Shadowplayer and filmmaker Paul Duane sent me a copy of a movie he likes, as an exchange for my sending him LA FIN DU JOUR (touching how many people have felt moved to offer a swap). This meant I was inclined to be guilt-tripped into WATCHING the damn thing, but I was glad I was.
I have a pretty pleasant history with director William Dieterle, who Edgar Ulmer nicknamed “the Iron Stove” since he was a large man who often played knights in armour when he was an actor back in the old country. “He was a big guy, not talented,” recalled Ulmer.
I beg to differ.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME made a huge impression on me as a kid. Now, Charles Laughton is insuperably the greatest Quasimodo the screen has ever held, and Dieterlealso had the help of massive sets, crowd scenes, Maureen O’Hara and the R.K.O. effects wizards. But the way Dieterle puts together striking, expressive angles, with the aid of cinematographer William H. August (a Dieterle favourite) and editors William Hamilton and Robert Wise, still amazes me. The film is monumental, but moves.
What most wowed me as a kid was the ending: had I been exposed to an unhappy ending before? Perhaps not. Had I ever been exposed to an unhappy ending that made me feel strangely elated? The closest thing would probably have been KING KONG, but the monster dying at the end of a monster movie is not what is typically considered a tragedy, although Willis H. O’Brien’sanimation and Max Steiner’s score certainly play it that way.
I’ve just checked, for the first time, and the script of Dieterle’s HUNCHBACK is by Sonya Levien, a prolific high-profile Hollywood writer, and Bruno Frank, who had mostly German credits — the ending is their’s, not Victor Hugo’s. That ending definitely opened my eyes to the pleasures of the downbeat. Today’s kids, raised on the Disney version, which has many visual and musical splendours, have been cruelly robbed of the chance to experience pleasurable melancholy.
The second Dieterle to blow me out of my socks was THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, which came highly recommended by Leslie Halliwell, author of a Film Guide and a Filmgoer’s Companion, which were the standard pre-IMDb reference works available to me as a movie-loving kid. Now, Halliwell is wrong about practically everything made after 1950; he has pretty, if middlebrow, good taste up to then, although his critical analysis of even the things he likes is pretty lousy; but I have to tip my hat to his grave and say that he did point me in the direction of a lot of good films. This 1941 Americanisation of the Faust story (Dieterle acts in Murnau’s film of FAUST) beneifts from most of the crew on CITIZEN KANE being around and primed to do their best, and boasts really remarkable, extreme performances by Walter Huston as the Mephisto figure, Mr. Scratch, and Simone Simon as Belle, a stupendously erotic minion of the devil. Bernard Herrmann contributes one of his finest scores, and if the ending lays on the Americanism a bit thick, it’s pleasurably ironic given all the talk about collectivism in the film: even the opening credits are simply a list of the “persons who collaborated in making this picture”, actors and crew co-mingled without distinction or job title — that’s tantamount to communism!
Wee Kenneth Anger.
I wish I’d seen PORTRAIT OF JENNIE as a kid too, since that would have wowed me even more than it does now. The other major one I did see was A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Comrade K, film writer and costumed crimefighter (they call him “the Comma”) says that Dieterle hits a shade of purple few can match, and I guess that’s true in his star-studded Warner Bros Shakespeare, co-directed with his old theatre mentor (everybody’s old theatre mentor) Max Reinhardt. As a kid I didn’t see it as campy or overdone, though, I just thought it was beautiful.
Most of the Dieterle films I’ve tracked down since have swung towards the fruity, with KISMET and ELEPHANT WALK standing out. There are some nifty Warner Bros jobs from the ’30s, like FOG OVER FRISCO (Comrade K admits that Dieterle could be nimble if he had Harry Warner cracking the whip at his heels) and then there are the dreadful Warners biopics that I don’t feel any urge to revisit soon. As Hal B. Wallis said, “Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks down a microscope, this company loses two million dollars.”
