Archive for Frank Borzage

Bible Thumper

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

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot –

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

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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Crazy at Fox

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 23, 2013 by dcairns

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John Ford’s 1927 Fox comedy UPSTREAM starts off in a theatrical rooming house — and stays there for half its running time. The scenario allows Ford to have fun with stereotyped theatre types, and a little fun with space, too.

The movie has that early Fox look, all smoky and grimy yet luminous, to which Time has added a loving filigree of nitrate decomposition, dancing away at the edge of frame like the fingerprints of a jellyfish.

In this dinner scene, the whole cast is gathered around a table — we see that the landlady is at the head of the table and  her lodgers are arrayed along both sides. News comes that an important booking agent has arrived at the front door, and each struggling ham briefly imagines that the call is for him or her. And here Ford does something very strange.

Tracking laterally along the table, he captures the reverie of each of his cast — in a single, straight line.

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The weird thing about that is that it’s impossible, since we’ve already seen that half the actors are at one side of the table, half at the other. But since Ford wanted an unbroken, linear track, he’s brought in a table twice as long as the one in the establishing shot and sat everybody along one side, like in The Last Supper.

Oddly, this abandonment of elementary continuity isn’t off-putting. I doubt if everybody even notices it, so compelling is Ford’s tracking shot (a bit like the starry crab dolly along the canteen tables in SHOW PEOPLE). The idea is consistent with the German expressionist approach at Fox. Edgar Ulmer claimed that the expressionists would build a new set for every camera angle, to get their compositions to work out just the way they’d drawn them. In Frank Borzage’s masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN, how many viewers have any problem with the glaring fact that the garret where Janet Gaynor lives is apparently reached by two completely different stairwells, one that’s angular, for the crane shot, and one that’s spiral for the overhead angle?

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This kind of vigorous warping of the physical universe was continued by Hitchcock in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, when he had different shapes and sizes of dinner tables used to allow him to group his actors as tightly or loosely as the compositions required. One table was egg-shaped, so that the cast could be clustered at the sharp end and all appear in a shot representing the mother’s POV. But that isn’t near as bold as the Fox examples — you aren’t meant to notice it, and you don’t.

I would like to see more of this kind of creative craziness.

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