Archive for the FILM Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Gothick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2017 by dcairns

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DIE AHNFRAU — translated awkwardly as “The Ancestress” — is a 1919 Gothic melodrama by Luise and Jacob Fleck, made in Austria. It has a crumbling castle, a crumbling lord, an eligible daughter, a long-lost son, a wandering troubadour, a bandit chief, a family curse and the titular wraith (three of the aforementioned are actually the same character, but I won’t say who).

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This is one of the windiest silents I’ve ever seen, and that includes THE WIND. Every time the principles venture outdoors they are hilariously buffeted by howling gales. This has the positive effect of providing a naturalistic alibi for the cast’s rhetorical flourishes: presumably they have to use hand gestures to make themselves understood over the roaring hurricane.

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Some nice ghosting from Liane Haid.

The restoration is a touch bitty, which leaves this blogger with lingering questions. After a brief series of introductory shots setting up the dramatis personae with titles attaching cast names to characters, we cut straight to the chubby phantom, waving her limbs in that phantasmal way she has. Then the aging patriarch wakes up in a lather. If this were a modern film, I would have no trouble interpreting what I just saw, but it took me a second to process the fact that a film of this age apparently began in a dream sequence, only revealing itself to be such when the dreamer awakened. This would be revolutionary for the period, so long as it isn’t simply the result of missing or misarranged footage…

Later, Haid recounts an adventure in which she was rescued from abductors by the strolling musician, and the film chooses to present an illustrative flashback without any introduction. The jarring time-leap was momentarily confusing to me, which makes me think it must have blown their minds in 1919. It looks exactly like the projectionist has loaded the wrong reel. Again, are we sure this was the original arrangement, or has the movie become more avant-garde due to a dropped shot?

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“Illusion from Hell. You are not my Berta, everything in vain, I will not let you!” So says the fan-subtitle.

Elsewhere, Wiener Kunstfilm (no sniggering) has slapped an ungainly, mismatched freeze-frame on the end of the movie to compensate for an abrupt finish, so my faith in the presentation isn’t total (it looks to be a product of a sixties restoration), but if the pieces are in the right order, the Flecks can be credited with advancing film narration in fascinating ways. The story of this Regieehepaar (directing-couple) is a fascinating one, from what I can piece together from the IMDB: they made films into the thirties, Jacob survived internment in Buchenwald and Dachau, got released somehow thanks to William Dieterle, and the pair made one film in China in 1941, China’s only collaboration with western filmmakers before the revolution.

Ink Stained Wretch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by dcairns

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What is THE BLACK TORMENT?

Well, we can say immediately and with certainty that it’s a 1964 Comptom Films production, a horror movie directed by Robert Hartford-Davis (like INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, it has a character called Richard and everyone is always saying his name like a damn mantra). Producer Tony Tenser later gave us REPULSION and WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which are prefigured here by the lack of supernatural elements, but the suggestion of same. As a low-budget period thriller, this certainly foreshadows Michael Reeves’ visceral English Civil War western except it doesn’t have the viciousness, the poetry, or the imagination. The plot is a Scooby-Dooby-Don’t farrago of LES DIABOLIQUES and REBECCA with a welcome bit of Roger Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER in the direction.

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But what is the actual black torment of THE BLACK TORMENT? What does the title mean? Well, at a certain fraught point of the narrative, with the lord of the manor and his new bride being tormented by spooky visions of his doppelganger and his dead first wife, his paralysed father turns up unexpectedly out of his wheelchair, and even more unexpectedly dangling from a chandelier, smudged about the face with ink.

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That seems to be it: “the black torment” means getting ink smeared on your face while hanged from a chandelier. You have to admit, it lives up to its name.

Hammer personages in attendance: hulking Francis De Wolff, skulking Patrick Troughton, sulking Heather Sears.

The writers/assemblers of stolen materials are Derek & Donald Ford, whom my late friend Lawrie believed to be distant cousins of your actual John Ford. I wonder if that’s something they spread around themselves? There’s nothing to substantiate it on the internet. Still, it beats being known as the authors of THE WIFE SWAPPERS and WHAT’S UP NURSE! (sic). They would later give us A STUDY IN TERROR, which like this one features the murder of Edina Ronay. Whether they had some kind of passionate dislike of Edina Ronay, or passionate fondness for her, or just didn’t know many girls, I can’t say.

Landlubber

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2017 by dcairns

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Two more Esther Williams vehicles. Though she sure wasn’t kidding when she says her films were written to a formula, it’s interesting to see the attempts made to stretch that template.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO takes place largely in the potato-growing state, where Van Johnson can blend in. But it is bookended by New York sequences exploiting the somewhat irrelevant fact that Esther’s character works in some kind of aquatic revue, so the film can have a big water ballet shoehorned in at the start and finish. Water Ballet #1 is gaudy, with unattractive green water — liquid chlorophyll. Water Ballet #2 has really nice colours, but is a little unimaginative in terms of staging. Choreographer Jack Donohue has dancers cavorting around the pool, distracting us from the aquatic action. You really need to get the camera below the surface to let Esther cut loose. And you really need Busby Berkeley.

Most striking element is the opening titles, which are sung — or at least the whole cast list is. And “John Lund” isn’t easy to sing in an attractive way. I was hoping they’d keep it up right through “Special Effects by A. Arnold Gillespie & Warren Newcombe” and “Montage Sequences by Peter Ballbusch” but the chorus crapped out.

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There are cameos from Lena Horne and Eleanor Powell, but the most impressive moment is really a dialogue one. As Van Johnson pleads “I’m lonely!” outside Es’s hotel room door, a passing bellhop takes pity: “Hello.” It’s not even disguised, really: read it as an attempted pick-up, or dismiss it as a total non-sequitur.

Robert Z. Leonard directs with slightly more panache than he brought to HORSE FEATHERS (See comments). We get a juvenile Mel Tormé in a bit part and an uncredited Mae Clarke — was anyone else ever a lead in such iconic films as FRANKENSTEIN and PUBLIC ENEMY, and an extra in later life?

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TEXAS CARNIVAL is better — we’re getting used to Red Skelton so we could enjoy his mugging, which was a little more restrained anyhow. And there’s Howard Keel, and Ann Miller, and a farce plot with slightly more sense of consequence, but how is Esther going to get wet out in Texas. The novel solution is a dream sequence, where Howard sees her wafting around his bedroom like a wraith. He’s in air, she’s in water, but they’re both inhabiting the same screen space.

The diaphanous drift of Esther’s costume may make modern cinephiles suspect she’s about to turn into a skeleton and make Howard’s face melt.

In fact, Esther nearly drowned. The filming required her to perform in a blacked-out underwater set so her footage could be superimposed over Howard’s. The rooms and the camera set-up matched exactly, so she could pole-dance subaqueously around the bedposts. The set even had a ceiling. To allow the star to surface, a little trapdoor was built into it.

Of course, a black trapdoor in a black set, underwater, is essentially invisible, and Esther nearly drowned trying to find it. Having got the take, director Charles Walters had stopped watching, as had his camera crew. A props man happened to think it was odd that Esther wasn’t coming up for air, and opened the hatch, thus saving her life.

Here’s Ann!