Wednesday, 29 May 2019

WITH SO MANY LIGHT YEARS TO GO, AND THINGS TO BE FOUND [177]


On 30th May 2016, I published the first article of “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers,” and while I have largely kept to the “nostalgia culture crisis” theme, I have been impressed by ability to lurch from one subject to the next.

The plan has always been to plug the gaps in my own knowledge, report my findings, and improve my writing ability. I just wasn’t expecting culture wars, Brexit and Donald Trump to flare up at the same time – hell, David Cameron was still Prime Minister when this site began. If you have dropped in along the way, wondered where this was all going next, and took a second look, you have my thanks.

For the first time, I present the top ten most read articles from the first three years and 176 articles – it turns out one trademark of this site is my ability to lurch from one subject to the next!


1. THAT’S A BEAUTIFUL SPEECH, BUT NOBODY’S LISTENING [link] (published 21/09/2017)

As “Dada” is an art form that needed its own word to reject one way of seeing the world, I needed a word for when “alt-right” people call themselves “performance artists” – the random word turned out to be “jackanapes.”

2. JUST A DREAM AND THE WIND TO CARRY ME [link] (published 05/10/2017)

The story of the ocean liner SS America, later to take “Ten Pound Poms” to Canberra as the cruise ship Australis, and ultimately shipwrecked over Fuerteventura – more famous as a wreck than it could have hoped as a floating hotel.



3. NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK [link] (published 25/02/2018)

I received a free packet of water with a magazine - I later discovered micellar water works just like washing-up liquid. The French knew what they were doing all along.

4. WHAT THE WORLD WANTS TODAY IS THE REAL THING [link] (published 18/02/2018)

Coca-Cola once advertised itself with a woman in a beach suit, and the word “yes” – perhaps they should have put speech marks around it, like I just have.


5. I’VE GOT PAC-MAN FEVER [link] (published 25/06/2018)

My review of the Nintendo NES Classic Mini, having never owned or played the original - the Sega Master System was more popular in the UK than the NES.

6. TRUE BLUE, BABY I LOVE YOU [link] (published 26/03/2018)

With British passports to change from red to blue covers following Brexit, the contract to make them went to a French-Dutch company, causing the “Daily Mail” to implode with jingoistic bile. The paper has since found a new editor.

7. THERE’S A MAGICAL PLACE, WE’RE ON OUR WAY THERE [link] (published 02/04/2018)

The rise of the “dead mall,” when closing stores create nostalgia for the big, empty spaces left behind. It comes with vaporwave, its own electronic, alienating soundtrack.  


8. WHO SAYS A MISS WAS MADE TO KISS? [link] (published 21/11/2016)

I’ll just leave this here: “Donald Trump will be President of the United States from 20th January 2017, and the weight of that office demands respect. However, the holder of that office cannot afford to be given the benefit of the doubt, especially when Trump has never appeared to need it before. He will be given the opportunity to govern in the way he sees fit, but he will be under constant scrutiny, for every single decision, for every public utterance, for the rest of his life...”

9. I AIN’T GONNA STAND FOR IT [link] (published 05/08/2016)

“Ain’t” is a real word, appeared from two different places, and can be written down - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell did not sing “There Is No Mountain High Enough.”

10. WATCH OUT, BEADLE’S ABOUT [link] (published 11/11/2016)

A portrait of Jeremy Beadle - fact collector, writer, broadcaster, concert promoter, charity fundraiser - through a series of “did you know” facts. I am sure he would have approved.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

YING TONG DIDDLE I PO! [176]




Hercules Grytpype-Thynne asks Count Moriarty to “Take a letter in gargling fluid... To the Postmaster General. Dear General [gargling noises], according to the shape of my knees [gargling noises], I believe that an illegal raffle [gargling noises] for the Equator is being held, and for certain monies I will reveal the organiser [gargling noises]. Let's have that back, please.” The message is spat out. “You filthy swine! You've watered my peony.”

“What time is it Eccles,” asks Bluebottle. “I’ve got it written down ‘ere on a piece of paper,” replies Eccles. A nice man wrote the time down for him that morning. “Supposing when somebody asks you the time, it isn't eight o'clock?” “Ah, den I don't show it to dem.” “Well how do you know when it's eight o'clock?” “I've got it written down on a piece of paper!”

