Grief in movies - A Single Man, My Reputation and Don't Look Now

September 28, 2010

As per Kendra's recommendations in the comments on my "Wait, you like that movie? But it was made after 1970!" post, I watched A Single Man last night. The film is about a man (Colin Firth) who has been emotionally crippled by the loss of his partner (Matthew Goode) of 16 years, until one day he decides to kill himself to end his grief. All of the events in the movie take place on this one day, with flashbacks showing his life with his partner and the day that he died. It's an incredibly beautiful movie, (it was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford) but it's also incredibly painful.

It's perhaps the most accurate portrayal of deep grief that I've ever seen in a movie. No matter what you do, no matter how you try to go about your daily life and perform regular tasks, that grief is still eating at your heart. Even during sleep, the sole break from the agonizing pain during the day, the grief creeps into your dreams and turns them to nightmares.

A Single Man has another element of sadness that absolutely crushed my heart. Since the film takes place in the 1960's, the fact that Firth and Goode were gay partners, not a conventional husband-and-wife couple, means that Firth isn't even allowed to attend the memorial service. He isn't able to speak about his grief in public. He isn't able to address his emotions outside of his home and in the company of his best friend. His hurt wells up inside of him for months until he's just had enough.

Two other films that, I think, handle the topic of grief very well are My Reputation and Don't Look Now. My Reputation stars Barbara Stanwyck as a young widowed mother, trying to resume life after the death of her husband. The film handles public preconceptions about grieving -- when is a good time to date after your spouse has passed; should one wear black for eternity after becoming a window; should life go on as usual or come to a screeching halt. Stanwyck's is a very complex character-- she encourages her sons to go about life as if nothing happened, she refuses to wear black and fall into the mold of being a widow for life. Yet, despite her exterior resilience and perseverance, she's really fragile and enfeebled by his death. That is, until she meets a new man (George Brent). Her internal despair is softened by a new love; she is pulled from the pit of grief and able to live a relatively normal life again. And yet, her mother and her friends would prefer that she still be sad, alone and mourning because of society's taboos.

Don't Look Now is a horrific tale about a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who try to come to grips with the death of their little girl, who died in a drowning accident at their home. They go to Venice to escape the memories, and yet they find nothing else but. An old blind woman tells Christie that she can see the spirit of their daughter. Sutherland sees a vision of his daughter running around the canals of Venice wearing the red raincoat she had on when she drowned. They are haunted by their grief, and eventually destroyed by it.

People mourn in different ways. In my own family I've seen opposite sides of the spectrum. My paternal grandmother grieved for my grandfather for six years, from when he passed away until she did. My parents couldn't even get her to leave the house for months after he died, she was so inconsolable. My maternal grandmother handles grief much differently; no matter if the deceased is a best friend or distant relative, she talks about the food at the funeral and then moves onto discussing her favorite tv shows within minutes. She doesn't dwell on death, and just accepts it as a part of life.

As an emotional basket case and someone who is terrified of death and saying goodbye to loved ones, I empathize more with the characters in films who feel the weight of grief so heavily on their shoulders that it practically crushes them. I can completely understand Colin Firth's character, and how he's driven to giving up when every minute of his life is consumed by thoughts of his partner's absence. And while I'm definitely not a suicidal person, I do know that the loss of certain people in my life will certainly result in life-long therapy.

The Title.

September 22, 2010

I've noticed a trend in recent movies that involves very, very simple dramatic titles. They're usually either one word-- like Saw -- or one word preceded by an all-important THE, giving it more weight and tension -- The Town. The American.

It's trickled into television too, with the premiere of a new tv show called The Event (you're already wondering what The Event is now, aren't you?) It's a great gimmick for getting people intrigued and curious. The Tourist. Ooh, what about this tourist? Does something maybe happen to him on vacation? Inception. Avatar. Devil. Buried. The Switch. The Takers. I could go on.

