Archive for David Chierichetti

White Squaw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by dcairns

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Majestic as David Chierichetti’s book Hollywood Director is, and as I’ve said before it deserves to be counted among the very best filmmaker profiles ever assembled, I think perhaps it underrates BEHOLD MY WIFE, his 1934 melodrama. With its implausible and hokey plot, its Amerindian impersonations by Sylvia Sidney and Charles Middleton, and its wayward tonal shifts (any film with both a tragic defenestration AND Eric Blore as a bumbling valet has got some major ground to cover), it can’t possibly be counted among Mitchell Leisen’s best directorial efforts. But he seems to invest a lot of effort into keeping the thing afloat, maybe because it has a trip to Mexico in it and Leisen was mad about Mexico, maybe because Gene Raymond and Sylvia S seem like agreeable leads for a Leisen film.

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The show is stolen, however, by Ann Sheridan as the unfortunate defenestree, whose plunge to street level curtails her role in terms of duration: nevertheless, she packs a lot into her few minutes of screen time, ably suggesting an honest working girl all excited about her approaching nuptials to society swell Raymond, until his sister (Juliette Compton) arrives to call it off. She lies, pretending that Raymond is a serial dalliance kind of guy who enjoys toying with women’s affections. She does it with every apparent sympathy, but as Sheridan descends into powerfully rendered despair and starts sobbing, she heads for the door with an air of exultation, like a child who’s just gotten away with something deliciously naughty. A pretty hateful character, which is worth remembering when we get to the end of the movie…

With Sheridan’s powerhouse perf over with, we follow the distraught Raymond: justly blaming his family for his sweethearts death, he motors off south, drinking and driving recklessly. Cue Vorkapichian madness of spinning wheels and superimposed relatives murmuring “Disgrace!” over and over again.

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A father in every hub cap. Sexy Jesus HB Warner does his Vorkapich thing.

Crashing his roadster conveniently close to a bar, he makes the mistake of buying whiskey for an Indian (a young Dean Jagger) and gets shot for his trouble. Sylvia nurses him back to health and eventually falls in love with the rather obnoxious rich kid. Not before a deliriously sadomasochistic bullet removal scene, where she distracts him with tales of Indian torture and revenge as she digs around in his bicep with the sterilized tweezers.

Raymond marries Sydney purely to shame his family — of course he’s eventually going to realize he really loves her, but not before SS can languish in some of her trademark suffering and heartache. Leisen moves mountains to keep as at least slightly invested in Raymond, selfish prick that he is, and just about pulls it off. A third act murder may just push the story over the Precipice of Madness, but you can’t say it isn’t fun.

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Chierechetti dismisses the story as ordinary, and one can see what he means — it isn’t amazingly skilled or deeply meaningful — but what strikes one at this added historical distance is how barking mad it all is. In a sense, that’s business as usual for 1930s Hollywood, but for devotees of the peculiar, this elegantly shot (by Leon Shamroy) movie has much to commend it. Watch particularly for the moment in Sydney’s shack when the sun suddenly comes out, offscreen, and a glow sweeps across the dingy interior, illumining it with love’s radiance.

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Seventeen Hours of Something or Other

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2013 by dcairns

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On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.

The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.

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Also: gayness!

Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.

Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.

Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.

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But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.

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That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.

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Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.

David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~

“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”

Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.

Broken Wings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Once in a while I see a movie I love that I hesitate to write about, for fear of just gushing away and not expressing anything. I feel nervous in approaching THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK for that reason.

The film is credited primarily to Stuart Walker (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) but there seems to be firm agreement that the real man at the helm was Mitchell Leisen: “I stuck Stuart in the sound booth again and he didn’t say a word through the whole picture,” says Leisen in David Chierichetti’s definitve study of his work, Hollywood Director. And Chierichetti is able to enlist Fredric March, the film’s star, to back this up.

This movie was my second encounter with the writer John Monk Saunders, whose script for THE LAST FLIGHT impressed me so much. No, I tell alie, my third encounter, since I’m a big fan of WINGS. Again the subject is WWI fliers, and here we actually deal with the war, as in WINGS, rather than its aftermath, as in THE LAST FLIGHT. There’s still plenty of drinking going on though. Saunders seems to have a unique handle on self-destructive behaviour among the biplane set — and he lived the life offscreen too.