Neddie Seagoon is asked to speak to Fred the Oyster, after insisting oysters can’t talk. He shouts, “Good morning, I see that it's early closing for oysters!” The oyster creaks open. We hear the hee-haw sound of a donkey, played backwards, followed by a forceful raspberry, before closing. Neddie exacts his revenge by eating the oyster. We later hear the oyster inside Neddie, through bubbling and warbling noises, singing, “I’m only a strolling vagabond...”

Now why am I telling you all this?


Comedy often doesn’t sound like this. Comedy is subjective and risky, and pushing boundaries requires effort, both from the performer and the listener, and when they meet, friends will be made for life. “The Goon Show” is like this for me, a radio comedy that took the more surreal strain of post-war British comedy and turned it into Surrealist, Dadaist art, full of wordplay, nonsensical plots and deranged sound effects – no wonder I turned out the way I did.

I worry that I will not hear anything as good as “The Goon Show,” despite the decades of opportunity for others to have tried. Perhaps, with the more boundaries that have been pushed, the perception grows that fewer boundaries are left, both with what you can say, and what you can make. Nostalgia grows for that misplaced sense of a time when more risks could be taken.

The show began on 28th May 1951 as “Crazy People,” a half-half mix of comedy sketches and musical items starring Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine (for the first two years) and Spike Milligan, and written mostly by Milligan. The first three series were not much different from your standard BBC comedy series for the time, except it took longer to build an audience because the comedy was not as obvious. But that audience did build, and Milligan’s determination to use radio to its full extent grew, the show changed.


From the fourth series, producer Dennis Main Wilson moved to “Hancock’s Half Hour,” and “The Goon Show” gained Peter Eton, who worked in drama productions – sketches were linked to make a narrative, musical items were reduced, and Angela Morley, then known as Wally Stott, became the show’s musical director, providing the kind of cinematic scope that she would feature on the song “Jackie,” by Scott Walker, and in the Oscar-nominated soundtrack to the film “Watership Down.” The relentless push to create sound effects that could define the world within the show, replacing closing doors and feet on gravel with explosions, foghorns, water splashes, sped up and slowed down voices, proved the need for the BBC to create a unit that produces this “concrete music”: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, formed in 1958, contributed as much to “The Goon Show” as much as it would to “Quatermass and the Pit” and “Doctor Who.” Furthermore, the growing success of the show led to it being specially recorded for broadcast around the world, something not routinely done in 1954, but something I’m thankful for the BBC deciding they should do – in fact, some lost episodes were remade in 1957-58 as a result, something not done with “Hancock’s Half Hour” until over fifty years later.

The last “Goon Show” aired on the BBC Home Service on 28th January 1960. Other radio comedy shows have come close to its anarchic nature, or its technical ambition – shows like “The Burkiss Way” or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – but “The Goon Show” still looms large over it. In 2018, the latest “Hitchhiker’s” series, based on Eoin Colfer’s novel “And Another Thing,” continued in the same vein as its previous incarnations, but a part of me still thought that the only other opportunity I will have that week to listen to a comedy series on that kind of scale – no panel shows, no stand-up performances, no sketches – will have been made sixty years earlier. There’s that naughty brown leather nostalgia again.

One more example: Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister are at the bank of some water, enveloped with fog. However, there are so many foghorns playing over them, Spike Milligan is laughing at them, along with the audience, until Crun tells Minnie to put her saxophone away.

Just go listen to “The Goon Show,” you’ll be doing yourself a favour!

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

GIVING YOU BACK THE GOOD TIMES [175]



“God bless Mrs Ethel Shroake, long live Mrs Ethel Shroake...”

After watching a film, you don’t normally need to watch the trailer to work out what the plot was, but I am glad I did it for “The Bed Sitting Room.”

