Archive for David Melville

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

The Late Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I created this second banner because Fiona said the dead Santa one was “horrible.”

Welcome to the blogathon! I’m going to sellotape this post to the top of Shadowplay using science, so it will be the first thing you see this week. But the new posts will be immediately beneath it, so keep scrolling.

If participating in the blogathon, this is the post to link to. You can add a comment below to let me know about the post, if you don’t have my email.

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SUNDAY

And we have a first entry — David Ehrenstein applies his wits to F FOR FAKE, one of Orson Welles’ last movies as director, and another that is sometimes cited as his greatest film. Here.

My own first piece deals with a truly hard-to-see, unconsidered final film, from the wonderful Frank Borzage. Here.

Christine Leteux was our researcher on NATAN, is Kevin Brownlow’s translator, and in her own right she’s the author of the first book on Albert Capellani and the splendid French-language film blog Ann Harding’s Treasures. She’s traveling at present, researching her next book, but gave me permission to link to a relevant piece from AHT — TUMBLEWEEDS was William S. Hart’s last directorial gig and feature starring role. Ici.

Eddie Selover casts a not-unsympathetic eye over two swan songs from 1930s divas, Marlene Dietrich’s JUST A GIGOLO and Mae West’s jaw-dropping SEXTETTE. Here.

Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films looks at a film I only just realized exists, the 1934 version of THE SCARLET LETTER, which was Colleen Moore’s last feature. Here.

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MONDAY

Every Shadowplay blogathon must contain an intertitle. Here.

Over at Mostly Film, Paul Duane raises the tone with an entry on EMMANUELLE V, tragically Walerian Borowczyk’s last gig, but finds some bizarre merit. Here.

Tim Hayes looks at SPAWN not as a naff superhero flick but as a late Nicol Williamson film and gets fascinating results. Here.

We have a scintillating line-up of guest Shadowplayers this year, and the first among them is Judy Dean, who looks at James Mason’s last screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY. Here.

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TUESDAY

Imogen Smith, a regular star writer at The Chiseler, revisits Anthony Mann’s last western, which is also a late Gary Cooper, and elegiac as hell. Here.

Regular Shadowplayer Simon Kane waxes mysterious about Tom Schiller’s first, last and only theatrical feature, aptly titled NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, also the cinematic swan song of Sam (“Professor Knickerbocker”) Jaffe. Here.

My own Tuesday piece takes a brief look at Peckinpah’s THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, both version. And there’s a song! Here.

Gareth McFeely looks at the final feature of the late Georges Lautner, in a particularly timely tribute. Here.

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WEDNESDAY

Filmmaker Matthew Wilder looks at Billy Wilder’s unloved BUDDY BUDDY and, uniquely, finds something to admire. Here.

From Scout Tafoya, a typically ruminative and emotive valediction to Raul Ruiz. Here.

My post deals with a late Richard Lester, the largely ignored/forgotten FINDERS KEEPERS, which actually has some great slapstick. Here.

Louis Wolheim’s last movie, the 193o railroad melodrama DANGER LIGHTS, is examined by The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Here.

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THURSDAY

Nobody Knows Anybody, the Spanish cine-blog, considers the career of Alfredo Landa in the light of his final work. Yonder.

As part of the ’68 Comeback Special, I consider a late film by Albert Finney, made early in his career. Confused? Now you know how CHARLIE BUBBLES feels. Here.

Critica Retro assesses the charms of Louise Brooks’ oddball last picture. In Portuguese — try auto-translate, or try reading Portuguese! Aquí.

Two from Jeremy Rizzo, on Howard Hawks last, RIO LOBO, and Kubrick’s semi-posthumous puzzle box, EYES WIDE SHUT. Here and here.

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FRIDAY

Michael Pattison on what MAY be Tsai Ming-Liang’s final movie. Here.

A tip of the hat to THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE at No Man’s Land. Here.

Our own David Melville Wingrove illuminates the trailing end of Rex Ingram’s mighty career. Down here.

John Greco tackles the knotty problem of William Wyler’s last work, a film I love unreasonably. Here.

Stacia at She Blogged By Night weighs in on HER TWELVE MEN and Douglas Shearer, brother of the more celebrated Norma. Here.

And Tony Dayoub offers a close reading of three scenes in GIANT, the last film of James Dean. Here!

Daniel Riccuito, editor of The Chiseler, considers Jean Epstein’s last short, LIGHTS THAT NEVER FAIL aka LES FEUX DE LA MER. Here.

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SATURDAY

Dennis Cozzalio of the legendary Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule joins the blogathon for the first time with a joint look at the final films of two old masters: Altman and Penn. Here!

Seijun Suzuki’s wild, pop-art penultimate pic inspires this Shadowplay gallery. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Ted Haycraft reflects on one of the biggest, boldest and bloodiest final films, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Here.

Grand Old Movies tips the hat to Marie Dressler. Here.

Late Bresson via Philip Tatler IV at Diary of a Country Pickpocket. Here.

The Girl with the White Parasol covers Frank Borzage’s second-last film, CHINA DOLL. Here.

EXTRA TIME

Unable to recognize too much of a good thing, I keep going with John Frankenheimer’s last theatrical release, REINDEER GAMES. Here.

Chandler Swain revisits Losey’s STEAMING. Here.

