Archive for July, 2022

The Sunday Intertitle: The face in the ceiling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2022 by dcairns

During their little tryst, John Ridd and Lorna Doone make an arrangement — she can signal to him from a nearby promontory (pictured) and he’ll come running to the rescue. This proves to be a shrewd idea.

Amazing how quickly their relationship has blossomed: one meeting as kids and another ten years later and they’re sweethearts. This causes John to neglect the girl who fancies him back home, but I don’t imagine she’s going to be TOO important to the plot. But she must have some reason for being there.

Two particularly lovely frames result from this, one of which showcases Tourneur’s lifelong love of shadows and silhouettes, a tendency famously inherited by son Jacques.

Anyhow, the signal idea proves useful almost immediately. Sir Ensor is dying, and this causes the wilder young Doone men to run amuck. Lorna’s nasty suitor, Carver son of Counsellor, resumes his wooing, if you can call it that. Cousellor and Carver are both played by actors named McDonald, but whether they’re actually father and son, the IMDb does not say.

Sir E. is played by Frank Keenan, of whom the IMDb remarks, “Frank was considered a “furniture actor” on stage. While on stage he was so often drunk that he had to lean on or hold onto furniture to keep from falling down.” He’s well cast here, since Sir E. spends most of the time dying, either sedentary or propped against the wall.

Fortunately, Lorna has shown kindness to one of the Doone wives, “courted by violence” and is able to send her to signal John from the rocky outcrop. Some random male chum is sent to London with proof of her inheritance.

Carver gets the best line so far, as he plans a swift and nonconsensual wedding:

John to the rescue! And a pretty good rescue it is. Flinging himself off a waterfall in best Tarzan manner, he briskly arrives at the Doone stockade, bone dry (all that running). He tries bending the bars on her window, and is making fine progress when she’s removed from her cell. So then he rips his way through the thatched ceiling of the big house and snatches her bodily from the armed mob, laying a few men out with musket or fists.

Sir Ensor, who had seemed dead, then appears in the doorway, paralysing the Doones by sheer force of personality, enabling our young lovers to escape. E remains standing there for some time after he has actually died, a rigid sentinel — the most effective performance by a dead man until EL CID (or WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S).

All really exciting stuff. John Bowers, walloping his supporting cast, has to pull his punches a bit, since the use of camera angles to “sell” a fake punch had not been invented yet — I’ve heard, incredible as it seems, that it was John Wayne who adapted over-the-shoulder framing to the uses of action cinema, exploiting the camera’s inability to judge distance (it has only one eye, unless the movie is 3D). Actually, faked punches like this even work with human observers, of the two-eyed kind. The only reason they weren’t developed and exploited onstage is that the theatre audience is too spread out for the illusion to work consistently. You need a single viewpoint. Plus, of course, Duke Wayne never trod the boards.

But allowing for that, the fight is gripping, and the implausible victory is sold as convincing enough for dramatic purposes. A happy ending would seem to have been accomplished — but the film is only half over. What next?


The Great (Dictator) War

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 30, 2022 by dcairns

So, just like that, without any fuss, Chaplin speaks — not nonsense words, but English ones (despite him playing a Tomainian — only Hynkel and his close confederates seem to speak the language).

The opening of THE GREAT DICTATOR is a return to the terrain of SHOULDER ARMS, but Chaplin resists any urge to repeat gags, it’s all new material, folks. And very funny — the Jewish Barber is not having a good war.

I’m a little uncertain about the dud shell following, with its nose, Chaplin’s movement. I don’t see the comic logic there. It’s doing exactly what the fought-over rifle in THE GOLD RUSH did, aiming squarely at the Little Fellow wherever he goes, but without some line of explanation saying it’s magnetized, or a homing missile or something, it’s un-shell-like behaviour is a tad disturbing to our sense of the film’s reality. It’s really the only joke tinged with this kind of surrealism (unless we count the improbability of Hynkel’s globe being a balloon).

Who was it did the hand grenade gag where the one with the pin pulled out falls into the box full of others? That’s a very nice joke, but Chaplin dropping the thing down his sleeve is arguably even better, because it’s even worse — you can’t run away from the consequences.

The nightmare gag depends on a horrific situation that hasn’t quite reached its grisly climax, and it has to be caused by something going wrong. A gas attack in the trenches isn’t comical, since the enemy’s equipment is working just as it should. The dropped hand grenade loose in one’s own clothing IS, because of the human error and the irony of it being your own weapon, and because of the unexpectedness. So many separate elements seem to be necessary to make a mere event into a gag.

I like Chaplin’s silence while tracing the missing bomb — an officer is yelling at him but he can’t reply — he’s concentrating. Keaton said his character couldn’t smile because he was concentrating on what he was doing. Could Chaplin perhaps have kept dialogue to a minimum by the same device?

But, I think, for good or ill, Chaplin now wanted to talk — if he was going to make a talkie, he was going to take advantage of the possibilities.

Getting lost in the smoke of battle is another great gag. And so in character that the Jewish Barber apologises to the enemy for intruding. How many takes to get the smoke to billow just right? In the scene where the JB finds himself surrounded by doughboys, the men’s shadows stretch far along the ground, so it’s evidently the very end of a long, long day.


The Strongest Man in Devonshire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2022 by dcairns

Back to Maurice Tourneur’s LORNA DOONE. As if nothing had happened.

Years pass, and Lorna blossoms into the flower of young womanhood while her childhood beau, John Ridd (John Bowers), becomes the strongest man in Devonshire. Well, I suppose that’s better than the other way round, or anyhow more convenient for the time.

Actor John Bowers seems like a prime candidate for the “career ruined by sound” slot. His last roles were in 1929 and 1931, and he headed out to sea, Norman Maine fashion, in 1936. It’s been suggested he actually inspired the climax of A STAR IS BORN, though he used a rowing boat for his tragic end.

Uh-oh, who’s this sneaky cuss? It’s the Doone clan’s consignieri, “Counsellor” Doone (Jack McDonald, also in MT’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS, another apparent casualty of the talking pictures). He has the kind of face that appears at windows, as his introductory intertitle makes clear, even if he himself makes his first appearance in a doorway. He wants to marry Lorna against her will, but Sir Ensor Doone, the paterfamilias, has a streak of tenderness where his young abudctee is concerned, and won’t allow it “while he lives.” You can sense Counsellor noting the loophole in that statement.

One day, while breaking up a logjam in a fast-moving stream for kicks, John is sept downstream and washed up near the Doone stockade. He meets his true love of years gone by, who reminds him of their first meeting using the knife he gave her, which becomes the film’s first insert shot.

Hiding from a villainous Doone, they duck into a moody cavern. Again, Tourneur benefits from dark foreground objects with a central pool of light. The whole set-up puts me in mind of a heart — not the way it’s diagrammed in valentine cards, but an actual human pump.

Ridd returns home and Tourneur gives us a time/space infundibulum where he stares into space and we cut to her, miles away, but seemingly staring back at him.

Some directors don’t even get the people looking in the right directions when they’re in the same scene. Tourneur gets it right even when there’s no actual spatial connection — just a romantic one.

When old Sir Ensor Doone, visibly dying, decides to square his conscience by affirming Lorna’s birthright, the film’s second insert shot is of a startling whiteness (with a pale peachy tint):