In the trailer, Frank Thornton, playing “The BBC,” in its entirety, delivers what was the “last news.” He wears a dinner jacket, and seen through the frame of a television... but only the frame is left, and only the top part of his suit remains. It has been three, or four, years since the “Nuclear Misunderstanding,” or World War III, which lasted for 2 minutes 28 sessions, including the signing of the peace treaty. Thornton continues in a trailer-only voiceover that links together details: only twenty people are left in the UK, including Marty Feldman playing a one-man NHS; all electricity is generated by one man on a bicycle, powering a train on London Underground’s Circle Line; the Queen’s former charlady is now monarch, being next left in line for the throne; and the police, played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a Morris Minor suspended from a hot air balloon, tells people to keep moving. Nuclear fallout is also causing some people to mutate, slowly turning an upper-class lord into a bed sitting room.

Of course, “The Bed Sitting Room” has all the above, but it plays like a collection of sketches, with a through line that involves a family whose daughter has been pregnant for seventeen months. Reaching the surface from their refuge on the Circle Line, and after being subjected to the harsh surroundings and bizarre people, Mother becomes a wardrobe, and Father becomes a parrot, later eaten because there is no food.

To say this all came from the mind of Spike Milligan, co-writer of the original play with John Antrobus, will surprise no-one. The original stage play was partly improvised, and director Richard Lester employed his usual scriptwriter, Charles Wood, to construct a screenplay that required a plot set in stone. However, “The Bed Sitting Room” is still “The Goon Show” as written by Samuel Beckett, an absurdist piece with something to say about the tendency to “keep calm and carry on” in the face of annihilation, given a British spin by continuing its institutions as well, as if nothing had happened everyone keeps their hierarchies, positions and class in police, even when only one of each remains. Cast as the father of the family is Arthur Lowe, now inextricably linked as Captain Mainwaring of “Dad’s Army,” and even more of a shorthand as an Englishman type than ever.
What is most amazing about this film, apart from the gallows humour that lost it money – the film did not travel far from the UK, rendering it a curious failure for years - is the scenery. There was a production designer, and “remnants” of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Albert Memorial were constructed, but the mud, decay and detritus were all real, coming from a disused quarry, a pile of rejected plates sited next to a pottery firm, and the rubbish-strewn mess of a closed London Underground station required no set dressing at all.

For those who do not have the stomach for later depictions of a post-apocalyptic world – 1980s timepieces like “Threads” and “The Day After,” when the world really was in trouble – “The Bed Sitting Room” might have the humour to move you along, but you are left in no doubt that you are watching a kind of tragedy.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

YOU LITTLE WONDER, LITTLE WONDER YOU [174]



Some time ago, I downloaded Tetris for my mobile phone, but I rarely play it. The compromises necessary to make the game work with touch-screen technology made it, for me, less playable: the choice is to swipe your “tetrominos” down the screen, or choose where you want it to fall. I want to be able to properly guide them down, and rotate them around – I need buttons, one for each thumb.

I took the obvious path: I now own a cheap Nintendo Game Boy, and a cartridge of the game that was, until Pokémon happened, its killer app – and it didn’t need a character, be they a plumber hedgehog or Pikachu. I need not mention how Tetris works, as everyone must have played it by now – thirty-five million copies of the original Game Boy game, introduced with the console in 1989, were sold, not counting further versions of it, both for the Game Boy and other systems. The game’s inventor, Sergei Pajitnov, has said the Game Boy version is his favourite, and I can see why, having not put it down since I picked it up: the controls are very responsive, I like trying to squeeze a tetromino into a tight spot, created when you are not getting the ones you want, and you have to put them somewhere. I also like the option of a “B-Game,” where you play until you have completed twenty-five lines, instead of continuing until the batteries in your Game Boy run out.

