Archive for Anna May Wong

The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by dcairns

Actually, we don’t bother with this “Mothering Sunday” stuff in Scotland, we prefer plain old “Mother’s Day.” And I can well recall my mother’s irritation when European Union interference caused Mother’s Day and daylight saving time to fall on the same day, resulting in a pitiful 23 hour Mother’s Day.

This week’s subject is PETER PAN, Herbert Brenon’s faithful and elegant filming of JM Barrie’s play. All the pantomime artifice of the play is preserved, but augmented with charming movie tricks — thus, Tinkerbell is a flying light in longshot, but with dream-continuity becomes a tiny girl in a billowing gossamer dress when viewed more closely. Nana the dog is played by a human in dog drag, and the crocodile likewise. Anna Mae Wong is Tiger Lily, and looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. (She so often has an air of solemnity or melancholy about her.)  Everybody seems jolly, except maybe the pirates…

Leading the cutthroat crew is Edinburgh-born Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, a hissable villain with quite a scary face. A familiar one too — he played Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. He’s splendidly outfitted, with a domino ring on the finger of his good hand, and Torrence compensates for his genuinely disturbing face by doing a lot of mugging and sneering and generally letting us know that he’s in on the joke. This kind of thing works for the kids sophisticated enough to interpret, but I can imagine toddlers being terrified of him nonetheless.

In the best panto tradition, Peter is played by a girl, the disconcertingly sexy Betty Bronson (those thighs!). Mary Brian plays Wendy, a surprise to anybody whose seen her in 1930s roles like HARD TO HANDLE with Cagney or GIRL MISSING with Glenda Farrell.

It’s the gayest film there is.

Never Never Land is a sumptuous studio creation with giant mushrooms, underground dens, fake lions, and all manner of wonderment and make-believe. It’s a movie which should be revived more — any kid old enough to read the intertitles, or with someone handy to read them aloud, would get a kick out of it. Even if they couldn’t read, familiarity with the story via the Disney version or the 2003 CG-fest. The edge this one has over those later versions is that it isn’t irretrievably vulgar. (Actually, I like the Disney, but especially for the cobalt blue skies of its Edwardian London nightscapes.)

The movie is so faithful to the play, it even reproduces the famous audience participation moment where we’re all invited to clap and save Tinkerbell’s life. Betty Bronson’s appeal to camera (I mean her dramatic urging, not her pansexual attractiveness) is played with such conviction — stylised conviction, that is — it fair brings a tear to the eye.

Staying with the Scottish connection, one has to love Kelly MacDonald for saying that her favourite aspect of her own career is the outtakes from FINDING NEVERLAND in which her flying harness malfunctions as she careens through the air in a stage production of Peter Pan — she sails majestically out of shot, there’s an abrupt thud, and the camera readjusts to frame her flattened against the stage wall like Wile E. Coyote after an unsuccessful rocket-assisted lunge at the Road Runner.

Worth buying that DVD for the extras alone, but the movie itself is very sweet ~

UK: Finding Neverland [DVD] [2004]Finding Neverland [Blu-ray] [2004]

Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…

USA: Peter Pan

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The Sunday Intertitle: A Wedding

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by dcairns

Our own upcoming royal wedding isn’t going to be this exciting, I can assure you.

The Raoul Walsh-directed Douglas Fairbanks yarn THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is quite a thing — it’s an early example of the principle of excess in Hollywood movie-making, a step beyond the gigantism of the earlier Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD. That movie proved that colossal sets could give Doug a stylish environment for his athleticism without upstaging him. In this one, the central idea is to surround him with massive and opulent settings at all times, a pageant of insane splendour that continually unfolds, not so much driven by plot requirements as pushing the plot along.

And so we get adventures in caverns, on the moon, under the sea, most of ’em pretty quick. Like ROBIN HOOD, it’s a slightly odd-shaped film, with the first half confined to Bagdad, a towering series of sets by William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot, and the second roving all over as Doug embarks on a quest for the ultimate treasure. One strange feature is the interiority of it — the sets are humongous, but all feel indoors, even the back-lot Bagdad, whose walls are so high they blot out everything else, so it always feels like we’re inside ’em.

The first leg of Doug’s odyssey is a mountain defile, which allows Menzies & Grot to simply fill the screen with a sheer rock face, a lone stone egg at its centre.

