Archive for Twentieth Century

Ra Ra Rasputin

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by dcairns

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is a weird one. I tried watching it once, figuring “Pre-code Rasputin movie with the Barrymores — must be exciting!” But the beginning was such a total snooze, like somebody at MGM decided that what an audience attending a pre-code Barrymore Rasputin movie wanted was lots of PAGEANTRY and PROCESSIONS, so I zoned out and switched off. Plus it seemed kind of a shame to have Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin, instead of the disreputable Jack, who had form playing hypnotic masterminds (his SVENGALI, and even his later role in TWENTIETH CENTURY).

Then Shadowplayer Randy Cook advised me to try again, using the fast-forward if necessary, because of the good stuff later on.

Quite apart from the tedious parades, some of which are augmented by jerky stock footage of pre-WWI Moscow, there’s the criminal incompetence of beginning the story with an assassination that happens entirely offscreen, while we’re watching the drones with flags trudging through a palace. Then everybody talks about the assassination for a while, and then things come to life as John Barrymore, as heroic Prince Paul Chegodieff, has to stop an out-of-control General from ordering summary executions of a dozen suspects. We start to get a picture of the situation in Tsarist Russia, where opposing urges to modernisation and imperialist conservatism are at war. The Tsar is admirably embodied by Ralph Morgan, with a hairpiece that looks like it’s been inserted by traveling matte, using all his anti-charismatic sincerity as a fundamentally weak man with plenty of good impulses but zero political nous. Ethel Barrymore is the Tsarina, in a rather mannered performance, but with a core of reality that stops her being utterly ridiculous.

John B is keeping his ham tendencies well in check, ready to unleash them when the time is right. The movie is trundling along agreeably enough.

Enter Lionel. Wisely, he makes Grigori Rasputin not too obviously sinister at first — he has to be able to inveigle his way into the first family’s confidence, and though they’re not exactly bright, they’re not complete idiots. So Lionel B dials it down a little, although he’s still the biggest performer thus far, apart from Ethel of course, who’s resolutely weird throughout.

Charmingly, John B’s hero appears to be an atheist or freethinker — he congratulates his sweetheart (Diana Wynyard, from the original GASLIGHT) on her religious faith, saying words to the effect of, “It must be a wonderful thing, or I suppose it must.” Although he’ll later use more religious language himself when battling Rasputin, hinting at a reconciliation with the Church, this is by no means explicit. It sets him up as the one man who can see through the mad monk’s mask of kindliness. As Dennis Potter attempted show in BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE, the man of sin knows the Devil when he sees him, whereas the truly innocent often do not.

Lionel got his bedside manner from Bob in Twin Peaks.

The first bravura scene is Lionel’s hypnotizing of the little hemophiliac Tsarevich, well-played by young Tad Alexander (according to the IMDb, Tad may still be with us. Well done, Tad!). This might be the best hypnosis scene I’ve ever witnessed. Although Lionel does get his pocket watch out for some wide-eyed dangling, he doesn’t waste time saying “You are getting sleepy,” or any of that stuff, he just bangs on about elephants and stuff, making up childish tales while stunning the anemic lad with the full force of his overwhelming personality.

The movie staggers along from style to style, apparently a by-product of its having had two directors. Ethel seems to have had the first helmer, Charles Brabin, fired and replaced with Richard Boleslawski. Most of what we see is R.B.’s, but I’m tantalizingly uncertain about who did what. Brabin was a Liverpudlian who married Theda Bara and directed the Gothic camp MASK OF FU MANCHU and the searing pre-code gangster flick BEAST OF THE CITY, which combines a Revengers’ Tragedy savagery with neo-Fascist tendencies. Given his strengths and weaknesses, he COULD be responsible for the four or so hyper-intense, noirish and expressionist sequences, of which the hypnosis is the first. Or he could be responsible for the stilted ham. Reviews of some Brabin movies I’ve not seen, like a silent film of Poe’s THE RAVEN (1915), suggest he was equally capable of both approaches.

Boleslawski was more of a typical MGM man, with an unfortunate tendency towards good taste, but his LES MISERABLES serves up some striking period drama, with dynamism and plenty of shadows, so this gets very cloudy.

Ham — John and Lionel get one atrocious scene where each tries to trump the other in showy awfulness. Talk about sibling rivalry — if they tried to upstage each other like this in a theatre, one or other would be backed into the orchestra pit. Fiona started translating their performances into English.  “I’ve got a sword and a cigar!” cries Jack’s body language. “I’ve got a beard!” screams Lionel’s. “Yes, but when I smirk for no reason like this, nobody cares about your old beard!” retorts Jack’s face. “That’s not fair,” shrieks Lionel’s face, “My face is under a beard!”