The squarewave music generated by the Game Boy is iconic - remixes of the Tetris “A-Type” music, by “Doctor Spin,” and the “Super Mario Land” theme reached the UK Singles Chart in 1992, and can be found on “Now That’s What I Call Music! 23”. However, why did I have a pang of nostalgia when I heard the sound made when I completed a line of tetrominos? If I ever played the game before, it would be too long ago for me to have remembered it, and it would have been on someone else’s system – I have never owned one before. I couldn’t find it in the remix. “Doctor Spin” turns out to be a pseudonym for record producer Nigel Wright, and some guy named Andrew Lloyd Webber – no, I don’t know what to do with that information either.
The Game Boy and Game & Watch range

I had originally considered buying a cheap Tetris LCD game, but now I have a Game Boy, I can cast my net wider, although the type of game I like are quick affairs like “Space Invaders” and “Lemmings.” Indeed, the Game Boy was conceived, by Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, as an upgrade to their existing “Game & Watch” LCD games. Yakoi had already set his toy maker employer down the electronic path when he developed a Love Tester game in 1969, a resistance meter that needed two people to work, and worked better when they kissed. Yakoi developed the Game & Watch series after seeing a commuter on a train, messing about with their calculator – the Game Boy is essentially a customisable Game & Watch, with an LCD screen that can create more intricate shapes, like Super Mario or Robocop.

A word on the Game Boy I bought. Mine is a blue Game Boy Pocket, from 1996, palm-sized instead of hand-sized, and half the weight of the original, especially once the batteries are installed – only two AAA batteries, instead of four AAs. The LCD screen is grey, instead of that pea-soup green that the original is famous for, but the playing time allowed by the batteries is down to ten hours – in other words, the level we are now used to having. I didn’t feel like I would need the extra capability that the Game Boy Color, Advance, or Advance SP have, but what I now know is, even if I was to buy one of the last Advance SPs, made in 2005, it will still play my original Tetris game from 1989, with no adaptor required. The first Nintendo DS can play Game Boy Advance cartridges, yet its design is influenced by the Game & Watch. I don't know if the Nintendo Switch has a Love Tester function.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

PEOPLE IN THE NIGHT AND PEOPLE UP ABOVE [173]




Everyone must watch “Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy.” If it doesn’t make sense, you are watching too closely, meaning you must watch it again.

Two years ago, when I first heard that Noel Fielding will be hosting “The Great British Bake Off” with Sandi Toksvig, I realised we missed the opportunity for Spike Milligan and Victoria Wood to have presented “Antiques Roadshow.”

However, what struck me as being uneasy was Fielding being placed into a predictable format. At the time, he was a contestant on “Taskmaster,” a genius game show built around comedians’ approaches to bizarre and silly tasks – a perfect place for a surrealist, Dadaist operator like Fielding. While other contestants hid behind objects to make themselves invisible, Fielding used a green screen to hide as a banana in a fruit bowl.

However, the second series of “Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy,” subtitled “Tales from Painted Hawaii,” infuriated me. Broadcast in 2014, two years after the first series, and only five episodes instead of seven, its sketches were no longer linked by Fielding in a fantasy painted treehouse, but he and his characters were now in a familiar sitcom-type set-up, based in a coffee shop. It felt like “The Goodies” – that is not a bad thing in any way, except it had already been done by, well, The Goodies. The first episode opens with Fielding, behind the shop’s counter, explaining the change of situation, before telling his friend Dolly that, “last time, a couple of people were confused.”

I felt like I had been told to fuck off for having loved the first series, as if Monty Python decided to play it straight to get more viewers – hell, you can no longer do a sketch with two people either side of a desk since “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” having rightly stretched convention out of shape. So, if I was to see any of Fielding’s inspired characters, they would have to be contained – constrained - in a story, no longer allowed to stand on their own. Lest we forget characters that, at least, were given a chance to stand by themselves, like:


-          Chefs Renny and Gaviskon, the latter of which has a pepper grinder for a nose.

-          Kite-Headed Brian Ferry and Brian Eno Frisbee.

-          The eyes-covered country music singer Silverback.

-          The animated adventures of Joey Ramone, Ice Cream Eyes, and Jeremy Beautiful Chest, the man who pays for everything that people get for free.

-          Daddy Push, who has a shell for a head, finds a remote control in the street, and drives away a box of fried chicken.

-          Dondylion, a deranged, encarcerated cross of Russell Brand and Tina Turner.

-          Doo Rag, assistant to the mashed potato-powered The Audience, imprisons, with the help of his brother Doo Cloth, the hedgehog Helen Daniels in a jail made of waffles.

