Quote of the Day: an indifferent work

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I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:

JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.

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“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”

I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”

“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”

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Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.

Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.

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In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)

Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:

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Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.

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This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.

The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.

The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.

The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and –

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– squee–ee–eeze…

Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius — goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.

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26 Responses to “Quote of the Day: an indifferent work”

  1. I have never seen ”Thunderbolt” but everybody says that the film is the most bizarre of early talkies. I have never seen ”Underworld” either. Jonathan Rosenbaum is on record to preferring ”Thunderbolt” over ”Underworld”. George Bancroft is sublime in ”The Docks of New York”, one great silent film which had a huge influence on world cinema(especially in Japan). Wonder when anyone can see them. Maybe if it comes on TV or at any revival…

    I am actually not very big on ”Der Blaue Engel”. Partly because of it’s lofty reputation as this great work of art. It’s a very good film and Dietrich is excellent as is Jannings. But all the 6 succeeding Dietrich films are better. I saw ”Blonde Venus” last night and that film is practically a remake of Blue Angel. And although I didn’t like the film before, after seeing it yesterday I am totally sure it’s a masterpiece and one of Marlene’s best performances.

  2. I’ve yet to hear Bancroft’s voice, since the only thing I’ve seen him in is Underworld, and of course that’s a silent (but a very loud silent, if you know what I mean). I saw a copy of Fun In A Chinese Laundry on the shelf at a nearby used bookstore, I’ve been eyeballing it my last two visits there, think I’ll go grab it today. Nightclub scenes are great for spicing up a movie. There’s an incredible one in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, where Mifune’s tubercular gangster sits and watches as a jazz band tears the house down, its female lead singer howling and gyrating like an exuberant animal. Herman Mankiewicz not only co-wrote Citizen Kane, but also adapted Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday for the screen, two films he worked on late in his career, along with Nicholas Ray’s A Woman’s Secret, which I’ve yet to see. But that’s a hell of a list of character names you’ve got there, might be fun to make up a few more off the top of your head.

  3. I saw a very good print of Thunderbolt several months back here in L.A. It’s truly bizarre. Death Row is more like a vaudeville house than anything else. There’s a courtroom scene staged like an acting audition. And then there’s the really great black nightclub scene. If it ever comes your way in any form, don’t miss it.

  4. We need a Sternberg collection to rival the Borzage-Murnau at fox box set. Yes, we’re that greedy.

    I don’t really see Blonde Venus as that close to The Blue Angel, which still strikes me as one of JVS’s strongest meditations on humiliation, perhaps his favourite subject.

    I don’t know what went on between JVS and Bancroft, but the director had obviously gone off the star by the time he wrote that introduction. I recently acquired James Whale’s Green Hell, which is meant to be dreadful, but has an amazing cast including Bancroft. So it’ll be interesting to see how his style evolved after talkies had been around a bit.

    Some more Bancroft names? The sci-fi kids’ show I worked on had an astronaut character I created called Steck Mandriff, which I thought was pretty manly. How about…? Knuckles Magoo; Cork Nubbin; Biff Thurrow; Drake Baffin; Hurst Guffer; Thump Ragged; Brick Deafen; Studs Humby; Dogg Wallop; Fist Badley; Bash Dagger; Lunge Bruteman; Lug Hammer; Wrench Gutshot; Drink Woman.

  5. Dick Prowess

  6. Cock Champion.

  7. Just thought of this one and Fiona insisted I post it: Pierce Hymen.

  8. Cock Walloper. Tally Wacker. And kudos to Fiona, I agree that the aforementioned PH should be shared with the world.

  9. Your own name is pretty darned manly, containing as it does both “Guy” and “Bud”. Not to mention “ziak”, which has a great cartoon fistfight sound effect quality. A name with MUSCLES!

