Archive for Columbia

The Wronger Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2020 by dcairns

I’d always meant to watch John Brahm’s 1939 criminal justice melo LET US LIVE, and now I know why I held off — I got a chance to watch it streaming from Bologna in a gleaming fresh copy, better than any grungy old version I might have tracked down.

Henry Fonda plays an innocent cabby wrongly convicted of armed robbery and murder. Maureen O’Sullivan is his bride-to-be, frantically trying to prove his innocence before he goes to the chair. The movie anticipates Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN in plot terms, but Brahm gives it all a glossy Hollywood expressionism more showy than Hitch’s gloomy death march.

How to account for Brahm’s fluctuating visual style — here in this relatively early work (he’d done his remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS in the UK, and three B pictures for Columbia before this one) his arresting use of chiaroscuro and violently off-centre framing is fully developed. In later films it comes and goes. It could be the amount of prep time, the skills of the cinematographer he was working with, or the amount of enthusiasm he could muster.

(Brahm films to see: THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LOCKET, GUEST IN THE HOUSE, his Twilight Zones and some of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. He never had what you’d call the best scripts to work with.)

One cut to Fonda’s face made Fiona gasp, exactly as happened in THE LODGER with Laird Cregar. Remember Billy Wilder’s line about a close-up being like a trump card in a game of bridge, to be used sparingly where it’ll really count? But how many times has a simple cut to a character, already established as being present in the scene, taken your breath away?

My new ambition — if I can get to direct one more thing, I’d like to make that happen. I know the trick — the face or expression must be new and arresting, and the face appear in an unexpected part of the screen in an unusual, off-centre composition. Now somebody give me a million bucks before I forget.

The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by dcairns

1927! The coming of sound sends sonic shockwaves through Hollywood. When Al Jolson throws open his hideous face and emits the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” the screen’s first audible double negative shatters box office records as the public rushes to hear the rules of grammar nakedly flaunted by a charcoal-smeared buffoon.

Rival studios rushed to compete with Warner Bros’ twin innovations of synchronized sound and discoloured actors. MGM tries painting Norma Shearer with a kind of luminous wode and filming her in pitch dark sets to save money, but the experiment is judged a failure and Shearer gets an unpleasant rash; at Columbia, they go one step further and paint everything black, actors and sets alike, or so the publicity goes. An expose reveals that the cameras were loaded with black leader and that no sets were built at all.

A sound.

Stars who had been happily moving their lips attractively without a care for dialogue, suddenly had to undergo terrifying sound tests to ascertain their suitability for the microphone. “In the old days, we used to just say ‘Elbow elbow elbow,'” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “Because lip scientists had ascertained that the word ‘elbow’ creates the most attractive lip movements of any word in the English language. Of course, poor old Lars Hansen had to say ‘armbåge’ because he was Swedish, which didn’t look half as good. For my part, I’d gotten so used to elbowing that I found it hard to quit. I’d be looking into Clara Bow’s eyes and I’d say ‘I’m absolutely elbow about you,’ and then next thing you know William Wellman’s coming at me with big stick, and that’s how the mic boom was invented.”

Of course, as the legitimate cinema moved to sound, the nascent porn industry had to follow suit. Promoters raved about the slapping and squelching sounds that could now be enjoyed for the first time, and THE JIZZ SLINGER was advertised with the slogan “You ain’t heard fuckin’ yet!”

During the silent era, adult movies had enjoyed steady popularity, often following the hits of the day with pornified versions, like ORPHANS OF THE SPERM starring the Gash sisters, Lillian, Dorothy and Jenna, LITTLE ANAL ROONEY with Mary Prickford, and ROBIN NUDE with Douglas Bareflanks. With the coming of sound it was found that John Gal-butt squeaked like a dormouse at the moment of climax, ending his career, while the heavily accented pantings of He-male Jannings in the “grunty” remake of THE LUST COMMAND sent the star packing back to his native Milwaukee.