-          Fantasy Man, riding through an 80s landscape in search of the Dream Tiger

I’ll never have enough space here to go through them all, only to say that the series is still available on DVD, although the painted artwork and carefully-made animation – the “Luxury” element of the title – could have done with a blu-ray release.

Both series of “Luxury Comedy” were stuck on E4, among panel shows, US imports of comedy shows and dramas, and “Hollyoaks.” If it was on the main Channel 4, where taking risks is expected, it might have worked better. Noel Fielding is there now, but he is presenting “Bake Off” instead.

In 2014, Fielding told “The Guardian,” in relation to the reaction to the first series: “People said, ‘You must be mad, or on drugs,’ which I found a bit disappointing. What about imagination? It reflects our time that people sooner assume you’re on drugs or mad, rather than free.” Could we all say we are ready now for a third series, or is it all the fault of Ice Cream Eyes again?

Sunday, 12 May 2019

GON BE A FREE MAN IN THE MORNING [172]


Towards the end of the film “A Face in the Crowd,” Marcia Jeffries realises she must take action to stop the star of the TV show she produces, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. She discovered Rhodes as a drunken drifter in a jail, when trying to find a voice for a radio item back home in Arkansas. His homespun humour and opinions, and his gravelly singing voice, made him a hit with his audience, but as soon as he saw how they responded to him, and how they could be mobilised, his career took off, to Memphis and New York, from radio to television to politics. He had his audience in his hand, he saw himself in them, and he saw how they could be controlled - ultimately, he thought they were his own flock of sheep. At the end of one show, Marcia fades up Rhodes’ microphone as the credits roll, letting his true opinions be heard by all. Switchboards at the TV station are immediately jammed with the fury of those whose trust he betrayed. His career was over before he left the studio.

For everyone that believes that “cancel culture” began with Twitter, seeing the same thing happen in a film made in 1957, and happen at the same speed, is strangely reassuring: replace telephones with social media, and the scene would have played out in exactly the same way. Indeed, the speed at which the BBC dismissed Danny Baker from his Radio 5 Live show last week, over his placement of an ill-judged picture on Twitter, is comparable to “A Face in the Crowd.”


The writer and director of the film, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, had already been on the receiving end of the power of television, before making a film that warned of that power. They were both witnesses to the House Un-American Activities Committee, under Senator Joseph McCarthy, hearings of which had been carried live on TV, and both had named names – they had been members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and sought to use their testimony to highlight the totalitarianism rooted in the ideology. Despite giving names already known to the Committee, Kazan would place an advertisement in “The New York Times” to declare that he was glad he appeared, and recommended that others do the same, earning the enmity of many within his industry. It did not ultimately stop Kazan and Schulberg’s careers – they would make “On the Waterfront” in 1954, before “A Face in the Crowd” – but those of many more were curtailed. McCarthy would also be ultimately undone by television, by the journalist Edward R. Murrow on the series "See It Now."

I had intended to write here about how prescient “A Face in the Crowd” would become, as it had initially done poorly upon its release, as the monstrous and infectious performance of Andy Griffith was considered to be overkill, and the plot being seen as preposterous. Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign in 2015-16, let alone his actual Presidency, has Lonesome Rhodes written all over it, but we all now know that what real life can throw up can defy fiction altogether. In the film, Mel Miller, a writer on Rhodes’ show, is later writing a book that he hopes will expose the real Lonesome Rhodes – how many more can be released about Trump, and how much of him is left to expose?

Before writing this, I had seen “A Face in the Crowd” only once, about sixteen years ago, on my film degree course. The copy I saw was recorded off the television, and its first home video release in the UK came last week. Twitter did not exist when I last saw it, and “cancel culture” was not yet defined, but all the elements were there. What will it say next?

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD [171]


How is this for a career path: starting as a journalist in Southampton, John Boorman ran the newsroom of Southern Television, launching the evening news magazine “Day by Day,” a forerunner of the local news programmes seen across the UK. From there, he moved to Bristol, to make documentaries for the BBC. He was asked to make use of those documentary techniques to reproduce “A Hard Day’s Night,” except starring the Dave Clark Five. The resulting film, “Catch Us If You Can,” opened up an opportunity to direct a film in Hollywood, “Point Blank”, starring Lee Marvin. After the next film, “Leo the Lion,” was made back in the UK, Boorman’s next American film was “Deliverance.” In twelve years, Boorman made it to the Deep South, from the South of England.