This leads straight into another GOOD scene, with Rasputin and the Tsarevich and a microscope. Giant closeups of bugs! Lionel Barrymore channeling Hades itself into his perf! A terrified child who inexplicably becomes very happy for no reason! Historical drama doesn’t get any more savagely fruity. Note that MGM have decided that Greg Rasputin is basically a revolutionary, rather than a symptom of the status quo’s corruption. On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid feeling that, in spite of the whitewashing they try to give him, the Tsar deserves his fate. He carries on believing in his divine right to rule despite his demonstrable lack of leadership abilities. It’s not my socialist side that wants him dead, it’s my meritocratic instincts.

Chegodieff’s first assassination attempt against Old Greg is a suitably shadowy, sombre affair, leading us from the clammy mystic’s dining room full of women, into a darkened back room where he survives the assassin’s bullet via a metal breast plate of the kind later worn by Clint Eastwood and Michael J Fox. Despite the scene’s intensity, Jack B has wrestled his perf under control again and is effectively stoic as he’s thwarted by henchmen. “Next time I’ll aim for your head.”

This loses him his job at court, and things snowball further out of control, with Raspy buying power and turning the Royal Family into prisoners of their own palace. This is something that never happened, but it’s necessary to justify everybody deciding that Chegodieff was right after all, and arranging a second assassination attempt.

Somewhere in there, Diana Wynyard’s attitude to her spiritual guardian has chilled noticeably, which is due to a scene deleted at the behest of the real-life Chegodieff: Rasputin’s fictitious rape of Princess Natasha. This scene was removed as a result of a lawsuit and has never turned up — without it, her character makes no sense, and her progressive marginalisation in the story is increased.

“I know your face!”

“Yes, I’m noted character comedian Mischa Auer. I’ll be your poisoner tonight.”

The real show-stopped is the final assassination of Rasputin. Rather implausibly, he’s lured back to Chegodieff’s house: to fall for that, he must’ve been VERY drunk. We get a great number of sexy blondes in lovely gowns by Adrian, rolling around drinking champagne while he scoffs poisoned cakes served by an uncredited Mischa Auer. But Greg recognises M.A.’s very distinctive face, and his men take over the household and find Chegodieff. In a bit of dramatic contrivance, the now very-mad monk takes his enemy alone to the cellar at gunpoint to finish him off.

This has all been worked out to make the murder of Rasputin seem more justifiable. Rather than giving Chegodieff the upper hand, as was the case in reality, he’s now a man alone against a bloodthirsty enemy. Whoever’s directing at this point milks curdled buckets of suspense from the scenario of the maniac with a gun slowly losing his senses due to the envenomed confectionary he’s devoured, while the hero just hopes he won’t be fatally shot before the drugs take full effect.


Kind of a spoiler… 

And then the excrutiating violence begins… I really want to say that Brabin is responsible here, but it’s still quite possible that Boleslawski rose to the challenge, egged on by the excellent script and the extremity of the situation.*

“Get back in Hell!” strikes Fiona as the best line ever. Now we see why Jack’s been holding back so long: so he can let rip here and tear the film from its sprockets. The whole “unkillable Rasputin” thing is a myth, but they really sell it here.

Unfortunately, the film then trundles past what could have been a very poignant false happy ending — Jack, the hero, goes into exile, which saves him from the Revolution, so the irony is pretty rich. A fine ending, if the film stuck to it, but I guess somebody at MGM didn’t trust the public to know what happened to the Tsar next, so they spell it out, which leads to a rather strange fade-out. Appropriately enough.

“These part-works don’t interest me at all,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the movies he’d directed bits of, and he’s largely correct. The Auteur Theory has this going for it — typically, only the director of a movie is in a position to have an overview which includes not only the planning and final shaping, but the performances. Despite the micro-managing of a Selznick, even the strongest producer doesn’t have the kind of direct communication with the cast during the creation of scenes that would allow the film to have a dramatic and artistic unity. You can only get that by allowing a director to direct. What’s great about RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is individual bits of colossal power and style, but without a single mind in charge, it can’t achieve overall greatness. But those stand-out scenes are terrific lessons in expressive cinema, whoever was responsible.

*A bit of research seems to confirm that Brabin is responsible for the exciting bits.

