Saturday, 26 February 2011

Marcel Dalio (1900-1983)

There are films whose atmosphere you carry with you for hours or days after, and then there are films you just want to hang out in. I mean the ones that conjure up such a sure sense of place and camaraderie between the characters that you want to join them, because you are positive that even without a plot to follow, the characters are still having a good time. Who wouldn't want to hang out in Errol Flynn's Sherwood Forest (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938)? Or go to one of Nick and Nora Charles' dinner parties even if you might get accused of murder (The Thin Man Series)? But the films that above all others I would like to hang out in, are those of Howard Hawks. It could be Dutchy's bar/hotel/air service office in Only Angels Have Wings or the newsroom in His Girl Friday or even Stumpy's jail in Rio Bravo, though the last probably doesn't smell that good. But my favourite hangout is Frenchy's in To Have and Have Not.

Which is of course where you will find Marcel Dalio. He plays Gerard aka Frenchy the slightly nervous proprietor of the bar/hotel on the island of Martinique where you will find Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, Walter Brennan at the bar and Humphrey Bogart smoking in his room, ready to throw his matches to Lauren Bacall. I want to stay at the hotel. Of course, I'd also like to be as slim and sexy and well dressed as Lauren Bacall while I did so.

I don't think Frenchy gets enough credit in this film. He runs a hotel where everyone turns up to have a good time and at the same time he has French freedom fighters in and out of his basement. No wonder he has a permanently crumpled suit and a permanently worried expression on his face.

There are of course some similarities to Casablanca, Marcel Dalio's other most famous American movie. Another great bar, another disillusioned American played by Bogart who finds his principles at the right time, another glamourous woman. In Casablanca, Dalio's part is much much smaller - he is the croupier at Rick's illegal gambling tables, appearing in only two scenes. And it must have been a very strange and poignant experience for Dalio to act in, as the film so closely mirrors his own wartime experience.

Dalio was born Jewish in France, and became a prominent actor appearing in key films such as Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion. I've not yet seen the former, I have seen the latter but it was a long time ago, and I'll confess I mostly remember Jean Gabin. To be honest, he probably doesn't qualify for my collection of "supporting players" on the grounds that he was a star in France in the 30s. But the war broke out. Marcel Dalio left Paris ahead of the Germans' arrival with his then wife Madeleine LeBeau (the broken-hearted Yvonne in Casablanca), and spent two months in Lisbon before the couple was able to get visas to travel to Chile. You can read more about his journey on Wikipedia.

He carried on working in America, and back in Europe after the war. I remember him in Donovan's Reef, the John Ford movie set in the South Pacific, as a flustered priest trying to keep people in order and plagued by a leaking roof. And now I look at the list of films he went on to make, there are many I have seen. But the ones I remember most are Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. And his nervous glances, Gallic shrug and crumpled suit and expression.

Here's a tiny glimpse of him at the end of a choice Claude Rains moment from Casablanca.

And here's a bar scene from To Have and Have Not with Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, Bogart and Bacall eyeing each other up and Marcel Dalio still trying to get Bogart to give a damn.

Casablanca (1942)

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Eric Blore (1887-1959)

From the quiet charm of Felix Bressart to the utter ham of Eric Blore. If you love Fred and Ginger then you've sat through an awful lot of Mr Blore. If your tastes run to Preston Sturges, then ditto. If you wanted a hammy comic English butler in the 1930s, Eric Blore was close to the top of your list. The thing about Mr Blore is that all too often he turns up in truly wonderful films, and to be honest he isn't the most wonderful thing in them. Well it's tough competing with Fred and Ginger on song in Top Hat, or Barbara Stanwyck seducing Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. I will admit that sometimes I tire of his antics. He has dated a bit. Or is that a lot? But every now and again, he redeems himself. For me, it's the scene of the phone call in Shall We Dance. He plays the concierge of the swanky hotel where Fred and Ginger are staying, with the rather fabulous name of Cecil Flintridge. The plot is clearly ridiculous and not that memorable - as always for Fred and Ginger - but somehow Mr Flintridge has got himself arrested and is now phoning from the police station to get himself out. What follows is an absurd sequence in which he tries to explain just where he is by spelling out the name of the station (Susquehannah street)... and more.

Annoyingly I can't find a clip of this for you, so you will have to please yourself with this one, also featuring another ham of the same era, Everett Edward Horton (more I should imagine on him in due course).

Eric Blore's biography on Wikipedia (read about his death - great comic timing!) and listing on IMDb
Top Hat (1935)
Shall We Dance (1937)
The Lady Eve (1941)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Felix Bressart (1892-1949)

Playing the kindly friend, Pirovitch, to James Stewart's lovesick Alfred Kralik, there is something very real and sweet about Felix Bressart in The Shop Around the Corner. I remember seeing this wonderful film most memorably at the National Film Theatre in London on a big screen and in a new print. We forget how much impact old films can have when we only ever see them on television in the corner of distracting sitting rooms. It was a Lubitsch season and I also saw Ninotchka then, another favourite, another great comic performance by Bressart, as one of three Russian communists succumbing to the charms of Paris. He doesn't grand stand. He just quietly steals the scenes he's in, or at least matches his stars because frankly who steals from Stewart? Recently I saw To Be or Not To Be (more Lubitsch) in which Bressart plays the Jewish actor, Greenberg, in a company of Polish actors, with one wonderful moment near the end where he is given the chance to play Shylock to an audience of Nazi captors in the corridor of the theatre. Even with the bowdlerization to remove the references to Shylock's being a Jew (?!), it's an emotional moment in an otherwise bonkers black comedy. 

I suppose he typifies what I mean by a great supporting player. He was never going to be the star with those looks or his strong Eastern European accent - he was born in East Prussia, now Russia. But his commitment to his parts is complete and his characters are so full of warmth, so wry and modest. He almost throws his lines away but he's unforgettable. 

Here he is in a pivotal scene in The Shop Around the Corner, finding out the true identity of Stewart's secret correspondent. And yes, this was remade as You Got Mail much more recently. A film which I have seen and which is frankly a travesty next to this masterpiece.

Ninotchka (1939)