Archive for Barbara Kent

The Sunday Intertitle: Hooves of Doom

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

NO MAN’S LAW is a 1927 western romp starring Rex the Wonder Horse, whose oeuvre I have not really investigated until now. More intriguingly still, it’s a Hal Roach joint, and so features players such as James Finlayson and Oliver Hardy, who plays villain Sharkey Nye. Ollie was about to make his first film in actual partnership with Stan Laurel (a movie I hope to see on the big screen next weekend), but at this point he was still playing a lot of baddies. He’s been given an eye-patch and a rather fearsome scar disappearing up under it, allowing us to vividly imagine the horrible empty socket…

Looking the part as he does, all Ollie has to do is avoid using any of the gestures that would later become trademarks of his comic persona. It wouldn’t do if Sharkey Nye suddenly started coyly fluttering his necktie, for instance. Fortunately, he has no necktie, so Ollie isn’t tempted in the direction.

The problem arises when Nye catches leading lady Barbara Kent (of LONESOME fame) indulging in a spot of skinny-dipping. Kent has been equipped by the scenarists with an unsuitable character name, Toby Belcher, which makes her sound like a Restoration roué who should be played by Hugh Griffiths, but she’s been equipped by Nature with a lissome form which the ultra-clear lake water does little to conceal. This isn’t the problem, by the way. I have no problem whatsoever with this.

The problem is that Ollie is now called upon to espy the bathing damsel and perform a reaction suggestive of malign lust. This is an emotion not usually called for from “Babe” Hardy, and I’m not sure it’s in his repertoire. What he decides to do to suggest malign lust is hitch up his belt over his belly with a firm tug, which is the Universal Oliver Hardy Symbol for girding one’s loins for battle. It’s more usually followed by slicing off the top of somebody’s derby or pelting them with a lot of rice pudding. To make it suggest immanent, rapacious lechery when it has those other associations (from later films) is a big ask. I mean, the pants-hitch is a perfectly sound dramatic choice, and if it were anyone else doing it, I think we’d accept it without question as a valid encapsulation of malign lust. But how could Ollie know that future audiences would be watching his career out of sequence?

Anyway, Rex is on hand to drive the leering Nye away and save young Belcher’s honour. At film’s end, Nye is still unreformed, and indeed even deeper-dyed in villainy, and so Rex takes the law into his own hooves and simply tramples the big fellow to death. This is a bit disconcerting, and not just because it’s Ollie’s chubby, cherubic fist we see uncurling in death. Hyperintelligent animal heroes are all very well, but we prefer it, I think, when the dog summons help when the leading lady is tied to the railroad track, rather than leaping on the baddie and tearing his throat out. Likewise, a horse hero should, I feel, confine himself to racing to the rescue, expressive whinnying and the like. Equine homicide I disbar.

It’s an interesting notion, though — there have been several films about intelligent, killer cars, but nobody so far as I know has made a western horror film about an evil horse. They could call it something like EVIL HORSE.

(Probably it will turn out that several such films exist, most of them also featuring Cary Grant singing.)

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In Every City There Is One Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2016 by dcairns

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One of the standouts at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s series of films produced by Carl Laemmle Jnr., lesser-known movies excluding the James Whale horror masterpieces. Pal Fejos’ LONESOME was likewise left out in favour of the slightly more obscure, flawed BROADWAY and also the bizarre, grotesque and highly entertaining KING OF JAZZ, which Fejos worked on in some unspecified capacity (perhaps explaining why both those films feature outsize figures Godzilla-cavorting down miniature New York streets). Dave mentioned, though, that LONESOME is the real masterpiece, and I remembered that I own Criterion’s Blu-ray and hadn’t watched it.

BROADWAY is a tricky early talkie, given the stilted nature of much of the dialogue delivery (“new-minted clichés” as Mark Fuller put it). It’s a backstage musical gangster story, in which the musical numbers, staged on a cavernous sound stage, were shoehorned in at Fejos’ behest. Spectacular in themselves, thanks to the towering sets and the elaborate crane shots, they slow the narrative down even further than the flaccid speech. Any movie where Evelyn Brent gives the best performance is arguably in trouble. But Fiona was very taken with the slow-talking detective, Thomas E. Jackson, who actually drawls like he’s parodying an early talkie. It’s disconcerting to find Jackson actually had a long career, and was seen in other film. Hell, it’s disconcerting to find he wasn’t a hallucination.

The movie is a combination of pleasures and irritants, and in the irritant camp fall the two lead performances. Both characters are written as dopes — Merna Kennedy redeemed herself elsewhere in the fest with a spirited turn in LAUGHTER IN HELL (“He’s ma maan!”)– Glenn Tryon redeems himself in LONESOME. In BROADWAY he’s so whiny, insecure, yet at the same time obnoxiously egotistical, like a tap-dancing George Costanza, it actually takes a while to get used to how effective he is in LONESOME.

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One of the delights of Bologna was seeing actors in contrasting roles — Pat O’Brien yaps a very precise Lee Tracy impersonation in THE FRONT PAGE, yet walks through LAUGHTER IN HELL like a man in a dream (he can maintain audience sympathy after committing a double murder because his somnambular perf makes clear that he isn’t responsible — for anything), and see above for Merna Kennedy’s development. Barbara Kent isn’t so versatile, playing ingenues in both LONESOME and FLESH AND THE DEVIL. She’s cuter in modern dress, though, and can hold more interest when not competing with a young, newly-styled Garbo.

LONESOME experiments with model shots, location filming, camera movement, sound, dialogue and colour — there’s stencil painting and some kind of dye process which tints the highlights one hue and the shadows another. Fejos is running amuck, and the slender story is the perfect vehicle for such stylistic exuberance. Think THE LAST LAUGH: small-scale stories can sometimes support colossal artistic ebullience.

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LONESOME is a magnificent one-off — I wish the part-soundie era had lasted another five years. When the two leads abruptly start speaking to each other in live sound on the beach at Coney Island, the jarring transition from one medium to another is beautiful. You can’t get that in a perfect film, only in a makeshift masterpiece like this one, a superproduction assembled on shifting sands. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion, sudden nitrate decomposition afflicts the footage, with PERFECT artistic timing — it drives home the fragility of what we’ve been watching.

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