Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Consider You the Greatest Idiot in the Diplomatic Service

I was hoping to have a post ready about the producer Hal B. Wallis and why his work declined so badly after he left Warner Brothers (where he produced or executive-produced some of the best films ever made). But some annoying thing called "time" got in the way. Hopefully I'll have it, or some other post, ready tomorrow.

In the meantime, as placeholders, here are two great movie comedy scenes featuring the same obscure actor, Herman Bing. He was a German actor who emigrated to America and, before S.Z. Sakall, was Hollywood's go-to guy for heavily-accented bit parts. As you can see from his IMDb listing, he didn't do a lot that was memorable, maybe because his accent was so distinctly German that it made him hard to cast (unlike Sakall or Sig Rumann, whose accents were just a little bit more generic-sounding). Once the U.S. went to war with Germany, he hardly got any parts at all, because you couldn't have funny German characters any more.

But in 1934, Bing managed to get memorable scenes in two memorable movies. In Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, he gets the single funniest scene in the film, where he becomes incongruously passionate and involved while reading out the King's angry missive to Edward Everett Horton. I still quote "I consider you the greatest idiot in the diplomatic service" at odd times.

And in Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, Bing is one of the bearded actors from the German Passion Play, who gives John Barrymore the idea of turning the Passion into a vehicle for Carole Lombard.

This is also the scene with the wonderful shot I wrote about a couple of years ago, wonderful because it feels so spontaneous:

n a single take, Walter Connolly pushes them out of the stateroom, turns back to Barrymore, pushes him into his seat, and pours out his heart: "O.J., listen, I know you won't believe this, but I'm more than an employee -- I'm the best friend you've got... I'm not gonna let you get mixed up with any phony art." What I love about the shot is that the composition is, in film-school terms, totally wrong: Connolly and Barrymore wind up bunched together in the left-hand corner of the frame, with empty space in the rest of the frame. What clearly happened, as with many of the shots in the film, is that Howard Hawks liked the spontaneous quality of the acting in that take, and left it as was, with no "coverage," no editing. No studio would let a shot like that get by today; they'd have sensible compositions, lots of cutting back and forth between characters, and they'd drain all the life out of the scene.

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