Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

On a wet September evening, or thereabouts (research reveals it to have been sometime after the first week in July) in 1980, my father and I - once again - headed out to see the much anticipated sequel to STAR WARS (see May 27th blog) at the Odeon Colchester. It was with a certain amount of excited anticipation, and also slightly idle curiosity - for I already knew most of the plot of this film: "Star Wars 2" as it became known in the media up until the Spring of 1979. Little did I realise at the time that what I was actually seeing was in effect "Star Wars 5", and the central story of a nine film saga.

Making our way with some difficulty through the wet weather, we also passed the ABC in St. John's Street (then still functioning as a cinema) and continued on eventually into Crouch Street to see the film, but had arrived rather later than planned, after the film had already started. This however, was in the dying days of roving performance times, when latecomers could enter the cinema and stay for the next screening. When Dad and I stumbled into the darkened Screen One therefore, it was to the sight of Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and See-Threepio crowded inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, nestled within a cave inside an asteroid which is "not entirely stable!"

In honour of that first occasion therefore, I will tell the story from that point onwards, then regress to the beginning.

Moments after settling down into our seats, we are taken from the mysterious asteroid cave to a semi-submerged X-wing fighter on the swamp planet of Dagobah, where Luke Skywalker emerges to begin his training as a Jedi knight, in the most seemingly unlikely of places, and the most seemingly unlikely of Jedi Masters: the initially comical and eccentric but quickly preachy and philosophical midget Yoda.
The original conception of Yoda (as seen in the original Marvel Comics adaptation), prior to eleventh hour amendment by George Lucas and Stuart Freeborn.

I will come to the defence of Yoda here, against my own later opinion of the character as much as anything. George Lucas was thrown into something of a dilemma during the making of Star Wars with the fate of Luke's previous mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. With the character due to train Luke in the ways of the Force (in the later sequels), Kenobi had barely anything to do after a certain point in the plot, so Lucas took the audacious move of killing the character off (at the hand of Darth Vader), a decision which understandably upset Sir Alec Guinness at the time, but with hindsight it actually helped to make his character all the more memorable.

However, come The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas needed to create a new Jedi Master to teach Luke, and thanks to the combined genius of Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz, the character of Yoda (a genuine original that Lucas has since slightly disparagingly referred to as "just a puppet") was brought to life, and perfectly suited the ethereal nature of both the character and the world of Dagobah itself. In the hands of Buddhist-leaning Irvin Kershner, Dagobah could almost be taken for a state of mind rather than an actual place, such is the mysticism. Subsequent attempts (in the Star Wars prequels) to take Yoda out of his native habitat and to also "quantify" the Force have been, in my view, misguided, when the mysticism should remain intact. The very elusiveness of the Force is one of the secrets of the whole success of the Star Wars saga.

The Jedi training scenes on Yoda may appear sluggish (there were apparently many other scenes which were cut - see right), but they are usefully counterbalanced by the continuing chase of the Millennium Falcon by the Empire, having evaded their clutches by the most sneaky of methods. Just when he thinks he has led them off the trail, Han Solo takes his friends over to the sanctuary of Cloud City on Bespin, where an old friend is in charge. Unbeknownst to them however, a bounty hunter knows some of Solo's tricks, and pursues the Falcon on its journey to Bespin: Boba Fett.

Fett was a character introduced quite early in 1978 to Star Wars fans (first seen in the one-off "Star Wars Holiday Special"), and from initial appearances I perceived him to be one of the good guys. This soon becomes patently not the case, but for whatever reason, he has become quite a cult figure among fans, more so in some ways than Darth Vader.

The old friend of Solo's meanwhile, is the Cloud City administrator, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), more in truth a gambler and smuggler - and a bit of a charmer with the ladies - than a "responsible leader", and intended by George Lucas as an "earlier" version of Han. Indeed, Billy Dee Williams was one of those who originally tested for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.

One element that Calrissian is also not beyond is deception, and before our heroes know it, C-3PO is dismantled into several pieces by stormtroopers, and our heroes are finally caught by Darth Vader, who has been led on to the trail by...Boba Fett.

