A MOVING intertitle for you today, courtesy of Roy William Neill’s THE VIKING, a soundie filmed in two-strip Technicolor and produced by the inventor of the process, Dr. Kalmus.
Vikings attack suddenly!
While two-strip worked brilliantly on horror movies like DR X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, its limited palette and odd colour values are perhaps not wholly suited to a swashbuckling adventure like this: they attempt to add panache and glamour, but the effect is always slightly OFF. (I haven’t seen Doug Fairbanks’ THE BLACK PIRATE in colour so I don’t know if that succeeds more.) The cyan skies are hallucinatory picture-postcard backings, and the magenta vikings all look rather sunburned — which very possibly they were, running around bare-chested in what is clearly California.
We also get a tinny recorded score and sound effects — some manly singing, and the clash of cutlery when sword-fighting is introduced. I love soundies, because there’s no sense of the soundtrack being an anachronistic attempt at recreating the original effect. It is the original effect. I was a little upset to hear the composer of the new SUNRISE score badmouthing the original, which to me is exceedingly beautiful, flaws and all. I’m very glad both scores have been made available, so I can unhesitatingly choose the Movietone version every time.
Have been thinking about, and looking at the works of, Roy William Neill since I posted about BLACK ANGEL. Every one of his films seems to contain moments of visual beauty far beyond what the genre content demands. The thrust-in on the screaming Saxon lady, with thrust-in on intertitle, is his most extravagant moment here, but his best visual poetry is usually b&w. Perhaps he’s best described as a Michael Curtiz who never made it into big pictures (THE VIKING may be as close as he got). Curtiz himself has a reduced reputation because he doesn’t quite fit the mold of auteur: he couldn’t give two craps about consistent personal themes, he’s purely occupied with a personal conception of cinematic beauty that’s expressed through light and shade and movement and design. But Curtiz obviously scores major points by having made movies like CASABLANCA. Not so Neill.
In early ’30s Curtiz movies like THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, we see him working with modest material, imbuing it with sparkle and zip. These films are hugely enjoyable and none the worse for not being quite A-picture material. Such was Neill’s playground for most of his career, and he seems to have been very happy to be there. Anyone who’d make eleven Sherlock Holmes pictures, after all, does not seem to be hugely ambitious or restless. Maybe having had his shot at the big time back in 1928, he was relaxed and content enough just to enjoy the cinematic possibilities of whatever entertainments the studio passed his way, or maybe also he just genuinely loved light hokum and devoted his talents to it wholeheartedly.