But while THE LAST FLIGHT has an impressively varied range of antique acting styles which make it seem intriguingly like a film from another planet, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK features early work from notable screen stars working in a recognisably modern style. Fredric March is the titular eagle, a high-born American who enlists in the RAF for sport at the outbreak of war (the American Air Force didn’t manage to get a single plane in the air during WWI, but that didn’t stop lots of young Americans joining up overseas and getting their wings). Cary Grant is the hawk, a tough guy who rejects the fliers’ code of chivalry and fights war to win. His stance is unsympathetic in the movie, but it’s clear that he’s not exactly wrong, either: humanity is a tenuous proposition in wartime, chivalry an absurd, even grotesque one.

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Fiona wonders why nobody seems to talk about March these days. He’s like the male Miriam Hopkins.

The film interweaves two narratives, the first being March’s slow destruction, which basically lasts the length of the film. He starts off hale and hearty, with that very Fredric March ebullience that some people find hard to take. He give it his all, and he has a lot of all to give. But he’s slowly broken by the deaths of his colleagues, and of the men he shoots down. One of the striking things about the film, which goes way beyond traditional Hollywood anti-war posturing, is how it makes no distinction between the deaths of comrades and enemies. Each one diminishes March.

“You don’t drink enough,” advises comedy relief buddy Jack Oakie to his sodden friend. “I can’t drink enough,” replies March.

Parallel with this decline and fall is Cary Grant’s troubled relationship with March. It’s very much a love story, only Grant also hates March. His final act for his friend is both tender and protective, and a profound betrayal. I don’t want to give away too much here, which is another problem I have when I see an obscure film I love — steering people towards it without spoiling it.

IMDb commentators point out that Grant hasn’t quite found his style yet, but that’s beside the point. He’s found a style that perfectly suits this movie, and he’s lost the stiffness I see in BLONDE VENUS and his Mae West movies. His neck doesn’t seem like a rigid column of bone here, which is a relief. Despite the flying story, this isn’t even the Grant of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, it’s a whole different Grant, marking the precise spot where he became a fluent screen actor, but had not yet adopted the star persona he was to triumph with.

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Also in the cast is Carole Lombard, for about ten minutes. Censors cut the line “Your place or mine?” when the film was re-released during WWII, since the pre-code spice welcomed during the film’s first release had become verboten, and we also lost an entire post-coital moment, with March awakening to find a flower lying in the indentation of her pillow. Leisen welcomed the movie’s revival, although “I was sure I was going to be arrested,” since the film was so anti-war, but he didn’t realise until later that the studio had made further cuts to weaken the film’s message. It’s to be deplored that the original ending is now apparently lost, but I found that the film was still savagely and unambiguously anti-war, and carries its argument all the way to a surprisingly bleak conclusion. I can’t think of another film before the ’60s that goes as far as this one. It’s an even more negative view of warfare than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

Visually, the film is one of the darkest I’ve seen from this era, which suits the story well. Leisen filmed a long conversation between March and his commander (Sir Guy Standing, chummy yet distant) at dusk, allowing the actors to walk through pools of light into complete silhouette. Cary Grant plays some scenes smothered in shadow, only his forehead and nose looming from the night.

Fredric dreams:

Leisen is here really at the very outset of his directing career — officially, he’s not even a director yet — but he brings eloquent style to the story. This is something his critics miss — and there’s a homophobic subtext to Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe dismissing him as a set designer who made pictures –Leisen’s stylistic tropes are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, they become the very essence of expressive film narrative. And Leisen always had a sharp interest in capturing reality: he just had the ability to hold it back when it didn’t suit the project. And if the script lacked dramatic values, Leisen would step into the breach and decorate with bravura flourishes, and people would point and say he was a shallow aesthete.

Leisen’s sexuality is certainly relevant to his work. Regular Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein talks about the distinction between Queer Cinema and older films made by queer directors, which are of necessity somewhat closeted, even when their makers were not. Leisen comes closer that most to blurring that line. In this film, not only are the young recruits astonishingly androgynous and beautiful, but death itself is eroticized in male form:

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After Stuart Walker basically stole the directing credit on this movie, Leisen retaliated by stealing Walker’s next two projects, one of which was DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, again with March. This got his directing career off to a strong start, but really it had already begun. Leisen’s career ran from his designing days in silent cinema (THIEF OF BAGDAD) to television work (The Twilight Zone) and yet its duration and its quality is not reflected in its reputation.

Everybody try and see this one, please. I’d place it in my alternative Shadowplay history of the cinema as a great film from the 30s that isn’t sufficiently appreciated. The Leisen rediscovery is moving forward slowly. Time also for a Saunders rediscovery (since writers don’t get enough credit in cinema).