Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Lost Squadron (1932)

Films about films are an endless source of fascination for moviemakers and audiences, and this is something that goes back to the early days of cinema. With a script that blends stunts, comedy and melodrama, and combines the behind the camera story with themes of friendship and betrayal, The Lost Squadron packs a lot into an entertaining 75 minutes. It also has a great appearance from legendary director Erich von Stroheim, playing up to his reputation as an unhinged despotic genius.

Set at the end of World War I, three US army pilots and their mechanic, 'Gibby' Gibson (Richard Dix), 'Woody' Curwood (Robert Armstrong) Red (Joel McCrea), and Fritz (Hugh Herbert) find themselves back in civilian life, where things are less than rosy. Gibby discovers his girl has run off to marry tyrannical film director Von Furst (Stroheim), Woody’s business partner has absconded with all his money, Red quits his job rather than watch a friend be fired, while elsewhere newspaper headlines tell us that political squabbling means Congress fails to pass a package for veterans benefits, forcing men onto the breadlines. Eventually, all four manage to find work, working on aerial stunts for pictures by Von Furst - but the director is seething with envy at his wife’s old flame, and plots a nasty on set accident for him.

The screenplay, which is partly written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) is based on a book by real life stunt pilot Dick Grace. Despite a synopsis that includes war, jealousy and attempted murder, the majority of the film is relatively light-hearted, especially the character of Woody, played as an archetypal comic drunk, admittedly, perhaps not the best person to be doing hair-raising stunts in a plane.

Many of the real life flying sequences are well done, using a fleet of war surplus aircraft. Back on ground, the dialogue is snappy and the camaraderie between the four friends believable, even if the performances are a little broad and hammy at times.

The other star is Stroheim, playing himself, or at least a version based on his reputation as a maniacal and visionary filmmaker, with no regard for other people’s money or lives.

It is his character that drives the second half of the story, which sees the upbeat tone turn dark, with murder and revenge taking over from thrills and stunts, leading to an ending that seems tragic but inevitable.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Big Business (1929)

They are best known for their talkie films, indeed, perhaps their voices are as well known as their faces, so the 30 or so silent movies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy sometimes get overlooked. This is a shame, for two reasons; firstly, taken as a whole they help provide a fascinating insight into the development of cinema, both as a medium and a business, and secondly, taken individually, the best of them are some of the funniest silent comedies ever made. 

Big Business is definitely in that second category, and features all of the classic elements of a Laurel and Hardy short. We have the established characters of the leads, Stan the well-meaning but dim bungler, and Ollie, with his trademark “withering glance” to the audience, trying and failing to maintain his dignity in extreme circumstances. We also have the duo making a mess of a simple job (selling Christmas trees door-to-door), a hapless third party caught up in the middle (in this case, one of their regular comic foils, James Finlayson), and a situation that, bit by bit, spirals out of control. In this case, a misunderstanding leads to an argument, which leads to tempers flaring, which leads to tit-for-tat destruction, which does not stop until Finalyson's house, along with Laurel and Hardy's car, are both destroyed.

The way it escalates is all too real and believable, and something that could have been stopped at any point by one of the parties taking a step back and acting like an adult. This makes Laurel and Hardy the precursor to comedy such as Fawlty Towers.

However, the way it is presented, by contrast, is deliberately artificial and plays up to the fact that we are watching a film. The escalating chaos is treated almost as a ritual or a chess game with each side standing patiently, waiting while the other takes their turn. This means, rather than rushing straight into a free-for-all, which would get boring after a few minutes, by starting with each bout of destruction as a deliberate and distinct thing, and gradually shortening the gaps between each one, it allows the pace to wind gradually up. By the end, the red mist has descended, and we have Finlayson lobbing an explosive at the car, at the same time as Stan is taking an axe to the piano.

The film also reveals a fascinating and often overlooked side of how Laurel and Hardy interact with each other. For all their bickering and infighting, they can quickly and easily band together against a common foe, almost as though sometimes, if there is one thing that annoys them more than each other, it is other people.

Finally, Big Business is  an excellent demonstration of the part that title cards play in silent films. The captions helps set the sharp, unsentimental tone of the film at the start ("The story of a man who turned the other cheek - and got punched in the nose"), emphasise Ollie’s boundless self-confidence ("it's personality that wins") and drily underscore his reaction to a furious tirade from Finlayson ("I don't think he wants a tree"). Overuse them and you might as well be reading a comic strip, but deployed in just the right levels, they are the perfect complement to the images, which remain the primary source of plot and gags.