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Culture Bytes: Everything Old is New Again

Long before the antics of Lindsay Lohan and 24-hour CNN and Fox News, there were drunken stars and frantic coverage of absurd stories. David Freeman points out in his Notebook this week that outrageous antics by actors and journalists are old hat in Hollywood, as he reviews a new British novel, and a special edition of a classic Billy Wilder flick that has just been released on DVD.

by
David Freeman, PJM Columnist

Bio

July 29, 2007 - 12:16 am

In books and plays, actors are often portrayed as drunken souses. In my experience, that’s based on observable fact. Among Americans, Broderick Crawford, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy!) were prime examples.

The English practically invented the idea of the drunken actor. Trevor Howard (1913-1988) could have been the model. He’s best remembered today as the leading man in Brief Encounter, an English romance so understated that you can easily miss the emotion. Later in his career, he played a series of blustering English colonials. The judge in Gandhi, is one example. He was a terrific actor and he could drink anyone right under the table, a place he often found himself.

A story that is passed around among actors is that before the war, Howard, not yet a famous face or name, was in the provinces, in a pub that adjoined a theatre. He was loaded and getting more so. A young actor recognized him and chatted him up. Howard was flattered and they bought one another drinks. The young man had several; Howard had several more.

Howard told the fellow that the play in the theatre was pretty good and perhaps they might look in on it. The young man said that would be very nice, but surely it had already started and he wouldn’t want to interrupt by coming in late.

“Nonsense,” Howard said. “You’re with me.”

The play had indeed started, but in they went, reeling their way to a couple of seats in the mezzanine. After a bit, Howard asked his new friend how he liked the show? “Oh, it’s grand,” the fellow said. “Thank you, so much.”

“Lovely to meet you,” Howard replied, getting himself up on his shaky feet. “I have an entrance coming up.” He lurched his way backstage and ten minutes later, in his costume and in character, he made his entrance and performed the rest of the act perfectly.

***

The British novelist Jane Gardam, whose twelfth novel is the marvelous %%AMAZON=1933372133 Old Filth,%% has never found a substantial American audience. The usual reason given is that she’s too English. I don’t see that she’s any more English than, say, Anita Brookner who sells well in the US. Brookner writes the same book year in and year out. Gardham ranges more widely. Her best-known novel here – perhaps till now — is %%AMAZON=1933372362 The Queen of the Tambourine.%% It won the Whitbread prize in 1991. Old Filth, might be the one that catches on. Europa Editions has brought it out in an appealing paperback, modestly priced.

It’s the story of Sir Edward Feathers, known to all as Old Filth, an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” He’s a legendary figure, returned to the UK, a widower in his eighties, after a career as an advocate and a judge in Hong Kong. Old Filth has retired to Dorset.

This is a novel that can feel astonishingly alive. It has sweep and yet feels intimate – no mean trick. The story is full of incident and character, including a good deal of English drinking. It’s compelling as an imagined biography, but the theme is found, in Old Filth’s words, “From my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.”

The future Sir Edward’s birth in Malaya caused his mother’s death. The result was that his father loathed him. His early years were spent among brown-skinned children who spoke no English. It was more idyllic than he knew until he was sent back to England for school. He was what the English at that time called a Raj or an Empire orphan.

During World War II (always “the war” in this world) Feathers joins the military and assigned to protect the Queen – that would be the present Queen’s late mother. He becomes her favorite and they both muddle through.

In his old age, alone and getting a little loopy, Old Filth finds himself involved in a friendship with a former Hong Kong rival, now his country neighbor. Mr. Veneering (a nod to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend) becomes a late in life companion, one of many sweet surprises in this deeply humane novel.

***

Billy Wilder’s 1951 film, %%AMAZON=B000PKG6OE Ace in the Hole,%% a movie long admired by knowledgeable fans, has until now only been available in washed out tapes, taken from the occasional television run. Criterion, one the best of the DVD companies, has cleaned it up and restored its black and white photography to the crispness it must have once had. They’ve included a second disk of interviews and commentary. The result is a treat.

Kirk Douglas, as a brash New York reporter on the skids, washes up in Albuquerque, a journalistic backwater, and stumbles on the story that he knows will send him back to the big time. A local citizen is stuck in a cave that has collapsed on him while he was hunting for native artifacts. (He drinks a lot too — the drunken reporter is another archetype in movies and fiction.)

Bad Juju all around, but the poor guy’s troubles are just starting. Kirk wants the story and he doesn’t want it to end too soon.

Soon enough, people are flocking to the site and Kirk is running the show. The victim also has a wife, Jan Sterling, who turns out to be even more venal than Kirk.

There had certainly been popular satires of the press before this movie. The Front Page is one example. I can’t think of another popular work that satirized the press, the public, the law, and pretty much anyone else who wanders past.

Wilder was amused by the antics of the main characters, but also by the naïve posturing of the rubes who came running to see the circus. This is one of the movies that gave Wilder the reputation for cynicism that plagued him for years.

Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s first picture after Sunset Boulevard, which was his final movie with his writing partner and producer, Charles Brackett. Wilder produced this one himself and wrote it with Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels, but no matter who wrote what, the sensibility is Billy Wilder’s.

Here are a few choice lines: from Kirk: “Bad news sells because good news is no news.” From Jan Sterling: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you – you’re twenty minutes.” Also from Jan, when she tells Kirk she doesn’t want to go to church (he thinks it would look good in his story): “I don’t like to go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

Most of Wilder’s movies depend on star performances and Kirk Douglas delivers the goods here. He plays desperate, stop-at-nothing ambition as persuasively as it can be done. All the performances are good but Douglas owns this picture, all but swallowing every frame he’s in.

There’s an attempt to give Ace in the Hole an ending that was thought morally acceptable. It’s not bad, and it has some bravura shots and Douglas lets out whatever remaining stops he can find, but Wilder’s heart just isn’t in it. No matter what happens at the end, Kirk is a thorough reprobate, and more’s the pleasure because of it.

Ace in the Hole was a box office failure and as a result the next few pictures Wilder made were safer choices, drawn from established works. Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina (1954) have their fans but except for a few Wilder touches, they might have been directed by any of several Hollywood hands.

Only Billy Wilder could have made Ace in the Hole.

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