Monthly Archives: July 2015

  • Pinocchio

    Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske[1] (1940)

    One of the very few books I still have from early childhood is a hardback copy of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (first published in 1883).  The book has a home-made dustjacket of brown paper with my name and address handwritten on the front cover – I’d guess when I was seven or eight.  I don’t recall getting the book and I suspect it wasn’t mine:  inside it, my brother has written his name and our address too.  It looks like Steve’s handwriting from his early teens.  He was probably, tactfully, reminding me that the book really belonged to him but wasn’t inclined to fight to retrieve it.  This is an advantage of being the youngest child by a few years:  by the time you appropriate your siblings’ possessions they’ve grown out of them.  Yet in spite of taking the trouble to claim ownership, I’m not sure I ever read The Adventures of Pinocchio or that, until yesterday, I’d ever seen the classic Disney film in its entirety – as distinct from clips across decades of BBC Disney Time compilations at Christmas and Easter.

    The opening of Pinocchio has Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket) singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ after a celestial choir intro.  The credits give way to shots of an antique-looking edition of Collodi’s book (with, on the shelf behind it, volumes of ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – both forthcoming Disney attractions).  I was all ready to be sentimentally nostalgic.  My mood had changed, a few minutes later, on completion of the tour of the workshop of the woodcarver Geppetto.  The surrounding Tuscan landscape is beautiful and the lighted windows of Geppetto’s house, which we first see with Jiminy Cricket from the outside looking in, are greatly welcoming.  Inside, however, the place is full of comical clocks and waggish automata; Figaro isn’t quite a cat or a kitten but a sort of dwarf feline; and Geppetto’s goldfish Cleo bats long eyelashes and has pouty lips.  As is often the case in Disney, the external world is invested with an enchanting, sometimes menacing quality – the images are supercharged picture-book illustrations.  He and his animators realise ingeniously their complete understanding of the essence of movement of particular animals or natural phenomena (in Pinocchio, for example, the lapping of sea on the sand after Geppetto and his household have escaped from the belly of a whale).  But many of the living creatures on planet Disney make you queasy.

    I didn’t like the look of Pinocchio (voiced by Dickie Jones) either before or after the Blue Fairy brought him to life – although there’s no denying that you empathise with him enough to be horrified by the nose he grows when he tells lies.  (It eventually extends to a branch in bloom with a bird’s nest full of fledglings.)  The story must have presented a particular challenge to the Disney team:  they had first to animate the inanimate before finally humanising Pinocchio, once he’s proved himself, through the courage and altruism he shows, as a ‘real boy’.  The scheme of metamorphosis in the film is, in some other instances, more complex and more worrying.  The ne’er-do-well boys who go to Pleasure Island are eventually transformed into jackasses, to be sent to work in salt mines or perform in circuses.   It’s upsetting enough to see them grow donkey ears, hooves and tail; when the Coachman who transports the boys to the island yells at one of the semi-morphed creatures that he isn’t yet a proper jackass because he can still do more than bray, this momentary reminder of the real order of things is jolting.  You think:  why shouldn’t a donkey speak, when a cricket and a fox have just been talking and singing?  The magical being that is the Blue Fairy, who grants wishes made upon the wishing star in the night sky, is the most humanoid in terms of physique, hairdo and voice (by Evelyn Venable) – all of which combine to turn her into a Hollywood star of the period.

    If I ever did see Pinocchio as a child, I think I’d have been taken with the classy, composed Blue Fairy.  I’d have been troubled – I was even yesterday – by the comic humiliation of the vulpine ‘Honest’ John Worthington Foulfellow (Walter Catlett), inflicted inadvertently by his dim (mute) alley-cat sidekick, Gideon.  It’s probably a legacy of being impressed, like Jemima Puddleduck, by Beatrix Potter’s sandy-whiskered gentleman in a frock coat.  Anyway, I felt embarrassed for Honest John when Gideon’s sledgehammer trapped the fox’s head inside his own top hat.  The actor’s life offered to Pinocchio by disreputable Honest John is a more specific temptation than the attractions of Pleasure Island.  I’m certain I’d have seen a place devoted to all-lads-together self-indulgence as purgatory.  I’d rather have gone to school and read books than played hookey and games so the moral lesson of Pinocchio would have been lost on me.  (It does seem to be a lesson for boys rather than for children generally – although, when the delinquent Lampwick shows Pinocchio how to shoot pool and smoke cigars on Pleasure Island, this idea of corrupted youthful behaviour brought to mind C S Lewis’s (later) illustration, in the last of the Narnia books, of how girls go wrong:  Susan Pevensie is dismissed from the fulfilment of the Christian story, and presumably loses out on Heaven, once she’s interested in lipstick and nylons.)

    The moralising is underpinned by humorous but persistent xenophobia in the characterisation of Stromboli, the man who runs the travelling puppet show, and the Dutch, French and Russian marionette dance acts that feature on the bill.  It’s no coincidence that Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy Cricket, is the most straightforwardly and unpretentiously American voice to be heard but Cliff Edwards does make it likeable.  I felt comfortable with the visualisation of Jiminy too – perhaps because I don’t have a clue what an actual cricket looks like.   The song score by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington has achieved deserved longevity.  The soundtrack of only five numbers includes, as well as (the Oscar-winning) ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Give a Little Whistle’, ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’.  The relatively unremembered song is ‘Little Wooden Head’, sung by Geppetto (Christian Rub).   I wonder if the ‘Worthington’ in Honest John’s name was inspired by Noel Coward’s warning against the stage, released in 1935?

    1 March 2015

    [1] Sharpsteen and Luske are named on IMDB and by Wikipedia as the film’s ‘supervising directors’, among Walt Disney’s seven-strong directing team for the film.

