Archive for Howard Bretherton

Pre-code Unknown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2011 by dcairns

In which I continue my slow spread across the internet. Picture one of those burning maps you’d get in the opening titles of Hollywood war or western pic: that’s me and the internet.

At The Daily Notebook, I contribute to the ongoing process of capsule-reviewing highlights of New York’s Film Forum pre-code series, along with Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Zach Campbell and Jaime N. Christley. I’ve tackled THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THREE ON A MATCH (above), RED-HEADED WOMAN and CALL HER SAVAGE.

And at Electric Sheep, I chip in to the round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, with pieces on TROLLHUNTER and TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN.

Been viewing a lot of pre-codes lately, because Fiona’s been unwell and pre-codes are perfect when you’re doped up on painkillers. Here are capsules of a few more we ran –

TWO ALONE

This is a really beautiful pre-code pastoral (was that even a thing?) in which unloved foster-child Jean Parker falls from juvie home runaway Tom Brown. Memorable nastiness from the foster family, but the movie isn’t overall about making you want the bad guys to suffer horrendous fates, although some of the time you do. In the end, this tender film satisfies you by rewarding the good characters instead.

Notable for Parker’s nude scene and the sympathetic view of pre-marital sex and extra-marital pregnancy, and taking the side of the despised outlaws over the nominal pillars of the community. Elliot Nugent directs, and it’s interesting to see small-town values being repeatedly trashed in these movies.

THE MATCH KING

We had David Wingrove to dinner with the plan to watch the ne plus ultra of Bad Cinema, Baz Luhrman’s emetic epic AUSTRALIA, but even he, who owns a copy of BOXING HELENA and watched WILD ORCHID four times, couldn’t make it through the antipodean hellscape (it’s like being injected into the mind of a ten-year-old with ADHD), and so a nice 80-minute pre-code seemed the ideal antidote.

Warren William — the starving lion — magnificent scoundrel — king of the pre-codes — the other Great Profile — is a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer who tries to dominate the world, starting with a humble match factory. He saves the family firm with money borrowed on holdings that don’t exist, which means he’ll always owe more money than he can pay back, “until I own everything in the world, and then I’ll only owe money to myself.” On the way to his inevitable fall, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd and Lily Damita become notches on his bedpost. Every now and then the screenwriters have WW do something truly rotten on a personal level, in case we find his massive-scale financial chicanery too endearing. “This is like a primer in capitalism,” our dinner guest remarked, awestruck.

HOT SATURDAY

Our new favourite Nancy Carroll is torn between rich playboy Cary Grant and homespun geologist Randolph Scott. Quite a choice. But meanwhile smalltown gossip threatens her future. Chief slanderer and hottie Lilian Bond makes malice seem almost sexy, and this is a useful rebuttal to Leo McCarey’s claim that he taught Cary Grant everything. Grant is stiff in his Mae West and Sternberg movies, but effective for Leisen and Walsh and, in this case, the less celebrated William A. Seiter.

BIG BROWN EYES

Grant again, paired with blonde Joan Bennett, who’s notably abrasive and snappy under Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious purview. She’s a manicurist-turned-crime-reporter (!), he’s a police detective, and they’re hot on the trail of a ring of burglars, fences and baby-killers. Walter Pidgeon makes an assured snake-in-the-grass, and the accidental assassination of a sleeping tot shows how pre-codes could turn reckless tonal inconsistency into some kind of demented virtue. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?

ME AND MY GAL

The best and pre-codiest pre-codes overall may be the Warners films, but the Fox films are the rarest, thanks to that library’s largely unexploited status (apart from the legendary Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set). This is Walsh again, and Bennett again (with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty spot) and Spencer Tracy, during that part of his career where he played ostensibly lovable louts rather than patrician paterfamilias types. Here he rises through the police force and into Joan’s arms in a sweet, sassy romance that folds in a crime story and some alcoholic Irish shenanigans. Twice, Bennett’s father turns to the camera and invites us all to have a drink. Another character is paralyzed and communicates by blinking, allowing for some THERESE RAQUIN inspired plot twists, and the weirdest scene is cued by Tracy talking about a movie he just saw, “STRANGE INNERTUBE or something,” which leads to a series of internal monologues by himself and Bennett as they cuddle up on their date. Crazy stuff.

Walsh made a quasi-sequel, SAILOR’S LUCK, which has been getting a lot of attention in New York screenings and on the blogosphere, and which we’ll certainly be watching next.

Terror in the Aisles

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2010 by dcairns

Above: the news ad reproduced by Denis Gifford in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies.

