Archive for Chicago

The Sunday Intertitle: Reaction Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by dcairns

THE NIGHT CLUB (1925) isn’t very well plotted, the gags aren’t brilliantly clever, the title is utterly irrelevant and the direction is decent but mostly uninspired, but it is nevertheless a film at which to laugh off one’s ass.

The reason is Raymond Griffith, near-forgotten silent comedy star, whose ability to react entertainingly to whatever’s going on around him means that the actual action of the film needn’t be particularly funny. This is established early on, when RG is jilted at the altar, a particularly good situation for this unusual comic: he has no interest in our sympathy, so he can simply exploit the sutuation, moment for moment, to get the maximum comedy out of it. As I’ve said before, his reaction upon learning that he stands to inherit a million dollars allows him to make a rapid recovery from heartbreak and demonstrate an amazing mastery of detail and nuance and lightning-change emotional quicksilvering.

Resolving to escape women, and particularly the one he’s now expected to marry in order to inherit (yes, this is one of those “unbelievable farce-type plots” Buster Keaton inveighed against), Ray takes off on holiday and runs smack into the girl. They fall in love at once, and then the plot has to keep inventing obstacles to what promises to be the most premature happy ending on record, occurring as it does somewhere near the end of act I. Complications include a murderous Mexican bandit played by Wallace Beery, a man who imbibed gusto with his mother’s milk. Louise Fazenda plays Carmen, the hot-blooded spitfire/stereotype.

Directors Paul Iribe and Frank Urson, who made the splendid DeMille production of CHICAGO, keep the thing moving as fast as possible to hide the threadbare narrative, and do deliver on an exciting chase, which has some of the accelerated-motion POV thrills that make the climax of Griffith’s PATHS TO PARADISE so breathtaking. Fight scenes are notable for the use of floppy dummies to substitute for RG during the dangerous bits, which always cracks me up. It’s cheating, of course, and the kind of thing which Keaton would never settle for, but it’s still very funny. Griffith is pretty brave when it comes to falling off tables and such, but he clearly had no intention of getting himself killed. His acrobatics lack Chaplin’s balletic elegance or Keaton’s simpler flap-shoe grace — unlike his contemporaries, Griffith was at his very best in scenes of talk, emotion, embarrassment and general medium-shot facial expressiveness. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd or Langdon or Stan and Ollie couldn’t do those things, just that it’s an area of special emphasis with Ray G.

Sublime fatuity.

When pre-codes go Bad #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by dcairns

Number two in our short, possibly two-part, study of those unsettling moments when the edgy interplay of cute and spicy in pre-code Hollywood cinema of the ’30s takes a sharp downturn into moral horror.

The film is PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, a strangely shrill comedy with no likable characters. Ginger Rogers plays a radio star, frustrated by her own squeaky clean image and entourage of managers etc, all preventing her from having a good time in Harlem for fear of scandal. When she learns that marriage might allow her greater freedom, she accepts a stage-managed wedding to a country galoot who’s written her a touching love letter. He’s initially presented as an appealing innocent caught up in the schemes of these big-city sophisticates (Frank McHugh, Franklin Pangborn — devilish conspirators to a man), then this scene comes along and pretty well wrecks any chance he has of hoovering up our free-floating sympathies ~

OK, so the sight of Ginger in her scanties is… not displeasing. Taunting her new hubby with her unabashed semi-nudity… I can get behind that. The spanking… well, it was a different era… this is really just softcore porn, isn’t it, though? … kinda hard to defend because it’s a co-mingling of porn and domestic violence… not light s&m play, she’s definitely not a consenting party… still… HEY!

He shouldn’t ought to have done that.

Granted, NOTHING SACRED has a moment where Frederic March socks Carole Lombard into slumberland — but that scene’s playing on our shock, his character is something of a sonofabitch already, and she does get to slug him back soon after, with equally devastating effect.

Further developments in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART — after this rocky start, Ginger and her hubbie settle down in connubial bliss in her cabin, and in desperation, the A&R guys hire her maid, Theresa Harris, to replace her. The black girl’s sultry, hoochy-coochy delivery affects hubbie strangely. As he sways his body dreamily to the radio’s rhythms, he momentarily snaps to full consciousness: “Say, they oughtn’t allow that on the radio!”

The spectacle of a black woman arousing a white man, even by voice alone, is a startling one. Ginger, smitten with jealousy, returns to her old career, and Theresa Harris, the most enjoyable performer in the film, disappears from the movie — flung back into obscurity and domestic service, presumably.

A couple things of further note –

(1) The screenplay is by newspaperwoman Maurine Dallas Howard Watkins, who originated Chicago. In that thrice-filmed hit play, MDH’s savage portrayal of her female characters feels like a satirical critique. Here, it nudges over into misogyny. The director’s fault, or uncredited rewriting, or Howard’s own sensibility?

(2) Theresa Harris is uncredited, despite having more lines and a more significant role than, say, Pangborn. She had a thirty-year acting career, making 78 movies in which she received screen credit thirteen times. Her debut is as the Black Cat Nightclub’s singer in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT, and you can also see her in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and OUT OF THE PAST. She’s always a full-on, radiant presence, grabbing whatever moments of immortality she can. Even if nobody learned her name, there was a chance they’d remember her smile.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Perfumed Cage

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2010 by dcairns

I’m still thinking back with pleasure upon CHICAGO. One of the movie’s cheekier ideas is to present the womens’ prison as a kind of Turkish harem of sexy flappers and weird grotesques. Here’s the lady mentioned above ~

Within frames of her introduction, she’ll be in a knock-down fight with Roxie, after spitting the word “Peroxide!” at her. Roxie then tears out her “False hair” and throws it to the lesbians.

There’s also the tragic baby-killer, trapped in a mental loop of re-enacting her woeful trauma with a doll on a string. Her story is grim enough to make even Roxie Hart falter ~

But my favourite is this delicious, evil-looking creature, in jail for knifing the old man ~

Later, we sneak a peak at the book she’s reading, an etiquette guide for ladies. Chapter heading: “When is it correct to use a knife?”

Here’s another intertitle of sorts, the foreword Nunnally Johnson places before the action of William Wellman’s remake, ROXIE HART ~

By the way, you can buy your choice of Roxies here ~

CHICAGO The Original 1927 Film Restored Phyllis!

Roxie Hart Ginger!

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