Tag Archives: Sheldon Hall

The Gypsy Moths (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1969)

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A sad film about parachutists, Gypsy Moths, who go from town to town risking their lives to make a living and who find meaning only in the physical thrill the derring-do provides. Burt Lancaster is Mike Rettig, the ageing star of the show, the one who performs the most difficult stunts. Gene Hackman, fresh from Bonnie and Clyde is Joe Browdy, who also jumps but is mainly the barker and looks after the money. Scott Wilson, fresh from In Cold Blood, is Malcolm Wesson, the youngest member of the troupe.

The film begins as they finish a gig in one place and move on to Malcolm’s old home town where his aunt Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr) still lives. They all go to stay with her and her husband, V. John Brandon (William Wimdom) whilst setting up the show. Mike and Elizabeth are clearly instantly attracted to each other, and act on it, something Elizabeth has done before and that her husband is fully aware of. Joe develops a thing for the stripper in the local club played by an appealingly blowsy Sheree North. And even Malcolm gets it on with Annie, a student who boards with the Brandons played by a very young Bonnie Bedelia. Everyone mates up but only Joe and the stripper seem to get any joy out of it.

The best aspects of  the film are the phenomenal areal stunts we see, including this magnificent star entrance afforded Burt Lancaster, which you can see below.

 

 

The advertising tag line was ‘When you turn on by falling free…when jumping is not only a way to live but a way to die too.. you’re a gypsy moth.’ It’s an ill-conceived film. The best thing about it are the stunt.  But ‘even Frankenheimer said at the time, “if anybody tells me this is a film about parachute jumping, I’ll feel like hitting them on the head (Fishgall, p. 267). We get a lot of background on young Malcolm: He was orphaned; his aunt had been in love with his father but he ended up marrying her sister instead; the aunt wanted to keep and raise him after the death of his parents but the uncle saw it as a constant reminder of who his wife had been really in love with and forbade it….We actually get a lot of information on almost everyone except Mike Rettig, who is meant to be the protagonist. Aside from not giving us much information, the film also kills him off 2/3rds of the way through, without really properly communicating to the audience the reasons why, just to ensure the audience leaves as disappointed as is possible.

Lancaster is brilliant, funny and charming as you can see below:

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Always, physically authoritative:

burt-on-plane

As Richard Schickel pointed out in Life, ‘Mr. Lancaster has developed a capacity, unique in established stars, to give away scenes that his status in the movie pecking order entitles him to dominate.. and he deserves full credit for his selflessness’ (Burdord 3296).  He also deserves full credit for what he does do. He communicates the attraction to Deborah Kerr’s Mrs. Brandon, instantly, with barely a look, and the audience immediately registers it. We know they’re going to get it together.

Gary Fishgall argues with some merit that ‘No one fared worse than Lancaster. The film needed somebody who could convey his character’s malaise, which is never articulated, someone who could fill the brooding silences with palpable emotion — anger, rage, frustration, something….All he could do was look weary, resigned, unhappy, and that was not enough. Even Kerr said in retrospect, ‘I don’t think he himself quite got it. I don’t know what he was after’ (Fishgall 267).

My own view is that what really sinks the film is how it depicts the reunion between Kerr and Lancaster. ‘We can hear the roar of the surge when they stand on the porch in Kansas,’ suggested the Newark Evening News with a gallant reference to the beach scene of sixteen years before’ (Burford, 3296) As Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times: ‘It’s a weekend of dimly articulated emotional crises for everyone, including Miss Kerr, an unhappy, highly unlikely Kansas housewife who had a brief affair with Lancaster, principally, you feel, because she remembers meeting him in From Here to Eternity‘ (cited in Crowther, 105).

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Kerr and Lancaster had been in a film together post From Here to Eternity in Separate Tables. But there Deborah Kerr was interested in David Niven and Lancaster still obsessed with Rita Hayworth, so the film didn’t offer the nostalgic possibilities of reunion The Gypsy Moths does. All of which makes the film even more tone deaf to audience expectation. Did it have to be such a joyless experience? Did the filmmakers have to undress a beloved actress pushing 50? It feels grim and uncomfortable with a nasty edge, which is not quite what the sex scene is supposed to convey. Lancaster’s Mike Rettig is meant to be so taken with her, he proposes marriage; she’s meant to enjoy the sex but unwilling to leave her husband and the comforts of home for the carny parachutist’s life on the road. As soon as Ms. Kerr is undressed, all thought of character go out the window and all one thinks is ‘how could the filmmakers do this to her’?