So, by 1974, John Boorman could really make any film he wanted. However, because “Star Wars” was still three years away, there was no appetite for something on the scale of “Lord of the Rings,” which was his original plan. However, science fiction films involving big ideas, like “Silent Running,” “Soylent Green,” “The Omega Man,” and “Phase IV,” were in vogue. Meanwhile, Sean Connery was still in demand, but not on the same scale as when he was James Bond – Connery accepted the role of Zed in “Zardoz” after it was originally offered to Burt Reynolds and Richard Harris.


This set of circumstances made for a very odd, but prescient film. It is also a film that gives itself away with an opening narrative, not unlike the sort Universal Pictures did at the start of their “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” We are told we are watching a satire, based in the future, involving an immortal person masquerading as a God. We are told the film is “full of mystery and intrigue,” which is just as well, as a full hour is spent building the world of a futuristic, yet medieval caste system, of which Zed is an anomaly – a lower order that stumbled upon the truth.

“Zardoz” is a deeply layered fable that concerns the holders of knowledge and power, who have become immortal themselves in order to keep the old world going, but have become corrupt in itself, fencing themselves off, with a literal force field, from those left to work the land. In a situation like this, the “Eternals” are shown to have inevitably become corrupt, save for one that, like a trickster god, experiments to create a group of people that keep those outside at bay, but one would be led to discover the ultimate point of their existence, which is to destroy the higher order – this sis where Zed comes in, led by his maker to discover that Zardoz is a trick, inspired by a certain novel by L. Frank Baum.

Because it is ostensibly a mystery story, writing anything about “Zardoz” involves some kind of spoiler alert – I neglected to enter one for fear of writing nothing at all. Any story involving an immortal person reintroducing the idea of death is worth a look, not least for the bizarre costumes here, including Sean Connery’s loincloth. Few science fiction films are more eccentric than “Zardoz,” but really should be.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER [170]



There is much to say about “His Girl Friday,” but its super-fast dialogue made me buy a blu-ray copy of it recently. However, its reputation as a masterful screwball comedy, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, underpinned by the professional production and direction by Howard Hawks, lauded as much of an cinematic auteur as Alfred Hitchcock, is told and retold in scholarly circles as an archetypal example of the “Classical Hollywood film,” displaying the types of characters, story and production Hollywood most often showed between the mid-1920s and 1960, when “Psycho” swept it all away.

The play on which “His Girl Friday” is based, “The Front Page,” by Chicago journalists Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur, made as big a splash in Broadway in 1928 as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller would make twenty years later. The story, in which journalist Hildy Johnson is due to marry and leave Chicago, but is schemed into staying where he works best by his editor, Walter Burns, featured crosstalk between characters only seen on the street, and not on the stage – dialogue is written to be spoken over.


Coming the year after “The Jazz Singer,” “The Front Page” began to be seen as an ideal for how dialogue should be filmed, instead of the stagey way that accommodated the sound equipment, in addition to inspiring the new screwball comedy and gangster film genres. Despite this, the 1931 film of “The Front Page,” directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Howard Hughes, was considered fast-paced for its time, but now appears normal, because we are so used to it.

By the 1940 release of “His Girl Friday,” Howard Hawks, who had directed the original 1932 film of “Scarface” for Hughes, had gained a reputation as a master of crosstalk, in screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “Twentieth Century,” the latter also originally a Hecht & MacArthur play. He originally intended to just remake “The Front Page,” only faster, but when his secretary was reading Hildy Johnson’s part at auditions, Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded, and changed the part to a female one, without changing the name. Rosalind Russell, apparently not even the sixth choice to play Johnson, confronted Hawks when she felt he was treating her like an also-ran, ironically proving she was perfect in the role. Meanwhile Cary Grant, cast from the start as Burns, used his innate charm to glide his manipulative bastard of a character through the film without losing sympathy, proving the characters were made for each other, romantically or not.