Short, blunt monikers have existed as long as there have been movies around to title. Greed, The Letter, The Innocents and Dracula immediately spring to mind, but it's definitely become more of a trend during the last decade or so. While the overwhelming amount of remakes and pitiful lack of new, inventive scripts leads me to believe that the simple titling is a reflection of Hollywood's laziness in coming up with creative new material, I actually think there's a different more unsettling reason. Most movie-goers are looking for a two-hour thrill, and they won't be pulled in to theaters unless the title invokes a sense of intrigue, mystery, suspense heavy drama or gore.

And this got me to thinking... if classic movies had been titled by today's movie makers, what would they be called?

*cue wavy fade into dream sequence*

Anne Bancroft

September 17, 2010

When I made my "Top 20 Favorite" lists last winter, there were plenty of people that I accidentally left off (omissions) and scores of people I was yet to discover (additions) -- over the next few months I'll be doing Additions & Omissions posts for some of my new-found or forgotten favorites who didn't quite make it to my favorites list last year.

First up is Anne Bancroft. I only discovered her this past February when Millie wrote an awesome post about The Slender Thread. I'd seen her in The Kid From Left Field since my dad makes us watch every baseball movie that comes on TCM, but other than that I hadn't watched a single movie that she starred in. But I consider The Slender Thread to be my introduction to Anne, and it's probably the best introduction one can have!

Although, just when I thought that couldn't be topped, I saw The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) starring Anne and Jack Lemmon. It was kind of like The Out of Towners, only they were living in New York instead of visiting and Jack Lemmon was married to Anne Bancroft instead of Sandy Dennis and the events in the film have a much darker lining. Everything that can go wrong does, and throughout the movie the stars go through huge waves of subtle comedy, hysteria, depression and exasperation. Depending on your own personal situation (my own family is having a very tough time with this recession) you might find it all-too relevant, some 35 years after it was released. But it isn't just because of the situations in the film and the fact that we're facing a similar economic upheaval -- Anne Bancroft and Jack Lemmon bring a level of familiarity and empathy to their roles that makes all of the intervening years disappear.

And I think that's what I like most about Anne Bancroft -- the fact that she makes it so easy to relate to her characters and really makes her performances an open door into her character's soul. I wish desperately that she had spent more time in front of the movie camera; her filmography is so depressingly sparse.

The 39 Steps

September 10, 2010

My mom in Paris, 1984

Thanks to Millie's fantastic giveaway on Classic Forever, my parents were able to see The 39 Steps in New York this week! The 39 Steps is not only their favorite Hitchcock film -- it's their favorite film, period.

I asked them to each write a guest post about the experience, the play, and how it compared to their favorite flick. Today I'm publishing my mom's post, and my dad's will be up next week (he said he'd have it done by today and then didn't ... like father like daughter, eh? ;-)

So without further ado, I give you ---- my wonderful mom!
My husband and I have loved the Hitchcock film, “The 39 Steps,” for years and years. We frequently quote certain lines from the movie for no apparent reason at all (like “I’ll away and light the fire” or “Clear out, Hannay, they’ll get you next” [which, of course, must be followed by a genuine fake cough]). For my birthday, he painted the two main characters from the last scene in the movie – just a close up of their intertwined hands. So, imagine our glee at being able to actually see the play! We arrived the obligatory half-hour ahead of time to pick up the tickets, grabbed a hot (but overcooked and crunchy) soft pretzel from a nearby vendor and waited in the adjacent courtyard with our daughter and son. Showtime arrived quickly – off we toddled to the theatre, off they toddled to explore the city.

The theatre is underground, which at first seemed odd but then never entered my mind again. It isn’t really big, and while most seats are probably good seats, our seats were great! We were on the aisle, about seven rows back (since we were in row “G,” seven seems a good guess). We agreed in advance that if they spoke our favorite lines, we’d consider the play a success. Well, not only did they say those lines, but everything else about this play made it a success – it was a hoot! Even with minimal props and the actors playing multiple roles, the play followed the plot of the movie almost to a tee. What an incredible feat! The acting was superb, the jokes were truly funny, the deliberately not-so-subtle references to other Hitchcock films (and even Hitchcock himself!) were hysterical. As “39 Steps” aficionados, we can guarantee that from now on, this play will be referenced whenever we watch the movie. “Rear Window” will likely creep in when the farmer’s wife is helping Hannay to escape. When Hannay and Pamela are being kidnapped by the fake police, I’m sure we’ll mention that the car should be made of chairs. The next time the professor’s gun-toting hand peeks out from behind the curtain, one of us will surely blurt out, “Bet his arm’s artificial!”

