Archive for Louise Brooks

The Sunday Intertitle: Lulu, Interrupted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 12, 2014 by dcairns

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In collaboration with Timo Langer (editor) and Fiona Watson (narrator), I have put together a video essay to accompany the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of GW Pabst’s DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, starring Louise Brooks.

This would be a dream job if one could make a living at it, but small fees for fun work are, I think, better than fat ones for drudgery.

You buying the product from the nice evil people at Amazon via this link will bring in a few extra pennies: Diary of a Lost Girl [Masters of Cinema] Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD)

In case you need a better reason:

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The Sunday Intertitle: Silence is Golden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to Mark Medin for aiming me at this one — a follow-up to last week’s Keaton, which was co-directed by Mal St Clair.

St Clair’s THE SHOW OFF (1926) is a movie where we can be truly grateful for silence — Ford Sterling, a longtime Keystone cop, plays a braying jackass who is already rather hard to taken without sound. If we had to listen to him, we’d end up climbing into the screen to throttle the bastard. Sterling plays the chief of the clowns in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but he hasn’t got much to do in it and isn’t required to engage our sympathy. His abrasive personality is probably what kept him from being a bigger success, though he was obviously well-known enough.

The film is strictly domestic comedy, with few visual gags and most of the humour deriving from Sterling’s crass behaviour. There’s also a big helping of pathos, with a dying parent and so on. St Clair negotiates the tonal shifts fairly well, though Sterling basically just bulldozers through, the script failing to supply him with much of a redemption. The highlights turn out to be scenes of more-or-less straight suspense, protracted to a nerve-shredding degree at the climax where Sterling ambles home with the money to save the family home, just as his poor mother-in-law is hunting for a pen to sign the property away.

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The film also features Gregory Kelly, who was the first Mr. Ruth Gordon, and who looks Japanese. And then it also features Louise Brooks, which I expect is the reason most folks watch it. Brooks is used quite effectively, and though as romantic interest for the second male lead, it should be a nothing part, it actually affords her some nice moments.

St Clair’s direction is pleasing too, with some dynamic tracking shots that reinforce the swaggering idiot hero’s conceit of himself, as he pushes the whole frame along with his jaunty march. And there’s this ~

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Really nice, and so modern. There’s been a certain amount of debate down the years about whether Brooks was an actress or just a great screen figure. I think she’s the embodiment of the kind of star who excelled in silents and wasn’t so effective in sound, not because of any flaw in her voice but because the rigidity of sound filmmaking stifled what was amazing about her. And then in filmed interviews in her later years she’s quite relaxed (to the point of not bothering to get dressed and doing them in her dressing gown) and you can see the vibrancy again. I guess the Kansan accent wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t what you’d imagine when looking at her in a silent, but I don’t find it a big problem (but then, I’m not American so it has fewer dust bowl associations for me).

Her delicacy and dancer’s poise improve every composition in THE SHOW OFF. A shame more St Clair features of this era don’t survive. And a shame about Ford Sterling.

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Oh, do be quiet, you silly man.

Dixie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Alice White and her… zombie beatnik chorus?

When you’re feeling poorly, a pre-code can be a tonic, or else it can be about all you can handle. Although some of them are rather spicy, and some (THE BOWERY) even toxic, so you have to watch out. Fiona had a very good week, during which we ventured out of early thirties Hollywood and ran L’AUBERGE ROUGE, but then she’s had a couple of bad days so we ran for cover into the soothing crackle of Vitaphone.

A SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is a 1930 Warners dramedy, or dromedary if you will, with an interesting history. The character of Dixie Dugan sprang from two novels by J.P. McEvoy (IT’S A GIFT), was adapted into a comic strip with Louise Brooks serving as model for the showgirl’s design, and then found her way to a Gershwin-scored Broadway play (Ruby Keeler in the lead), and thence to the screen, embodied by Alice White in 1928’s SHOW GIRL (which I haven’t managed to see) and its sequel.

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Gargantuan clown weeps chorines: a staple of entertainment in the ’30s.

This being 1930 means the studio with the most pre-code paprika hadn’t quite hit its stride — Mervyn LeRoy directs, but he lets everybody take their time (even Herman Bing, though playing a character called Bing, just does not bring the Bing), and everybody being somewhat miscast and the material being somewhat thin, the film kind of just lays there. Still, it’s interesting.

One reason for this is the behind-the-scenes stuff, which we’ve been wallowing in lately. Though the movie isn’t particularly abrasive in its portrayal of Hollywood, it does feature a musical number interrupted by shots taken from inside one of the soundproof booths, which means they must have crammed TWO cameras in there, one filming the other. The motor whir is pretty loud, alright. This fine post covers most of what I’d have said about that.

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Another reason is Alice White, who fascinates. She has natural oomph, and it’s not that she can’t act, exactly — she just seems to not know what’s going on around her most of the time. Her quicksilver shifts of facial expression are enticing, but not strictly tied to anything in the scene, they’re more like hats being tried on for size. A more intelligent performance might have focused and injected fizzle into what are often quite flat scenes. It’s not really clear if Dixie is a gold-digger, a ditz, or what, and White’s reading of the snappier lines is uncertain enough to suggest Dixie is repeating things she’s overheard, rather than minting her own witticisms.

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Third reason is Blanche Sweet, in one of only three early talkies she made, rather cruelly cast as a past-her-prime actress. “I’m thirty-two,” she confesses, though Sweet was actually a little older. Still, point taken — Hollywood’s search for the new, the young, is a merciless thing. Sweet had a perfectly good voice, in fact she made her living in radio and on the stage when the movies stopped calling, so her decline can be credited purely to the changing of fashion. I guess when movies began yapping, people were excited to see their favourite stars give voice, but less-celebrated players couldn’t compete with imports from the New York stage or elsewhere, who could be marketed as the next big thing.

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