The first talking horror movie, THE TERROR, directed by Roy Del Ruth from Edgar Wallace’s play, is now a lost film. This is bad news for obvious historic reasons, but artistic ones too: here’s Denis Gifford on the movie, which he apparently either saw, or read a detailed press release about –

“The sound of horror had begun in 1928, in the second full-length talkie ever made: THE TERROR. For the first time movie audiences heard the howl of the wind, the beat of the rain, the creak of the door, and the scream upon scream of a girl in fear. There was also the pounding of the Terror at his underground organ, and the creepy croak of Squeegee the trained toad. It was the first and only Total Talkie: even credit titles were taboo as the shadow of an unbilled Conrad Nagel intoned them from the screen.

“Roy Del Ruth used Vitaphone to add a new dimension to pictorial fright. He took Edgar Wallace’s melodrama of a hooded madman, hidden loot, clutching hand and stormbound tavern, and salted in with cinematic shocks. With his cloaked killer whisking victims up flues, down trapdoors and through catacombs, Del Ruth pointed his camera straight down at a table-top seance, slung it from a basket for an overhead travelling shot, and ran it on rollers into a screaming female face. More than enough movement to prove that sound need not kill the visual art of cinema.”

Via the late lamented blog Vitaphone Varieties, I bring you this press release, which slightly contradicts Gifford re the shadow of Nagel — this suggests to me that Gifford is going from his (occasionally faulty) memory, and did actually see the movie on release (and why wouldn’t he?).

“In ‘The Terror,’ mystery thriller at the __________ this week, the opening titles are announced by a masked man in formal dress with the admonition that no one is to leave the theater until the picture is finished. This warning was totally unnecessary because after ‘The Terror’ began, the fans could do little but grip their seats.”

(Nagel also appeared in the movie’s specially-shot trailer, talking to the audience and introducing the cast, each of whom said a few words. This seems to be lost too, along with most of the Vitaphone discs and even the silent version shot alongside THE TERROR for use in theatres not yet wired for talkies.)

“Black shrouded death hovers throughout the picture while the audience shudders and shivers. Flickering lights, ghostly shadows, strange murders, knives flashing in dark places, shrieks and screams, guns blazing out of darkness, dead bodies falling, appalling situations, a treasure hunt sheeted with deadly angers — and, throughout, spine chilling touches of human comedy!”

“There are no subtitles. The characters introduce themselves, and the plot is carried along through voice and action throughout the play — and successfully too, for in ‘The Terror’ the realization is brought home as to the possibilities of the Vitaphone. There is none of that delay or slowing up of the action, for which there was criticism of the talking pictures when first introduced.”

“In this picture, thrills run rampant. Peculiar happenings like screwing men’s heads to their bodies and holding spiritualistic seances in the dark, are but a few of the highlights of horror.”

“The story is set in an old house called Monkhall, which is being used for ‘rest cures’ for the insane, and which is infested with toads, the harbingers of death — and tells the story of a maniacal murderer, a Mr. O’Shea, who has eluded police and whose crimes are always marked by devilish ingenuity and characterized by mutilation and horrible violence. An old doctor, played by Alec B. Francis, is the proprietor of the place, and by some mysterious influence he is compelled to stay there with his daughter, played by May McEvoy. Then, one character after another is introduced into the scene, while leaving the impression that each is more weird in ‘get up’ than the one immediately preceding.”

“As with all mystery stories, the tale is made up of a succession of queer happenings. Edward Everett Horton in the hero’s role is fine in such situations and through the constant use of the Vitaphone, his portrayal is colored more effectively than it would be in the silent drama.”


“As an example of the added effectiveness obtainable through the Vitaphone, director Roy Del Ruth cites the weird effect secured through a hidden pipe organ whose uncanny interruptions of scenes is one of the many factors injecting a creepy feeling into the play. In the silent drama, the weird effect of the organ’s playing would be put over only by the registration of the physical reaction of the player’s fingers upon the keys and by written titles. In this Vitaphone production the weird melodies of the organ break into the tense dialogue of the actors, thus setting them on the quest of the cause of the mysterious music and make everybody in the audience eager to tiptoe after.”

“Other scenes, such as the sound of a falling body in the darkness indicating that violence has been done, the sudden slamming of a door with no one near to slam it, mysterious rapping, shots, and shrieks, all become dynamic through the Vitaphone.”

“The fine recording of the Vitaphone cannot escape mention, and it must be said that ‘The Terror’ gains much through continuous use of it. However, the audience is altogether much too absorbed in the idiotic laughter of John Miljan and other blood-curdling events to notice such details as that. The thrills persist even to the finish. As the final scene fades, one can still hear John Miljan’s voice ringing out that the man in the seat next to you may be ‘The Terror!’”

With THE TERROR apparently lost forever, the best way for me to tick it off my list would be to hear the surviving soundtrack discs. Hoping somebody can oblige! The strongest possibility seems to be UCLA, which holds a set.