Lithographs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2011 by dcairns

Fun revisiting TWENTIETH CENTURY, even though in certain respects the film is never quite as good as I want it to be. But even its weaknesses are interesting and revealing and sometimes enjoyable.

I’ve never seen the play but I’m guessing that Howard Hawks his screenwriters (Hecht & McArthur + Gene Fowler: Preston Sturges was fired after four days, but seems to have retained the idea of Edgar Kennedy as a private eye for UNFAITHFULLY YOURS) have both gutted and exploded it. The parts on the train are the play, truncated. So there’s an extensive series of preceding scenes, “opening out” the action and roughing in the prehistory of the characters before the central situ (broke theatre impresario woos the star he created on train bound for NYC). This effectively destroys the play’s taut structure, but Hawks never cared a lick for plot, and the additions are so entertaining it just about gets away with it.

The rewrite has the effect of turning the story into HIS GIRL FRIDAY avant la lettre, with the crazy boss trying to win back his star pupil — the comedy in both cases both depends upon and is endangered by the fact that Oscar Jaffe/Walter Burns (or John Barrymore/Cary Grant) is a deplorable megalomaniac and one should in no way root for his success. The anti-hero’s awfulness provides the laughs and undercuts the drama, but mustn’t be allowed to keep us from investing a little bit of interest — but it’s curiosity about what devilry he’ll attempt next, rather than any sense of “rooting for him.”

Barrymore, in the early scenes, gets to spoof himself pretty thoroughly, with Hawks throwing in a lot of the in-jokes he was intermittently addicted to: references to Svengali and whatnot. Most of Barrymore’s famous roles get lampooned, and the actor heroically throws in a lifetime’s worth of baroque stage business, pushing the dramaturgy just far enough to highlight its artifice and make it absurd. It’s a parody of hamminess that’s often very nuanced and always exquisitely controlled.

As his rival, Lombard is great in the early scenes where she has our sympathy, and perhaps a little too shrill once we get to the play and she has to transform into a diva. Some of the screaming and wailing gets a bit much, and her lightning shifts of phony emotion don’t have as clear a throughline as Barrymore’s. But her footwork is terrific here –

If the relationship prefigures HIS GIRL FRIDAY for Hawks, it rehearses TO BE OR NOT TO BE for Lombard, where she gets to play a drama queen who’s NOT a hysteric. Indeed, it’s hard to believe Lubitsch wasn’t in some way influenced by Hawks here — John Barrymore would have made a lot more obvious sense as a Shakespearean ham than Jack Benny, even if the initials are the same. Of course Lubitsch’s instincts were perfect: Barrymore is perfect casting as a director so he can mock actors, and Benny is superb because casting him as Poland’s leading tragedian is inherently funny.

If Barrymore and Lombard are not quite perfectly matched for ability at farce, her amazing beauty gives her an edge, and then there’s everybody else: Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly (his dyspepsia in scene one turning to acute angina by film’s end) and Charles Lane, back when he was Charles Levison, playing a character who’s changed from Max Mandelbaum to Max Jacobson “for some mysterious reason.” Barrymore’s character harps on the guy’s Jewish origins in a way no comedy character would be allowed to today, and it’s a little shocking but of course entirely in keeping for the monster that is Oscar Jaffe.

If all the front-loading of back-story in the form of prologue does any harm at all, apart from enforcing a certain shapelessness that’s  much to Hawks’ liking, it’s that it creates the necessity for a coda, just to frame the lengthy train sequence. And so we get a not-very-inspired “This is where we came in” type rehash of the opening rehearsal, which is brief, but not quite speedy or funny enough to get itself out of trouble. A movie which crams gigantic amounts of character development into it’s first half and then suggests its characters are fixed, unchanging and unreal “lithographs,” for the remaining running time, does leave a slight dissatisfaction, even though it’s all so brilliantly done and funny. Fortunately, we don’t require perfection.

Check out the Lombard blogathon here.

The Great Profile(s)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2008 by dcairns

The 1920 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, directed by John S. Robertson, scripted by Clara Beranger, and most importantly starring John Barrymore, seems to me to be a decent piece of work with some outstanding elements. It relaunched Barrymore’s film career, and demonstrates his range admirably. This may be the start of the idea of Jekyll as a tour de force role for movie stars — very few subsequent versions have used more than one actor to play the two psychically conjoined characters, as the 1912 version (kind of) did.

