The Sunday Intertitle: From Bad to Norse

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.

Pauline Starke (WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922) is really good — but this movie preceded a precipitous decline into obscurity.

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.

12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: From Bad to Norse”

  1. The Aviator should have been called “A History of Coplor Cinemtography as it begins in Two-Strip, movies onto Three and finally “modern” Technicolor.

  2. I think they INTENDED to go completely modern for the last third, but Scorsese said “We miss the colors!” so they kept it more like 3-strip. But it’s great seeing that cyan lawn in the first section. Amazing how many students are surprised to here they were looking at such a restricted palette. I guess you just assume what you’re looking at is NORMAL.

  3. Few students have any sense of history. To them the past is “trivia.”

  4. Among the ones I see, there are a couple of extremes bracketing that position: some who know so little cinema that they take seriously anything you tell them and embrace history, and those who already know more than you’d expect and are eager to learn. Those in between who have a bit of knowledge of contemporary cinema and “know what they like” are a little harder to get through to, and are less likely to see the point of studying “old stuff”. They’re impressed that Scorsese does it, but quite happy to leave him to it.

  5. Don’t know if I’ve ever heard either official score for Sunrise. One of my favorite bands (Lambchop) recorded a score for Sunrise, which eventually became their double album “Aw C’mon / No You C’mon”. I’m sure the songs on record are in a different sequence than when originally performed, so it’s not supposed to synch to the movie, but that doesn’t stop me from playing it every time. Works better than some of the CDs I have which ARE meant to be played in synch to a film (Superchunk for “A Page of Madness”, Sonic Youth for “Dog Star Man”).

  6. If I can’t have an authentic period score, a wildly inapposite choice is often the next best thing!

  7. Christopher Says:

    That Lady in the window shouting out VIKINGS scared the F……Shit outta me! INDEED!..great bit.
    Don’t let ’em do the blood eagle on ya brutha!
    I love the old Fox score on Sunrise..the newere one is good too..but I always stick with the old one..
    I like modern innovative scores for old silents.Gives them a nice facelift,makes them even more like works of art..

  8. One of the best things about the new Sunrise score (which I have sampled a bit) is that it’s pretty faithful to the best effects in the original. So I thought it was bad form for the composer to disparage the earlier version since he took so much from it.

  9. Christopher Says:

    I don’t think I’ve heard it..I was refering to the old 20th Century Fox disc..Why do something the same?!..Its gotta be fun to create your own stamp on a silent motion picture..

  10. Well, the scene where he’s in the boat, with a lantern, calling after her, and the music stands in for his voice, is so perfect you can’t not attempt something at least similar. I would have gotten mad if he hadn’t done it: it feels like Murnau knew that was how it’d be scored.

  11. Christopher Says:

    yeah..thats a nice feature on the original score..I bet it will be ok..THey need to release a definative version of Sunrise on DVD in the US..Its always a bit of a challenge here trying to get the Fox disc apart from a Set….Not that theres anything wrong with most of those other Fox films..But Sunrise really is a “stand alone” type o Fil’um!

  12. It’s not that the other films in the set are terrible, but they’re so far below Sunrise’s level it’s obvious the decision-makers involved had no idea what they were dealing with. Faced with that kind of administerial ignorance, video piracy seems a decent solution. Or, of course, going multi-region and getting the superb Masters of Cinema 2-disc.

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