Archive for Clarence Brown

Sadie McKee’s Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2017 by dcairns

As opposed to Robert McKee’s Story.

This piece is ALL spoilers.

SADIE MCKEE is MGM and 1934 — right on the join between pre-code and post-code. So Joan Crawford can sleep with a man out of wedlock, marry another man for money, divorce him, and still end up alive at the end, ready to win the man she always wanted (Franchot Tone, art doing its best to imitate life, life not being quite up to the challenge).

Still, MGM’s class-consciousness is apparent. Like Joanie’s early soundies and talkies (OUR BLUSHING BRIDES, OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), the movie is indecently obsessed with analysing the right and wrong way to marry money. Sadie is the daughter of a cook who ends up a rich lady, and in the end she has her mum come and live with her — as cook. And her best friend, the inestimable Jean Dixon, clearly coded as a prostitute, is now the maid. That’s kind of odd.

That aside, what a terrific film. Clarence Brown was one of MGM’s finest directors, and though somewhat known as a woman’s director (which at MGM meant Joanie and Garbo) works wonders with the leading men. Franchot is always pretty good, of course, though he always looks like some kind of reptile — a gecko or a turtle perhaps. Mellifluous voice. By playing a blue-blood blue-nose stiff-necked moralist who’s wrong on all counts he allows the film to shake loose at least some of its Metro dignity.

Gene Raymond as a louse helps some more — great musical moments, singing “All I Do Is Dream of You.” A love rat who’s convincingly romantic, until Esther Ralston, channelling Mae West, steals him off. He’s even better than Franchot.

I like the first version best, but the second one has the marvelous DRAWER FULL OF CHORINES that slides out from the stage, like something from the morgue at the Copacobana. You didn’t know they had one there, did you? But of course they do — gotta keep the customers on ice until they can figure out Who shot who?

And then Edward Arnold, as the drunken millionaire — one of his best turns, encapsulating in quick succession how nice it would be to be drunk all the time and then how horrible it would be to be drunk all the time. Really surprising how brutal they let him get, after considerable screen time spent on establishing him as a sweet-natured souse. The only part that’s unconvincing is his reformation, but I guess they were saddled with that. He also gets a musical bit, snoozing through a great rendition of “After You’ve Gone” performed by Gene Austin and novelty jazz act Coco & Candy.

This bar is one of my favourite places in the film. The sleek Cedric Gibbons automat is pretty amazing too, like a porcelain spaceship, but the bar has Akim Tamiroff as the very enthusiastic manager. When Arnold orders champagne for everyone, Tamiroff has a giggling fit like he’s been pumped full of helium and nitrous oxide. Elated to the point almost of BURSTING. He’s a happy fellow.

Huge swathes of Joanie’s career are unfamiliar to me — one thing I’ll allow the rather shabby Feud — it’s got us watching Joan. Good as her three menfolk are in this, they’re all there to bask in her light.

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All Our Yesterdays

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

Yesterday I broke my record — sort of.

When I looked back on my first experience of viewing at Bologna, two years ago, I was shocked that I never made it past four screenings in a day. Studying yesterday’s program, I calculated that I could actually take in SIX shows — ultimately I managed five, but bailed on one, not because it was bad but because I was too tired to appreciate it, and it wasn’t to be my last film of the day.

I began with THE CLUTCHING FOOT’s final, mind-boggling episode, in which Jacques Feyder dabbles in comic forms which still look modern today, while spoofing the serials of the 1910s, which decidedly don’t. This episode featured genuine guest appearances by Musidora and Fernand Ledoux, and fake ones by Chaplin, Theda Bara and Max Linder.

On the same program (therefore still only counting as one item) was DE BANKROET JAZZ (THE BANKRUPTCY JAZZ), assembled in 2009 from found footage, illustrating a previously unfilmed Dadaist scenario by Paul Von Ostaijen. It had some very funny bits and some great imagery which made me want to see the sources it was culled from in their entirety. And the plot, depicting Europe in financial crisis, was timely all over. “The new national anthem: I am bankrupt / You are bankrupt / We are bankrupt / They are bankrupt.”)

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Missing works by Genino and Kazan, I was then bowled over by John Stahl’s ONLY YESTERDAY (1933), which riffs of Zweig’s Letter from An Unknown Woman, featuring tracking shots more elaborate than the Ophuls, a central performance by Margaret Sullavan more moving that Fontaine’s, and John Bole’s best work on the screen. And Franklin Pangborn is for once shown with a boyfriend. We always knew, Franklin. Startlingly, Jane Darwell plays a southern bourgeois — I didn’t recognize her until she sat in a rocking chair. Was the rocking chair written into her contract on every film, or was it an actual part of her body she could detach for short periods?