THE LAST FLIGHT was the film Paul sent me. A film so smart and sensitive it could almost make the term “pre-code” synonymous with good taste and maturity. Adapted by John Monk Saunders from his own novel (that NEVER happened in Hollywood, did it?) it takes a meandering approach to narrative while exploring the lives of some beautiful freaks, four forgotten men and one half-remembered woman. Here they are:
Richard Barthelmess, top left, who chased Lillian Gish over the ice floe and would later take to the air in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, is Cary Lockwood, a WWI pilot with burned hands and a devil-may-care attitude to life. He’s on a perpetual bender with his friends, waiting until he feels alive again. “Spent bullets,” a doctor calls these guys: “out to face life, when all their training has prepared them for is death.” Barthelmess, with his unlikely, fluting voice and earnest manner — he’s so earnest he hunches forward as he speaks — is a wonderfully strange presence: he made perfect sense in silent cinema, since he’s kind of beautiful, but then in talkies he’s always weird. Absolutely marvellously so in the later Hawks film, where you just can’t take your eyes off him, wondering what he’s going to DO; and absolutely marvellously so here too, but in a different way. This is a film where everything is slightly off, like the characters, and Barthelmess embodies that. “His nerves are tricky.”
David Manners, bottom left, who got a fright when Boris Karloff went for a little walk in THE MUMMY, is Shep Lambert. Shep has a twitch in his eye after falling 4,000 metres when shot down. Drinking seems to ease the tic, so he drinks all the time. Manners is an even stranger actor than Barthelmess, completely sincere and real and yet completely unnatural and wrong at the same time. I’ve never seen him this effective. In DRACULA he’s a bit of a stick.
Johnny Mack Brown, top right, who had a long career without impinging on my consciousness up to now, is Bill Talbot, an Alabaman cowboy who wrestles a horse in the street to prove how American he is. The most enthusiastic of the dissolute gang, he has a good nature and a tendency to act on impulse which means you may have to keep an eye on him at bullfights. If, as seems to be the case, all four men are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then his illness manifests itself in the form of recklessness.
Elliott Nugent, bottom right, is Francis, who’s even more serious than Cary and Shep — he even has fun with a serious look. A crack shot who downed a dozen enemy planes, until his best pal got killed: then he “lost interest”. He only comes to life with a gun in his hands.
Helen Chandler, centre, who had a busy 1931 what with Bela Lugosi, is Nikki, a shortsighted heiress with a yen for tragic servicemen, adopted as a kind of mascot by the gang. “I reckon she’s the kind of girl who sits down on phonograph records,” says Bill, and he’s right. Nikki also has turtles decorated with diamante, named Abelard and Eloise. Chandler seizes on Nikki’s pixillated eccentricity, playing her like a bobblehead doll with intense yet glassy eyes. More extreme in her alien weirdness than any of the actresses who make a living today playing “quirky”, Chandler manages to be affecting even while affected — which is kind of true of everyone in this movie.
Walter Byron, bottom right, who looks more like a leading man than the rest of them but never was, is Frink, lecherous journalist and hanger-on, who has no reason to be with these guys except to further the plot with his sleaziness. But 1930s movies seem able to accommodate unmotivated or implausible stuff and get away with it.
I think what makes THE LAST FLIGHT such an odd and memorable experience is that it’s very overt and yet totally elliptical at the same time. The talk veers between the bluntly expository and the surreally goofy: “I can walk faster in red shoes.” … “He’s gone to shave a horse.” … “I’ll take vanilla.” Although various dialogues set up the psychological disaffection of this lost generation, most of the time the action is played light and carefree, as exemplified by Cary’s line whenever trying to get anyone to take a drink: “It’ll make you laugh ‘n’ play.”
John Monk Saunders scripted, from his own novel — an unheard-of thing In Hollywood, then and now. I may have to try his books. They’re all about flying, and cracking up, and he also scripted WINGS and THE DAWN PATROL, and wrote and directed THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR before killing himself in 1940.
I briefly toyed with playing a drinking game to the movie, matching the protags martini for martini, but you can’t keep up with those ’30s montages, damnit. This is the age when drunks were not alcoholics (it has a grim sound) but souses or maybe dipsomaniacs (happy and gay words!). The journey towards tragedy, with a side-trip to Lisbon, is a surprisingly cheerful one: getting there is all the fun.
Shep takes a bullet.
Frink takes several.
Bill takes a bull by the horns.
Francis fades into the night.
Cary and Nikki take the train…