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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

MENTAL MONTAGE: Accidentally on Purpose

Certain movie moments stick with you. Whether it be one Hell of a line-- "I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"-- or a devastating shot-- Rhett carrying Scarlett up that staircase-- these pieces of cinematic splendor become permanent fixtures in our consciousness. The Mona Lisa, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, John Wayne... They belong to all of us, as familiar as the back of one's hand. 

When a memorable incident of film occurs unexpectedly in a spur-of-the-moment improvisation, it makes the event even more special; as if it were an act of God. When an actor is so deeply invested in his character that he can bring forth an unwritten truth, or when someone makes a flub that just so happens to be filmic kismet, we are all given the sweet gift of accidental movie magic. Here are some examples:

Acting genius often goes unrecognized, because those that are really, really good at what they do make it look easy. Jean Arthur (left) is a prime example of this: a woman who took her profession so seriously that it made her often physically ill. But there was more to Jean than the reiteration of lines and the fluttering of eyelids. She went beyond the script to inject her performances with little bits of business that made her characters truly unique and much more than the typical "Gal Friday." One entertaining example came when George Stevens caught Jean playing around in front of the mirror in The Talk of the Town. That hilarious and embarrassing moment when Ronald Colman walks in on her in her bedroom, dragging her hair over her face à la Veronica Lake and repeating "Lovelay... Lovelay" in a Kate Hepburn drawl was not originally in the script. However, it was added when Stevens saw that such an awkward and vulnerable moment would help to instigate the attraction between the two characters, which in turn would fan the flame of the love triangle between Arthur, Colman, and Cary Grant in the film. A few seconds of Jean's uncanny oddness, and cinematic gold was found!

Lightning struck twice for Jean, but the next time was with co-star Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier. The beautiful and sexy moment that the two share on the front stoop (below) after a dinner date was also not officially planned. The words were all there on the page, but the performance was missing. Joel and Jean got together before they began shooting and decided to raise the stakes. Instead of the usual romantic tension, they  kicked it up a notch, lacing the scene with unspoken desire and uncontrollable attraction. Or, as Joel put it, he got to "cop a feel." As Jean continues her dialogue as written, Joel kisses her neck and puts his arms around her, intermittently distracting her from the conversation as she tries to deny her surmounting arousal. Finally, their lips meet. It is pure poetry, and one more perfect scene out of one of the most perfect of romantic comedies.

In some situations, there is a conspiracy between actors or director and crew to play a joke on an unsuspecting victim, juuuuuust to see how it plays out on film. Most don't expect the captured image to see the light of day, but every once in awhile, the result is so phenomenal that it becomes legendary. One such instance is in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn's first film, in which she won over the American Heart as well as the Academy Award. When she and Gregory Peck approach the "Mouth of Truth" (La Bocca della VeritÃ, below ), Greg and director William Wyler decided to play a prank on the ingenue. Instead of the planned scene, in which Greg would nervously put his hand in the lion's den and remove it unscathed, Wyler instructed him to pretend to be in mortal danger. So, Greg put his hand into the mouth and began screaming in agony, trying unsuccessfully to free himself! Terrified, Audrey grabbed at her co-star, tugging and pulling in attempts to release him. To her dismay, Greg's arm finally emerged from the hole, but his hand was gone! He then popped it out of his sleeve and, smiling mischievously, offered it to her in a shake. Thankfully, the sweethearted girl was a good sport, and they laughed it up. Wyler loved it so much, he decided to keep it in the film. Whether or not the moment we see today is the initial event, or they just liked the idea so much that they decided to film it a few times more, I don't know. But it remains a classic choice!

Another trick was played when James Cagney and director William Wellman decided to spice things up in the big breakfast scene in The Public Enemy. It involved a "morning after" conversation (right), where current squeeze Kitty (Mae Clarke) tries to endear herself emotionally to the dastardly gangster, Tom Powers, who clearly only wants her physically. After Tom yells at Kitty for sticking her nose into his personal business, Cagney was supposed to simply storm off. Instead, he picked up that now iconic grapefruit and smashed it into Mae's face! An extra bit of sadism, it contributed to the heartless menace of Tom Powers. The simple action spoke volumes about his character and the menace of the mobster lifestyle. Audiences were shocked by the brutality! However, there was at least one person guffawing in the theaters among the gasps. While Mae was not happy-- as she was suffering from a cold and a sore nose during the scene-- her husband,  Lew Brice, found the shot of his spouse getting a face-full of fruit absolutely hysterical, and he went to see the movie multiple times for that specific reason. (The idea was inspired by the gangster Hymie Weiss, who had used an omelet in place of a grapfruit on his own moll).