In spite of that, I greatly enjoyed the scenes of small town life, the real sense of watching Gene Hackman emerge as a star (he steals the show), the superb flying sequences and the incredible sense of space, in the field and in the air, that middle-of-the-century America seems to take as a given, the vast space a context and contrast to the narrowness of hopes, expectations, and possibilities proffered by, in this case, small town culture. John Frankenheimer, whose work I did not know well, is showing himself to have been a marvellous visual director and superb with actors. With The Gypsy Moths, however, I am still not at all  sure of his command of drama and pacing.

Burt Lancaster’s own view was that ‘The Gypsy Moths unfortunately was just not a good picture. An interesting idea, not well done, not well written, I would say’ (Fishgall, 267)

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Sheldon Hall informs me that: ‘This was ITV’s choice of peak-time film for Christmas Eve 1974’.

My cousin reminds me we saw this in the mid-70s in the Church Hall of a small village in rural Spain. I vividly remember the aerial sequences though have no memory of the go-go bar scenes or of Kerr’s nudity. I’m almost certain they were censored and I do wonder what exactly ITV screened that Christmas Eve pre-watershed.

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Cagney ushers in a filmgoing experience in Lady Killer

Running a movie theatre was evidently a military operation in 1934; certain customers expected a different level of service.

 

In the film, Cagney will start as an usher, get involved with a criminal gang clipping gamblers, and end up a movie star. The bit in Lady Killer above is very  evocative of cinema as a social institution and part of an enormous and wide-ranging apparatus in America. But, at least as relates to film theatres, things were not too different in Britain. In ‘Working at the Gaumont,’ an unpublished interview Sheldon Hall conducted with Dennis O’Grady, who’d worked at the Gaumont in Sheffield for many years, in 2009, O’Grady tells us: ‘

‘The hours at the Gaumont were long: we started at 9 am and worked until the cinema closed at whatever time of night. We did have a break of two hours in the afternoon and one hour in the evening – unpaid, of course! We started the day by polishing every bit of brassware in the cinema, and there was plenty. The front entrance was a large marble-floored area which was scrubbed daily by an army of cleaners who used bars of hard soap and scrubbing brushes. Each woman had an area of “the marble”, as it was called, to scrub clean – it was rather like a scene from Dickens! While they scrubbed, we polished – the front doors then had brass handles, the stair rails to the circle were brass and there were about six steps up to the stalls area, which had brass hand rails.

Around 11.20 we went to the staff room and changed into our very smart uniforms. The uniform then was pale blue with silver trimmings. We also wore a high peaked cap and a pair of white cotton gloves slipped through one of the shoulder epaulettes. There was then a staff parade where all the uniformed staff were inspected, usually by Barbara. The manager changed into evening dress from 6 pm. A great deal of pride was taken in looking smart as the Gaumont was then the number one cinema in the city centre, although we had in opposition the Cinema House, the Hippodrome, the Palace, Union Street, the Classic, and on the corner the Wicker and the Don. I can’t recall the exact date of the Odeon opening in Flat Street [16 July 1956] but we had very little to do with them.

The programmes were continuous throughout the day, starting with the main film, then the adverts and trailers for the following week (there was not then the endless stream of the same type of film trailers we get now in the multiplexes). There was also a newsreel and the second feature. The only breaks were for the sale of ice cream and drinks when at least eight sales girls went round the whole auditorium. The adverts for the various ice creams and drinks on sale advised patrons to “kindly remain seated – the sales staff will visit all parts of the auditorium”.

It was not considered at all unusual for patrons to enter the cinema halfway through a film, watch the programme until they reached the point when they had entered, then leave having seen the whole programme. At busy times there would be a large queue outside the cinema and the usherettes would advise us that we had, say, “three doubles and six singles” as people left the cinema. A doorman would then go to the queue and announce “Three doubles and six singles” to the front part of the queue, moving up the queue if the first people did not want the seats. At the end of the evening we all went round emptying the ashtrays on the backs of the seats before changing to go home. Unlike today there was very little litter on the floor; there was no popcorn and hot dogs were a novelty, sold from a barrow in the foyer. I dare not think of the mess if performances were continuous in today’s multiscreens.’

Michael Fisher, who managed several cinemas into the nineties, says tells me that, ‘Staff parades were carried out before premieres. Probably still are. It was written into Odeon Manager’s contracts to change into Dinner jackets after 6pm. This continued until the 1990s at least.  I was on the Uniform Committee for a while. Every time there was a new Managing Director there was a change of Uniform to show they had arrived and were doing something. The worst one had the Odeon O over the left tit of the usherettes’ blouses. Just like a target’.

Seeing the clip also reminded Chris Schneider of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’: ‘You’re the top, you’re the pants on a Roxy Usher’. The cinema in the clip is the legendary The Strand, Warner’s New York showcase, and one of the first luxurious movie palaces built to show only motion pictures.

José Arroyo