Monday, 21 December 2009

Somewhere Over the Gasometer Skies are Blue

Having slipped and slithered my way on icy pavements back from town after a dental appointment I settled down with a cup of tea to watch bovine afternoon TV whilst the numbness wore off and I stopped dribbling down my chin. The Ten Commandments was on, Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea and a quick change of wig and beard to demonstrate years wandering in the wilderness. I love an old fashioned Hollywood epic no attempt at all to either be authentic or even nod in the direction of historical or even literary accuracy. I still have the voice of John Wayne in my head as the centurion saying’ Surely this man was the son of Gawwwwd’ in one such film. I can recall with relish Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra whilst in real life having an affair with Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) and never quite losing the refined Anglo American accent. Rex Harrison played Julius Caesar in that film ( pre Dr Doolittle and my Fair Lady talk singing days) uttering the immortal lines , often misheard, ‘Those baristas need dealing with send out a turtle !’

A cast of thousands was, in the fifties, sixties and even seventies, a sure fire way to get bums on seats in the cinema. These days we are a bit cynical as casts of thousands can be generated by CGI. Most of the Coliseum audience in the final scenes of Gladiator were generated by a computer they even managed to digitally place the dead Oliver Reed into some scenes. No doubt there may be a time coming when old films could be edited together seamlessly of some long gone great actor to make a whole new film. Paul Scofield could have turned up in an episode of the Tudors compiled of out-takes from a Man for All Seasons.

Gone are the days when a film director had a megaphone and thousands of extras to control and probably only two or three cameras to capture a scene that if not caught on film could not, without huge expense, be replicated. Just now as I watched the Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B de Mille I realised that there must be scores if not hundreds of Americans alive today who were in that film’s cast of thousands and perhaps also other epic films of that era as a child. There was one shot of a girl that sticks in my head, she could have been no more than four or five and she was driving geese before her with a stick. She was leaving Egypt walking just in front of Edward G Robinson as a n’er do well Jewish slave overseer. Where is she now? She must be about my age as the film was made in 1956. Does she have the film on DVD and fast forwards it to that scene with her appearing to show others who doubt her one claim to fame. Now and again does she catch a middle of the night re-run of it and remember the day Mr De Mille shouted action and all these people started moving and pretending to be something they weren’t? Does she even know she is in the film, did her family move from Hollywood to some small town in Iowa and open a shoe shop and never even see the film or think it best not to remember the time they were so hard-up they had to hire themselves out and their little girl as extras? Perhaps this little girl died young of drink and drugs trying to make it as a Hollywood starlet, fixated on achieving greatness in the media that claimed her so young? The life of the extras in those old epics could be fascinating, all stitched together into a backdrop patchwork of the old Hollywood that was. There is a short story or short stories in there somewhere, over and above Ricky Gervais’ take on the extra's life.

The American Film Institute a couple of years back produced a definitive list of the ten best films of all time in particular genres. Here is their list of the top ten for the epic genre.

1 Lawrence of Arabia 1962
2 Ben-Hur 1959
3 Schindler's List 1993
4 Gone with the Wind 1939
5 Spartacus 1960
6 Titanic 1997
7 All Quiet on the Western Front 1930
8 Saving Private Ryan 1998
9 Reds 1981
10 The Ten Commandments 1956

How did Reds get in at Number 9 when Dr Zhivago makes no appearance at all? That is a minor quibble or course, I have to say that looking at this list, the older films that I saw for the first time in the cinema; Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Gone with the Wind ( at a re-run show at the local flea-pit when I was ten years old) still remain in my head as moments of ‘wow’. The cast of thousands , the action scenes with real stunt men risking their lives ( I believe 2 at least died making the chariot scenes in Ben Hur), the pan across some vast army, sometimes a literal army, of extras, the attempt to show something on a grand scale, did inspire a particular state of awe in me.

Nowadays I may be amazed at the technical trickery and accomplishments that generate some scenes as in Lord of the Rings, Gladiator etc but I have never again experienced that same sense of real wonder at the power of Hollywood to create something akin to celluloid magic on the grand scale as when I first saw these films. This of course may be because I saw some as a child or adolescent and I had not yet grown cynical or jaded about the moving picture show. It may be a function of the generation I come from. As a child I caught the last gasp flicker of the Hollywood ‘big pictures’, when the move to technicolour still seemed jaw droppingly vivid. In the grey Midland town I lived in then even the green of the grass and the red of a cloak in Spartacus seemed extraordinarily bright,it made you think that America held a whole palette of colours you could never experience anywhere else but there. Colour was so lacking in the fifties and that shift from black and white was still significant. The sudden change from black and white to colour in the film The Wizard of Oz somehow epitomizes it, somewhere over the rainbow or the gasometer at the back of my house and in Hollywood the sky always was truly azure blue. The story may have been important, the acting probably important but the dazzling colour of it all as a child was the most important thing of all. I have seen New York, walked around every corner expecting and sometimes finding familiar gritty backdrop locations of great American films I have seen and loved but I have never been to those locations where those big epics were filmed ( Italy, Spain, Monument valley, California ,etc). I expect that if I ever do go there it will take me back to those times as a child in the cinema soaking up all that colour as if it were a sunlit cure for some ailment I had no name for but today would probably call mind-numbing drabness.

I do hope you have a Happy Christmas and wonderful 2010 dear reader. I shall be back with you anon, probably after New Year.