The aforementioned were all accidents, but "planned" accidents if you will. Sometimes, the moments that are caught on camera catch everyone off guard, including the next tidbit. When filming Citizen Kane, every one involved knew that it was groundbreaking and vastly different from the other films being made, but no one ever expected it to become the classic it is hailed as today. For the time being, it was just a group of friends supporting Orson Welles in his passion project. Joseph Cotten had been pals with Orson (both pictured below) for years and was a member of his Mercury Theater troupe. He was happy to sign on to play the part of Jedidiah Leland, who remained the voice of reason and conscience when Welles's Kane starts to go off the deep end. However, it was Cotten who lost his composure during one pivotal scene. After Kane loses his bid for governor, Leland-- sensing his old pal's dissent into greed and delusion-- asks to be sent to Chicago to do dramatic criticism. During rehearsals, Cotten had accidentally flubbed his lines saying "dramatic crimiticism," which worked perfectly in showing that his character was thoroughly inebriated. Orson loved it so much, he had Joe repeat it for the film. It added just that extra something to make the scene more believable, and the moment of comedy also served to cut the tension. Cotten was hailed for his performance, which was enhanced further by the fact that he had stayed awake 24 hours prior to the shoot. It made Leland look like even more of a mess! When he utters that line, you can still catch a smirk on the thoroughly entertained Orson's face.

And, in a finale, let's take a look at some of the one liners that have made movie history:

In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta became a full-fledged movie star. The disco movie seems cheesy today to the un-informed, but the actual film is full of dark undertones and the resulting generational angst of the masculine search for identity. Though John is remembered for his dance moves, it was his performance as the cocky and oblivious Italian, Tony Manero, that is the true marvel. He proved his commitment to his character in yet another meal scene, this time where it is father and son fighting. When Tony's dad goes to swat him one, Tony, unexpectedly barks back, "Hey, hey, watch the hair!" The revelation of male vanity was totally in sync with the rest of the film, and the line made it into the American mainstream. It is still uttered today in jest, though few even know its true origin!

In Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt had to not only perform in emotionally and psychologically draining scenes, but they also had to put themselves in physical peril! When Ratso and Joe Buck cross a busy intersection of NYC, they were literally doing so. It was not staged, the cars and drivers weren't extras, and there were not cops to direct traffic flow. They were forced to carry out the scene as written several times, come Hell or high water, while director John Schlesinger sat safely with camera and crew on the other side of the street. Dustin, whose walk was further impaired by the pebble he had put in his shoe to exacerbate his character's limp, was in fear for his life. Thus, when a car nearly ran him and Jon over, he slammed his hand on the hood and screamed, "Hey! I'm walkin' here!!!" Today, even those who haven't seen the film know that line.

Jaws is a marvel of a film for several reasons, but then Steven Spielberg is famous for his unique ability to take the most absurd and outlandish situations and make them real. A movie about a killer shark? Really??? But it worked, and it terrifies audiences to this day. For the majority of the film, the finned villain exists only in the viewers' imagination, which is why, when he finally reveals himself, it comes as such a shock. At a test screening, Spielberg was downright proud at the gasps and screams he heard! For this reason, he got a little cocky, and decided to insert another scene to give viewers a thrill. The moment when Richard Dreyfuss finds the human head underwater was thus added, but the director later remarked that this initial shock took away from the later terror of seeing the oceanic beast. Thankfully, he had Roy Scheider to maintain that scene's magic. As if the look on Roy's face wasn't enough of a reaction when he saw the humongous shark come zipping out of the water for the first time, he calmly turned to his costar Robert Shaw aka Sam Quint and said: "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Steven loved it, and the quote stayed.

But perhaps the best improv of all time, and the one that speaks volumes (haha) about movies in general, came from the first "official" sound film: The Jazz Singer. Showman Al Jolson (below) was known for being a bit of a ham, but that extra pomp and swagger was just what was needed to woo audiences into a new era of film-- one they could hear as well as see. The entire film wasn't in sound, but the songs were, as well as the small bits of dialogue that preceded or followed. As Al was performing one of these ditties, he felt the energy he was creating and tapped into the significance of the moment and his part of it. Flying on the power of his own adrenaline, he decided to take an already huge cinematic moment and make it eternal. After performing "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," Al threw in a line from his theater act: "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" Boy was he right, and audiences were primed for what movies had in store for them in the years to come! 

Over eighty years later, we still remain riveted and-- every once in awhile-- completely blown away by the power of movies and the directors and stars that have given them a place in our hearts.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I always love learning new things from your blog!! I've recently been watching a good amount of Jean Arthur films and I particularly enjoyed the bits about her.