Wednesday 17 November 2021

Sydney Film Festival (inc Streaming) - Barrie Pattison considers JOHN FARROW: HOLLYWOOD'S MAN IN THE SHADOWS (Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg, Australia, 2021) and retrieves his own thoughts on CALIFORNIA (John Farrow, USA, 1947)

Lana Turner, Lex Barker, John  Farrow, John Wayne
on the set of The Sea Chase  (John Farrow, 1955)

The Curious Case of John Farrow.

I remember Ann Roth, Elia Kazan’s costume designer, rounding on Gillian Armstrong in the interview in her Orry-Kelly documentary and telling her that it wasn’t because the subject had done outstanding work on 42nd St. Casablanca and An American in Paris that he was up for consideration - but because he came from Kiama. Armstrong, to her credit, left it in the picture. 

That registered because I once (declaration of interest)  proposed a documentary on John Farrow, the boy from a house in Marrickville not unlike the one I grew up in, who went on to become the busiest Australian director in Hollywood and that wasn’t the half of it. He was awarded a CBE by the Queen and a Knighthood by the Pope, prepared an English-Polynesan-French dictionary, commanded a submarine and mated with Tarzan’s mate, fathering daughter Mia. I wouldn’t want to go all Lord Byron on John Farrow’s case but you could argue he really was someone who’d put his talent into his work and his genius into his life ... and he’d been responsible for my favorite cowboy movie. 

My documentary didn’t get any further than budgeting the Hollywood clips but now we do have Claude Gonzalez and Frans Vandenburg’s feature length John Farrow - Hollywood's Man in the Shadows in the re-opened Sydney Film Festival. (The film is still streaming fo another few days and you can buy a ticket IF YOU CLICK HERE (Ends Sunday 21st November)

It’s nice to see someone tackling the underdocumented Farrow, who Paramount’s vigorous re-issue policy had made so prominent in my early film going. However the film is kind of unsatisfying. It’s gappy on the unknown pre-Hollywood years.

Relatives tell us about him faking a Newington education and being nabbed for coming on in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck during the Spanish flu epidemic. They have him fighting in exotic revolutions but don’t nail the story of being recruited for a U.S. film being shot in the South Pacific for his maritime skills. 

Sailing for L.A. in 1919 (and jumping ship, giving him later emigration status problems) Farrow turns up as a Hollywood actor and a notable screen writer, represented by some badly reproduced titles for White Gold, though he was credited on Victor Fleming’s Wolf Song, the Schoedsack Four Feathers and the Pabst Don Quixote. Farrow didn’t realise wife to be Maureen O’Sullivan was the star when he dated her on what was then “The Capture of Tarzan.” The interviews suggest Maureen wasn’t big on mothering skills. Her privileged Catholic background generated Farrow's conversion - with a glimpse of his Papacy, Thomas More and Father Damian books. 

Man in the Shadows 
curiously omits 1939’s Full Confession, Farrow’s first Catholic movie, though giving us (good quality) footage from its companion piece  Five Came Back - one of the only half dozen films Robert Mitchum would watch. 

However WW2 took up Farrow’s attention with a commission in the Canadian navy from which he was invalided out with Typhus to make The Hitler Gang, one of the few war time films to put the Fuhrer on screen, and Wake Island netting Farrow a director Oscar nomination.

About there we hear about his long takes, illustrated by China, with William Bendix, from 1943. Bruce Beresford observes he’s not game to try that and breaks his own material into edits. Farrow’s complex shots, developed in movies like Invisible Menace and  Commandoes Strike at Dawn (not cited - Paul Muni and Lillian Gish in an Irwin Shaw script ) may have started the forties vogue for these - see the films of Edmund Goulding and Hitchcock. Technicolor had to build special fourteen-minute magazines to shoot Farrow’s California (his best film and one of the most handsome ever shot in the process) which appeared the year before Hitchcock got attention for long takes in his draggy Rope

Outside a couple of  images from California  glimpsed in the montage finale, Hollywood’s Man in the Shadows lets footage from  Hondo stand-in for the Farrow westerns (John Wayne’s “There is no word in the Apache language for lie”) - They seem determined to sell Farrow as a film noir director, emphasising The Big Clock  and the  Mitchum films. Also, unpardonably, the team beak-up the virtuoso, imperceptibly composited opening of The Big Clock which anticipates films like Gravity and  Spectre. 

Four times Farrow leading man Ray Milland liked the way Farrow let him create bits of business as he practiced to become a director himself and  mature Daryl Hickman comments favorably on the treament he got.  Farrow didn’t always go down so well. Howard Keel called him a “rat fink” and son John Charles, the only one of the seven Farrow children who participates, gives a grim picture of his disciplinarian father in describing doing a bit part under his direction. 

HUAC arrives post WW2 and leading conservative Farrow’s stand against right-winger De Mille in the Director’s Guild dispute does get favorable mention - though they don’t identify George Marshall as the messenger sent to recruit him. 

The film touches on Farrow’s clandestine second family where the mother was murdered and the son unacknowledged. 

The team are unwilling to describe the quality drop after his stint as Paramount’s go to director and race through the final years to his work on the Empire series (dupey clip.) Mike Todd and Farrow clashed on Around the World in 80 Days and our man’s allocation to  King of Kings didn’t survive the briefing where Sam Bronson explained that he expected to get away with racy material that would be censored doing any other subject. 

In this, as with the De Mille incident, there is a welcome glimpse of John Farrow as someone of undaunted principle but Man in the Shadows offers a rather glum protagonist. I’d just as soon hear about his out there sense of humor - his Technicolor short showing Hollywood couples in the rodeo audience - Gable & Lombard, Cary Grant & Randolph Scott - or complying with the requirements of his new religion by making confession at the out of the way Spanish quarter chapel where the priest didn’t understand a word of English.

