The Monday Intertitle: No Atheists in the Foxholes

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I was wondering, looking at early Lewis Milestone talkies, what made him so kinetic and exciting? The charging camera of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, surging headlong across the battlefields, is the best-known example of this, but the kinetic, fluid and nimble movements of RAIN are extraordinary, and in THE FRONT PAGE he seems to be pushing for the steadicam thrillrides of vintage Scorsese before the technology existed to allow it. In the less celebrated NEW YORK NIGHTS he goes so far as to stick his camera in a dumb-waiter and ride it up to the second floor. Yet my impression was that in silents, Milestone had not distinguished himself with the dynamism of his camerawork. Why did he becomes so willfully fleet-footed at exactly the moment sound technology made the roving eye of something like WINGS almost impossible to achieve?

(The other guy with itchy tracks was Tay Garnett, whose restless visuals in BAD COMPANY paved the way for SCARFACE, no question, and who combined tracking and panning with the Paramount zoom lens on PRESTIGE, with results that seem to echo Visconti or Fulci for ADHD antsiness.)

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So seeing TWO ARABIAN NIGHTS, a big-budget WWI romp (a far cry from the anti-war sentiments of ALL QUIET) from 1927, is instructive. It’s true, there are few impressive camera movements, but nor are we stiff or static. Designer William Cameron Menzies is much in evidence, a man who liked to design not just sets but SHOTS, reducing the director to mere drama coach for the cast (here, a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd and thuggish Louis Wolheim, paired as an imitation of Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglan in the previous year’s Raoul Walsh smash WHAT PRICE GLORY?). Early on, the two frenemies are fighting in a crater, unmindful of the encroaching Germans. When they realize they’re surrounded, we get two shots which flamboyantly make this apparent, one a low-angle POV, in which the shallow ditch they’re in is suddenly fifty feet deep to afford the best view, and a God Shot looking down like Busby Berkeley in which the bomb-site is a fairly shallow depression, but much wider. The lesson comes from German expressionism, of which Menzies was a student — a different set for each angle gives you the strongest possible graphic impact, which is fine if what graphic impact is what you want.

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At any rate, the central mystery remains, and will do until I’ve seen more silent Milestone, preferably with the distinctive influence of Menzies removed from the equation. Unfortunately, I’ve only got THE RACKET to watch, plus FINE MANNERS and THE KID BROTHER, each of which Milestone directed parts of — and we don’t know which parts.

How about a Lewis Milestone Week, everybody?

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9 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: No Atheists in the Foxholes”

  1. Everyone blathers on and on about the 70’s, but the 30’s was the real era for cinematic innovation. Mobile cameras and freewheeling often quite innovative plots were the features of such masterpieces as Renoir’s Boudu Save From Drowning, Gremillion’s Lumiere d’ete, Whale’s The Great Garrick, Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlet Arzner’s Working Girls and above all Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight . With All Quiet Milestone briefly joins this august company.

  2. I’d say Rain is even more experimental than All Quiet, and The Front Page, though less successful, is really pushing for a truly unchained camera (slightly at the expense of the comedy, I think).

    By the mid-30s things had settled down quite a bit, and mavericks like Sternberg were being carefully eliminated, but those wild west years of the pre-code era do indeed show some exceptionally bold and ambitious filmmaking.

  3. Max Ophuls was surely the master of camera movement. James Mason’s opinion:

    A shot that does not call for tracks
    Is agony for poor old Max,
    Who, separated from his dolly,
    Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
    Once, when they took away his crane,
    I thought he’d never smile again.

  4. I’m all for a Lewis Milestone week. Along with RAIN, I’m also fond of HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM. The only silent I’ve seen (as I think I’ve mentioned before) is THE GARDEN OF EDEN, which is a delightful romantic comedy, although it does have art direction by Menzies. I’ve been curious about TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS and THE RACKET.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Two of the four stars of THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (46) are still alive!

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN (36) has _the_ coolest match dissolve between a door knob and a billiard ball.

  7. Ooh! The General Died and Martha Ivers are on my list. Most of the ones I haven’t seen are the famous ones! Tonight we watched Lucky Partners which I thought was incredible. Milestone in zany mode is something else.

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