Scout Tafoya’s second blogathon post details the last film to end them all, PP Pasolini’s positively final SALO. Here.

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S is for Soledad

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville dishes up another letter from his alphabet soup of spicy Mexican melodrama ~

 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

S is for Soledad

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What can I say? Soledad must be a popular name in Mexico – in films, at any rate. The ‘R’ entry El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl) was a quasi-melodrama that that sought to ennoble its soap operatics with spiritual and social uplift. The 1947 film Soledad, in contrast, is pure unadulterated soap. One of those relentlessly masochistic melodramas about the joys and sorrows of Mother Love (well, mainly the sorrows) it plays like Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce and Imitation of Life all rolled into one, with songs added. Small wonder it’s one of the classics of the genre, hailed by critics as “the most chemically pure melodrama in the history of Mexican film”. Quite a claim, I know, but Soledad more than lives up to the hype.

Directed by ace melodramatist Miguel Zacarías, it’s the film that established Libertad Lamarque as a top Latin American star. A tango singer from Buenos Aires, Lamarque was a big name in Argentine films of the 30s and early 40s – until an alleged feud with First Lady Eva Perón led her to flee the country and seek refuge further north. Her first Mexican vehicle, Gran Casino (1946), failed dismally, largely because its director was Luis Buñuel, a man spectacularly unsuited to the wallowing orgies of suffering and song that were Libertad’s stock-in-trade. A diva in the grand manner, Lamarque insisted that every detail of her films should be conceived and created in her own inimitable style. Zacarías, unlike Buñuel, was happy to oblige – and Soledad was a thunderous hit.

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In a role that scarcely requires her to act, Libertad plays an ill-treated Argentine refugee who becomes a huge singing star and earns the breathless adulation of all around her. The marquee outside the theatre even bills her as ‘La Novia de América’ (America’s Sweetheart – South, not North, you understand) which was Lamarque’s personal sobriquet in real life. She has a dark secret, of course. (What great star has not?) Her character was brought as an orphan to Mexico from Buenos Aires – that’s one way of explaining her accent – by a rich but cold-hearted family who forced her to work as their maid. The feckless son of the house (Rene Cardona) inveigles her into a secret marriage that turns out to be a sham. By the time she finds out the truth, poor Soledad is already pregnant by this rotter. He dumps her for a wealthy heiress – abandoning her to a life of ignominy as an unwed mother!

Our heroine, in floods of tears, runs away and joins a vaudeville troupe, whose leader looks and sounds like a Latino version of Ethel Merman. (A terrifying thought, I know.) But the evil matriarch of the family traces her to a seedy fleapit theatre and demands she relinquish her baby. The new bride, apparently, is unable to bear children and the family will lose control of her fortune if they fail to come up with an heir. (Invariably, wills in Mexican movies are written, not by lawyers but by some underpaid hack in the Script Department.) As Soledad and the old biddy fight it out in the dressing room, we see a nude stripper (in silhouette, through a thin partition wall) being beaten up by her savage drunken pimp. Clearly, this theatre is No Place To Bring Up A Child. Tearfully but inevitably, Soledad gives her baby away.

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Approximately twenty years later (and, incredibly, a mere 20 minutes into the film) Soledad returns to Mexico City in triumph. She is now Latin America’s most illustrious singing star. Sitting in the Dress Circle at her gala concert is her long-lost daughter (Marga López) who has grown up to be the spoiled-rotten princess of Mexican high society. López (who won an Ariel as Best Supporting Actress) bears an alarming resemblance to Ann Blyth as Veda, the bitchy daughter in Mildred Pierce. I do not think this is accidental. She is, in truth, a thoroughly unpleasant young lady who shouts at the servants and even kicks over a vacuum cleaner in one of her periodic fits of ill temper. Her grandmother and ‘mother’ are dead. Her father is a drunken slob who has already gambled away most of her fortune, but she, of course, doesn’t know that. Yet.

In the audience beside Marga is her young and handsome fiancé (Ruben Rojo), a wannabe songwriter who’s wildly besotted with Soledad. To modern eyes, this makes him the 40s Mexican equivalent of a young man who drags his girlfriend to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand concerts…but Marga is an old-fashioned kind of a gal. She gets jealous because she thinks he’s about to cheat on her. (Maybe, dear, but not in the way you think.) So she takes a violent dislike to Libertad and dishes her silver lamé Grecian robe as “a bit over the top, vulgar almost”. Mind you, she does have a point– but then, a few scenes later, Marga wears a faux flamenco outfit of truly monumental hideousness, complete with a spangled black mantilla. Girls who live in glass houses…

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With both its leading ladies facing imminent Death by Wardrobe, Soledad has little time left for its very long to-do list. It must reunite its long-lost mother and child. It must also reunite its young lovers (whose mooted marriage looks none too promising, it must be said). There’s also a sleazy and lecherous fortune hunter who is after what’s left of Marga’s inheritance. In the finest Mildred Pierce tradition, Libertad grabs a gun and shoots him full of lead. But don’t worry, there’s still a happy ending. Mother and daughter embrace in triumphal close-up. The camera cuts to each of the other characters, turn by turn, as they burst obligingly into floods of tears. It’s a none-too-subtle hint, but audiences took it at the time.

Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that. Or are we? My advice is to suspend judgement until you’ve seen Soledad.

David Melville

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