Bird Man of Sing Sing

I showed STEAMBOAT BILL JR to my class of 1st years today and that seemed to go well. I may have some deeper thoughts later, or maybe not. I guess I was most struck by how it’s at heart quite a moving story about a young man needing to connect with his dad… but the story is told entirely through gags.

Meanwhile, in ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE the young associate of Jimmy’s decodes his message with a simple stencil… which he hardly needed, to be honest. If that note had fallen into the hands of Det. Doyle, I don’t see him puzzling over it for long.

Meanwhile, there’s a bird man in Alcatraz Sing Sing. I guess this is one of the location shots the opening title card boasts of, but it could be anywhere. This is the lookout from Jimmy’s gang, pinched during the bank job. Will he sing like a birdie in sing sing?

Tourneur pere, like his son, is keen on atmospheric shadows.

It may be necessary to point out once more: they’ve only been making feature films for a year at this point. It feels like the move to a larger scale story has propelled filmmaking into a speedy advance, but then you look at DeMille and think, maybe not. It’s just that Tourneur is really good.

Jimmy, escaping by train with one of his cronies, stops the rat from harassing a female traveller. So we know he has a noble heart, if only he could remember where he left it (San Francisco, perhaps?). Tourneur has the best qualities of French, American, and somehow Swedish filmmaking going on here — as Jimmy delivers a punitive drubbing in the observation car (and is observed doing it) — Tourneur daringly shoots with natural daylight, allowing the train interior and tussling cracksmen to sink into silhouette. Finally, when the cad will not simply take his licks like a man, Jimmy hurls him onto the tracks. One hopes a safety platform was arrayed on the caboose to catch the plummeting thespian, but given Tourneur’s noted ruthlessness this may not have been the case.

(“All directors want to kill actors,” claimed Wallace Beery. At times, possibly.)

IMDb again doesn’t know who the cinematographer is, possibly the same genius who shot LORNA DOONE so splendidly.

The guy rolls on the tracks, face smeared in blood (or it could I suppose be chocolate syrup) and Jimmy legs it. But the accosted lady is not to disappear from the narrative, it seems:

The filmmaking may be ten years ahead of its time (five, anyway), but the fashions are bang-on 1915, alas. Peak frumpery. The poor actor (who would I’m sure have preferred “actress”) is Ruth Shepley, in her screen debut. One film later (supporting Marion Davies in the Hearst super-production WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER), she retired. Then she retired, possibly due to marriage.

I don’t REALLY know the O. Henry story, so I don’t know what her role is to be in the plot– I suspect, though, that Rose is a later interpolation to give the film what is called femme interest.

We shall soon see, for this saga is TO BE CONTINUED

2 Responses to “Bird Man of Sing Sing”

  1. It’s hard to say because the Wikipedia article on the movie lacks a synopsis, but Rose Fay probably corresponds to Annabel Adams in the story, for whom Jimmy reforms. So she’s whatever the opposite of a femme fatale is. (femme en bonne santé?)

  2. The Good Woman, I guess would be the cliche answer (and therefore arguably appropriate to this tale).

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