This play was just so much fun! I loved sitting next to my husband, laughing out loud together to a different version of one of our most favorite stories. What a great afternoon! All I can say is that even though my daughter won the tickets, I think I’m the lucky one!

Tribute to The Night Porter

September 04, 2010

I was very hesitant to watch The Night Porter, since I'm a bit of a movie prude and don't like my films overflowing with sex and nudity -- and I was under the impression that NP was just a porn film in disguise. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally caved in and watched it last month! It wasn't nearly as explicit as I expected, and the film was shot so beautifully that you hardly notice when it is. It's a sad, uncomfortable but beautiful story about a Nazi and a concentration camp prisoner who have a doomed, deep, twisted love for one another.

I made this video last night as a tribute to the movie -- it's set to "I'm a Fool to Want You" sung by Billie Holiday.

Warren William

September 03, 2010

by Cliff Aliperti

guest blogger

Yes, you probably know him, but there's a pretty good chance you're missing out on the best of Warren William. While his legacy gains in stature by virtue of having appeared in several hit classics which have found their way into mainstream DVD release: "Lady for a Day" (1933), "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933), "Cleopatra" (1934), "Imitation of Life" (1934), and "The Wolf Man" (1941) spring immediately to mind, I think it can be safely said that most don't remember these pictures because of Warren William.

Warren William appeared in 65 films, including 2 silent pictures filmed on the East Coast during his time on Broadway, with the bulk of his output being released between 1931 and 1947, just prior to his 1948 death at age 53. I've managed to collect 60 of them to this point, which isn't too bad considering that I'm all but certain that at least 2 of the missing movies are confirmed as lost. But my point in mentioning this is that to see all of these films I've had to scrap together a collection made up mostly of homemade DVD-R's picked up over years of scouring internet red light districts, sites with listings which often disappear to move elsewhere later.

As much as I cross my fingers with hopes that Warner Archives begins releasing some of these in a somewhat more official format going sometime soon, to date the really good stuff isn't available from any mainstream distributor.

Luckily I found Warren William at a perfect intersection in time when I had only somewhat recently discovered eBay and my VCR was still working. My last VCR finally broke down and I've long since sold off my videos (go ahead, kick me) but back then I had hundreds, basically any film I'd ever heard of or wanted at the time. My favorite discovery inside my stacks upon stacks of VHS were titles from the Leonard Maltin Forbidden Hollywood Collection which highlighted pre-code films such as "Red-Headed Woman" (1932) with Jean Harlow and "Three on a Match" (1932) which despite starring Warren William is really an Ann Dvorak movie, and an incredible one at that.

But the gems came as I continued hunting down other titles in the collection. Frankly prior to acquiring "Skyscraper Souls" (1932) and "Employee's Entrance" (1933) I'd never heard of Warren William myself. Sure, I'd seen quite a bit of him as I was familiar with all of those titles mentioned up above in the first paragraph, but my movie watching was much more casual in those times and it took this period of total submersion for me to begin to really gain an understanding of how it all tied together.

"Skyscraper Souls" starring William while on loan-out to MGM came first, but he was so good that his home studio, Warner Brothers, featured him in the very similar "Employee's Entrance" soon thereafter. If you've yet to be initiated this pair is where every budding Warren William fan should start as they serve as perfect introduction to Warren William, the star, ultimate pre-code cad.

The characters, banker David Dwight in SS and department store head Kurt Anderson in EE, are ruthless businessmen who are pretty much already at the top but continue to claw their way as high as they possibly can combating the Great Depression practically through sheer will alone. These characters will gladly stab men in the back to move forward while treating women as disposable items of pleasure, one of just a few ways the characters have to blow off steam. Here's the thing though, despite all that, despite driving ex-employees to suicide, despite forcing himself on every woman in sight, Warren William makes these characters likable.

