the right gesticulations for naked apes.

There are no star names amongst the cave persons, who are largely occupied in fighting one another for fire (it comes naturally, no doubt, in the Highlands just now).  The script by Gerard Brach derives from a somewhat obscure French novel published in 1912. On Wednesday the entire team, 80 strong, flies off to grunt in a warmer clime, in Kenya.

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I once met…Luise Rainer

Sad to hear of the death of the film star Luise Rainer at 104, but as we (often) say in England, she had  'a good innings'. I met her in the mid 1990s when she must have been in her late 80s. Myself and the esteemed rock musician and bookseller Martin Stone travelled to her villa in the Italian part of Swizerland to buy some of her books. I recall she picked us up at the station in a smart and powerful car and took us along  winding, perilous mountain roads at considerable speed. Something of a white knuckle ride. She was full of energy and amusing chat. She told us that life was not very social in this part of Switzerland. When she had arrived she gave two enormous parties for everybody interesting in the neighbourhood. She had done this before at other houses in her long life and usually after these events you just sat back and waited for invitations to come in and your social life was 'sorted.' Sadly, she did not hear a word from anyone, apparently this was not untypical of the Italian Swiss. Lots of old friends had come to stay however. She told us  of a 100 year old British peer who had stayed for a month or two. Because of his great age she had hired a local nurse to look after him and Luise was rather surprised that he later willed this nurse a large sum of money!  We saw some good books including several presentation copies (a first of House of Incest by Anais Nin signed and presented to one of her husbands comes to mind). She was considering a move to London and asked me about  prices in the Knightsbridge area. I am sure she found London a lot more fun than the Alps…

She was a great beauty in youth and this could be seen even in old age. Luise had some good art on the walls and some sculpture. I recall a Sonia Delaunay and a Marie Laurencin. I guess she must have moved shortly after. In February this year I tweeted a happy 104th birthday to her and mentioned our trip to see her near Lake Como. I was amazed to get this tweet back from her "..would love to see photos of that trip if you have any…?" Sadly we took no photos, this being slightly  before the smart phone era. R.I.P. Luise, a truly great star!

Martin Stone wrote in with this (I had forgotten entirely about the snake!) :

That trip to see her did seem to leave a strong impression,didn't it? Sitting on the terrace with the lake far below, she announced she was leaving to live in London."But why go from here?"one of us said,"this is paradise.""Oh,I've had enough of Paradise",she said,"now I'm ready for Hell".

Do you remember the snake in the basement that we refused to dispose of for her? I thought that might have blown the deal...I also remember several Egon Schiele paintings/drawings and a sensational medieval triptych spotlighted- I think you tried to buy them with the books,and she said "No,Sotheby's Geneva next month! " Great lady.

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Simon Watson Taylor: surrealist, pataphysician & cabin steward

The death in 2005 at the age of 82 of aged hippy and anarchist Simon Watson Taylor went almost unnoticed in the Arts pages and it was left to his friend and former house-mate George Melly to supply an obituary in the Independent in which he pointed out the major contributions of the writer and translator of Alfred Jarry to the Surrealist and Pataphysics movements in Europe during the fifties and sixties. On a personal level, Melly also alluded to his friend’s ‘acid humour ‘, his delight in confronting and dispatching the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, and a determination to remain free of encumbrances. At one point in his early life we are told that he took a job as an airline cabin steward in order to travel the world.Indeed, among all his friends who had some way embraced aspects of the bourgeois life- style, Melly claimed that Watson Taylor stood out as a man ‘truly free’.

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I don’t want to be alone (or I was Garbo’s double)

The real Garbo left. Thanks GarboForever.com

General Montgomery, Idi Amin and various Japanese emperors had doubles, and so it seems did the screen siren Greta Garbo. Her name was Jeraldine (or Geraldine) Dvorak and the revelation first appeared in a magazine in September 1931.

Today, we would call them body doubles and when they are used it is usually to undertake dangerous stunts. Seldom, if ever, are close shots taken of them and even when long shots are used it is only for a second or a fraction of one. Most shots of body doubles are taken sideways or from the back, most memorably as in the case of the seduction scene in The Wicker Man, when we are treated to the attractive backside belonging to the double of Ursula Andress.

The photos show that the resemblance of Dvorak to Garbo was astonishing and only differed in one small respect—the colour of their eyes, which in the era of black and white movies would not have mattered anyway. In the car smash scene in Woman of Affairs Dvorak, and not Garbo, was lifted from the wreckage; and Dvorak also acted in the snow scenes in Love. She could supply a passable Swedish accent and even sang in place of the star in Romance. We know that Garbo was no singer, but why she couldn’t be bothered to act as an injured car passenger or get her shoes damp is not explained in the article. Later sources suggest that she might have been pregnant at the time. Nor was Dvorak required only for long shots. On one occasion a cameraman got away with a ten foot close-up of her face!

So confident were the studio chiefs in Dvorak’s ability to stand-in for the star that on one famous occasion they arranged for her to impersonate Garbo off-screen as well. Garbo disliked film premieres and so at the premiere of a film in which she had starred alongside John Gilbert, Dvorak was commanded to accompany the male lead. In the theatre she found it hard to respond naturally to the audience acclaim that was obviously meant for Garbo, so she just wore a fake smile throughout. Nor, to everyone’s relief, did she attempt to sign any autographs. Thankfully for all concerned the evening went off without a hitch and Dvorak was duly congratulated for her best performance yet.

Like all stand-ins Dvorak yearned to be appreciated for herself, but alas she was to remain either a Garbo or Dietrich double or to take on bit parts as models or party guests. She doesn’t seem to have acted much after the late forties and died a forgotten figure in 1985.

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A statement from Chaplin via Raymond Williams

Found in a copy of Preface to Film (Film Drama Limited, London  1954) this statement by Charlie (Charles) Chaplin. An interesting and rare book by two notable figures from the 1940s - Michael Orrom and Raymond Williams. The dust jacket art is by Michael Stringer, an illustrator mainly associated with natural history books. Williams was an important academic, novelist and member of the 'New Left' and Orrom , also a man of the left, became a documentary film maker. Chaplin's statement first appeared in the magazine The Adelphi in 1924, this is probably its first appearance in a book. Orrom and Williams' book advances new film theories: the blurb states: 'The main belief of the authors is that naturalism, as a dramatic method and technique in the film, is not finally satisfactory...' There is one change in Chaplin's statement from the 1924 version, possibly a misprint - 'terrifying' becomes 'terrific.'

I prefer my own taste as a truer expression of what the public wants of me than anything that I can fathom out of the things that I observe either in my own work or in that of others who are unmistakably successful.

I have heard directors, scenario writers, and others who are directly concerned with the shape that the motion picture shall take, argue under the shadow of this great fear of the public. They begin with a good idea, then they lose courage and deceive themselves. The consciousness of what the public will want is for them so terrific [terrifying.]If they do something that is a little different because they have forgotten while filming the episode that there is such a thing as an audience, they are in doubt about it when they stop to consider. It is difficult to consider the public secondarily, but unless the person making the picture can achieve that state, there will be no originality in his work. [Charles Chaplin]