Archive for Joseph Schildkraut

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.

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He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)

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DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.

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DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah –

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]

Hearts of Darkness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 27, 2010 by dcairns

So many good versions of THE TELL-TALE HEART — of course, it hasn’t really worked as a feature film (Poe is, in general, tricky to expand to 90 mins or so) — but it would seem ideally suited to short form.

Here’s Vincent Price on TV treating it as a monologue. An absolutely delicious performance, inventive and detailed, giving the lie to the “ham” allegation — there’s nothing broad or clumsy about this, either in terms of behaviour or storytelling (it’s both a reading of the story and a performance piece). It’s funny because it’s witty — hits me like a sugar rush, so many bold and outrageous choices. And it’s not a spoof of Poe, just a relishing of the delirious and absurd elements.

Now here’s Jules Dassin’s short, made at MGM, which kickstarted his career. Best viewed as an exercise in the use of rhythm, deploying performance, sound, music, editing, camera movement and composition to create a poem in visual-narrative form. A very Poe-like approach, since rhythm is central to both the prose and poetry of Poe, and he wrote often about the need for a short story to create a single, unified effect. Say what you like about the auteur theory (and I like to rubbish it occasionally), in film, the director is generally the only person in a position to co-ordinate an approach like this.

And it’s as well he does, because in terms of adaptation, the film has suffered a lot of damaging rationalisation at the hands and minds of MGM — exactly the kind of studio who would balk at Poe’s unmotivated mayhem. Remember, a lot of verbiage is devoted to the important fact, in the story, that the protagonist kills for no good reason, purely because he doesn’t like the Old Man’s “vulture eye”. The MGM rewrite adds logic and motivation and removes interest.

Leading man Joseph Schildkraut had a good career going at MGM until he remarked publicly that he saw Louis B Mayer’s lips move as he signed a contract. Suddenly he wasn’t as in-demand.

Lovely UPA animated version, narrated by James Mason, who has a very different approach from Price but is generally good — it’s more about that amazing, distinctive voice than about detail of performance, although I find no fault there. This is an early UPA (and the first cartoon to get an X Certificate in the UK) and shares with the famous GERALD MCBOING-BOING the quality of ecstatic visual invention, in which design IS storytelling and vice-versa. It’s good and dark, surpassingly beautiful, and doesn’t stint on the maelstrom of angst and confusion that is Poe-try.

“It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Hello, Moto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2008 by dcairns

Great stuff, this vodka. It gets you drunk, did you know that? Brilliant.

I had recourse to the bottle, left behind by visiting thespians, since Fiona was getting her roots done with our friend Nicola (officially deemed “too disturbing for Channel 4″) and while they were assailing each others’ hair with “colourants” I thought I’d distract myself with what turned out to be a vodka-fuelled triple-bill of MR. MOTO movies.

Peter Lorre starred as Japanese importer/detective Kentaro Moto eight times between 1937 and 1939 (whew!). My discs had a few extras as well so I supplemented my viewing with an interview with Lorre’s stunt double Harvey Parry, and a meditation on the historical significance of the man Moto. The thesis seemed to be that casting the sinister-of-aspect Peter Lorre as Moto was a way of acknowledging the mixed feelings had about the emergence of Japan on the world scene.

Wow, blogging drunk is weirdly EFFORTFUL (hic!).

I think the documentary mouthpieces had it slightly wrong about Moto. One weird thing about the films I saw was that in all three (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO; THANK YOU, MR. MOTO; MR. MOTO’S VACATION) there were Germanic actors playing Russians: Sig Ruman, twice, and Victor Varconi, once. So the suspicion formed that in a strange way, casting Lorre as Japanese was a way of de-Germanising him. The effect of a German playing Japanese, while obviously disturbing by the time of Pearl Harbour (he’s a one-man Axis!), was basically to render the actor and character as an all-purpose exotic. His precise ethnicity is blurred.

(Sig Ruman appears once with beard – prompting loud cries of “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!” and references to “Concentration Camp Erhardt” from Nicola and I — and once without, exposing a bare and raddled chin like an old man’s bottom.)

The Ruman chin in all its naked awfulness. Get that thing behind a beard!

My, the films are entertaining, though (and you don’t even need to be drunk). Lorre, slim and rather beautiful, but equipped with jangling European teeth, is elegant and always surprising as Moto. If you can forgive the horrible idea of casting a white man in yellowface, that is. Assisted by Harvey Parry, Moto deploys a peculiar variety of ju-jitsu that frequently culminates in a sock in the jaw or a blast from a small-calibre pistol. Like Sam Spade, Moto follows his own code of honour, which makes him worthy of our respect, and always capable of being surprising. For the first couple of films, the writers definitely play with the idea of Moto as a suspicious character — might he turn out to be the villain? He does not.

That sexy, sexy man.

Lorre adds to Moto’s surprising qualities with his own. His line readings are always unique, seductive, playful, sardonic, melancholic or slightly tipsy, and it’s not always easy to tell which. Plus there are the great luminous eyes, round and wet as soap bubbles. They appear to be enlarged by his glasses, until he takes his specs off and we realise that his particular googliness owes nothing to magnification.

The MOTO films are swift, getting the job done in just over an hour, and follow a harum-scarum, making-it-up-as-they-go-along system of plotting which may well be more carefully worked-out than appears. And they’re decorated with guest stars. The three I saw had John Carradine (being Spanish), Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer (being German), Lionel Atwill (being Atwill) and J. Carroll Naish (not sure what he was trying to be). Also Joseph Schildkraut, a man whose Hollywood career went into mysterious decline after he let it be known that Louis B. Mayer moved his lips while signing his name.

Unlike the CHARLIE CHAN series, also produced by 20th Century Fox and at the same time, Moto’s adventures tend not to be whodunnits, but more generalised capers, filled with action, plots, reverses and disguises. They’re a bit more feverish and non-Cartesian, although just about possible to follow if you haven’t had a skinful. Rather than slowly winding themselves up by way of exposition and scene-setting, they begin in media res, with violent action which won’t be explained for several reels, after an apparently unrelated plot is already in full swing. The Chan films are slightly stiffer, like their middle-aged hero, though occasional propulsive track-ins at dramatic moments, and aberrant moments of comic surrealism, keep them frisky enough.

All three of the films I watched were directed by Norman Foster, who also made JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, and Shadowplay favourite KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (A.K.A. STEAM THE SEMEN OFF MY SPATS, and BLAST THE LINT OUT MY NAVEL). In interview, stuntman Parry calls Foster “a very serious man”. God, making those films must have been hell for him.

Our hero throws a ship’s steward to his death in a fit of pique.

Years later, a director asked Peter Lorre for a retake. “I only do this shit once,” the actor slurred back.

“Then how did you survive all those MR. MOTO films?”

“Easy. I was on drugs.”

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