The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals

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Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER seemed quite a bit more old-fashioned than THE GOOSE WOMAN, but this was almost certainly because I saw the former at the plush Hippodrome in Bo’ness with a well-dressed audience and a spiffing live accompaniment, whereas I saw THE SIGNAL TOWER as a ratty print telecined to VHS, transferred to AVI and then to DVD and screened on a tiny television at our friend Marvelous Mary’s house. A television that may be older than Brown’s film. One is aware that the slightly antique feeling has nothing to do with the film-making itself, but one can’t help but be influenced.

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In the days before the World Wide Web, intertitles had to be transmitted by telegraphy.

It’s not fair to judge under such circumstances, but I suspect the movie is not quite as good as THE GOOSE WOMAN, which has an unconventional heroine, a twisty plot, and twisty storytelling including flashbacks, one of them false. THE SIGNAL TOWER tells a very simple story, with Wallace Beery an obvious heavy from the start (we all admired the wisdom of dressing him in a stripey shirt, thus making his evil manifest), but it builds to an extremely exciting climax whereby the railroad employee hero must struggle to derail a runaway freight car in a thunderstorm to prevent a catastrophic crash, while his wife repels Beery’s vile advances a short distance away. Will our hero rescue his wife at the expense of his official duty? Or what? As the movie has been content to show us one thing happening at a time, and quite slowly, this parallel montage suspense sequence feels all the more exhilarating.

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It’s beautifully shot too, with big blasts of movie lightning smacking the scenery, the eerie sputter of signal flares, and scary POV shots from the oncoming train, hurtling along the tracks. The movie shows us a large-scale collision earlier in the story, just as a sort of illustration of what could happen — it’s arguably even more impressive than the bridge collapse in THE GENERAL, though it’s insubstantial context (a flashback as dad (the inspiringly-named Rockliffe Fellowes) tells kid about what happens when signalmen blunder) means it doesn’t carry the same impact.

Following in the size twelve footsteps of door-smashing pugilist Donald Crisp in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, Beery smashes through not one but two doors in an attempt to satiate his vile lusts upon the person of Virginia Valli (from Hitchcock’s THE PLEASURE GARDEN, made the following year).

“Here’s Wally!”

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Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending this one.

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10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals”

  1. Glad you enjoyed it, David. ‘The Signal Tower’ is obviously not quite up to ‘The Goose Woman’ standards in terms of psychology (though the supsense is thrilling). But ‘Smouldering Fires’ certainly is. Check this one out.

  2. Thanks! I will do so.

  3. Still haven’t seen many Brown films, but his hit rate has been close to 100% on the ones I’ve run. With Whale, the celebrated films are pretty much the good ones, though there are things of interest in many of the unknown ones.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    A certain Romanian critic thinks Clarence Brown was THE major genius of the Hollywood studio system – or, at any rate, a close second to William Wyler! Not that I would dare to disagree.

  5. I think he may fairly lay claim to be MGM’s resident genius of the 20s and 30s. Maybe Minnelli pips him later on, though obviously he still had the chops when he made Intruder in the Dust, a stone-cold masterpiece if ever there was one.

    As with Borzage, I seem to be taking my time getting into Brown — as if I were immortal or something. I should sit down and watch them all, RIGHT NOW. I might be struck by a meteorite tomorrow and then where would I be?

  6. I’d certainly like to see more of his work. The film seemed to me very modern. And you didn’t mention Mr Stiped-Shirt’s really life evil deeds…

  7. I think Wally Beery’s ignominy has been discussed here before. At the time of The Signal Tower, that was all ahead of him.

    Let’s have you round for dinner and a Clarence Brown double feature soon!

  8. Simon Kane (@slepkane) Says:

    Wait, The Old Dark House is only 1 hour 12 minutes and 11 seconds long?! Well that settles it, any film better have a REALLY good excuse to be longer.

  9. You could watch all four of James Whale’s horror films in a single afternoon.

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