Archive for Call Her Savage

Pre-code Unknown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2011 by dcairns

In which I continue my slow spread across the internet. Picture one of those burning maps you’d get in the opening titles of Hollywood war or western pic: that’s me and the internet.

At The Daily Notebook, I contribute to the ongoing process of capsule-reviewing highlights of New York’s Film Forum pre-code series, along with Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Zach Campbell and Jaime N. Christley. I’ve tackled THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THREE ON A MATCH (above), RED-HEADED WOMAN and CALL HER SAVAGE.

And at Electric Sheep, I chip in to the round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, with pieces on TROLLHUNTER and TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN.

Been viewing a lot of pre-codes lately, because Fiona’s been unwell and pre-codes are perfect when you’re doped up on painkillers. Here are capsules of a few more we ran —

TWO ALONE

This is a really beautiful pre-code pastoral (was that even a thing?) in which unloved foster-child Jean Parker falls from juvie home runaway Tom Brown. Memorable nastiness from the foster family, but the movie isn’t overall about making you want the bad guys to suffer horrendous fates, although some of the time you do. In the end, this tender film satisfies you by rewarding the good characters instead.

Notable for Parker’s nude scene and the sympathetic view of pre-marital sex and extra-marital pregnancy, and taking the side of the despised outlaws over the nominal pillars of the community. Elliot Nugent directs, and it’s interesting to see small-town values being repeatedly trashed in these movies.

THE MATCH KING

We had David Wingrove to dinner with the plan to watch the ne plus ultra of Bad Cinema, Baz Luhrman’s emetic epic AUSTRALIA, but even he, who owns a copy of BOXING HELENA and watched WILD ORCHID four times, couldn’t make it through the antipodean hellscape (it’s like being injected into the mind of a ten-year-old with ADHD), and so a nice 80-minute pre-code seemed the ideal antidote.

Warren William — the starving lion — magnificent scoundrel — king of the pre-codes — the other Great Profile — is a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer who tries to dominate the world, starting with a humble match factory. He saves the family firm with money borrowed on holdings that don’t exist, which means he’ll always owe more money than he can pay back, “until I own everything in the world, and then I’ll only owe money to myself.” On the way to his inevitable fall, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd and Lily Damita become notches on his bedpost. Every now and then the screenwriters have WW do something truly rotten on a personal level, in case we find his massive-scale financial chicanery too endearing. “This is like a primer in capitalism,” our dinner guest remarked, awestruck.

HOT SATURDAY

Our new favourite Nancy Carroll is torn between rich playboy Cary Grant and homespun geologist Randolph Scott. Quite a choice. But meanwhile smalltown gossip threatens her future. Chief slanderer and hottie Lilian Bond makes malice seem almost sexy, and this is a useful rebuttal to Leo McCarey’s claim that he taught Cary Grant everything. Grant is stiff in his Mae West and Sternberg movies, but effective for Leisen and Walsh and, in this case, the less celebrated William A. Seiter.

BIG BROWN EYES

Grant again, paired with blonde Joan Bennett, who’s notably abrasive and snappy under Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious purview. She’s a manicurist-turned-crime-reporter (!), he’s a police detective, and they’re hot on the trail of a ring of burglars, fences and baby-killers. Walter Pidgeon makes an assured snake-in-the-grass, and the accidental assassination of a sleeping tot shows how pre-codes could turn reckless tonal inconsistency into some kind of demented virtue. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?

ME AND MY GAL

The best and pre-codiest pre-codes overall may be the Warners films, but the Fox films are the rarest, thanks to that library’s largely unexploited status (apart from the legendary Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set). This is Walsh again, and Bennett again (with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty spot) and Spencer Tracy, during that part of his career where he played ostensibly lovable louts rather than patrician paterfamilias types. Here he rises through the police force and into Joan’s arms in a sweet, sassy romance that folds in a crime story and some alcoholic Irish shenanigans. Twice, Bennett’s father turns to the camera and invites us all to have a drink. Another character is paralyzed and communicates by blinking, allowing for some THERESE RAQUIN inspired plot twists, and the weirdest scene is cued by Tracy talking about a movie he just saw, “STRANGE INNERTUBE or something,” which leads to a series of internal monologues by himself and Bennett as they cuddle up on their date. Crazy stuff.

