Archive for Basil Rathbone

The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

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

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE —

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…

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Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.

Deeper Crimson

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2009 by dcairns

A quick update on my See Reptilicus and Die mission — a mission almost as old as Hitchcock Year and likely to run and run. I’m trying to view every film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a prodigiously visual tome that haunted my childhood like a big green flapping bat. So how am I doing?

As you can see hereherehere and here, the titles previously listed as unseen are gradually changing to blood red, indicating that I’ve tracked them down and watched them. Since I haven’t written about every single film I’ve seen, a quick update might be in order, dealing with the more interesting cases.

THE NEANDERTHAL MAN is directed by EA Dupont, which is just bloody tragic. The auteur of VARIETY must have fallen not on hard times, but straight through them and into some monochromatic pit of hell where cineastes shovel shit while lashed by demons, huckster producers, and their consciences. The sabre-tooth tiger that isn’t anything of the kind is quite funny (Dupont boldly cuts from a real tiger in long-shot to a fanged glove puppet/stuffed toy close-up), and it was surprising to discover that this may have been the first movie monster to not only abduct a screaming starlet, but actually do the nasty with her, caveman style (all discretely off-camera). Even Beverly Garland, as cavebait, can’t save this cro-magnon crud.

THE MAGIC SWORD — Gifford has this Bert I Gordon sword and sorcery romp listed as ST GEORGE AND THE SEVEN CURSES which, given the presence of a Sir George and seven curses in the plot, suggests to me that this was the original intended title, although I can’t find any evidence it was released as such. Wikipedia offers ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON and THE SEVEN CURSES OF LODAC as alternatives. This was pretty enjoyable! It has Estelle Winwood (she of the widely-spaced eyes that allow her to look you in the eye and see the back of your head at the same time) and Basil Rathbone, who isn’t yet having trouble with his lines (see QUEEN OF BLOOD for evidence of what time did to poor old Sherlock) and thus is great fun. Gary 2001 Lockwood makes a spirited, if very American, hero, and Maila Nurmi (Vampira!) pads out the cast as a hag (“Vamp — I mean, Maila, wanna be in a film?” “Hmm, what’s the role?” “Hag!” “I’ll do it!”). Apart from oddly adult stuff like the damsel’s vacuum-packed bosom and the blood pouring from the injured cyclops, this was inventive and crammed with fancy special effects, all of which were decently special, if cheap. No stop-motion creatures, but the dragon puppet breathed real fire, and the humans were endearing.

VOODOO MAN is a very silly Monogram horror with Lugosi, Zucco and Carradine. The triple-headed threat ought to make the film impressively busy and bursting with fun, but instead it rather illuminates just how very affordable those actors had become. However, the thing is daft as a brush and basically played for laughs, although I’m not sure anyone told Bela. By this point in his life, Bela seems permanently typecast as widowers, perhaps to explain his hangdog appearance. George Zucco runs a garage where he steers women to their dooms, and Carradine plays a simple-minded, simple-bodied (he looks like a stick drawing) henchman. The hero is a screenwriter who tries to pass his adventure off as a movie script in the last scene. Good luck with that, fella.

Boris models the new-look string beard.

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES is one of Boris Karloff’s many many mad scientist parts, which seem to have been made from a kind of knitting pattern in the early forties — Boris invents something wonderfully beneficial to mankind, mankind (personified by some well-meaning dopes) screws things up and somebody gets killed, Boris gets embittered and crazy and uses his powers for evil. Nick Grinde directed at least three of these with exactly the same plot, and I watched them all. Now this one and THE MAN THE COULD NOT HANG and BEFORE I HANG have all merged into one super-mad scientist movie, which might be called THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES THEY COULD NOT HANG BEFORE. All three are engaging, sympathetic, nicely photographed, and boast committed, only slightly campy performances from the tireless star.

DR RENAULT’S SECRET is far better than I’d expected, with a lovely monster played by J Carroll Naish, product of Dr Moreau-like experiments in accelerated evolution (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN uses the same plot device in reveree, winding back the genetic clock on domestic cats and domestic help). And it’s based on the same Gaston Leroux tale as BALAOO THE DEMON BABOON, another Gifford special which I may have to go to Canada to see…

THE MYSTERY OF THE MARIE CELESTE is a British nautical suspenser from the early thirties, when Lugosi was full of vim and good prospects, even when his characters are not. It makes a change to feel sorry for the character rather than the actor. The movie was moderately interesting, partly because the British version of 30s racism is more bluntly-spoken than the Hollywood equivalent — there’s some very nasty language from some purportedly sympathetic characters.

DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, starring future director James GREAT GABBO Cruze, can be seen RIGHT HERE ~

It’s not a great work of art — mainly it’s quite funny, with Hyde looking like an unsavory Dudley Moore — but the filmmakers do a reasonable job of straightening out the story, condensing the action, and inserting a romantic lead, all of which actions would be repeated by subsequent adaptors. Stevenson’s story is an all-male affair, apart from the maid heard crying after Jekyll’s demise, prompting me to wonder if a version where Hyde’s secret life of vice took more of a Dorian Gray path might provide a new wrinkle on the story — something that’s sorely needed after a hundred or so different versions.