Fantastic Mr Fox, Topper and Dirigible

The London Film Festival opened on Wednesday, and this week I caught a few films: Fantastic Mr Fox, which was the opening film of the festival (I wasn’t at the premiere sadly), a UCLA restored version of Topper, and a Columbia restoration of Dirigible.

Fantastic Mr Fox is a terrific stop-animation version of the Roald Dahl tale which you may remember, although I personally didn’t (perhaps my free audio CD from Saturday’s Guardian of Dahl reading the tale himself will remind me). The film has an almost naturalistic acting style employed – with George Clooney leading the voice talent. Director Wes Anderson has adopted a different style to something like Wallace and Gromit where the voice acting is a little more larger than life.

Despite the cast all speaking in American accents and using Americanisms, the scenery still feels British. It’s an odd combination. And the evil farmer Bean played by Michael Gambon does speak in an English accent with a slight cockney twang.

Is the film too scary for kids? No. It’s a PG, but kids should be fine. The only slight issue I have is the use of the word “cuss” to replace swearwords all the way through the film. It’s used the same way that “frack” is used in Battlestar Galactica. But while that latter is aimed at adults, this isn’t and the nascent parent in me found it a bit uncomfortable. “Cluster-cuss” anyone?

Topper is a Cary Grant film from 1937 and a film that I’d never seen before – but 30s screwball comedies are always favourites of mine. As Anthony Slide told us before the film, Topper was a very popular film at the time and was later followed by a couple of sequels neither of which featured Cary Grant, but it has fallen out of favour in recent years and I certainly don’t recall it ever showing up on TV.

Early on, we’re introduced to Cary Grant and Constance Bennett who play Mr and Mrs Kerby – a rich and wild young couple. Mr Kerby is a director of a bank but really that’s just a means to his wealth’s end. They couple have a wonderful car (or “contraption” as it’s later dismissed as) – a Buick Roadmaster roadster that’s utterly gorgeous. But that’s their problem. Returning to their home somewhere in upstate New York, although clearly somewhere in Southern California, they have a fatal crash. Not a good start for a comedy, but they have ghosts!

The ghostly couple decide that before they hear the trumpets and get to enter a better celestial place they probably have to do good. They decide that their benefactor should be Cosmo Topper (Roland Young – the film’s real co-star along with Bennett, although Slide told us that Grant was paid much more than Young) the bank’s manager. He’s a put upon fellow with a wife and butler who organises his every moment of the day, and determines his diet at every turn.

This is a great comedy, and the print has been lovingly restored by UCLA. As it was explained to us, the image all the way through the film was slightly diffused and not as sharp as might be expected. That was a deliberate choice made by Norbert Brodine, the cinematographer, who used that diffusion to hide wires and other things used to create the ghostly special effects. The Kerbys are able to appear and disappear at will although they only have a limited amount of “ectoplasm” to keep them visible.

The film is more risqué than you might think – but I’d guess that this film pre-dates the Hayes Code. A pair of knickers are a small plot point, but they’re the type worn by less savoury types. And Mrs Kerby takes a most definite shine to Topper and spends a lot of time alone in his company which was surely “not the done thing.” Given that the Hays Code at the time was pretty strict, it’s amazing that some of the jokes and allusions were allowed through.

The biggest scene stealer of the film was Alan Mowbray who played the Kirby’s uptight butler. You might believe that plenty of portrayals of Jeeves have been based on his superciliousness. He even gets the final laugh of the film with the closing line.

With any luck, this restored version of the film will be get a release on DVD so that more people can rediscover this classic comedy.

Finally, there’s Dirigible, a very early talkie, dating from 1931, and directed by Frank Capra. It’s an adventure film involving airships and planes attempting to reach the South Pole. While some of the acting seems quite stiff to our modern sensibilities – resulting in unintentional laughs in the audience I saw it with – it’s incredibly well made. The “dirigibles” of the title were US Navy airships and Capra obviously had access to real ones to film. But there is also plentiful use of models for some of the special effects scenes. The scenes at the pole itself are remarkably well rendered, despite having actually been shot in the desert – it all looks the same in black and white. Clearly, the screenwriters were well aware of the likes of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, because some of the scenes feel like they’re simply reworkings of those true stories. The central love triangle features a torn Fay (King Kong) Wray who’s at the centre of a love triangle. But it’s always clear what the “right” thing to do is and despite talk of going to Paris to get a divorce, the marriage survives.

It’s lovely to see films like this on the big screen, although I’m now looking forward to seeing a few newer films.