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St. Martin’s Lane (aka.The Sidewalks of London)

1938 – Starring Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, Larry Adler – Directed by Tim Whalen – Written by Clemence Dane

vivienso1sss[1]A Cockney Scarlett O’HaraTFSStMartinsLaneImg3[1]

A Cockney, sidewalk performing, Quasimodo

Rex Harrison – younger and, for once, not irascible

That is the essence of St. Martin’s Lane. The title comes from a street in England where the opera house, theatres and various cafes and stores that cater to the theatre-going public, are situated. However, there was concern that Americans would not be aware of this association (I wasn’t aware), so the title of the movie was changed to Sidewalks of London when it was released in the US.

The movie stars Charles Laughton, was co-produced by Charles Laughton and was co-written (though un-credited) by Charles Laughton. He wanted his wife, Elsa Lanchester, for the role opposite him, but Alexander Korda (kind of a British David O. Selznick, except he was also a director) offered to finance the film if Laughton would cast Korda’s new discovery instead: Vivien Leigh.

Apparently, Vivien Leigh did not like working with Laughton anymore than he liked working with her, though he was evidently more professional about it – helping her with her lines and so on; though he also cut down her part so the film would focus more on his character.

tumblr_mh7jbxRfA31qh4om2o1_500[1]In the film, Charles Laughton plays Charlie, a busker (a busker is a sidewalk entertainer who performs for those waiting in line for the theatre) who’s specialty is proclaiming the classics on the streets. Vivien Leigh is a pickpocket named Liberty. When Charles Laughton catches her in the act and chases her, he later discovers that she also has a great gift for dancing and gives her a place to stay and incorporates her into his new act. However, Rex Harrison is a composer who runs across her (she stole his cigarette case) and wants to help her become professional, working inside rather than outside.

Charlie is not really like Quasimodo, but it made me think of it (though he did go on to play him in the film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1939). It’s not so much because he is physically repulsive to people, as he’s a ham, twice Liberty’s age, who falls in love with her, whose love is not returned, and looks ridiculous in the eyes of others.

Liberty, however, is like a warm-up for Scarlett O’Hara. Vivien Leigh would do Gone With the Wind the very next year, proving once again that she can play unlikeable characters in a likeable way. That’s how she gets away with such ruthlessness. As Liberty, she is a little nicer than Scarlett; she does recognize Charlie’s worth as a person. However, she intends to be a star and become a star and she has the same appealing manner, ruthlessness of intent and fiery temperament as Scarlet (she manages to break quite a few of Charlie’s dishes).

I recently watched GWTW and a documentary about the making of the film, and I was impressed at how well Leigh had done; when she seemed to have come out of nowhere. She had only had three starring roles before GWTW, but seeing her early films, I can definitely see how people could have thought she could play Scarlett.

st-martins[1]It was also interesting to see Rex Harrison. I’d mostly seen his later films, where he is usually irascible and a superior pill (My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle). In this film, however, he has none of his usual crankiness and plays a fairly nice, straightforward fellow who is in love with Liberty, but discovers, like Charlie, that she loves her career more. There was supposed to be more of a romance between them, but that was part of the story that Laughton took our when they cast Vivien Leigh.

Notes: Leigh must not have cared for this role much, because when she sent a film for David O. Selznick to watch when she was trying for the part of Scarlett she sent Fire Over England (an Elizabethan drama), where she was not the leading lady. But that was the film where she met and fell in love with Laurence Olivier, and perhaps she wanted to prove she could do costume dramas, too.

Also appearing in the film is Larry Adler as one of Charlie’s busker friends. I’d never heard of him before, but Larry Adler was a famous and magnificent harmonica player. I looked him up on youtube, and it is amazing the things he can do with that tiny instrument.

This article from the Toronto Film Society has more information about the actors in the film and about how the movie inspired a musical by the Sherman Brothers.

Here is another article, where I got much of my source material from, on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The trailer

An example of the amazing things Larry Adler can do on his harmonica. He is playing “Summertime” by George Gershwin, from the opera “Porgy and Bess” and talks about how he tries to mimic the sound of the human voice when he plays.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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Political Incorrectness, The Iliad, Gone With the Wind, Roger Ebert, and Propaganda

“Remember that when GWTW [Gone With the Wind] was made, segregation was still the law in the South and the reality in the North. The Klu Klux Klan was written out of one scene for fear of giving offense to elected officials who belonged to it. The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own – and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, including Homer and Shakespeare. A politically correct GWTW would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”

This quote is from a review on Gone With the Wind by Roger Ebert, a film critic and reviewer. It caught my attention because I had just written a short post about my impressions of The Iliad (see my post, here) and I talked about how all I could really think about was what a rotten deal the women were getting. Of course, as Roger Ebert points out, The Iliad is a work of its time and if it were written today, then the affect of the story would probably be highly diluted, because it’s not a story about women. It’s about the Greek heroes who lay siege to Troy.

