Archive for Ben Hecht

The Sunday Intertitle: A Devil’s Carnival

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Josef Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927) brought the gangster picture back from obscurity — if Griffith’s MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is the first wave, and Walsh’s REGENERATION inaugurates the second, this one starts another torrent which continues almost unbroken into the Warner Bros talking era.

Now that great confabulator Howard Hawks, a quasi-friend and sometime collaborator of Sternberg’s (they shared the screenwriter Jules Furthman) claimed that when he proposed a gangster pic to Ben Hecht, Hecht wasn’t interested because he felt the genre was played out. Hawks pitch of “the Borgias in Chicago” is said to have changed his mind. But if Hecht was afraid of repeating himself with SCARFACE (1932), would he have reprised so many of the earlier film’s tropes?

Bull Weed (the repulsive George Bancroft) looks up at a neon advertisement promising “The City is Yours.” Tony (Paul Muni) admires a sign which declares “The World is Yours.” Arguably, the second version is an improvement: Bancroft feels vindicated by a statement which is practically true, or feels true. Muni sees an unfulfillable promise, the lie of the American dream, of life.

Hawks stages a party aftermath strewn with streamers which closely matches the dying hours of the ball which Hecht had concocted for UNDERWORLD. Though I’m inclined to give Sternberg a little credit here — the idea of a society engagement for the underworld is delightful, whimsical. Hecht knew gangland from his newspaper days. Sternberg decried research and liked to work from a position of romantic ignorance.

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There’s a contest for moll of the year. I love all the nicknames.

Hawks also claimed to have suggested Dietrich’s tuxedo in MOROCCO, which is possible, I guess. But, though some rumours suggest Hawks was bi, and he gave several of his leading ladies a masculine edge, perversity is really more of a Sternberg thing, and Dietrich’s girl-girl kiss would seem more up his street. But who knows? Hawks’ anecdotes all revolve, in a way that would be monotonous if he wasn’t such a good storyteller, around his own mastery of every situation, his brilliant creative decision-making and his ability to get everybody to do exactly what he wants. Then again, his films are usually good enough to make you believe he really was that proficient.

Did Hawks invent the money thrown in the spittoon in UNDERWORLD? Is that why he felt entitled to basically just steal it for RIO BRAVO? Or did he just figure it was worth doing again, thirty years later, since the audience has a short memory? At any rate, RIO BRAVO improves on the idea since it gives John Wayne more motivation to intervene in Dean Martin’s alcoholic degradation than George Bancroft had in pulling Clive Brook out of the gutter.

Funny, Fiona hates stuffed shirt Brook in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (“He’s a chin,” explained Sternberg to Dietrich, when she asked what he new leading man was like), but since enjoying his one directorial effort, ON APPROVAL, she is open to liking him. She liked him in this, and was rooting for him and Evelyn Brent (as “Feathers”). It helps that George Bancroft really is disgusting.

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Brandy and Soda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2012 by dcairns

Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!

This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.

This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).

It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.

Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.

I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.

Lithographs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2011 by dcairns

Fun revisiting TWENTIETH CENTURY, even though in certain respects the film is never quite as good as I want it to be. But even its weaknesses are interesting and revealing and sometimes enjoyable.

I’ve never seen the play but I’m guessing that Howard Hawks his screenwriters (Hecht & McArthur + Gene Fowler: Preston Sturges was fired after four days, but seems to have retained the idea of Edgar Kennedy as a private eye for UNFAITHFULLY YOURS) have both gutted and exploded it. The parts on the train are the play, truncated. So there’s an extensive series of preceding scenes, “opening out” the action and roughing in the prehistory of the characters before the central situ (broke theatre impresario woos the star he created on train bound for NYC). This effectively destroys the play’s taut structure, but Hawks never cared a lick for plot, and the additions are so entertaining it just about gets away with it.

The rewrite has the effect of turning the story into HIS GIRL FRIDAY avant la lettre, with the crazy boss trying to win back his star pupil — the comedy in both cases both depends upon and is endangered by the fact that Oscar Jaffe/Walter Burns (or John Barrymore/Cary Grant) is a deplorable megalomaniac and one should in no way root for his success. The anti-hero’s awfulness provides the laughs and undercuts the drama, but mustn’t be allowed to keep us from investing a little bit of interest — but it’s curiosity about what devilry he’ll attempt next, rather than any sense of “rooting for him.”

Barrymore, in the early scenes, gets to spoof himself pretty thoroughly, with Hawks throwing in a lot of the in-jokes he was intermittently addicted to: references to Svengali and whatnot. Most of Barrymore’s famous roles get lampooned, and the actor heroically throws in a lifetime’s worth of baroque stage business, pushing the dramaturgy just far enough to highlight its artifice and make it absurd. It’s a parody of hamminess that’s often very nuanced and always exquisitely controlled.

As his rival, Lombard is great in the early scenes where she has our sympathy, and perhaps a little too shrill once we get to the play and she has to transform into a diva. Some of the screaming and wailing gets a bit much, and her lightning shifts of phony emotion don’t have as clear a throughline as Barrymore’s. But her footwork is terrific here —

If the relationship prefigures HIS GIRL FRIDAY for Hawks, it rehearses TO BE OR NOT TO BE for Lombard, where she gets to play a drama queen who’s NOT a hysteric. Indeed, it’s hard to believe Lubitsch wasn’t in some way influenced by Hawks here — John Barrymore would have made a lot more obvious sense as a Shakespearean ham than Jack Benny, even if the initials are the same. Of course Lubitsch’s instincts were perfect: Barrymore is perfect casting as a director so he can mock actors, and Benny is superb because casting him as Poland’s leading tragedian is inherently funny.

If Barrymore and Lombard are not quite perfectly matched for ability at farce, her amazing beauty gives her an edge, and then there’s everybody else: Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly (his dyspepsia in scene one turning to acute angina by film’s end) and Charles Lane, back when he was Charles Levison, playing a character who’s changed from Max Mandelbaum to Max Jacobson “for some mysterious reason.” Barrymore’s character harps on the guy’s Jewish origins in a way no comedy character would be allowed to today, and it’s a little shocking but of course entirely in keeping for the monster that is Oscar Jaffe.

If all the front-loading of back-story in the form of prologue does any harm at all, apart from enforcing a certain shapelessness that’s  much to Hawks’ liking, it’s that it creates the necessity for a coda, just to frame the lengthy train sequence. And so we get a not-very-inspired “This is where we came in” type rehash of the opening rehearsal, which is brief, but not quite speedy or funny enough to get itself out of trouble. A movie which crams gigantic amounts of character development into it’s first half and then suggests its characters are fixed, unchanging and unreal “lithographs,” for the remaining running time, does leave a slight dissatisfaction, even though it’s all so brilliantly done and funny. Fortunately, we don’t require perfection.

Check out the Lombard blogathon here.

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