What? Yes, because despite all his flaws, and not only are they numerous but sometimes even criminal, William's ruthless businessmen also manage to display such a passion for not only their jobs but in getting those jobs done and done better than anyone else could that you can't help but to admire him to some degree. Sure, some viewers are going to be absolutely disgusted by his behavior, I'll grant you that, but there's no doubt that as unorthodox as it may seem Warren William is the hero of these films.

As for other recommended titles of a similar vein, he broke out as a crooked lawyer in "The Mouthpiece" (1932), slick-talked Guy Kibbees' campaign in "The Dark Horse" (1932), played a character based on scheming Ivar Krueger who verbalizes his hopes to "buy the world" in "The Match King" (1932), plays the bogus Chandra in "The Mind Reader" (1933), and is a doctor practicing without a license in "Bedside" (1934), perhaps the most off-the-wall title of them all including Donald Meek raising guinea pigs from the dead and David Landau's superb junkie.

The dates of those films I've just mentioned should point out a pattern which goes a long way in defining why Warren William wound up largely a shooting star. While the timing of the Great Depression is a major element in the appeal of his long line of crooked heroes it's the film industry itself which would inadvertently squash his long-term stardom with its enforcement of the code in 1934. Not one of the characters mentioned since "Skyscraper Souls" would be possible in any way remotely resembling the finished product Warren William brings to the screen after the pre-code period.

But there is yet another completely different side to Warren William's career. While his sleuthing movies seem to get much more play than his pre-code baddies they also have yet to see mainstream DVD release.

Warren William was the first Perry Mason on screen, playing the role four times beginning almost immediately after the run of pre-code movies mentioned above. He also played the part of Philo Vance twice, but really entrenched himself in the part of Michael Lanyard a.k.a. The Lone Wolf playing the part 9 times between 1939-1943 for Columbia Pictures. He also sort of played Sam Spade though his character was redubbed Ted Shane in the roundly (and I say wrongly) despised "Satan Met a Lady" (1936).

His detectives have all the charm of his earlier leads, but are much more standard leads in line with what the code called for. The old edginess was replaced by wisecracking with William's Mason and Lanyard being a couple of the more amusing series detectives for fans to run across. As reformed thief Lanyard in The Lone Wolf series William is often paired with character actor Eric Blore as his butler, Jamison, and the two play off of each other hilariously, much more so than I believe anybody behind the low budget productions could have hoped.

Warren William's film output decreased throughout the 1940's with his final film "The Private Affairs of Bel Ami" in 1947, after which he became involved with radio. He's listed as director of the newly formed Telways Radio Company and in 1946-47 hosted the "Strange Wills" program, a series based around probate lawyer John Frances O'Connell played by william himself. But William had worked less through the 1940's because he was ill. He eventually succumbed to multiple myeloma in 1948, age 53. His wife passed New Year's Eve that same year. They had no children.

I expect had he survived longer Warren William would have gone on to become a television presence--I could easily see him in one of the numerous Western series of the 1950's--with occasional forays back into film. Obviously that's speculation. As it is with his passing now over 60 years ago he is largely forgotten. Circumstances led to an early peak for William, but later mystery series kept him in front of the public long after his initial success and so at least when he is remembered today it might be for one of two types of distinct portrayals. Which do you prefer, pre-code cad or wisecracking sleuth?

Ida Lupino

September 02, 2010

by K.C.
of Classic Movie Blog

guest blogger

There are few artists who have made as rich a contribution to movies and television as Ida Lupino. She would be among the greats for any one of her major accomplishments, be it as a diversely talented actress, a director and producer of gritty, hard-hitting movies or as a prolific and efficient television director. That she was one of the first women to have a successful career behind the camera only adds a new dimension to an already impressive legacy.