For a time, film production was dominated by the demands of the sound man. On set, soundproof booths constrained the camera, the director, and the actors. Screenwriters were forced to contrive scenarios which convincingly explained why everybody was in their own individual fridge-like box, staring helplessly from the window and enunciating at one another. William Powell played Philo Vance in THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDPROOF BOOTH MURDER CASE in which the dapper sleuth had to explain how a prominent business magnate had been stabbed to death inside an individual sound-proof box (the solution involved little person Billy Barty in another, much smaller box) and musicals were frankly a pain in the ass.

Inventive directors got around the problem by starting early, before the sound man came to work, and shooting the cast with their backs to the camera to obviate the need for lip-sync. The popular college musical FACING AWAY was shot in its entirety with the cast’s back to the camera. “All singing, all dancing, all looking the other way!” raved the publicity, and studios began giving long-term contracts to the actors with the most attractive craniums. Phrenologists were in demand.

In porn, this innovation proved restrictive on the variety of sexual positions and camera angles achievable: porn musical genius Jizzby Jerkeley’s spectacular overhead shots helped, and everyone agreed that it was better than a porn movie with everyone in individual soundproof booths, helplessly smearing their features, facial and otherwise, against the glass. The only such film made, I’M HERE FOR YOU, BILLY (1930), was not a hit.

Heavy Sentences

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona just read Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster, The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs and pronounced it good. “You really feel like you’re being taken day by day through his entire life,” she said. So I was charged with inserting some Karloffiana in the Panasonic. It had been probably ten years since we’d watched THE CRIMINAL CODE, which has dual interest as its sampled in TARGETS…

Boris rocks in this one. If it had been made at Warners it would have been crusading — but it’s a Columbia picture from Howard Hawks and so the tone is breezily cynical but disinterested in political analysis — DA Walter Huston jails juvenile Adonis Phillips Holmes and then becomes prison warden at the jug he’s banged up in, where he tortures him in solitary — and yet Huston is positioned as the film’s hero. In fact, if we disregard the appeals to sentiment and use of physiognomy-as-character, Huston can be seen as the bad guy (but with a mildly vicious guard inserted to soak up the audience’s hostility) while Karloff is the hero’s best pal who saves the day. The remaining weirdness is the inert hero, whose one self-determined act, refusing to snitch, is presented in passive terms. He’s a ping-pong ball batted about between Boris and Walter.

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The script forges a fascinating connection between two meanings of the title — the criminal code Huston lives by is the law of the land, which “Someone’s gotta pay!” for murder. The criminal code Holmes and Karloff must obey is the law that says No Snitching — and if somebody does snitch, then, well, “Someone’s gotta pay!”

In this fashion, the writers throw up felicities and clunkers in equal measure — Huston’s rat-a-tat delivery at times overemphasises the fact that much of his speechifying consists of a single, on-the-nose pronouncement of his position, followed by twenty or so paraphrases of the same statement. One gets the impression that his character is trying to persuade himself of something — maybe that he deserves the role of hero in this picture. When in doubt, he snarls “Yeah?” at anyone who’ll listen. A bit like Eddie G. Robinson’s “See?”

Karloff has to deliver American vernacular dialogue in a middle-class English accent, but mostly gets away with it. Though his face and sinister haircut suggest pure villainy — and he does kill a couple of people, even stalking one around a room in an exact preview of FRANKENSTEIN  — his character is actually pretty complicated. While Huston, in order to “save” Holmes, tortures him, Karloff refuses to let the young man take the rap for him. His malevolent activities are strictly for revenge, and you can understand his rage at the screw who grassed him up for taking a single drink while on parole.

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In the end, Karloff and Huston are both extremists, devoted to their own particular criminal codes at the expense of humanity. Holmes and romantic interest Constance Cummings are simple humanists, who don’t understand much about codes and things but know what decency is. Young Holmes, whose every appearance caused Fiona to swoon away (“And I don’t normally care for conventionally handsome men”), does eventually put forth a more sophisticated interpretation of the code — “It’s right for them.”

Features some great yegg types and as fine a display of yammering as you’re likely to encounter.

“You don’t get yammering like that any more,” said Fiona.

“No. It’s gone the way of the rumble seat.”

UK purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster
THE CRIMINAL CODE (Walter Huston, Boris Karloff) Region 2

US purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster

Karloff: Criminal Kind DVD