Archive for Wallace Beery

Hobo’ness

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by dcairns

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The first time Fiona and I saw William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE was on a VHS grey-market tape bought off eBay for something excessive like $9, with a wildly inappropriate drop-needle soundtrack and a picture quality equivalent to the viewpoint of a near-sighted mollusc in tears at the heat death of the universe.

The second time was at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema (1912-present) as part of the Festival of Silent Cinema (AKA HippFest) with a 35mm print from the George Eastman House — the best surviving materials anywhere — and Neil Brand playing at the piano with the Dodge Brothers (featuring critic Mark Kermode) collaborating on a skiffle/jug band/spasm music live score of surpassing loveliness, dynamism and romanticism. It makes a difference! I now suspect that old Wild Bill may have been right to rate this as his best movie (I think he went to his grave believing it lost). One weird effect of seeing it on the big screen is that details that registered on my mind’s eye as looming closeups turn out to be spacious medium shots when I looked at my video copy at home. I feel like a cine-illiterate child when I compare the large screen impression with the small-screen “reality.”

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Louise Brooks plays an orphan runaway who’s shot her would-be rapist and is now a fugitive. It’s the high point of her Hollywood career, though not one she enjoyed — Wellman was horrible to her, as was her co-star Richard Arlen, although at least he apologised decades later. Arlen is pretty good here, not too pretty (WINGS) nor too ugly (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) — he lost his looks FAST, that one, and his face just went kind of ugh. There’s a secene early on when, starving, he presses his nose against a screen door. That’s just what he would look like a few years later.

(You see what happens when you say Louise’s eyes are too close together, Arlen?)

Brooks is delightful, touching, intense, but the stand-out acting performance is from Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, he-man of Hobohemia, a rail-riding, hooch-swigging killer who slowly and, it has to be said, inexplicably, morphs into the film’s hero. It’s a showy role, yet Beery is surprisingly delicate in it, despite the fact that each of his facial features must be the weight of a seal cub  – it’s subtle work, by his standards. When he’s not exerting swaggering, pugilistic menace, he eschews his later MGM schtick — slobbering mawkishness — and manages a wistful, thoughtful, wonderful quality that seems to defy gravity. I think part of it stems from Wellman’s willingness to stay wide, but part is certainly a very well-judged bit of performance from Beery, a man who was certainly capable of stinking up even an extreme long-shot with his mugging and gurning.

The film has crazy moments. Brooks is identified as a girl when she bends over. I won’t show you what that looks like, but this is the reaction it gets.

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I have never seen a dragged-up girl rumbled by her ass before. I mean, a lot of movie stars have exposed their bottoms, but not many bottoms have exposed movie stars.

The same hobo prepares for a knock-down fight with Beery by deftly flipping his upper dentures from his mouth and pocketing them for safety.

The hobo gang at one point stage a kangaroo court, almost as surreal a mockery of justice as the one in King Lear or the one in Alice in Wonderland.

Roscoe Karns makes his trademark Roscoe Karns face. Blue Washington as Black Mose has a role that actually affords some character and some dignity, but is encouraged to tom it up with some uncomfortable “comedy negro” business.

And the locomotive stunts are reckless and scary. Beery apparently insisted on NOT doing all his own stunts — “Listen, all directors want to kill actors,” he told Brooks — but still hangs from moving rail cars. Apparently nobody considered that a stunt in those days. Brooks herself leaps on and off moving trains, and falls off one too. Those machines are dangerous! Apparently one wreck from this movie is still in place, at the bottom of a hill in Southern California, near the Mexican border. Another wreck from the movie, Wallace Beery, is still in place at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER seemed quite a bit more old-fashioned than THE GOOSE WOMAN, but this was almost certainly because I saw the former at the plush Hippodrome in Bo’ness with a well-dressed audience and a spiffing live accompaniment, whereas I saw THE SIGNAL TOWER as a ratty print telecined to VHS, transferred to AVI and then to DVD and screened on a tiny television at our friend Marvelous Mary’s house. A television that may be older than Brown’s film. One is aware that the slightly antique feeling has nothing to do with the film-making itself, but one can’t help but be influenced.