FLESH AND THE DEVIL showed off Clarence Brown’s skill, Garbo’s beauty, Gilbert’s talent and MGM’s frankly insane sexual politics. The bromance between John Gilbert and Lars Hansen is interrupted by the divine GG, apparently a professional seductress. “These bloody women, they will not leave you alone,” as Pete & Dud once reflected. She drives them to a duel, then has a last-minute religious conversion — so God kills her. He’s funny that way. Nice to see Marc McDermott comprehensively cuckolded, since he steals Lon Chaney’s wife in my favourite movie. The print was newly struck from a rediscovered but incomplete original negative, and showed both great beauty and scary decay.

My big failure was FISTS IN THE POCKET, which looked fascinating but couldn’t keep me awake — I told myself that after I’d gotten over being tired, I would kick myself for missing it, but the pain in my head was more intense than any kick. Was amused to see Marlon Brando sneak into the movie, appearing as pin-up on the leading lady’s bedroom wall (plus a framed shot of him in Nazi uniform from THE YOUNG LIONS. He’s all over this festival.

“I’m not Marlon Brando,” protests Fred Astaire in THE BANDWAGON, screened in the big Piazza from Martin Scorsese’s 35mm print. A show that is really a show sends you out in a kind of a glow. Especially after a nice lasagna.

Cunning Stunts

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

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LUCKY DEVILS is a pre-code about stuntmen with rather podgy heroes (William Boyd and the reliable unappetizing William Gargan), a childish but slangy screenplay, and some spectacular stunt action. Co-writer Bob Rose was a stuntman himself, which perhaps explains the mixture of unconvincing dramatics and insider knowledge and jargon. Without pushing a particular agenda, the movie does manage to make the movies seem a pretty cut-throat business, from the suicide attempt staged in front of a blinking Hollywood sign, to the cold-blooded demands of inconsiderate directors seeking ever more risky stunts.

The movie opens with a dynamic, violent and destructive bank robbery, much more extreme than most Hollywood action sequences of the day (well, maybe SCARFACE and BEAST OF THE CITY come close), and proceeds to serve up a wide variety of daring leaps, plunges, crashes and smashes. One in particular, a swing over a burning building, is cinematically exciting as well as hair-raising. Director Ralph Ince, youngest of the Ince brothers, has got his hands on a zoom lens (the same year saw RKO using it in KING KONG) and he uses this to lucidly set up the forthcoming action and its participants, panning and reframing from one to the other. Once Boyd (or rather, his stuntman — the actor may have gone on to embody Hopalong Cassidy but I doubt he’d be game for this) is dangling from a rope fifty feet in the air, Ince uses the zoom to make little nervous adjustments to the shot, really creating the sense that it’s happening “live”. By injecting an air of the extemporaneous into what one hopes is a carefully planned event, he ups the tension considerably. I found myself wondering if the stunt was supposed to be this dangerous, with the faux-Boyd swaying back and forth repeatedly, unable to get a toe-hold on the safety platform. This is exactly how a modern director might use the zoom (if he isn’t just restlessly jerking it around out of sheer indecision).

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CITIZEN KANE’s Vernon Walker put together the special effects, which include a plunge into a burning building, and rear-projection work which incorporates footage from Clarence Brown’s TRAIL OF ’98, an MGM movie where four stuntmen were actually drowned (according to testimony in Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series). On the one hand, it’s considerate of the makers to spare their stuntmen a fresh set of risks, preferring to recycle previous death-defying or death-inflicting acts, but on the other, it’s more than a little tacky to exploit this footage again, even if we don’t actually see anyone going under…

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Supporting players include Bruce Cabot and a slender Creighton Chaney, a few years before he became Lon Jnr. “He’s almost good-looking!” exclaimed Fiona. Also, there’s stuttering comedian Roscoe Ates, from FREAKS. The mean humour milked from his speech impediment here is pretty distasteful to modern sensibilities. In FREAKS, they were smart enough to cast him as kind of a heavy, where his perpetual manly bluster could be undercut by the stammer (his character was married to one of the siamese twins, and you did rather think she could do better for herself/her sister). I see Ates was still acting in the early sixties, appearing in a couple of Jerry Lewis movies. I have no memory of him in THE LADIES’ MAN and THE ERRAND BOY — maybe he’d dropped the schtick?