Lando's reasons meanwhile for "betraying" Solo have been purely mercenary, of course, but it's a deal which he soon begins to regret, and not just because of the involvement of Boba Fett, or the added betrayal of some boy named Skywalker. The two disparate elements in the story therefore suddenly come together in exciting fashion, and despite the dissuasion of both Yoda and the "ghost" of Ben Kenobi (a fleetingly seen but always memorable Alec Guinness), Luke deserts his Jedi training on Dagobah to rescue his friends, whom he perceives to be in danger. But - ahah - this is all Vader's trick, to lure Luke towards him.

And we realise by the end of the film just why Vader is so interested in young Skywalker, in a plot twist that few if anyone could have guessed.

How I first learned of the surprising twist in the tale.

Before that however, Han Solo is "tested" for carbon freezing so that "the Emperor's prize" can also go through a similar fate. The scene in the carbon freezing chamber I find rather sluggish and melodramatic, but it brings out the best in Harrison Ford. Famous for being allowed to improvise much of his dialogue in the Star Wars (and subsequent) films, he is at his most inventive in The Empire Strikes Back, with he and director Kershner changing the emphasis from Leia being emotionally stronger than Solo, to the other way round. There were those - Lucas in particular - who were nervous about the use of Ford's "I know" ad lib, as it was perceived to be unintentionally comical, but on previews of the film the only laugh it received was a laugh of recognition. It is for me, one of Harrison Ford's best and most underrated performances - up there on a par with Mosquito Coast and his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness - where he makes the character of Han Solo his own - and receives a semi-martyr's death for good measure, before the film's main climax.

If Ford takes most of the acting honours - closely followed by the always excellent Mark Hamill and Frank Oz - then in terms of characters the film belongs to Darth Vader, turning a character from what in the first film was something of a hatchet man for both the Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin, into a black avenging angel of doom - and much more than that, we later realise.

The scene where he chops Luke's hand off (quite carefully edited for a "U" certificate film) and then tries - and fails - to turn Luke to the dark side, watching his own son fall down a massive chasm on Cloud City, has some of the poignancy for me of the end scene of King Kong, where you felt sorry for the monster in spite of everything.

We are nonetheless still on Luke's side as he tumbles down to the bottom of Cloud City and hangs - on one hand - to a slender weather vane, and appeals to Ben Kenobi for help. But Ben "cannot interfere", especially where family matters are concerned, so Luke uses the Force to turn to someone closer to home - hinting at a plot twist later to be revealed in Return of the Jedi.

Thus a curious love triangle reaches its closure, as Luke, in love with Leia from the beginning, is rescued by her - reversing the pattern set in Star Wars - but her heart now belongs to Han Solo, whom they both resolve to rescue, as too does Lando Calrissian and, of course, Chewbacca. The film ends therefore, beautifully poised with our surviving heroes severely humbled but having reached the sanctuary of the Rebel fleet, and looking out from the edge of the galaxy, to an uncertain but hopeful future.

Roll credits. End of film.

We sit sheepishly in Screen One, hoping that the Odeon staff will let us stay in the cinema for the next screening that evening, and after one audience has rolled out and another rolled in, we sit through the familiar "Rank Screen Advertising", and the trailers for some other fantasy films (none which I remember now), before in due course, the second screening is under way.

And so it begins.

Opening in a very similar fashion to Star Wars, a single Imperial destroyer comes into view, but this time with several Imperial pods flying out of the cruiser like angry wasps, to the various planets littered all over the galaxy, in search of the elusive new rebel base. One such vessel flies fortuitously onto the sixth planet of the Hoth system, out of which pops a sinister looking probe droid which floats across the snow like a fly, in a skillful visual effect created by the newly named Industrial Light and Magic.

Before Luke Skywalker - the boy himself - can check the status of the "meteorite", an angry snow creature assaults both him and the "Tauntaun" he is riding. This scene was apparently filmed as a means to explain the reason for Luke's badly scarred face - as Mark Hamill himself suffered facial injuries in a car crash in 1978, after the making of Star Wars.

