Archive for Charles Bickford

The Sunday Intertitle: That Great Ray

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2013 by dcairns

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Not “that great ray that first brought life into the universe,” the one spoken of so fervidly by Colin Clive in FRANKENSTEIN, but a fish. THE SEA BAT does feature Boris Karloff, though, in a pre-monster role, and I’m impressed at seeing the word “specie” in an MGM movie from 1930.

This MGM melodrama has surly Charles Bickford as a Devil’s Island escapee masquerading as a priest, and sultry Raquel Torres (whose career climaxed in DUCK SOUP) as an islander of Spanish descent, and Nil Asther is her brother, who uncomfortably has a lot of sexual chemistry with her onscreen. And there’s Gibson Gowland, McTeague from GREED, and Mack Swain from THE GOLD RUSH. Wesley Ruggles directed most of it, with fluid camerawork on location, even underwater, but Lionel Barrymore seems to have been brought in to screw things up.

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The big fake manta ray looks pretty good — better than Bruce the shark by a country mile. Torres looks pretty good too, in her wet shirt. But the film is dramatically a snore — included here because the introductory title is quite something. Not many films about sponge fishing, are there?

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Maybe the weird industry is really an allegory for the movies, which is why the plot is driven by sex, commerce and impersonation. But then what does the fish represent?

(Undersea menaces are us this week at Limerwrecks.)

Stuff and things

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 6, 2008 by dcairns

The new banner is a woodcut by Guy Budziak, regular Shadowplayer and very possibly the leading proponent of the film noir woodcut.  Buy one for the noirist in your life.

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Linda Darnell and Charles Bickford face off in Otto Preminger’s FALLEN ANGEL.

And in other news, another regular Shadowplayer has started his own blog. Alex Livingstone’s Snakes Are My Life, In A Way brings you funny film stuff to supplement your Shadowplaying. Everyone go there! Go now and surprise him! Go even if you only came here in hopes of finding something about Zarah Leander or William Gargan!

Two Wongs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2008 by dcairns

“Punning on Chinese names is a low form of wit.” ~ Clive James (writer, broadcaster and low wit).

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) is one of two Anna May Wong films directed by French emigré Robert Florey in Hollywood. I saw the second collaboration, DANGEROUS TO KNOW, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I think, on a trip to New York, where it was playing as part of a Wong retrospective (AMW is being rediscovered and reappraised a fair bit these days). I remember it being decent enough, with a few imaginative directorial flourishes.  While DANGEROUS is a fairly sombre, noir-styled crime drama with Wong playing second banana to Akim Tamiroff, who was being seriously groomed as an exotic leading man (!), DAUGHTER is more in the way of a romp.

Wong is Lang Yin Ling, daughter of an antiques dealer murdered by people-traffickers, (a topical plot, but this sombre start scarcely darkens the proceedings) who vows revenge and sets about tracking down the boss of the outfit, first travelling to the South Seas or somewhere, working as a hooch dancer so she can infiltrate the racket. Meanwhile, cop and obvious romantic interest Philip Ahn has inveigled his way into the outfit by getting a job on the crook’s boat. Complications ensue.

Better known, perhaps, as Master Kan in TV’s Kung Fu.

For a minor-league film, this picture has a pretty great cast. Dependable surly Charles Bickford, youthful Anthony Quinn and Flash Gordon himself, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, play malefactors. Wong’s fellow graduate of the Sternberg glamour academy, Evelyn Brent, is a moll. Louise Brooks once observed that E.B.’s approach to acting was to stride into a scene, plant her feet wide apart, and stand with her hands on her hips, and that Sternberg made her great by softening her with feather boas and keeping her from striking poses. Well, she decidedly backslid after Sternberg.

Two-fisted fellows. Never has a hyphen been more important than in that last sentence.

Favourite supporting player was John Patterson Frank Sully, whom I’d never heard of, who plays a cauliflower-eared Irish ex-boxer working as a chauffeur to Mrs. Big, Cecil Cunningham (Cecil is a woman), who turns out to be a swell guy. Actually, there are lots of NICE PEOPLE in this film, I immediately liked it for that reason. For some reason, they weren’t boring, even if they weren’t brilliantly written. They were just nice.

While no masterpiece, DAUGHTER gets a shot in the arm once we get to Bickford’s sleazy rum joint, the Home Cafe (which is it?). Florey suddenly gets inspired, skewing the camera, laying on the atmos thick and lurid, and thronging the frame with characterful extras.

After this sequence the film lapses into a solid, entertaining third act with plenty of fisticuffs (poor Philip Ahn seems seriously winded by the end), and a coda featuring untranslated Chinese dialogue between our two lovebirds and some quips for Patterson. “By the time you get out of jail my grandchildren will be collecting my social security cheques.”

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, made six years earlier, is a silly Fu Manchu movie with Wong playing the daughter of the crime lord, here rendered chubby by Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan. For some reason Swedish actors were considered ideal to play orientals in Hollywood. The story, a travesty of Sax Rohmer’s racist pulp Daughter of Fu Manchu (itself something of a travesty) gives Wong an incomprehensible character trajectory from conscience-tortured avenger of imagined wrongs, to sadistic villainess. Threatening to disfigure the blonde heroine with acid, unless her boyfriend mercy-kills her first, is the one moment of zesty sadism comparable to Myrna Loy’s lip-smacking turn as Fah Lo See in MASK OF FU MANCHU (she was a popular Fah Lo See). The dialogue is by the esteemed Sidney Buchman (MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON), and he’s clearly trying for SOMETHING, but the results are pretty ungainly and risible. “Death shall first waken Petrie from sleep, and then end his lingering horror with a slow knife.”

Sessue Hayakawa (THE CHEAT, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) is romantic interest (Wong’s films either shrink in terror from the spectre of miscegenation, or deflect it by attempting to provide suitably ethnic partners), struggling somewhat with his dialogue. He never once confuses an “L” with an “R” sound, but it seems to be absorbing all his concentration to avoid it. He’s rigid with strain at all times: “He’s terrifying!” exclaimed Fiona during his love scene.

Enjoyable supporting thespage comes from the pleasingly named Harold Minjir, as an effete English Comedy Homosexual, who actually saves the day in the end. This seems to have been Minjir’s biggest ever role (he was actually American-born), in a bit-part career that saw him typed as hotel clerks, couturiers and secretaries. Shadowplay salutes his fey heroism!

Wong herself is dependably dignified, which is part of why she’s being honoured these days. As an actress she’s adequate, but her waif-like figure, strong and noble features, and surprisingly deep voice with its unusual enunciation make her a striking presence, and that typical solemnity makes her warm smile more surprising. Maybe her uniqueness as a Chinese-American star in that period, and the dignity with which she always performs, are what make her so sympathetic, in addition to her natural charisma. Even when she plays a villain, I’m on her side.