Ida was immersed in show business from the moment she was born in London, England, on February 4, 1914. The Lupino acting dynasty stretched back to the Renaissance. Her father, Stanley, was a popular London music hall comedian and her mother, Connie, was an actress. True to her family history, young Ida would write and perform plays for the theater people who frequented her parent’s home.

By the age of eighteen, she had made her first appearances in British films and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Hollywood soon took notice, and she eagerly accepted an invitation from Paramount Studios to test for the title role in Alice in Wonderland. However, upon her arrival in Los Angeles, it was clear that precocious, bleached-blonde Ida was too sophisticated to play a little girl. She was instead cast in the racy comedy, Search for Beauty (19
34), which was a modest success.

Ida’s image in the thirties was that of an apple-cheeked, lively bombshell. Though she had acting chops, she found herself bouncing from one lightweight role to another. Near the end of the decade, Ida finally caught a break with her intense, damsel-in-distress supporting performance in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).

Feeling encouraged, Ida stole the script for The Light That Failed (1939) and memorized the coveted part of streetwalker Bessie Brooke. She then cornered director William Wellman in his office, demanding an audition. Her bravado paid off. She won the role and changed the course of her career with a popular and critically-acclaimed performance.

Ida greeted the forties with a more sophisticated, hard-boiled image. She slimmed down and embraced her natural dark hair color. She also signed a contract with Warner Bros. In a tightly-wound performance as the neurotic, murderous wife of a trucking magnate in They Drive by Night (1940), Ida stole her first picture for the studio.

This was the richest period of Ida’s career. She displayed remarkable versatility--from her portrayals of struggling innocents in High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942), to the tougher, more world-weary noir queens of The Man I Love (1946) and Road House (1948). Still, she had to constantly fight off the roles rejected by studio queen Bette Davis.

In the late forties, determined to control the course of her career, Ida started Emerald Productions with then-husband Collier Young. Emerald’s first production, Not Wanted (1949), was the story of a young girl who is impregnated by a traveling musician and decides to give the child up for adoption. When director Elmer Clifton had a heart attack days before shooting was to commence, Ida stepped in to direct the film. Thanks to her efficiency and skill (acquired from careful observation on the sets of her movies), the low-budget flick was completed under budget and was a modest commercial success. Though the production had been Ida’s from day one, she refused to accept a director credit.

Ida and Collier then moved their operations to the Filmmakers Company. There Ida continued her work behind the camera. She tackled tough subject matter, such as rape in Outrage (1950) and bigamy in the aptly-named The Bigamist (1953) (in which she also starred). Ida also showed an early flair for suspense with the chilling thriller-noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953), her most successful movie as director. Filmmakers was sold to RKO in the early fifties, where it folded due to poor management. Collier and Ida also divorced, though they would still work together professionally.

In the mid-fifties, Ida began a prolific career as a television director. Building on the promise she showed with The Hitch-Hiker, Ida became known as the "Female Hitch" for her taut camera work in dramas, westerns and thrillers such as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Untouchables. She also helmed the odd comedy, including Gilligan's Island and Bewitched.

Ida knew her male coworkers disliked answering to a woman, and so on her sets she presented herself as an easygoing, maternal figure. Rather than give an order, she would say that “mother” had a few suggestions for a scene. Her tactics were not only successful, but brought her great admiration from crew members.

Though Ida made few movies in the fifties, her performances from this era were among some of her best. In On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Big Knife (1955) and Private Hell 36 (1954), she created characters with soul who were tough, but also achingly vulnerable. She also accepted a regular gig on Four Star Playhouse (for which she was Emmy-nominated) and began a prolific television acting career that would include guest appearances in everything from Batman to Charlie's Angels. She even had a short-lived (and also Emmy-nominated) run co-starring in the comedy series Mr. Adams and Eve with then-husband Howard Duff.

Ida directed her last feature movie, The Trouble with Angels, in 1966. She made the last of her movie appearances in the seventies, most notably as a lead in Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen. She reluctantly gave up acting after My Boys are Good Boys in 1978. She wanted to work, but good parts were scarce for a woman of her age.

