Archive for November 29, 2009

Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly missed this! A quick post to squeeze in under the wire.

I’d elected to watch and write about BEHIND THE CURTAIN, a 1929 mystery story which casts Boris Karloff as an Indian manservant. A few things commended the movie to me. Firstly, I’d enjoyed Tod Browning’s 1929 thriller THE 13TH CHAIR, and was eager to sample more of the creaky, crackly delights of the early talking era. Secondly, I’m fascinated by pre-FRANKENSTEIN Karloff, the best example of which is probably his role in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, where he slowly stalks an opponent with all the zombified lumber and menace of the Famous Monster. Thirdly, BEHIND THE CURTAIN is the first ever Charlie Chan movie — sort of.

“…or my name’s not Boris Karloff.” That catchphrase, from the intros of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, the 1960-2 TV show Boris presented, is an amusing one, since Karloff was actually named William Henry Pratt. And in a similar way, his casting as an Indian character in BTC is amusing, since his father was Anglo-Indian, a fact that seems to have been kept fairly secret during Boris’s career. So here’s an Anglo-Indian actor with a Russian name pretending to be a white man pretending to be an Indian.

Boy oh boy this movie moves slowly! Which allows us plenty of time to assess the stupidity of the plotting. London. A private detective is murdered. Said flatfoot was gathering information on two chaps, Warner Baxter and Philip Strange, both of whom were suitors of the same girl, Lois Moran. The only clue is a pair of Chinese slippers jammed onto the corpse’s feet by the killer.

It’s Poole, from the Mamoulian JEKYLL & HYDE!

At first, our suspicions are evenly divided. True, Warner Baxter is a known movie star, but who knows what he was capable of in 1929? Whereas Strange is just strange. But soon it becomes clear that Strange is the killer, and he’s married the poor girl. Relocating to India, he blatantly carries on an affair with the maid, Nuna (Mercedes de Valasco, a common Indian name I’m sure), and becomes enraged when his wife learns his secret.

Meanwhile, Sir Frederick Bruce (Gilbert Emory) of Scotland Yard has learned that the slippers belonged to Baxter (he doesn’t LOOK like a man who’d wear Chinese slippers, but there it is). This practically proves Baxter’s innocence, since why would he deliberately leave his own property behind at the crime scene? Yet it takes the plodding Sir Fred another YEAR to solve the case.

His informant on the slipper situation is Charlie Chan, world’s second greatest detective (after Sir Frederick, we are told — God help us all). But Chan doesn’t appear until the narrative has trudged its way through Persia, where Karloff turns up as Baxter’s faithful stooge, and from there to San Francisco.

Acting. There’s a lot of it, of course, and all in that ponderously enunciated 1929 style, where the microphone gives the direction. They could practically attach strings from the actors to the boom and let it yank them about. Director Irving Cummings is well served by photography and design, and in a moment of exuberance attempts a tracking shot, but soon has trouble with moving shadows at the edge of frame and reverts to stasis. So what life the film has must come from the cast. So we’re in trouble.

“I hope you like your martinis… very dry.”

Lois Moran gradually unstiffens about 20%, so she can show some emotion when hysteria is called for. Baxter declaims, and tries to sound less American than he is, with reasonable success, but he’s still robotic. Emory (or Emery — credits differ) is hilariously stultified. Karloff excels here, since his character is meant to be rather sepulchral, intoning things like, “The desert gives… and the desert takes away.” He’s the only player who can actually situate a dramatic pause  somewhere in a sentence that makes sense. But his effectiveness is somewhat reduced by the fact that everyone else in the cast is acting as if under deep hypnosis. The qualities that should make Karloff’s Indian stand out cause him to blend in. Still, he has a sinister way with a soda syphon.

The film’s crowning glory is the eventual appearance of Charlie Chan, played by the mysterious EL Park, in his only film. Park is the only oriental actor to have played Chan, although I’m guessing from his name he’s Korean rather than Chinese. He’s wonderful! Fluent and convincing when he babbles away in his native tongue, he becomes hilariously maladroit in English. His pauses are both random and voluminous. “Honorable. Excuses… Sir. Frederick.” he intones.

When Sir Fred is speaking, Park’s eyes dart around the set in panic, taking in the crew, the camera, painting a retinal portrait, for our benefit, of the whole studio. Park succeeds, where Karloff could not, in blowing a whole in the film’s consistency of style, which is one of suffocating lack of imagination. Through his sheer amateurishness, this glorified walk-on ennobles and illuminates his surroundings, offering us our sole glimpse of recognizable humanity.

I love this man! Can somebody tell me more? Park’s history — even as to whether he was in fact an actor at all — is unknown, but it seems like I might have some luck where others have failed: I’ve already made contact with Charlie Chan’s grandson.

The Sunday Intertitle: Rated “Arrr.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by dcairns

So, I first saw Douglas Fairbanks sliding down a ship’s sail he’d skewered with his short sword in THE BLACK PIRATE when I was a teenager, and the clip was in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s monumental series Hollywood. Accompanied by information on how the filmmakers cheated so that Doug could do the impossible. It’s taken me, I guess, twenty-nine years to actually see the movie. I can’t think of anything else in my life that’s taken that long to achieve. Oh, except all the things I’ve yet to achieve.

Very good Fairbanks movie — the story is essentially two parts: (1) an introduction to piracy —  in which it swiftly becomes clear that these guys are utterly unredeemed villains, so how can Doug play The Black Pirate? — followed by (2) a single protracted suspense sequence: to avenge his slain dad, our Doug inveigles his way into the pirate mob, destroying them from within. It’s like YOJIMBO, but with only one gang. A very simple story, with some quite dark and grisly material. When one hapless pirate victim swallows a ring to keep it from being swiped, the evil captain makes some explanatory gestures to a henchman, who draws a dagger and walks offscreen. He returns a few seconds later and hands over the ring, which the captain wipes clean on his sleeve… One another occasion, a bad guy takes a sword from a captive, and runs the guy through just to test the blade…

Lots of good pirate slang: not just “scurvy” and “me bullies,” but “labnacker,” a term I had not previously encountered. Also, a comedy Scotsman who comes over to Doug’s side, played by Donald Crisp (born in London but he must have had Scottish roots: he’s in Disney’s GREYFRIARS BOBBY). His history of looting and murder is conveniently overlooked. Highlights include Doug capturing an entire merchantman vessel single-handed to impress the gang, and the invasion of Doug and his shark-finned soldiers, swimming underwater in  a vast special effects shot: they’re all suspended from wires, with superimposed bubbles drifting upwards in the foreground.

(Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD which is sepia-tinted. The movie was originally released, and still exists, in two-strip Technicolor.)

Donald Crisp, who achieved immortality by coshing Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, has another shipboard role in Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to pair Keaton with Crisp as co-director, so that there was somebody to look after the dramatic side of things. According to Keaton, Crisp immediately got obsessed with gags. In one scene, Buster is terrified by a scary portrait that swings past his porthole, like some horrifying nocturnal apparition. (This could conceivably have inspired the spooky portrait in THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, which likewise appears to be a real figure at first.)

The man in the portrait is Donald Crisp.

UK: The Black Pirate [1926] [DVD]
US: The Black Pirate

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