Homage

French composer Charles Koechlin rarely watched films until he saw The Blue Angel in 1933 and became captivated by “the formidable realm of the cinema.” He set to work and in a few weeks produced a Seven Stars Symphony, with a movement dedicated to each of seven actors of the day: Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

Interestingly, Robert Orledge writes in his biography of the composer, “The fifth, sixth and seventh movements, depicting Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin, are based on a cipher system of Koechlin’s own devising, in which the themes spell out the stars’ names, and in the case of the Emil Jannings movement virtually tell a film story in music.” I’ll try to find out more about that.

Decorum

In Notorious there’s a strangely chaste scene of passion in which Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant hold one another, gaze into each other’s eyes, and declare their love, but only intermittently kiss. Grant even places a phone call during the clinch. The reason is the Hays code, a set of moral guidelines that Hollywood had adopted in 1930. Among other things, it declared that:

The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld … Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

The practical rule was that a screen kiss must not last more than 3 seconds. So Alfred Hitchcock simply toed that line. Bergman later recalled, “We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again … the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any one point kissed for more than three seconds … we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless.” In fact it lasted two and a half minutes.

Going Places

Early in his dancing career, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson performed on a custom double staircase that added drama to his act, increasing his visibility to the audience while amplifying his steps. In What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert writes, “What the stairs did for Robinson was reveal how he played with the structure of the music through how he played with the structure of the staircase.”

Robinson went through 20 to 30 pairs of clogs a year with footwork so impeccable that a listener under the stage couldn’t distinguish his right foot from his left. A less efficient dancer might have found the narrow steps daunting, but Robinson danced effortlessly “up on the toes,” keeping his feet neatly underneath him while displaying dazzling control and timing.

“As generations of imitators would learn to their grief, the properties of the staircase that magnified Robinson’s mastery equally magnify the slightest imperfection,” Seibert writes. “Dancers tell a story in which he had his musicians cut out for three and a half minutes while he continued dancing. After the allotted time, the musicians came back in, cued by a metronome that Robinson couldn’t hear. He was exactly on beat.”

More Theatre Reviews

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C.A. Lejeune wrote of The Iceman Cometh, “It is longeth and it stinketh.”

The New York Post titled its review of a new Clifford Odets play: ODETS WHERE IS THY STING?

Walter Kerr after the Broadway opening of I Am a Camera: “Me no Leica.”

Of a 1920s play whose author happened to be a vicar of Brockenhurst, the Daily Graphic’s critic wrote that it was “the best play ever written by a vicar of Brockenhurst.”

George Jean Nathan on a 1920s musical: “I’ve knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls’ knees, and there God anticipated me.”

Brooks Atkinson on First Impressions, a 1959 musical version of Pride and Prejudice: “Farley Granger played Mr. Darcy with all the flexibility of a telegraph pole.”

Walter Kerr on Jay Robinson in Buy Me Blue Ribbons: “Mr. Robinson has delusions of adequacy.”

John Mason Brown on a 1937 production of Antony and Cleopatra: “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra and sank.”

Nathan on Maureen Stapleton’s opening in 1953’s The Emperor’s Clothes: “Miss Stapleton played the part as though she had not yet signed the contract with the producer.”

Dorothy Parker on a 1931 Empire Theatre production: “The only thing I didn’t like about The Barretts of Wimpole Street was the play.”

George S. Kaufman on Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark: “A bad play saved by a bad performance.”

A critic wrote that that Wilfrid Hyde-White had spent one West End performance “prowling round the stage looking for laughs with the single-mindedness of a tortoise on a lettuce-hunt.”

Max Beerbohm once had to greet a great Edwardian actress after watching her give a tedious performance. Thinking quickly, he said, “Darling! Good is not the word!”

Nothing to Say

Early American radio producers discovered that they could create a convincing crowd sound by having a group of actors repeat the word walla over and over. This technique is still sometimes used in film and TV productions — besides walla, actors sometimes mutter “peas and carrots,” “watermelon cantaloupe,” “natter natter,” or “grommish grommish.” In Europe the word rhubarb is often used.

British comedian Eric Sykes’ 1980 television special Rhubarb Rhubarb plays with this idea by removing all other dialogue: Sykes relies almost entirely on sight gags, and the scant spoken dialogue consists of people saying the word rhubarb. The 1980 program was a remake of Sykes’ 1969 film Rhubarb, which presses this conceit even further: Everyone says “rhubarb,” all the characters are named Rhubarb, car license plates read RHU BAR B, and a baby speaks by holding up a sign that says RHUBARB. “A visual gag,” said Sykes, “is worth three pages of dialogue.”

Remodeling

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Hall of Justice, as it appears in DC Comics, was modeled on a train station.

The Super Friends television series, in which the fortress first appeared in 1973, was produced by Cincinnati’s Hanna-Barbera, and background supervisor Al Gmuer based it on Union Terminal, a local landmark.