Walsh made a quasi-sequel, SAILOR’S LUCK, which has been getting a lot of attention in New York screenings and on the blogosphere, and which we’ll certainly be watching next.

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The Sunday Intertitle: If Chins Could Kill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by dcairns

The title card is from Victor Fleming’s HULA, a Hawaiian-set Clara Bow vehicle from 1927, and the chin referred to comprises a principle part of the facial apparatus of leading man Clive Brook. The card cracked me up because of the scene described by Maria Riva in her slyly vengeful biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich.

SHANGHAI EXPRESS is in prep. Von Sternberg has selected Brook, whom he knew well and had directed in UNDERWORLD, a major hit, as Frau Dietrich’s leading man. “What’s he like?” she asked.

“He’s a chin.” said Jo.

Brook, who comes across as something of a stick in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, is actually human and sympathetic in UNDERWORLD, which is rather hard to see nowadays (do I hear rumours of a Criterion DVD? Snap it up!) and his stiffness is used as an appealing quality in HULA, proving that he could be effective onscreen, or at least more so than he is opposite Dietrich.

Listen — some kind of strange dynamic is at work in the Sternberg choice of leading men: one time he’ll give her Gary Cooper — what Stanwyck would call a real yum-yum type — next, she gets Victor McLaglen. “Why is he grinning like that?” my students asked. “He’s Victor McLaglan — that’s what he does!” was all I could offer as explanation. Then wooden Clive and his balsa chin, then the pendulum swings back, offering not only Herbert Marshall but a side order of Cary Grant. Then John Lodge, about whom I can’t quite decide, then the astounding double feature of Lionel “Pinky” Atwill and Cesar “Butch” Romero. It’s like a succession of hot and cold baths.

In HULA, Brook’s pairing with Bow could have been disastrous, since she has the legendary “it” and all he has is “that” — humanity’s first fully opposable chin. But since she’s so young and vivacious and he’s so Clive Brook, actually what he gets out of the partnership is vulnerability. She can dance rings around him, and you feel for him as a result.

It was a good time to see the film, as Victor Fleming had been on my mind — Philip French wrote a good piece in The Observer recently (a relief: French is extraordinarily erudite, yet The Observer normally have him writing lists of “best hedgehog movies” or whatever), I caught a bit of THE WIZARD OF OZ again during it’s seasonal TV run, and I grabbed a copy of WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, recently acclaimed  on David Bordwell’s excellent site.

A bit of business borrowed by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

HULA isn’t any masterpiece, but we get primo cuteness from Bow, including a nude swim for starters (was any actress of the age so frequently unclad?) and plenty of local colour. The seeds are planted for the campy delirium tremens of CALL HER SAVAGE a few years later.

More interesting yet, and another good use of Brook, was THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY, directed by my old pal Berthold Viertel, whose work I’ve admired consistently. There’s always more imagination and emotional sensitivity in his work than you’re expecting. This one sees BV in Hollywood, where his son Peter would enjoy a longer career, directing a Paramount romantic tragedy where Brook plays a WWI soldier who marries Claudette Colbert during an air raid, impregnates her in the back of a cab in the Bois du Boulogne, and then gets gassed in the trenches. “Killing ‘im with stuff that smells like flowers,” muses a passing cockney stereotype.

But Brook is not dead, just reported as such. Colbert takes up with suave doctor Charles Boyer, but can’t quite bring herself to marry him. Good pre-code banter as she checks into a Swiss hotel with her lover. He asks for a double room, she gently corrects him, asking for two singles. “Adjoining,” he specifies, in that endearing Gallic way of his.