  10. Someone stated recently that it was rather noirish. I’m not quite sure just what a “noirish” name is, but I’ll take his word for it. Actually I’m pretty attached to it, I like the fact that when googled there aren’t any other GBs to be found. So I pretty much own it. It’s pronounced the way it’s spelled, bud-zee-yak, but I think the native (Polish) pronunciation is boo-jacques. I sometimes sign off as Boo Jacques. Depending on who I’m talking to. But manly? Well, my voice is a baritone, my torso’s covered with hair, and I have acne scars. But I’m no badass, my bark’s worse than my bite. I got the Chinese Laundry book btw (enough navel-gazing). Re. Pierce, when I was a kid it was Buster Hymen. Pierce is a brilliant improvement on that.

  11. Brick Crumper
    Ham Basketball
    Noah Surrender

  12. Crumper is lovely!

    Hutch Ruffian; “Weapons” Grady; “Grassy” Gnole; Lon Gunman; Burt Uggly; GBH Pounder; Rip Sternum; Big Jock MacIzmo; Barry Concrete; Crud Gutters; Vag Pumper; Buck Gusset.

  13. Brent Crude, Tug Foundry, Brock Strikebreaker, Clout Savage, Bran Cornerman, Bing Herod

  14. Heh!

    Lunk Trouble; Brunt Fracture; Oof Parbroil; Strewth Brisbane; Scuff Mudflap; Grant Pendulum; Burly Oats; Clamp Raper; Gink Pizzle; Cosh Proby; Rutger Bulge; Pith Stoater.

  15. A veritable cornucopia of manly monickers… I knew you wouldn’t let us down.

  16. Just saw this on a boxing poster in THE MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES: Dick Freezer

  17. DICK FREEZER WAS REAL! He was active in the 1930’s. Shame on you, Sherlock Holmes art department, shame on you.

  18. Tsk. Borzage’s excellent Mannequin (not the one with Kim Cattrall) features a boxer called Swing Magoo. Which just makes me think of Tits Magee in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Tits Magee would be a great name for a tough guy: he’d be daring people to laugh.

  19. Yeah right. Laugh at his name and run the risk of him mopping the floor with you. “Who did this to you?” “Tits. Ow.”

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve just found this thread and would like to second David E’s contention here. He is one of those lucky people who saw a good print, the one which may be showing in Australia in May. Also, like David C, my VHS copy is abysmal but the sound is not too bad.I’m expecting a “fair” copy of the silent version any day now.

  21. That would be interesting. Having just watched the silent version of Blackmail, which is excellent, I found it gave me a new respect for the talkie, which is mostly a silent movie with a few dialogue scenes added. Thunderbolt seems very much a sound film, with all kinds of sonic experiments thtoughout, so I’d be fascinated to see how it plays as a silent.

  22. Tony Williams Says:

    Good point. I first saw the silent BLACKMAIL at a BFI Hitichcock road show at Webster University St. Louis over a decade ago and now have a good copy. According to some Yorkshireman who wrote a letter to FOCUS ON FILM in 1970 following Claire Johnston’s review, he saw both versions in 1929. The sound one was shown in London while the silent one went round the regions and he stated the second part was certainly impressive in terms of the way Bancroft paces around his cell.

    What we really need is a non-Dietrich von Sternberg DVD set issued and, yes, you are right about the autobiography which is as distinctive as his cinematic achievements and not to be neglected but read in the appropriate way.

  23. Since nearly all Sternberg’s silents were made at Paramount, it ought to be easy to bring them all together. But it took ages for all the Sternberg Dietrichs to come out, and they’re still not together in a box set, so far as I know… so it doesn’t feel like there’s a great drive to do this.

    Please let me know what the pic quality is like on your silent Thunderbolt when you recieve it!

  24. Tony Williams Says:

    My bootlegger has already warned me that the quality is not good and if I had the sound version that was all I needed if I was looking for a good visual print. That’s why he threw it in free with a copy of NAZI AGENT.

  25. Oh well, should be worth seeing anyhow, and Nazi Agent is bound to be interesting.

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