In the early years of her retirement, Ida struggled to find happiness. She felt lost without a creative outlet, and longed for romantic companionship (Duff had left her in 1972—the pair divorced in 1983). With the encouragement of friends, she finally established a happy routine consisting of days by the pool and riding horses. Failing health led to a short bout in the Motion Picture, Television Country House. Ida then spent the remainder of her years in a lush Hollywood apartment, surrounded by friends and admirers. She suffered a stroke in 1995 and died in August of that year.

Late in her life, Ida resented that the industry had not properly recognized her remarkable contributions to her craft. Today, she has finally gotten her due. Many of her features are available on DVD and she has been the subject of numerous revivals, books, and articles.

There has never been an actress or director quite like Ida Lupino—her type lasted through her lifetime and died with her. She was a unique treasure.

All Gone - a tribute to The Servant

September 01, 2010

I made this one yesterday.. I've had the idea floating around in my head for the longest time, and finally got around to it last night. This one is more of a tribute to the entire film, so it's not concentrating on Dirk Bogarde as much as my other videos have. Sarah Miles & James Fox take up a sizable chunk of space here. You might notice Wendy Craig is virtually absent, though, but that's just because I didn't like her character.. I'm being ornery :)

I might do another one in the future that's a tribute to Dirk's performance in the film, like I did with Modesty Blaise... but that is another video for another day..

Uncle Willie

by Matthew Coniam
of Movietone News

guest blogger

The Hollywood on Parade shorts, released by Paramount in the early thirties, are a feast of ephemeral delights in which Hollywood stars, in the interests of publicity, are frequently seen in bizarre or unexpected lights, activities and combinations. Within their ten minute episodes are to be found Anna May Wong reciting a Chinese poem, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula biting Betty Boop, Bob Bromley’s dancing puppets, Ginger Rogers and Jack Oakie dancing together in each other’s clothes and Jean Harlow demonstrating her golfing skills. The effect is somewhat like a moving Hollywood fan magazine, so it is only appropriate that one of the best instalments, produced in 1932, utilises that format literally, with each sequence emerging from the pages of a magazine.

One feature - headlined FILM PLAYER’S RARE COLLECTION: Roland Young Has Hobby (Can You Guess It?) - opens to reveal the actor surrounded by an enormous collection of stuffed and toy penguins. With his inimitably dry voice and patented absurd seriousness, he goes on to explain:

“I have what I consider a very unusual collection. And here it is. Penguins. Funny little birds found all the way from the South Pole to the Equator. There are none at the North Pole. I’ve collected these both in America and in Europe, and many of them have been sent to me by fans. Their chief value to mankind, as far as I can determine, is to appear in pictures made by explorers to the South Pole. This one was the star of a Zane Gray production. He died as the result of too many camera shots.”
This all said with perfect solemnity and not a trace of knowingness as to its comic effect. Robert Benchley could have done no better.

This is the essence of Roland Young; that wonderfully mischievous, meek, physically contained character actor, whose mouth seems hardly to move when he talks, and who so excelled at bumbling upper class rakes, henpecked husbands, failed romantic adventurers and, finally, lovable older eccentrics before signing out peacefully in 1953 – not exactly at an untimely age to die but, from the point of view of the greedy film fan, a somewhat stingily prompt one.

He’s English of course, quintessentially so, but very much an American star; he came to the States early, in 1912, just four years after becoming an actor, and stayed, a US citizen by the time of World War I, in which he fought. And when he returned to Britain for The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937) it didn’t feel like a homecoming so much as a bit of Hollywood paying a call. Miracles was, I think, his only headlining vehicle, though not his only lead: he was the eponymous star of those three superb Topper films, of course, though inexcusably denied top-billing in them all. For the most part he was a character actor, a supporter, and – for me – the best in the business.

Not that he wasn’t good enough to dominate a film as star. But whatever his role he shines without ever seeking to upstage or overbalance an ensemble. Subtlety; that he had in abundance; perfect timing, and an elegance and precision to everything he did that put him uppermost in the ranks of that roster of great comic support acts in which Paramount and MGM once abounded, and which the world has never seen the like of again. They’re all great – Butterworth, Ruggles, Benchley et al – but Young, I think, is the most unpredictable.