Han Solo meanwhile, unlike Luke, has successfully returned from snow patrol duty, and emerges through the main rebel hangar (filmed on the then huge new "Star Wars Stage" at Elstree) past his wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca who is trying to fix a flagging Millennium Falcon, to tell the base commander, General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) that he has to leave to pay off an old debt to Jabba the Hutt - still unpaid since the first film. Listening in on this conversation, none too pleased at Solo's decision, is Princess Leia Organa, for whom clearly something has sparked between her and Solo in the intervening time, no matter how prickly.

Who will she choose? Luke - in a forbidden (by George Lucas) romantic scene...

...or Han?

Before the romantic complications can be sorted out however, Luke is rescued out of the snow by Han, and once these slightly sluggish opening scenes on Hoth are done with, we get to the nitty-gritty of the story of the story, when the aforementioned probe droid is disintegrated (by self-destruction) to just a fragment, and the alerting signal to the Imperial fleet is all the proof that Darth Vader needs that the Rebel Alliance, and Luke Skywalker, is there.

So the resulting impressive battle in the snow with giant evil Trojan Horse-style Imperial Walkers, was actually at the end for me, rather than the beginning - which probably helped - followed soon afterwards by a thrilling asteroid field chase, after the crew of the Millennium Falcon discover to their shock that the ship's trademark lightspeed is faulty! Using his wits and his cunning, Han Solo navigates the Falcon through a Grand Canyon-like gorge to evade the dogged Imperial TIE fighters, and finds temporary refuge in a mysterious "cave"...

... which as they say, is where we came in.

Mischievously, I watched a few minutes extra, and really wanted to see the rest of the film over again, but Dad eventually persuaded me out of the cinema.

On the way back home (by which time the rain had eased off) that night, I told my father of the various imaginative ideas I'd had for sequels ever since Star Wars first set me buzzing in 1978 - including one where I imagined a 9-year old (modelled on myself of course) befriending Princess Leia and helping the heroes to defeat Darth Vader. In later years I thought this to be just childish whimsy - or was it? Little did I expect that 27 years later, another Star Wars film would indeed feature a 9-year old as its pivotal hero.

So after all the anticipation, and indeed all the euphoria after the first film, the new follow-up in the "continuing" saga was enthralling, quite dark, and with some unexpected plot developments. But is also, on reflection, a very sluggish film, deliberately so at times, trying to focus on characters and philosophy rather than plot, and characters bicker with each other - C-3PO is reduced to a figure of ridicule, and Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is still spiky and feisty but also petulant, rarely feminine or princess-like, and even reduced on a couple of occasions to a screaming heroine. Above all, the Empire strikes back indeed, with a vengeance, but it is not as much FUN as Star Wars.

So at the time for me, the excitement of the Star Wars whirlwind had blown its full course. Perhaps on reflection I wasn't entirely happy with the way things were mapping out for the characters; I certainly had always envisaged Luke Skywalker as Princess Leia's true love rather than Han Solo, and to see the way things were going was secretly disappointing - although that particular romantic triangle was later resolved in rather ingenious fashion.

Come 1980 however, my childhood days in Aylesbury were over, and rehabilitated in Essex, there came a new distraction just round the corner: football. Colchester United and in particular, Ipswich Town's successful UEFA Cup winning season in 1980/81, gave me another popular culture hook to latch on to, away from the cinema, and galaxies, far, far away.

It was a fashion which, by and large, did not swing back the other way until seven years later, when I got round to seeing Return of the Jedi.

With the director of the excellent first Star Wars sequel, the venerable Irvin Kershner.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Way Out West (1937)

A word is overdue now for my favourite comedy double act. There are so many of Laurel & Hardy's films that I love to watch: this one just happens to be the film that I enjoy the most consistently.