The dialogue in “His Girl Friday” has been timed at an average of 240 words per minute, almost twice that of regular speech. Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht’s protégé, also from Chicago, was tasked with writing additional dialogue, having written the screenplay of “The Front Page.” If it feels like dialogue is too quick to follow, or if there is too much talking over each other, it is because some of this crosstalk was written with the expectation that it could not be heard, with the important bits left clear. Sound mixing was still not yet possible, meaning live switching between off-screen microphones up to thirty-five times per scene was required. Ad-libbing was also encouraged, although Rosalind Russell employed her own writer to ensure she could compete.

“His Girl Friday” bears repeated viewings because everyone talks quicker than anyone can take in in a single sitting, fitting entire images into speech that would have been done away with if spoken more slowly: a favourite is how Burns sent out a plane with a banner saying, “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter,” which delayed the divorce by twenty minutes when the judge went out to have a look – Burns then points out that his dimple is still there, and in the same place.

(In case you wondered, the term “girl Friday” is not found anywhere before 1940, so many will have this film to thank for making their own words sound that bit wittier.)

Thursday, 2 May 2019

AND THEN THE CAT CREPT IN [169]


I had not expected myself, having finished watching “Cat People,” to be comparing it to “Get Out,” but both films, in their time, challenged expectations of what a horror film can be, and Jordan Peele caused as much surprise with his debut feature film as Val Lewton had done with his.

The horror in “Cat People” is implied, and psychological in nature. Like the other films Lewton made as a producer at RKO Radio Pictures, the story didn’t necessarily need to be told as a horror film – it is grounded in our reality, and the characters are relatable, even being shown at work. In fact, the horror comes when it is needed, not just because the audience needs to be jolted in their seats.

The story concerns someone who, like Lewton, was born in Eastern Europe – Irena, a fashion designer, who is haunted by the stories of devil worship and witchcraft from her ancestors’ village, which turned them into cat people. She believes she will turn into a panther if she gives in to passion and becomes aroused. All of this is foreshadowed in the opening scene, based in a zoo, where Irena discards sketches she made, but didn’t like, of a panther, which attracts a man, Oliver, who begins to talk to her - one sketch has a sword put through the panther.

The psychology and reason of the “new world” is played against the myth and tradition of the world, as Oliver, who goes on to marry Irena, his co-worker Alice, and a psychiatrist, all believe Irena is letting these stories control herself, but the reactions she gets from pets brought by Oliver for her, and being called “my sister” by a woman in a restaurant, remarked upon for looking like a cat, only convinces Irena further. As the others begin to suspect what they are seeing and hearing themselves, the threat of what they dismissed becomes more and more real.


“Cat People” begins and ends with quotes that allude to good and evil existing in the same place, and with a main character that embodies a kind of inevitability in their turning to darkness – a kind that even marriage cannot solve – you find that what was meant to have been a straightforward horror film actually contains very mature themes for the time. The shadows and fog of “Cat People” coincided with the birth of film noir, with RKO’s 1940 film “Stranger on the Third Floor” seen as the first of the genre, continuing into 1947’s “Out of the Past,” a masterwork by “Cat People’s” director, Jacques Tourneur. All three films have the same cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, whose use of light defined the genre.


“Cat People” is the definitive Val Lewton film. Lewton began as a journalist and pulp novelist, before becoming a script editor for producer David O Selznick, apparently telling him that “Gone with the Wind” was unfilmable. However, Selznick’s MGM production of “Anna Karenina” was influenced by Lewton’s grasp on detail as an amateur historian. When RKO approached him to head up a unit making cheap horror films to compete against Universal’s monsters, it was Selznick that negotiated his contract there, seeing the chance he should be given. Despite the terms - make films using titles suggested by the studio, lasting 75 minutes or less for under $150,000 (now only over $2 million with inflation), Lewton could make his films however he liked – to that end, despite using the staircase from Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” more than once, all the psychological intrigue, and even the way the shadows fall on his characters, were written into the script. “Cat People” made $4 million at the US box office over the next two years for RKO, twice what “Citizen Kane” and “Ambersons” had made put together at the time, saving the studio.