Archive for Cecil B Demille

Their Purple Moment

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on April 24, 2013 by dcairns

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Chapter Two of THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS (continued from last week) comes leaping at us with the homoerotic title of THE PURPLE DAGGER.

Seems I erred last week in stating that the serial’s cinematographer is uncredited. His credit is proudly present on the film, just not on the IMDb. King D. Grey had a reasonably long career consisting mainly of serials and B pictures, taking time out in 1918 to shoot Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SQUAW MAN, first remake of what’s sometimes claimed as the first American feature film. (Thanks to Randy Byers for the correction.) His work on TTOTO is superb, and he must be considered a subject for further research.

The second part of our twisting tale starts just as enticingly as the first — the opening titles identifying leading man Ben F. Wilson and leading lady Neva Gerber are illustrated by shots of the characters menaced by the cliffhanging situations we last glimpsed them in, thus enabling the show to get up and running in record speed. The idea of the lengthy recap seems to be a later innovation. Latecomers to this saga just have to fend for themselves.

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The bizarre magic trickery that showed hands coming through walls now materializes a whole platoon of unsympathetic chop-socky experts for Wilson (as Carter Holmes, eminent criminologist) to wrassle with. They come looming out of the wallpaper like a dying vision of Oscar Wilde. Fortunately, a good white man has the strength of a dozen fiendish orientals, and he fends them off until dropped down a trap door into the lair of the evil cultists where our heroine is currently threatened with ritual sacrifice.

Did I mention that TTOTO is a thriller?

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Now Holmes remembers his gun, and keeps the cultists at bay. They seem to be mainly faux-Arabic, suggesting a Sax Rohmer style non-white alliance. All the shiftier races ganging up on the poor caucasian. Sax Rohmer had already created the Si-Fan, his dastardly pan-Asian conspiracy, but his paranoid racial fantasies hadn’t yet been adapted to the screen — the first adaptation, THE YELLOW CLAW, seems to have happened the year after TTOTO.

Escaping through a secret passage, Carter and Ruth (Neva’s character) are pursued by the masked man, Monsieur X, who seems to be the leader of this whole throng of miscreants. They all give him a left-handed Hitler salute when he shows up (theory: Hitler sneaked into a Berlin cinema to see this, liked the salute, but was watching from behind the screen and so got it backwards).

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The film continues surefootedly — having fled down cardboard corridors with hand-painted stonework, our heroes now find themselves in a real stone corridor, which leads them out into the street. The actual interior location thus acts as a kind of buffer zone or pressure chamber allowing the transition from studio set to actuality. Nice.

Now Carter’s bulbous Scottish sidekick, Sandy McNab comes bouncing up with news of another murdered professor. Being involved in the sciences in the 1910s was truly hazardous. Oh, and while this is all going on, every now and then THE EYES intermittently stare out of the wallpaper at people. Holmes empties his revolver into the beady devils, and they blink and fade out, but they’re soon back. This seems evidence of a genuine supernatural element to the serial, which strikes me as unusual. We’ll see where it all leads.

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The remainder of the episode is less hectic — the action decamps to the sinisterly named Seal Island (where the unwary visitor stands in danger of being slapped to death with a wet flipper) — breezy outdoor scenery and a dynamite plot by the evil rug merchant who runs the mystery cult. Carter Holmes wants to fit the two daggers he’s obtained thus far (the plot being a kind of treasure hunt) into the stone vault. It being a nice day, he takes Neva along too.

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I must have missed the explanation of what’s in the stone vault and why it matters. I think it might be the cursed Egyptian figurine from episode one. I dunno.

Little does he dream that the rug merchant has wired the cave containing the stone vault with “enough explosives to blow up the island.” A rash plan, one might think, since the rug merchant is sitting with the detonator on the island, just a few hundred yards away. But it’s certainly enough of a cliffhanger to end the episode on ~

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Food for thought, that. I’m not sure I was even wondering if Monsieur X and the Eyes were One and the Same. I guess since he wears a fringed domino mask concealing his eyes, and they are simply a pair of disembodied, hovering eyes gazing through the wallpaper in a curious fashion, if you put the two together you’d have a pretty good identikit of your felon. Watch this space.

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.

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He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)

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DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.

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DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah —

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

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