The undersea grotto meshes art deco and art nouveau as if they were the same thing, which to a fish they probably are.

Then there’s the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees, which takes the idea of exteriors inside to a ridiculous extreme — the name alone cracked me up — but proves to be one of the snazziest settings.

Somewhat reminiscent of Walsh’s dubious ethnic humour in THE BOWERY, this movie in which all the characters are non-caucasian, casts real non-caucasians only as slaves and villains. We should be grateful to it for giving teenage Anna May Wong her shot at stardom (as a slave AND a villain), and Sojin (full name: Sojin Kamiyama) is very effective as the Mongol emperor baddie. He and his adjutant wind up dangling by their pony-tails, which seemed rather unpleasant (although most Hollywood epics KILL their bad guys, so I suppose that’s something. Anna escapes unpunished, as far as I could see).

Doug is particularly flamboyant in this one, pantomimic in a way he isn’t usually. I guess it’s a stylised approach designed to blend with the mind-boggling sets and effects and Mitchell Leisen’s ostentatious, campy costumes. It’s initially quite odd, and then I just stopped noticing it. Doug always waves his arms and strikes poses, it’s his thing, it just seemed ramped up to some odd new height here.

I’m making a study of William Cameron Menzies’ work at the moment, so this was an important point — his first really huge job. His style blends with Grot’s perfectly. Both are extremists, as you can see in Grot’s later work at Warners, from LITTLE CAESAR with its slashing zig-zags, to the glossy stonework of Elizabethan England in THE SEA HAWK, and both favour a kind of design that takes the camera position into consideration, arranging everything to make a striking composition…

Pow!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by dcairns

IMPACT isn’t a great noir, indeed bits aren’t much like noir at all, but I wanted to see it because it’s another film to deploy that strange noir meme, the guy who assumes a new identity working in a small town garage — see also Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Lancaster in THE KILLERS, and Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, it’s Brian Donlevy who shucks off a life as married corporate bigshot to become a grease monkey in the employ of Ella Raines, after his wife’s lover attempts to kill him and instead inflicts him with temporary amnesia.

But I found another intriguing aspect to keep me occupied as the film trundled along, not exactly riveting but oddly structured — the bucolic middle section is a very unusual feature, and the sympathetic husband inverts the James M Cain adultery-murder plotline — I detected in this 1949 movie a weird echo of 1941’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

Plotwise, the amnesia gimmick is the obvious connection, but the idea of a powerful rich dude descending to the working classes is another link. As Donlevy staggers along the railway tracks, the movie seems on a convergent line, only to divert ultimately into a not-too-exciting courtroom drama. But the cast is full of Sturges links —

Robert Warwick, a studio exec in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS plays another desk jockey here, a police captain. Most of the rest of the cast have Sturgesian credentials — Donlevy, of course, was McGinty in THE GREAT MCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK: Charles Coburn was in THE LADY EVE; and Ella Raines played one of her earliest parts for Sturges in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.

My old friend Lawrie, who remembered seeing Raines movies in the 40s, once said, “I was always very interested in Ella Raines, because I had heard she was a lesbian, and of course… I had no idea what that meant.”

I have no idea if Ella was a lesbian in reality (she was married twice, once for a long time, and had kids, not that any of that proves anything in this cockeyed carnival) but perhaps anxiety about her sexuality and screen persona influenced the nervousness of the studio bosses at Paramount who told Sturges that his leading lady was unconvincing as a girl next door? The resulting tensions contributed to Sturges’s decision to depart the studio, which ultimately led, alas, to his career plunging into a tailspin.

IMPACT also benefits from the presence of Anna May Wong, albeit in a somewhat thankless maid role, and Helen Walker as the scheming wife. Walker’s best noir role is as the scheming shrink in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and her best comedy role was not for Sturges but for Lubitsch, as the Honorable Betty Cream in CLUNY BROWN (see it, you may find it to be one of the best forties comedies of all). Alas, a drunk driving incident, when Walker killed a hitchhiking war veteran she’d picked up, damaged her career. Pow.

It’s a great shame, from a movie as well as a human point of view, because Walker could be dynamite on the screen.

Remember, this Friday is the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club — drop by and join the discussion!