Literature and movies are windows into the time of their creation, of that time’s values. When we correct racism, sexism, intolerance, and inaccuracies, we are suddenly reflecting our own values backwards into the past and revealing only ourselves. Also, if we were to assume that only something that is perfectly politically correct is worthy of attention, then chances are everything we create today will be forgotten by our descendants.

But I’ve always wondered where the line is between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Not many consider a Nazis propaganda film an acceptable form of entertainment, even if it could be considered well done. I don’t know anything about Nazi art, accept that it is generally disparaged; but art that is propaganda is not automatically bad art. The Aeneid, written by Virgil, is pretty non-subtle propaganda for Caesar Augustus, building him up as a great ruler whose coming was prophesied at the very founding of Rome.

When Gone With the Wind was being made, many African-Americans protested the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s book into a movie because of the racism (there is even more in the book than in the movie). The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still considered one of the finest American films, and it struck me as more racist than Gone With the Wind. Sergei Eisenstein, a much admired, cutting-edge Russian director in the Soviet Union, used his films to further his vision of communism (ironically, and sadly, he had many run-ins with authority for not professing the correct form of communism). The ideology of communism has the unique feature of being less offensive than Nazism, but, in practice, equally destructive of human life.

I guess I don’t know where the line is. I enjoy the movie Gone With the Wind more than I enjoy The Iliad, so I am more willing to accept that it is a productive of its times. And I think, regarding that line, that it is important to differentiate between what is merely a product of its times and what is overt propaganda –  and then we have to evaluate how greatly we like or dislike the view being propagated. Caesar Augustus apologia does not seem quite as pernicious as Aryan racism.

It is important, however, never to get so used to something, whether it is political incorrectness or propaganda, that you cease to notice or evaluate it.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Movies

 

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Intermission, please! or, are we done yet?

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind

As I was sitting through the interminable The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I found myself musing on a long-gone Hollywood practice that I began to think ought to be re-introduced. And then finally the movie came to an end and stopped musing and I fled in search of relief.

Surely I am not the only person was has sat through the last half of a movie with my thighs pressed firmly together, wiggling anxiously in my chair and wishing the movie would just end, already. Or perhaps I just have a small bladder. Nevertheless, here is a short list of some movies during which I could hear nature calling…or bellowing.

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 169 min.
  • The Help – 146 min.
  • The Avengers – 142 min.
  • Julie & Julia – 123 min. (not long, I admit, but I still had to actually slip out; I couldn’t take it any longer)

And these movie lengths do not take into account the 20 minutes or so of ads and previews that come before the movie begins.

I did, however, make it through Frozen comfortably, but it was only 102 minutes.

These experiences have been etched in my memory and have acted as an accumulative conversion experience: I now wholly and evangelistically believe in intermissions.

Plays have them, and musicals have them, and operas and ballets, and football games have them. Even hockey games get two.

When I go to a musical – say, “Les Miserables” (approx. 3 hrs.) – there is an intermission and I have a chance to commune with my body and determine whether or not I can last another hour. It’s marvelous, because it brings peace of mind.

Initially, movies did have intermissions. They were required because early films were usually spaced across several reels of film and the technician needed time to change the reels. Even when that was smoothed out, intermissions were still used for especially long movies.

  • Ben-Hur – 212 min.
  • The Sound of Music – 174 min.
  • Gone With the Wind – 220 min,
  • The Godfather – 175 min.

The last prominent film to have an intermission was Gandhi (183 min.) After that, the audience was left to fend for itself. I abstain from all liquid several hours before show time and only sip parsimoniously from my water bottle during the movie.

I’ve read several people’s views that an intermission would be disruptive, but personally I can’t think of anything more disruptive than dancing uncomfortably in one’s chair. Also, it’s not as if the movie is going to randomly break in the middle of the action. An intermission actually gives directors the opportunity to build towards a second climax (think “as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!). The first act ends on an exciting or suspenseful or emotional note and the audience has a break. They can talk, get more food, stretch, relieve themselves, compare thoughts, and then return to the film with anticipation and fresh concentration.

I think Alfred Hitchcock had the right idea about it.

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

And if they can’t do that….please, just put in an intermission.

Note: my brother also likes the idea of intermissions because he says the best music on a soundtrack always comes during the intermission.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2014 in Movies

 

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