Archive for Alan Crosland

The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by dcairns


Censored scene, via

OLD SAN FRANCISCO is what I call an epic. Also, it’s a bit racist. Not as much as BIRTH OF A NATION, but every time you find some kind of excuse for it, it redoubles its efforts to freak you out. In the end, it’s too melodramatic and silly to offend seriously, but you do feel very glad it couldn’t have been made more recently. We’re not necessarily better people, but our sensibilities are more attuned to the symptoms of certain kinds of racism.

Screenplay is co-authored by Darryl Zanuck, whose sins against Chinese-Americans also include THE BOWERY.

And it’s a Vitaphone soundie! The odd pistol shot, and a really nice music score by Hugo Riesenfeld (SUNRISE).

The movie begins with a prologue, which seems pointless but isn’t really. We see the settling of San Francisco, and how an important rancho is threatened by the gold rush. We meet the rancher’s brother, and see his gallant (and somewhat murderous) old-world Spanish nobility in action. But now we forget about most of this, because we’re flashing forward to 1906! Does that date mean anything to you? It ought to…

A title reading “The Story” appears, to cries of “About time!” from me and Fiona.


The rancho is now fallen on hard times. Josef Swickard, playing Don Hernandez de Vasquez, sits brooding, as spectral figures from the past whirl about him in a gay dance. It takes me a minute to notice that they’re see-through products of double exposure.

“He’s remembering the good old days,” I say.

“- when people were translucent,” finishes Fiona.

The intertitles in this movie are pretty spectacular, and so is the photography (and later, the special effects).


Hernandez has a pretty daughter, Dolores, played by Dolores Costello, of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and marrying John Barrymore fame. She’s rather anodyne here. An Irish businessman wants to buy the rancho but Don Hernandez won’t sell. The Irishman has a son (Charles Emmett Mack), leading to romance angle. He also has an evil associate, played by Warner Oland. Perplexingly, at first, Oland doesn’t seem to be playing Chinese. But he always played Chinese! And we’ve been promised hot Chinatown action!

In addition to apparently not being Chinese, the Swedish actor is playing a man with the uninspiring name of Chris Buckland. It’s a name which fails to conjure images of swaggering oriental villainy. To me it suggests a man with a beer gut in a rugby shirt holding a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Fiona suggests he might run a corner shop with a name like that.


Fortunately, Oland is soon revealed to be Chinese after all. He’s a self-hating “mongol” who campaigns against his own kind. The land-grab plot and self-hating villain basically turn this into the original of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. (Incidentally, Richard Williams is coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — yay!)

This is all revealed when Oland descends to his secret cellar where he has a hidden Buddha shrine, a withered twin (tiny Angelo Rossitto, another Barrymore associate) in a cage (“This is basically BASKET CASE,” observes Fiona) and also Anna May Wong as a spy. The racial politics are screwy as heck here. Oland is an evil oriental whose “Mongol” side is exposed when he tries to ravish Costello. But Rossitto is an agreeable little guy, and Sojin turns up as a scary but honorable Chinatown businessman. I have mixed feelings about the Chinese villain who hates the Chinese trope. It seems rather like a way of being racist against the Chinese without coming out and saying it. We always project on to others the sins we fear we might be guilty of.


The plot convolutes and inverts until we wind up with the following scenario: Oland has kidnapped Costello to the depths of Chinatown, where he and a gang of filthy yellow scum are about to add her to their harem of slaves. Rossitto is leading Mack to the rescue, but he can’t make it in time. Costello prays for deliverance. Is that a rumble of reply from the Divine Maker?



I’m sure the 3,000 victims of the earthquake and fire would be delighted to know that their painful and terrifying deaths had been worthwhile, saving as they did Dolores Costello’s pristine caucasian virginity. I mean, I did want her to be rescued, I just wonder if a truly benevolent God might have found a less destructive way to do it? Still, the effects, both full-scale and miniature, are truly impressive — they were subsequently reused as stock footage in THE SISTERS (1938).

Third Barrymore connection: JB is supposed to have drunkenly slept through the Great Earthquake, awakening the next day, stepping into the rubble, and presumably thinking “Man, I must have really tied one on last night.”


