Archive for Blanche Sweet

Dixie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Alice White and her… zombie beatnik chorus?

When you’re feeling poorly, a pre-code can be a tonic, or else it can be about all you can handle. Although some of them are rather spicy, and some (THE BOWERY) even toxic, so you have to watch out. Fiona had a very good week, during which we ventured out of early thirties Hollywood and ran L’AUBERGE ROUGE, but then she’s had a couple of bad days so we ran for cover into the soothing crackle of Vitaphone.

A SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is a 1930 Warners dramedy, or dromedary if you will, with an interesting history. The character of Dixie Dugan sprang from two novels by J.P. McEvoy (IT’S A GIFT), was adapted into a comic strip with Louise Brooks serving as model for the showgirl’s design, and then found her way to a Gershwin-scored Broadway play (Ruby Keeler in the lead), and thence to the screen, embodied by Alice White in 1928’s SHOW GIRL (which I haven’t managed to see) and its sequel.

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Gargantuan clown weeps chorines: a staple of entertainment in the ’30s.

This being 1930 means the studio with the most pre-code paprika hadn’t quite hit its stride — Mervyn LeRoy directs, but he lets everybody take their time (even Herman Bing, though playing a character called Bing, just does not bring the Bing), and everybody being somewhat miscast and the material being somewhat thin, the film kind of just lays there. Still, it’s interesting.

One reason for this is the behind-the-scenes stuff, which we’ve been wallowing in lately. Though the movie isn’t particularly abrasive in its portrayal of Hollywood, it does feature a musical number interrupted by shots taken from inside one of the soundproof booths, which means they must have crammed TWO cameras in there, one filming the other. The motor whir is pretty loud, alright. This fine post covers most of what I’d have said about that.

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Another reason is Alice White, who fascinates. She has natural oomph, and it’s not that she can’t act, exactly — she just seems to not know what’s going on around her most of the time. Her quicksilver shifts of facial expression are enticing, but not strictly tied to anything in the scene, they’re more like hats being tried on for size. A more intelligent performance might have focused and injected fizzle into what are often quite flat scenes. It’s not really clear if Dixie is a gold-digger, a ditz, or what, and White’s reading of the snappier lines is uncertain enough to suggest Dixie is repeating things she’s overheard, rather than minting her own witticisms.

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Third reason is Blanche Sweet, in one of only three early talkies she made, rather cruelly cast as a past-her-prime actress. “I’m thirty-two,” she confesses, though Sweet was actually a little older. Still, point taken — Hollywood’s search for the new, the young, is a merciless thing. Sweet had a perfectly good voice, in fact she made her living in radio and on the stage when the movies stopped calling, so her decline can be credited purely to the changing of fashion. I guess when movies began yapping, people were excited to see their favourite stars give voice, but less-celebrated players couldn’t compete with imports from the New York stage or elsewhere, who could be marketed as the next big thing.

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The Sunday Intertitle: No Logo for Old Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2011 by dcairns

Gee Willikers, if Marshall Neilan had lived a bit longer he’d probably have had to seriously rethink his company logo.

It should be stressed that the year was 1925, the Nazi party didn’t exist, and the symbol in the centre had mystical associations but no political ones the Nazi party was still small, and the symbol’s mystic overtones still superseded its political ones. I’m betting this was the last time a swastika appeared as a logo on an MGM movie, though.

The film is THE SPORTING VENUS, an MGM melo with a bit of humour (but not enough) starring Blanche Sweet as “Lady Gwendolyne”, a high-class Scottish lady, and Ronald Colman as the lowly Scotsman who woos her.

Almost everybody’s Scottish in this film, except suave and villainous Count Marno (Lew Cody). And the titles boast of their location shooting — unlike many older “location” pics, this one does seem to have possibly sent its stars out of the country (to Cortachy Castle in Angus) rather than just gathering some second unit landscape plates to back-project behind them.

Too bad the movie’s so uninspired — heavy with MGM “quality”. Colman is handsome, Sweet is unusual, the Scottish settings were interesting to me, and I guess to be fair one would need to see a decent print before passing judgment on it. Hank Mann, the drunken millionaire from CITY LIGHTS, provides comedy relief. Here’s a review from the legendary F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre. I’d like to think my dodgy DVD was maybe filmed off his Steenbeck.

I haven’t had much luck with Marshall Neilan so far but I do intend to sample one of his more reputable hits.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sometimes a Great Notion

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2010 by dcairns

POE WEEK is HERE!

Seven days of Poe-try and eerie pleasures. We begin with DW Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE, his somewhat moralistic, yet often effective, adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. For another, lesser version, see here. Later, we can hopefully pay some attention to Jules Dassin’s magnificent short film version, which has some MGM-inspired moralism of its own.

Not that Poe’s story is immoral or amoral, it’s just that the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” side is contained within the action, so nobody has to preach, certainly not the author. Really, the avenging conscience of the story takes the form of a disembodied heartbeat coming from beneath the floorboards because it’s a disassociated part of the protagonist’s mind, something he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of, which finds an escape through this route.

Griffith is fairly faithful to this idea, so after the hero has made away with his guardian/uncle, he’s tormented by visions, including the double-exposed ghost of the old man, and later some nifty imps and spectres, including a lovely Halloween with, complete with broomstick (bristles forward, in the fashion of the time).

The star is Henry B. Walthall, who also played the hero of BIRTH OF A NATION, and Poe himself in Charles Brabin’s 1915 film THE RAVEN, one of several Poe biopics (Griffith made a ten-minute one). Walthall is sometimes startlingly contemporary, authentic and informal, sometimes he’s highly rhetorical and stylised. Which is fun to watch.

Griffith also throws in a blackmailing Italian, whose nationality is repeated so often, and is his sole identifying trait, that one suspects an unacknowledged further wrinkle on Griffith’s famed racism. But, given the film’s spider-and-fly motif, I dig the fact that a little insect alights on the Italian’s cap just as he witnesses the murder… (I could, and may, write an entire essay on the enhancement provided by unintended fly cameos in cinema history, from the buzzing witnesses who perch on Jack Gilford’s pillow in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, to the chitinous interloper whom Paul Freeman swallows in mid-speech, without even noticing, in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.)

Griffith also gives us a romantic interest, Annabel Lee (Blanche Sweet), her glamour slightly inhibited by her tendency to wear all of her clothes at once. But then, looking at the way all the curtains and tablecloths are madly billowing about in her house, one can’t blame her: it must be blowing a gale in there. This must be the result of the open air “studios” favoured in the nineteen-teens. Studios might be greenhouses, or they might simple be back-lots, where three walls could be erected with the sun shining in, unobstructed. That was the whole reason the movie industry went to Hollywood.

Emphasizing the oddly exterior nature of the Lee pad is the above shot, where a superimposed sky fills the window, but also eats up most of the wall. I love the double-exposures in this movie, because their technical imperfection always has poetic advantages. The see-through dead uncle persecuting the hero is always just the wrong size, his shrunken or overgrown cranium a sinister contrast with the normally-proportioned thesps around him. God knows, he’s disturbing enough in appearance at the best of times ~

And the actor’s name is Spottiswoode Aitken, which is just perfect.

Thanks to Arthur S for the recommendation.

The Avenging Conscience

Griffith Masterworks 2 (Way Down East / D.W. Griffith: Father of Film / The Avenging Conscience / Abraham Lincoln / The Struggle / Sally of the Sawdust)