The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again

Thanks to the good people at Grapevine Video for digging up YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a silent romp which stars Shadowplay favourite Raymond Griffith as comedy coroner in a vigorous deconstruction of the whodunnit genre. Jules Furthman, later collaborator with both Hawks and Sternberg (he and Ben Hecht account for the odd congruence between the two otherwise contrasting filmmakers), wrote the story, displaying the genre-busting contempt for formula and cheerfully black sense of humour later displayed in THUNDERBOLT’s death row skits. Intertitles are by Ralph Spence (“highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word”) and Robert Benchley.

Ray utilizes the famous EXTERMINATING ANGEL maneuver.

Weirdly, in a generally sympathetic section about Raymond Griffith in his The Great Movie Comedians, Leonard Maltin complains that the film’s titles aren’t funny enough. On the contrary, I find them hilarious, my only complaint being that they perhaps carry too much of the film’s humour, although as ever, Griffith’s reactions are hysterical.

Griffith plays the coroner, Mr Green, in a Tarantino-like colour-coded dramatis personae featuring Mr White, Mr Black, Inspector Brown — confirming his tendency to play cheerful ciphers in fine clothes. And he plays him like an easy-going, simple fellow who’s just been handed the job, for no reason, and is trying whatever he can think of to make a go of it.

“Which of you spoiled the gentleman’s evening?”

“Won’t he stay murdered until after the theatre?”

“Well, which of you murdered him first?”

A Columbo-like finish shows this to have been, perhaps, all an act, but I was reminded of Benchley’s essay about being suddenly saddled with the job of building the Hoover Dam. Only in a dream could such an ill-prepared character suddenly find himself in charge of a murder inquiry.

Picking up my battered copy of Benchley’s One Moment Please I found a couple of pieces under the heading Fascinating Crimes, continuing his oneiric approach to tales of detection. The Missing Floor begins with the immortal lines “It has often been pointed out that murderers are given to revisiting the scene of their crimes. The case of Edny Pastelle is the only one on record where the scene of the crime revisited the murderer.” The Strange Case of the Vermont Judiciary caused me to make startling and involuntary noises, with its deceptively gentle opening: “Residents of Water Street, Bellows Falls (Vt.), are not naturally sound sleepers, owing to the proximity of the Bellows Falls Light and Power Co. and its attendant thumpings, but fifteen years before the erection of the light-and-power plant there was nothing to disturb the slumbers of Water Streetites, with the possible exception of the bestial activities of Roscoe Erkle.”

I’ll leave you to rush out and buy a copy so you can find out what happens after those opening lines.

At any rate, I’d say Benchley’s surreal vein is much more congenial to me than his observational comedy, and this feeling of strangeness informs the action of YOU’D BE SURPRISED in a persistent way.

There’s only one Griffith in the movies, and his initials ain’t D.W.

UK: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection

US: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of his Favorites (See all Satire Books)

10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again”

  1. Hawks was crazy about Sternberg. Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo was named “Feathers” after Dietrich. I think what most attracted Hawks was Sternberg’s ability to make a big movie something out of a little dramatic nothing.

  2. Todd McCarthy in his Hawks biography also notes the hermetically sealed quality of both directors’ works as a possible connection. In ”Rio Bravo”, the landscape or the Wild West setting doesn’t really count so much as how the characters move within it. For Sternberg, the lighting and framing mattered as much as the actors, but again the setting itself was highly abstract.

    Hawks’ anxiety-of-influence regarding Sternberg extended to him claiming to have given V.S. the idea for ”Morocco” and even ideas of shots which was deployed to a T. I’d love to have sees Sternberg’s reaction to this obvious lie. One reason why ”Scarface” is so unusual among Hawks’ works is that it’s very much in Sternberg territory visually speaking and of course it was the sound version of Sternberg’s silent gangster films, employing the same writer.

  3. Yes, Scarface seems to recombine Sternberg (festoons of party streamers, near-silhouettes at windows) and Murnau. And he has the same writer as Underworld.

    Rio Bravo’s indebtedness to Underworld extends to the whole silent-movie opening, which repeats the spitoon business from JVS’s gangster pic.

    Hawks did like slightly masculine women, so the idea of Marlene in a tux COULD have come from him, I guess. But I doubt very much it happened as he described it (ALL Hawks stories involve him insolently and loudly telling some collaborator that their way of doing things is no good, whereupon they splutter for a bit and then realize he’s right).

  4. The main difference is that however tough Hawks’ women were, its clear that he identified with the guys. In Sternberg, the women are generally tougher, more complex characters than the men, at least in his films with Dietrich.

  5. Uh no. Marlene was a star in lesbian night clubs in Berlin LONG before she met Sternberg.

    Maybe Hawks visited them — but the sapphic sartorial style scarcely proceeds from him.

  6. “I am Miss Dietrich,” as JVS famously stated. His films can certainly be seen as psychodramas with the heroes and heroines both representing the conflicted sides of his nature (European/American, masculine/feminine).

    Furthman(n) seems a relatively obscure figure, despite working on so many great films. As a producer for Hughes, he must have played a part in bringing JVS out of retirement. He was also married to Sybil Seely, a Buster Keaton leading lady fondly remembered for her bath scene in One Week.

  7. While the comments seem to have drifted from Griffith, I must say I find the film wonderful fun even if it’s pretty setbound. Along with the comedy, there are a lot of twists and turns in the mystery (although I admit I figured it out early). The title writers seem to have a lot more fun on a Griffith film.

  8. I was thrilled by the plotting — how can you have a satisfying whodunnit with virtually no suspects except for a crowd of nameless extras? And yet it works!

  9. Christopher Says:

    funny titles!…..I guess a writer of inter titles ..could Make or Break an actor …and even change the course of a whole motion picture if they wanted to ;o)

  10. I assume there must be cases of that. Well, the American release of Metropolis threw out Von Harbou’s plot and made up its own, in some respects.

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