A different problem is presented by the movie’s sequel, RETURN OF THE TERROR, featuring Mary Astor and directed by Howard Bretherton. I find no evidence that the film is lost, and indeed, thankfully few 1934 Hollywood movies have been destroyed. But nevertheless, the movie never seems to show up. Can anyone help?

Here’s a fine image from Mark A. Verieira’s Hollywood Horror: from Gothic to Cosmic ~

Further homework — I’ve just seen the 1938 Brit version, seemingly quite faithful to Edgar Wallace’s hokey original, and presumably also close to the Del Ruth. The Horton role is taken, bizarrely enough, by a nubile Bernard Lee (“M” in the early Bonds), and he’s a comedy drunk who’s really a detective in disguise, something I realised about five minutes after he showed up. An almost-equally young Wilfrid Lawson is a baddie, also very obviously, and he appears to be playing his role sober, the first time I’ve seen the actor in this lamentable condition. Linden Travers, bony-faced lead in NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, has the ingenue role. Acting honours go to Alastair Sim, as they always must, playing a vengeful crook. The movie strongly suggests that Del Ruth didn’t have much to work with in terms of story and character values in his original version, hence the stylistic brio, perhaps…

Gifford’s Most Wanted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by dcairns

Inspired by the BFI’s Most Wanted campaign to unearth 100 lost movies, I’m turning to my readers to help locate the TEN MYSTERY FILMS from Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies which I still haven’t tracked down.

(There are still lots I haven’t seen, but these are the only ten I haven’t been able to find copies of.)

Your help is needed! Facebook and tweet this post to all your filmy friends, and anybody who runs/works for/is an archive. I must see those movies!!!

I offer unspecified rewards. And you know those unspecified rewards are going to be pretty cool when I eventually specify them, right? Damn straight.

I’m going to write a little piece on each over the coming weeks, but here’s the Top Ten Lost Monster Movies in capsule form –

1) THE FAIRY OF THE BLACK ROCKS:  a 1905 period yarn with a skeleton flasher.

2) CASTLE SINISTER: still don’t know anything about this, except it’s Britain, 1948, produced by “British Equity”, whoever they were.

3) THE COUGHING HORROR: a 1924 melodrama that gives me a tickle in the throat just thinking about it.

4) MARIA MARTEN, OR THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN: not with Todd Slaughter, but an earlier, silent version. Another version, directed by Maurice Elvey in between these two, is considered lost, according to the BFI.

5) FIGHT WITH SLEDGE HAMMERS: likewise, a silent melodrama described as “The most thrilling film ever taken.” Taken where?

6 & 7)THE GORILLA: the 1927 version with Walter Pigeon, and the 1930 remake, again with Pigeon. Never seem to show up ANYWHERE.

8 & 9) THE TERROR: Roy Del Ruth’s silent Edgar Wallace adaptation with Edward Everett Horton and THE RETURN OF THE TERROR: Howard Bretherton’s sequel with Mary Astor.

10) THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE: with Pearl White. I’m sure this is hard to see, but not impossible, I hope! It qualifies for Giffordom by virtue of featuring a cameo by Jekyll & Hyde.

There are also four lost films (assuming none of the above are lost). The rules of See Reptilicus And Die do not allow me to neglect movies on the mere basis of their non-existence. So I’m going to see these too!

A BLIND BARGAIN:  a lost film, this, so a more creative solution is required.

THE CAT CREEPS: 1930 version with Jean Hersholt, Lilyan Tashman, directed by Rupert “PHANTOM OF THE OPERA” Julian. I wondered about this for ages, why it never showed up. Turns out it’s lost, a fact confirmed by the fact that it’s reviewed on the IMDb by fantasy novelist and wingnut F. Gwynneplaine Macintyre, who has reviewed nearly every prominent lost fantasy film. As a situationist stunt, this wins some admiration from me, though I wonder at the ethics of writing slams of films one hasn’t seen (unless one is ninety years old).

LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE: lost Melies — I’m resolved to bring this back into existence by sheer willpower (and, if necessary, bribery).

BALAOO THE DEMON BABOON: apparently fragments of this exist in Canada. Is there any way to see them without crossing the pond? Don’t make me come over there!

How does one see lost films? In ones’ dreams, certainly, the way Fiona saw Hitchcock’s THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on my behalf. Or by reconstructions, which allowed me to stretch a point and tick LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT off my list. Or else by seeing fragments and trailers which might be said to stand for the whole, the way an organism can be cloned from a single cell. There may be other techniques, and rest assured, I’m open to all of them!

NB: such is the speed of development in my INSANE QUEST, I already have news about several of the top ten, which I shall report to you in following posts. But for now, I’m open to all info.

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