  • Annie Hall

    Woody Allen (1977)

    The story of the relationship between a neurotic comedy writer and stand-up called Alvy Singer and the eponymous Annie (Diane Keaton), which Woody Allen co-wrote with Marshall Brickman, is very clever and charming.  The title refers to both the leads:  Diane Keaton, who was Allen’s partner in the early 1970s, was born Diane Hall; anhedonia – the film’s working title, echoed in its eventual one – is what Alvy/Allen suffers from.   It’s a good movie – partly because the context of the terrific dialogue is a love story which is psychologically convincing.  Alvy helps the daffy, desperately self-conscious Annie out of her reclusiveness but his killjoy jealousy breaks them up.  Like Manhattan, Annie Hall is a film I saw on its original release but hadn’t seen since.  Second time round, I started off thinking it was supremely entertaining but I got a little bored as it went on (although not irritated, as I became with Manhattan).  Maybe the piece seems wan only because a protagonist so obviously based on Allen has become so familiar in the decades since Annie Hall but there’s no way of seeing it other than in retrospect and therefore no getting round this problem.

    Diane Keaton’s famous performance still seems fresh after all these years, though.  She’s such a strong and secure dramatic actress that she’s able to supply Annie with a serious core that gives depth to, but never gets in the way of, her delightful comic style.  She’s unobtrusively brilliant in the way that Annie’s mien changes according to the social situation she’s in – when Alvy and Annie are having dinner with her posh WASP family, Keaton is hunched beside her imposing mother (Colleen Dewhurst).   Seeing the two films again this week made me realise I’d forgotten how emotionally open Woody Allen could be too – in the last scene with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, in the sequences to camera which open and close Annie Hall.  Most of the non-verbal comic techniques he uses here work very well:  wheeling on Marshall McLuhan to tell an annoying man behind Alvy and Annie in a cinema queue for The Sorrow and the Pity that he’s got McLuhan’s ideas all wrong; inserting the grown-up Alvy into a reminiscence of his primary school days (a winning admission of the egocentricity of Allen’s films) or the child Alvy into Disney’s Snow White (as a kid, he had a thing for the Wicked Queen rather than the heroine).  The first time they meet, Annie tells Alvy he’s what her grandmother ‘would call a real Jew’:  there’s a justly famous visual gag at the meal with her family (they’re eating ham) when Alvy feels the old lady’s eyes on him and he turns momentarily into a rabbi.   The verbal side of things is also inventive:  the subtitles that express Alvy and Annie’s thoughts and contradict what they’re actually saying; the conversations between them across a split-screen divide.

    It’s fun to see actors who soon became big names in small parts here.  Christopher Walken is Annie’s weird, death-wishing brother; Jeff Goldblum registers with his one line as a man at an LA party phoning his guru (‘I’ve forgotten what my mantra is’).  According to the cast list in the BFI programme note, Sigourney Weaver appears momentarily (but unrecognisably – in long shot) as Alvy’s new date when he and Annie, after their break-up, bump into each other outside the cinema (The Sorrow and the Pity again).  Allen’s anxieties about his lack of height are amusingly realised through a succession of notably leggy girlfriends – for Paul Simon, as the music industry man who lures Annie from New York to Los Angeles, as well as himself.  The cast also includes Carol Kane as Alvy’s first wife, Shelley Duvall as a pea-brained, celebrity-crazy journalist, and Tony Roberts as an easygoing actor friend of Alvy.  Woody Allen’s evidently guilty feelings about the theft of biography for purposes of fiction may have found its funniest expression in the success that Dianne Wiest’s Holly eventually enjoys as an ‘author’ in Hannah and Her Sisters but there’s a sequence here that runs it a good second.  Alvy writes a stage play which lifts dialogue we heard between him and Annie wholesale.  The adaptation parts company from the source material at the point at which, in real life, Alvy and Annie went their separate ways and, in the theatre, their counterparts realise they’re made for each other.

    At the height of his prestige and success in the late 1970s, Woody Allen was quoted in a Newsweek interview as saying:  ‘When you do comedy, you’re not sitting at the grown-ups’ table, you’re sitting at the children’s table’.  I don’t know when exactly he said this:  it’s striking both that Annie Hall’s Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay) might seem to contradict him and that this film was  followed by his Bergman hommage-pastiche Interiors. There’s no doubt some truth in his complaint but I’m not sure whether he ever acknowledged the prejudice was helpful to him. Even in 1977, Allen’s persona was well enough established for much of the audience to regard Alvy Singer as Woody Allen and Alvy was well described by Pauline Kael as ‘a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport’.  Yet the audience likes Alvy – he may be a spoilsport but he comes out with great one-liners:  his character is both expressed through comic means and made less troubling as a result of the comedy medium.

    The way in which Woody Allen transmits his obsessions has a similar effect:  a good example is death because it’s an obsession shared with Bergman, Allen’s beau idéal of film-makers.  Except in Interiors, Allen puts his horror of death on the screen in the form of jokes about it – usually verbal and often brilliant.  Alvy’s buying Annie books about death early in their relationship and her handing them all back when they split hardly compares with Mickey Sachs’ morbid hypochondria in Hannah and Her Sisters but in both cases the comic register serves to take the sting out of death.  Because Allen is primarily a comedy artist you don’t feel either there’s a sting in his having to resort to jokes as a way of dealing with fear of death.  This makes his films more easily pleasurable and popular than they would otherwise have been.  If you took Alvy Singer entirely seriously, you wouldn’t like him much.  If you identified Alvy with his creator, you’d probably not like Woody Allen much either – you’d almost certainly not fancy seeing his alter ego back on screen year after year.   There are benefits to a man of comedy being condescended to.

    6 January 2012

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