(Thanks, Steven.)

Law and Order

Perhaps because the director has a law degree from Cambridge, Jonathan Lynn’s 1992 film My Cousin Vinny is widely praised for its realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy.

Joe Pesci plays an inexperienced Brooklyn personal injury lawyer trying to save his cousin from a murder charge. But instead of relying on surprise witnesses and other unlikely dramatic gambits, “[t]he movie is close to reality even in its details,” writes plaintiff’s attorney Max Kennerly. “Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, A Few Good Men, everything that happens in the movie could happen — and often does happen — at trial.”

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner calls the film “particularly rich in practice tips: how a criminal defense lawyer must stand his ground against a hostile judge, even at the cost of exasperating the judge, because the lawyer’s primary audience is the jury, not the judge; how cross-examination on peripheral matters can sow serious doubts about a witness’s credibility; how props can be used effectively in cross-examination (the tape measure that demolishes one of the prosecution’s eyewitnesses); how to voir dire, examine, and cross-examine expert witnesses; the importance of the Brady doctrine … how to dress for a trial; contrasting methods of conducting a jury trial; and more.”

“You can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy,” writes John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe. And “[a]lthough Vinny is certainly no role model when it comes to knowledge of the law, legal analysis and ethical behavior, law students could learn from him as to how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.”

Lynn suggested that lawyers like the film because “there aren’t any bad guys”; the judge, prosecutor, and defense are all simply seeking justice.

In 2008 the ABA Journal ranked the film third on its list of the “25 Greatest Legal Movies,” and in 2010 it ranked Vincent Gambini twelfth among “The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch).”

The Chemists’ Drinking Song

In a 1963 essay, Isaac Asimov pointed out that paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde can be sung to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman.” Inspired, John A. Carroll wrote this jig:

(chorus:) Paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde
Sodium citrate, ammonium cyanide
Phosphates and nitrates and chlorides galore
Just have one o’ these and you’ll never need more.

Got messed up last night on furfuryl alcohol
Followed it down with a gallon of propanol
Drank from mid-morning til late afternoon
Then spat on the floor and blew up the saloon.

(repeat chorus)

Paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde,
Powdered aluminum, nitrogen iodide
Slop it around and add some benzene
Then top off the punch with Fluorescein

(repeat chorus)

Whiskey, tequila and rum are too tame,
The stuff that I drink must explode into flame.
When I break wind it strips all the paint in the room,
And rattles the walls with an earthshaking boom.

(repeat chorus)

Paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde
Go soak your head in a jar of formaldehyde
Scrub very hard, then rinse out your mane
In dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane!

In a Word

allograph
n. something written for another person

facrere
n. the art of “make-believe”

dabster
n. a master of his business

gelastic
n. something capable of exciting smiles or laughter

Leroy Anderson’s 1950 composition “The Typewriter” uses a manual typewriter as an instrument.

To keep the keys from jamming, the machine is modified so that only two keys work. All the same, Anderson found that percussionists perform it more reliably than typists do.

“We have two drummers,” Anderson said in a 1970 interview. “A lot of people think we use stenographers, but they can’t do it because they can’t make their fingers move fast enough. So we have drummers because they can get wrist action.”

Jerry Lewis famously adopted the piece for his 1963 film Who’s Minding the Store?, below.

Stopwatch Cinema

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High Noon unfolds in real time — the running time of the story closely parallels the running time of the film itself. Producer Stanley Kramer said that the filmmakers hoped this would “create a sense of urgency as the noon hour approached.” Director Fred Zinnemann wrote the word CLOCK next to many scenes in his script, and he prepared a list of inserts in which clocks would be prominently visible:

Scene 36 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 10:40 a.m.
Scene 60 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 10:51 a.m.
Scene 76 — Helen’s Room — Clock 10:55 a.m.
Scene 86 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 11:02 a.m.
Scene 96 — Helen’s Room — Clock 11:05 a.m.
Scene 101 — Marshal’s Office — Clock 11:07 a.m.
Scene 130 — Saloon — Clock 11:19 a.m.
Scene 144 — Mart Howe’s House — Clock 11:26 a.m.
Scene 231 — Saloon — Clock 11:44 a.m.
Scene 256 — Hotel Lobby — Clock 11:50 a.m.
Scene 303 — Saloon — Clock 11:59 a.m.
Scene 312 — Saloon — Clock 12:00 p.m.

An insert for Scene 294 was never shot — it would have started on a pendulum and panned up to show a clock with no hands, superimposed on a closeup of Gary Cooper’s Will Kane. Zinnemann said he’d got the idea from a handless clock he’d seen in front of a funeral home on Sunset Boulevard. He said it “would have intensified the feeling of panic.”

(From Michael Francis Blake, Code of Honor, 2003.)