Corey Ford in ‘The Time of Laughter’, his wonderful memoir of the great twenties and thirties humorists from which I quote endlessly on my Marx Brothers blog, informs me that “he was the Broadway star of Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple and Beggar on Horseback by Kaufman and Connelly, a talented artist whose sketches had appeared in Life and Vanity Fair, and a raconteur and sly wit.” (Once, when the two were discussing his famous appearance as Uriah Heap in David Copperfield, Ford asked him whatever became of Freddie Bartholomew. Young replied, “Basil Rathbone ate him.”)

I will not be content until I have seen every performance he ever gave. I don’t remember the titles of all the films he’s in I haven’t seen, but I know, and savour, his character names: Hillary Hume, Barry Keith-Trimble, Linkhorne 'Link' Gibson, Reggie Buckley Candysshe (Marquis of Buckminster)…

I love him as Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story because… because who could not love him as Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story? Ditto as Cosmo Topper, the film series that perhaps best exploited his particular gift for playing characters that find themselves in embarrassing situations they are not quite inventive enough to successfully talk their way out of. (Of the three, I actually prefer the last, Topper Returns, for its cast, its thrills, and the scene with Eddie Anderson and the seal.)

I love him, fairly late in his career, as William Blore, the crass private detective (from my home town of Plymouth) in René Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945), without rival the greatest murder mystery ever filmed. Blore, who spends most of the film jumping to wrong conclusions and chasing wild geese finally solves the mystery the second he is murdered. “I get it!” he shouts in triumph – just as the unseen killer topples a stone urn on his head from the floor above.

I love him playing straight – or at least, as straight as is possible for Roland Young to play eccentric Scotland Yard detective Lord Monte Montague - in his first talkie The Unholy Night (1929), one of several fascinating early talkies directed by Lionel Barrymore.

I adore him as Gerald, the ineffectual adulterer of Frank Tashlin’s glorious This Is The Night (1933), my favourite ersatz-Lubitsch comedy, with Thelma Todd as his intended amour and a vengeful Cary Grant in his feature debut as her Olympic javelin-throwing husband. The ever-deepening pool of comic desperation into which he plunges as he attempts to simultaneously convince that Grant that he is not having an affair with Todd and that he is married to Lily Damita, whom he has just hired expressly for the purpose of impersonating his wife, show his mastery of sophisticated farce.

But most of all I love him as Jimmy in DeMille’s Madam Satan. Every line and gesture and moment of his performance here is flawless. I love the door slamming bedroom antics with Lillian Roth, his MC turn at the climactic zeppelin party (sorry, I’m making no concessions to anyone lazy enough to have never seen this greatest of all films), I love him taking a shower fully-clothed with Reginald Denny, likewise-attired, I love the bit where the two read of their latest drunken exploits in the paper and a close-up of the newsprint, describing Young’s character as a ‘prominent member of the city’s younger set’ cuts to a glorious close-up of that beautiful balding, middle-aged face. This is the younger set? Oh, take me back to 1930!

One line in particular stands out. Young is again trying to cover-up an extra-marital affair, though not his own this time, by pretending that Denny’s girlfriend is actually his wife. “What’s her first name?” asks Denny’s wife (Kay Johnson.) “Her first name?” Young repeats, then: “Her first name?”

All the character is doing is obfuscating to play for time, so most actors, I think, would have stressed ‘first’ rather than ‘name’. By doing the opposite, Young seems to be implying not that the question is irrational per se, but that in the context of all the other first things about her Johnson might reasonably be expected to take an interest in, there is something eccentric or unexpected in her wanting to know her first name.

It’s difficult to describe exactly, and harder still to describe why it’s funny, and I sense I’ve not made all that good a job of either. But that’s Roland Young. He really wasn’t like anyone else, and you have to see it to get it: the mark of true and irreplaceable originality.