Apart from anything else, this is a darn good comedy Western, one of the best of its kind, that utilises the appeal of "the boys" to maximum effect. Their comedy routines honed to perfection, combined with an above average plot, make for magic entertainment. In the corrupt town (is there any other kind in the Wild West?) of Brushwood Gulch, hard-working Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) slaves away Cinderella-like at the saloon of her irascible landlord and legal guardian Mickey Finn, and his wife and star attraction Lola Marcel, played with villainous relish by James Finlayson and Sharon Lynne. But unbeknownst to Mary, her gold prospecting father has recently died, and two unlikely knights on white chargers (or more accurately, a single mule) are riding into town to present her with the valuable inheritance of her late father's goldmine.

The villains alas, get word of the loot first, thanks to the incompetent innocence of Stan:

"Yeah, you see it's private. Her father died and left her a goldmine, and we're not supposed to tell anybody but her..."

.. and some skillful acting on the part of Lola as "Mary":

LOLA ("sobbing"): "Tell me. Tell me about my dear, dear Daddy. Is it true that he's dead?

STAN: Well we hope he is, they buried him!

LOLA: Oh, it can't be! What did he die of?

STAN: I think he died of a Tuesday, or was it a Wednesday...?"

The deception complete - in spite of Stan's unwitting resistance - the boys are packed off having delivered the deed, until they meet up with the real Mary. Ollie, ever the chivalrous one, marches up to the villains' lair and demands the deed back, or Stan "will eat his hat." So in they march, knocking on the door, and then when the door opens, he knocks accidentally on Finn's head:

OLLIE: (to Finn) "Out of my way, you snake in the grass!

STAN: You Toad in the Hole!"

The resulting chase round the saloon culminates in a hilarious scene in which Lola traps Stan in her boudoir (lucky chap) and burrows into his clothes to grab the deed back, and the ticklish Stan is paralysed with laughter. Even Sharon Lynne can't conceal the grin from her face, as you'll notice if you watch the scene.

"Just in the nick of time" comes the Sheriff, whom unfortunately the boys have already had a run-in with over sharing a stagecoach with the Sheriff's wife (Vivien Oakland) - and quick as you know, the boys are racing out of town - "you can't see them for dust!"

But fear ye not, the boys are back - after Ollie has first of all insisted than Stan carry out his pledge to eat his hat - with salt added for flavouring! Returning late that night to Brushwood Gulch, they sneak in to rescue the deed - and Mary - even in spite of being trapped in a piano (that Finlayson plays!), and Ollie having his neck twisted around 360 degrees (oddly pre-dating a similar scene in The Exorcist.)

Riding out of town to pastures new, the three triumphantly make their way home to the town where Mary was born, "way down South." Ollie declares that he is from the South too, as does Stan - "the South of London...and some good old fish 'n'chips!" The film ends with a running gag, as they march singing merrily across the river, until Ollie once again finds the deep end and takes a plunge!

And in the midst of this joyous and all too short 66 minutes, come two famous song & dance numbers, The Shoe Shuffle, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine - a song which was popular enough to become a top ten single in its own right. The voices that Stan adopts when he switches from heavy bass to soprano, were actually the voices of co-stars Chill Wills, and Rosina Lawrence.

The Shorts

I realise that I've unfairly restricted this blogpage largely to "feature" films, so this is an ideal opportunity to also mention some of the classic Laurel & Hardy short films that they made in the 1920s and 30s, and were in many ways, their metier.

I can remember laughing uncontrollably when I saw Beau Chumps (the British title for Beau Hunks) on TV when I was younger, a spoof of Foreign Legion films - as much as Way Out West was a spoof of westerns - where the boys foil a raid by the Arab armies by throwing drawing pins on the ground under their bare feet! Another amusing running gag was how everyone in the legion - including Ollie, and even the commander of the outpost (Charles Middleton - best known as "Ming the Merciless") has ended up there because of their one-time sweetheart, "Jeanie Weenie" - a pre-megastardom Jean Harlow, no less.

