Archive for March 5, 2023

The Sunday Intertitle: The Last Day in the Country

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2023 by dcairns

A very dislikable throwaway gesture in Maurice Tourneur’s A GIRL’S FOLLY: movie star Robert Warwick hits his fussing dresser with his hat. The dresser/PA is Black, you see. It reminds me of Warner Baxter hitting Clarence Muse near the start of BROADWAY BILL — a film I’ve always turned off at that point, because I’ve been turned off by it. The blows struck aren’t hard, wouldn’t be physically painful. But white servants in old movies are NOT struck. It’s done without thought or malice, because a Black person is not considered fully human, so you can let of steam by hitting them as you might kick an item of furniture.

Emigre filmmakers in America were often more sensitive to race relations because they viewed them innocently, as outsiders (having probably been blind to racism in their homelands). Maurice Tourneur evidently did not have that kind of sensitivity.

Meanwhile, after a flirtation with Warwick, starstruck country girl Doris Kenyon decides to run off and join the galloping tintypes. Having examined her face in the light, the studio manager decides to give her the big build-up:

If this seems a slightly implausible version of the movies rags-to-riches motif, we must remember that it’s 1917 and the path was a little easier: also, our heroine is sponsored by an Important Leading Man who presumably hopes to bed her.

Tourneur and writer Frances Marion have helpfully inserted a full tour of the facilities into their narrative, so we get to see the dailies being dried out on great wheels, spun by hand. This stuff very likely meant nothing to most audiences at the time, but it’s a gift to anyone curious about filmmaking back in the day. (Nobody involved in BABYLON seems to have been quite curious enough.)

We pass through a room filled with women winding film on smaller reels — editing it, possibly, but we can’t see quite what they’re doing. The nearest one seems to have both two reels mounted before her, and a smaller spindle before her, so I suspect they’re editing by eye, without the benefit of anything resembling a Moviola or Steenbeck. Not even a jeweller’s eyepiece to enlarge the vital frames?

Then into a tiny cramped projection room, informally seated with a cluster of loose metal chairs. The lights dim and a soft round glow appears from the projector lens — not the brilliant flare we’d see if this were real. Since lens flare was verboten before Pasolini and Laszlo Kovacs, some dim bulb has been inserted to suggest the real thing without dazzling us.

Tourneur then gives us a montage of closeups — Doris, beaming at her (unseen) image in the screen test, the director, co-lead and studio manager frowning. I don’t know whether the concept of a screen within a screen seemed too troublesome for M. Tourneur — I kind of doubt it, such things had been seen since Griffith’s THOSE AWFUL HATS and before — or if he simply thought this would be the most interesting storytelling approach, a pre-Lubitschian indirection which would allow us to add up the sum ourselves. Perhaps Tourneur simply found previous movies-within-movies unconvincing, and this idea occurred to him as a preferable approach.

Meanwhile, Warwick’s character, who is married, is having trouble with his jealous wife, so he’s not present.

Doris walks out of the studio through a landscape of empty boxes, discarded like herself. Everything about the studio seems a touch temporary — they throw their trash outside because they don’t expect to be here long. The screening room chairs aren’t fixed to the floor. And indeed, within a few years everybody would have left Fort Lee for Hollywood.

An almost unique intertitle idea: the same caption but with an illustration that changes by jump-cut!