Brooks is resting up in this same hotel, his lungs still raddled. His best buddy Andy Devine has been caring for him. (Devine is great here, although he makes a very unlikely Brooklynite, to my ears.) Brooks doesn’t want to reveal himself to Colbert, but Boyer learns the truth and nobly absents himself from the picture. Now Colbert tries to make a home for Brooks with his son (a terrific, cute-as-a-button kid called Ronnie Cosby), but he is, as the title has told us… THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY.

Viertel had a gift for taking sentimental stuff like this, or LITTLE FRIEND, and giving it a bit of life, and he’s aided greatly by Karl Struss’s cinematography. The film doesn’t have LITTLE FRIEND’s fervent experimentalism nor the allegorical intensity of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, but the performances and story are well handled, the appeals to emotion are discrete, and there are strange and unsettling moments, as when Brook drunkenly hallucinates Colbert’s face on top of a floozy’s, and the voice of one issues from the lips of the other — and this ECU of a black singer’s mouth, which seems to have some odd significance as memento mori

Soon I want to talk about Viertel’s last film, RHODES OF AFRICA, a more problematic case but an interesting one…

Intertitle of the Week: of It-Girls and Intertitles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2009 by dcairns

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From Dorothy Arzner’s THE WILD PARTY.

If you’re like Fiona and I, one of the symptoms is a willingness to watch anything with Clara Bow in it. Clara, who suffered an irrational fear of microphones, made relatively few talkies. THE WILD PARTY, her first, is a fascinating early attempt at sound film-making, using inter-titles (see above) for scene-setting between acts, and serving up lashings of pre-code spice, and HOOP-LA, her last, is a slightly desultory carnival melodrama enlivened by racy attitudes and a nude swimming scene.

But none of this prepared us for the hilarity of CALL HER SAVAGE…

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Seven years’ bad luck…

The movie gets off to a rough start by following two generations of Bow’s ancestors, explaining how she gets her “savage” nature — her grandfather was a murdering adulterer and her father was an Indian. Now she’s “Nasa Springer,” (great name!) a simple rich Brooklynese girl from Texas with a tendency to flip out and literally bullwhip everything in sight ~

Believe it or not, we actually stopped watching around here, convinced that the film was uninteresting, so we watched Frank Fay (Fay by name and fey by nature) ironically cast as GOD’S GIFT TO WOMEN, which deserves a lot more attention sometime, but then we returned to Clara and found that actually the movie is a demented work of anti-genius that’s well worth anybody’s time. The peculiar and slightly sinister racial attitudes, the camp singing waiters (I didn’t think it was possible for anybody to be more camp than Frank Fay and be in a movie, but WRONG AGAIN), the endless parade of improbable scandals, cat-fights, mental breakdowns and dead babies, this is like watching seven years of daytime soap compacted into 88 minutes of fast-forward debauchery. We were left giddy and google-eyed.

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As fine a display of mincing as you could hope to see.

Based on this experience, I’d say that CALL HER SAVAGE and GOD’S GIFT TO WOMEN make an ideal Fever Dream Double Feature, provided you watch one film inside the other, forming a sort of bad film sandwich. Both movies exploit the shady entertainment value of the cat-fight, with Bow tackling Thelma Todd while the Fay vehicle pits Joan Blondell against Louise Brooks.

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But only CALL HER SAVAGE utilises the less-known dogfight, with a noticably bra-less Bow wrestling a huge mutt. This kind of scene, bra-less dog wrestling, never quite caught on, I suspect.

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And then there’s the early scene where Clara elevates music criticism to the level of contact sport, a sequence apparently intended to establish her as an adorable hot-head rather than out-of-control psychopath ~

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Footnote: Clara’s horse-riding mishap seems an attempt to hark back to her glory days in silents ~

HULA.

‘It’ Plus Clara Bow: Discovering the “It” Girl