The most famous of their comedy shorts is probably The Music Box, an Oscar winner (the very first in that category) with the boys hauling a musical piano up a large flight of steps (that still stand today in suburban Los Angeles), and brilliantly finding ways to climb up the hill and then come tumbling straight back down again! As in Way Out West, there is also a pleasant little song and dance number, to the tune of the musical piano, naturally.

One of the best examples of their endearing antipathy with James Finlayson, is Big Business (perhaps the best of their silent films), where the boys are Christmas tree sellers - in June - and Finn is naturally an unwilling customer. The boys will not take no for an answer however, and Finn - unfortunately for him - does not know how to reject them politely. The disagreement escalates into a slapstick war which half demolishes both the boys' car and Finn's house, and in due course embroils the local policeman (Tiny Sandford), and ends with the four of them in a fit of mutual weeping - while the audience is weeping with laughter.

Stan & Ollie are in dungarees again in Dirty Work - a title with a double meaning, as the boys are chimney sweeps at the house of a mad scientist, who has discovered the formula for rejuvenation. At the end Ollie overdoses on the formula and turns into a chimpanzee - complete with bowler hat! (Was this where they got the idea for the PG Tips ads I wonder?) Their interaction in this short is particularly engaging. "I have nothing to say!" is Ollie's frequent response to the various indignities heaped upon him by Stan - not quite as distinctive as "Here's another fine mess..." perhaps, but just as funny.

Helpmates is a brilliantly funny black comedy, as Ollie tries to clean up after a wild party, before his dragon of a wife comes home. In one tour de force sequence, he slips on a carpet sweeper and crashes into the dishes that Stan has just cleaned, then accidentally catches his arm on a string which unleashes the soot from the stove and covers him! He then accidentally washes his hands with butter instead of soap, and to top it all, Stan gets a towel from the cupboard, but out falls a tin of flour onto Ollie's head, transforming him from a Minstrel into a ghost!

By the end of the film, Ollie has returned - alone - with a black eye, and Stan has rendered the house to ashes - "I guess there's nothing else I can do.", he says!


I believe the secret of their appeal was very much how they seemed to be on the same level as their audience. They never spoke down to them. Chaplin had a brilliant common touch with his Tramp characterisation, but had a tendency to preach with his comedy, once his power and his success increased. Buster Keaton was technically brilliant, but didn't quite have that magic of engaging his character with the audience, the way that especially Oliver Hardy did with his frequent despairing looks to camera. Laurel & Hardy had just the perfect mix, and like so many successful double acts, it was one of those happy coincidences that just happened to come together and create a unique style, that has never really been surpassed.

Stan Laurel was of course, the prime mover in many of these classic comedies. He was actually already semi-retired as a comedy actor, and working largely behind the camera at the Hal Roach Studio before his official teaming with "Babe" Hardy. Many of their short films in fact, are not film scripts as such, but simple synopses around which they planned their own comedy routines, and then performed them in front of camera. Peter Cushing remembers a time when, during the making of A Chump at Oxford (below), the boys have a scene where they are tricked into walking through a maze, and naturally get lost. The scene was originally shot with doubles in long shot, but both Stan and Babe felt it needed themselves to do the scene, adapting it to their own unique style, an example of their model professionalism which they maintained throughout their 40-year careers.

A Chump at Oxford (1940). Standing in the middle with fake moustache: a young Peter Cushing.

It's sad to reflect that the time of Way Out West was actually at the end of a renaissance of fine comedy for Laurel & Hardy. This was the second and last of two official "Stan Laurel Productions" which were markedly slicker and more professionally made than many of their other films, and refuted the notion that L&H were only good in short films. But the golden run was brief.

For whatever reason - though their popularity remained - the feature films which they had successfully (and gradually) adjusted to from shorts, were to go by the wayside quite quickly, and contracts were negotiated for them away from Hal Roach, to other studios such as Twentieth Century Fox, who just did not understand the way Laurel & Hardy ticked.

But when watching Way Out West, time and time again, I defy anyone not to be engaged and feeling better after the experience. This, as I say, was their appeal. Other comedians made you laugh: these two made you laugh, and also made you feel like you really knew them at the same time.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films