The Sunday Intertitle: Balcony scenes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 6, 2011 by dcairns

Alan Crosland’s DON JUAN is a fabulous confection of clashing tones — a tragic prologue in which infidelity ruins the family of Don’s dad; a bedroom farce introduction to Don as a young man in Rome; a melodramatic second act as Lucrezia Borgia plots his downfall; an action movie climax where our hero becomes a virtual superman, slaying armies of opponents with a single swordthrust (OK, I exaggerate, but the movie started it).

Subjective camera duel scene!

Thrillingly, this is a soundie — so we get an excellent Vitaphonic synch score, and “realistic” clacking swords during the duels. Of course, the public wants to hear swords, and of course they have no interest in hearing the World’s Greatest Actor actually speak. In fairness, this decision allows the film to enjoy the fluidity of late silent Hollywood filmmaking, rather than suffer the longeurs of early talkiedom.

Barrymore is quite the dude in this, ably adapting to each of the story’s wildly veering mood swings. His comedy is ebullient, he suffers majestically, and you’ll never see a buckle swashed with such furious abandon. With Barrymore, the athleticism of Fairbanks and the masochism of Brando, are combined, with plenty of wit and the excitement of the perpetual danger that he’s going to go completely over the top and actually savage the furniture with his splendid teeth.

Mwahahahaha — Barrymore as Don’s dad.

Down the cast lurk Hedda Hopper (!), Mary Astor and, most alluring of all, Myrna Loy, here captured in the act of cradling a whippet.

All strikingly costumed by some uncredited genius… who is responsible?

A Life in Intertitles

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2010 by dcairns

THE FLAPPER, written by Frances Marion (THE SCARLET LETTER) and directed by Alan Crosland (BELOVED ROGUE), is an intermittently amusing, very watchable comedy, made both fascinating and melancholy by the appearance of star Olive Thomas. Not only is Thomas’s life at cruel odds with the lighthearted movie she stars in, the intertitles keep butting up against the facts of her story in a way that seems cruel, suggestive, mysterious and discomfiting. And since those are all emotions I can enjoy at times, I thought I’d bring you the Olive Thomas story, in illustrated intertitle form.

Information lifted wholesale from the IMDb and Wikipedia.

She was born Oliva R. Duffy, or possibly Oliveretta Elaine Thomas, in 1894. She was brought up in a working-class home in Pittsburgh. Her father died when she was young and she had to leave school to help support her family. She married at 16 but it didn’t take — she divorced two years later and went to New York.

Working in a Harlem department store, Olive responded to a newspaper contest seeking The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City — and won!

This led to a modeling career, including landing the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Artist Harrison Fisher recommended Olive to Florenz Ziegfeld, and she joined the Follies, and the racier Midnight Frolic, where she performed clad only in balloons. Alberto Vargas painted her nude.

Olive signed with the International Film Company and began her movie career appearing in the serial BEATRICE FAIRFAX, with Harry Fox, “inventor” of the foxtrot. She went on to work with directors John Francis Dillon, Frank Borzage, Ralph Ince and Alan Crosland.

In 1916 she became engaged to Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, eloping with him shortly after. It proved to be a stormy relationship.

In 1918, she signed with David O Selznick.

“But I want to create a certain role, you see Mary is the kid in pictures; Norma does drama; Constance is the flippant, flighty wife; Dorothy the hoyden; Nazimova is exotic and steeped in mystery, my Jack does boys, while I–I–why don’t you see, I am just nothing at all!” In fact, Olive was the first movie flapper, or “baby vamp”.

Olive’s tendency to drink and wild partying increased during her marriage to Jack, resulting in several serious car accidents.

Drugs were also rumoured.

In August 1920, the pair embarked on a second honeymoon in Paris, attempting to repair their strained marriage. On the night of September 9th in the Ritz Hotel, Olive drank what she apparently thought was a sleeping draught, but confusion with the labels of various bottles apparently meant that she took a mercury bichloride solution, prescribed for Pickford’s syphilis and not intended for ingestion. It can also be used as a cleaning product.

She died a few days later, aged just 25. It was the first time a young Hollywood star had died at the height of their fame. Rumours abounded of suicide or murder.

Although she died in Paris, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Hotel Theater, New York.

“I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. I feel the same about other things as I do about death. I don’t think you can change anything that is going to happen to you any more than you can change anything that has happened to you. That’s why I never worry, and that is why I don’t think people should get conceited and think themselves better than others.”

“Life’s too short and fate too funny to get upstage, Today they may be showering us with roses on Broadway and tomorrow some fool director who used to be a waiter may be rejecting us as atmosphere in a five reel five cent feature…”