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In the days before the World Wide Web, intertitles had to be transmitted by telegraphy.

It’s not fair to judge under such circumstances, but I suspect the movie is not quite as good as THE GOOSE WOMAN, which has an unconventional heroine, a twisty plot, and twisty storytelling including flashbacks, one of them false. THE SIGNAL TOWER tells a very simple story, with Wallace Beery an obvious heavy from the start (we all admired the wisdom of dressing him in a stripey shirt, thus making his evil manifest), but it builds to an extremely exciting climax whereby the railroad employee hero must struggle to derail a runaway freight car in a thunderstorm to prevent a catastrophic crash, while his wife repels Beery’s vile advances a short distance away. Will our hero rescue his wife at the expense of his official duty? Or what? As the movie has been content to show us one thing happening at a time, and quite slowly, this parallel montage suspense sequence feels all the more exhilarating.

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It’s beautifully shot too, with big blasts of movie lightning smacking the scenery, the eerie sputter of signal flares, and scary POV shots from the oncoming train, hurtling along the tracks. The movie shows us a large-scale collision earlier in the story, just as a sort of illustration of what could happen — it’s arguably even more impressive than the bridge collapse in THE GENERAL, though it’s insubstantial context (a flashback as dad (the inspiringly-named Rockliffe Fellowes) tells kid about what happens when signalmen blunder) means it doesn’t carry the same impact.

Following in the size twelve footsteps of door-smashing pugilist Donald Crisp in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, Beery smashes through not one but two doors in an attempt to satiate his vile lusts upon the person of Virginia Valli (from Hitchcock’s THE PLEASURE GARDEN, made the following year).

“Here’s Wally!”

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Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending this one.

The Sunday Intertitle: Indian Summer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 3, 2012 by dcairns

LAST OF THE MOHICANS was started by Maurice Tourneur and completed by his assistant, Clarence Brown, after Tourneur was injured on location. Ironically, the silhouetted figures shot against skylines or magnificent valleys are among the most Tourneuresque moments in the film — Brown, a major talent himself, had been working for MT long enough to be able to mimic his style skillfully.

Classic Tourneur/Rembrandt mood-lighting.

The action stuff is also impressive at times, with a knife-fight between old Chingachgook and fiendish Magua (a svelte Wallace Beery) particularly striking — the men circle each other, daggers drawn, each filmed from the other’s POV, intercut to conjure a swirly, disorienting feeling of tension and unease.

The last thing Ted Healy ever saw.

Politically, the film is certainly progressive for its time. In fact, it’s striking to compare it with the Michael Mann remake: since Mann’s era deemed it unacceptable to cast white actors as Indians, Mann simply rewrote the plot to make the white trapper Hawkeye into the romantic lead, sidelining Unca and rendering the relationship with Alice a mere side-show, so that her dramatic climax is ineffective because we’ve barely spent any time with her and we haven’t followed her love affair. In a sense, the Tourneur/Brown film is more politically progressive.

The romance between Uncas (Alan Roscoe, Theda Bara’s usual leading man) and Cora (delicate beauty Barbara Bedford) is chaste but somewhat taboo-busting (though of course having a white man play Uncas sweetens the pill for concerned racists) — politically, the novel and film both dance all over the map in the interests of storytelling and not offending anyone. The white men who give whisky to the Hurons, provoking a horrific massacre (complete with Von Stroheim-style baby-hurling) go unnamed, although presumably they’re French — so the violence of the redskins is caused by completely anonymous white folks, which allows the film to show some disturbingly nasty acts while pointing the finger of blame off into an out-of-focus offscreen limbo.

The ability to do creepiness and menace may be hereditary…

Mann: The Last of the Mohicans: Director’s Definitive Cut [Blu-ray]

Tourneur/Brown: The Last of the Mohicans

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