Susan Lumsdon’s locating material in Australia and L.A. is striking but extends what
is a rather long movie. The piece includes comments from Charles Higham, David & Margaret, Scott Murray, David Thomson, Philippe Mora, Terry Moore & Todd McCarthy among many. Mia Farrow figures in an appearance on Letterman and a glimpse of grandson Ronan at the podium is there to promote significance. 

...   and here is a program note I prepared for a screening of
Farrow’s 1947 California.

Though less celebrated, California is a  companion to the big costume films of the forties - Les enfants du paradis in France, Romanze in Molle in Germany and David Lean’s Dickens films, sharing a common, highly studio-art directed, national aesthetic. 

Came the end of WW2 and Paramount’s house leading man Ray Milland carried off the then even more valued best actor Academy Award. The studio might have been expected to showcase Milland’s talents in another gritty drama of the streets. However Hollywood was embracing post war Technicolor and Paramount, since the phenomenal silent era success of James Cruze’s 1923 The Covered Wagon, had a confidence in large scale westerns as part of its corporate culture. These all came together as the big budget 1947 production California.

And who was there to put at the helm of this prestige undertaking but their returned war hero and Oscar nominated (Wake Island)  film director Neville John Villiers Farrow C.B.E. 

Though he’s not credited on the script, none of his other films carries so much of the Farrow imprint. His background as historian ran to having Edith Head copy museum costumes and to designer Hans Dreier reconstructing the 1848 Colton Hall in Monterey where the California Assembly voted to join the Union. Farrow’s Naval background contributed villains who had worked the slave trade, placing it with the director’s Two Years Before the Mast, The Sea Chase, Submarine Command or Botany Bay and there’s the shadow of his Prominent Catholic status.

The film goes explicitly Old Testament in the opening Earl (Walk in the Sun) Robinson vocals comparing California to the promised land and we have the emphasis Barbara Stanwyck places on marriage and the sub-plot of George Coulouris  locking pious Argentina Brunetti out of Eduardo Cianneli’s Hacienda chapel, violating its sanctity to store guns for the planned insurrection. 

California recalls The Covered Wagon with plows to break the plains, the dividing wagon train and a military renegade wagonmaster, though Milland’s Trumbo doesn’t steal cattle to feed starving troops. He had to desert or shoot the husband, in the back story we are fed in instalments (Frank Ferguson on patrol, the question of whether it was the woman’s fault, Commander Roman Bohnen’s scene). Halfway they switch to the secessionist movement plot line of  the later Cruze Pony Express silent. The writers even borrow the opening of Stagecoach.

Milland is in his element, delivering the artificial language effectively and authentic
looking. In a day’s growth of beard and grubby leathers, he tells Stanwyck not to waste two days' ration of water washing her hair. “Stay dirty like the rest of us.” We even get to see a tide mark on his neck, in one of the detail touches that occasionally lift the film - the antique card game that Stanwyck loses, real life California Congressman Albert Dekker caught still reloading a period firearm, meaning that he has to fight with a knife. Before I used to notice such things, the knife fight stuck in my memory and now I realise that it’s different to similar scenes because, like most of the dialogue, it’s done without edits. 

The way California is made is remarkable. It’s full of six and eight minute takes and anticipates Rope by eighteen months, without anyone noticing. It works a lot better here too. The film is however also well served by montage sequences in the Earl Robinson material and the card game.

Milland recalled that this technique made the performers really nervous. If they got something wrong in one of these complex shots, everyone would have to do it all over again. Barry Fitzgerald misread his line about the grape cuttings on the end of a take and they had to do that reel’s worth three times. Is that  the take of the slapping scene where Milland actually knocked out Barbara Stanwyck?

They didn’t scrimp on the cast. Heroine Stanwyck and Barry Fitzgerald also had fresh Oscars. George Coulouris (who Farrow detested) had been Anthony in Welles’ Mercury Players “Julius Caesar” and this carries right down to celebrity bit parts - Frank Faylen,  Gavin Muir, Julia Faye, Anthony Quinn. The standard of performance is remarkably high.  

The crew are also top rank technicians at the peak of their skills. Cameraman Ray (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Lady in the Dark) Rennahan, pioneer of the Technicolor process, does some of his best work. Editor Eda Warren was a regular Farrow collaborator. Not only is costumier Edith Head in full cry and but ex-Ernst Lubitsch associate, Art Department Head Hans Dreier furnished twenty seven locations, notably the near mile long, a one hundred and four wagon train mobilised (in Arizona) with army surplus walkie talkies in exteriors and its studio reconstruction for the night scenes. Throw in the arrival in Pharoah Town's bustling exterior street and the handsome saloon and Spanish Hacienda. Celebrity composer Victor Young’s score, complete with choral interludes, is uneven - bits of it coming from other hands. There’s enough music to qualify as an operetta with the distinctive Earl Robinson song interludes and Barbara Stanwyck’s numbers - she does her own vocals. 

In the best western movie tradition, the action scenes are highlights. The riders sweeping through the vineyards (four tons of off season grapes kept in cold storage) is particularly well staged, followed by Dekker’s men wheeling back (through gates later re-cycled for Jamaica Run) when they see Milland at the head of miners, riding up for the battle. There must be an awful lot of Richard Farnsworth stunt work but Milland is actually in the shot with what looks like a real explosion. 

Though critics tended to ignore these new Technicolor A feature westerns, they became a dominant element of the next decades of Hollywood film making. California was in constant re-issue for twenty years, proving to have been a test case to be followed by the studio’s excellent new version of Whispering Smith with Alan Ladd and Farrow and Milland making Copper Canyon, before it all edged into B productions.

It’s hard to imagine something so impressive not attracting attention.

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