Barrymore’s work here looks back to Richard Mansfield’s acclaimed stage version, and forward to both Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film and to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. In all three movies the “monster” grows physically more extreme as the story goes on — very subtly in the Murnau film, much more noticably in the two JEKYLLs. The Murnau classic also seems to owe a lot to the Barrymore in the general appearance and manner of its villain — and Barrymore’s Hyde has vampiric connotations, apparently biting the neck of one fallen victim.

(Murnau, incidentally, made his own version of Dr. J. the same year as this one, but DER JANUSKOPF [THE JANUS-FACE] is a lost film, alas, like all of Murnau’s early work.)

American actor Richard Mansfield wowed Victorian theatregoers with his performance in a stage version of the Stephenson story, which was so chilling that Mansfield closed the London production down during the Jack the Ripper scare in 1888. (A silly version of these events is presented in the 1988 TV production JACK THE RIPPER, made to “celebrate” the anniversary of the unsolved mutilation-killings. Britain is so steeped in history and nostalgia. Oh, and misogyny.) Mansfield was said to have accomplished the transformation scene by acting alone, and it is this feat that Barrymore attempts to recreate. Here he is, filmed from a jaunty angle by somebody with a camcorder, calling herself Janedoppelgang:

Well, if we’re being kind, we could say that there’s a lot of detail in that performance. The overall effect may be somewhat ludicrous today, but it’s not really to do with the transformation itself, which Barrymore effects by adopting one of his trademark grimaces (referenced, along with most of his other major roles, in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY), so much as the exuberant spasms and athletic pratfall.

It’s a shame, because Jekyll is played in a very low-key, muted way. Barrymore was quite capable of being restrained, but seldom yielded to the impulse. His only other bad laugh in this movie is when sprawled on a couch, listening to his sweetheart Millicent give a piano recital. He looks bored to death, and we feel for him as we laugh in recognition of that emotion, but it’s not really the emotion the filmmakers are aiming for.

As Hyde, Barrymore has fun, without getting too carried away. Hyde’s deteriorating appearance is quite upsetting — like a Lucio Fulci zombie, he gives the impression of being genuinely fucked up, physically and mentally, whatever the makeup is doing. Maybe he just thought back to particularly drunken moments of his life (Barrymore was rumoured to have drunk and slept his way through the great San Francisco earthquake, emerging sore-headed onto the shattered sidewalks the next morning and thinking, “My God, what did I get up to last night?”). Throughout the film, Hyde’s hands are hus most repellent feature — long ragged nails are appended to the luminous, undulating and elongated Barrymore members, which flutter and ripple like great underwater plants.

This movie introduces to the screen the idea of two women, one virtuous (and a bore), one down-at-heel and raunchy. This became a feature of both the 1931 and 1941 movies — though Stephenson’s book contains precisely NO women, apart from an unnamed maid, who weeps when Jekyll dies (see Stephen Frears’ MARY REILLY for an elaboration of that little vignette). Nita Naldi, in her first movie, is voluptuous and seething with sin as the Bad Girl. In real life she was something of an exhibitionist, forever getting them out at parties. Co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in BLOOD AND SAND sealed her rep as vamp, and immortalised her. In the original, mostly modern-dress (!) version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, her character exults in the name of Sally Lung, but Nita Naldi was so famous for playing herself she sometimes had character names like “Nita”, or “Rita Rinaldi”. No versatile Barrymore, she.

Apart from the decaying Hyde, the movie also sports two deeply disturbing cameos. First is THIS GUY (excuse the quality, I photographed him off the TV while the crummy VHS tape played!), who seems to have something severely wrong with his head. It looks like an Oxo cube with the edges filed off. He’s in an opium den, so he should perhaps be viewed as a sort of human health warning.

And then there’s the GIANT GODDAMN SPIDER. This is a rather brilliant visualisation of Jekyll’s first involuntary transformation. The drug, having tainted his system, causes a vile fever dream in which a large, white-ish, superimposed spider crawls around his bed, then onto it, and engulfs him. As it fades from view, we see that Jekyll has become Hyde again. This is such a great scene I can’t think why it hasn’t been incorporated into subsequent versions, like so many other story elements here. It captures exactly what arachnophobes fear: I asked one once, what is the great terror OF, and was told “The worst thing possibly is it might GO ON YOUR FACE.”

The fact that a pair of trousered legs can be briefly glimpsed sticking out the back of the Hyde-spider, does not, for me, make it any less disturbing.

Hyde’s penultimate change, achieved by slow match-dissolve, also courtesy of Janedoppelgang, who seems to have changed seat for this bit:

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