Archive for David Manners

Your image fix for the day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by dcairns

Startling visuals from ALIAS THE DOCTOR, directed mainly by Michael Curtiz (I’d say he’s the father of the Warner style, along with Anton Grot), with some additional scenes by Lloyd Bacon. Curtiz’s high style subsumes Bacon’s more traditional approach.

Curtiz also gets a lot of visual beauty out of medical equipment insert shots — as he would in THE WALKING DEAD.

Richard Barthelmess plays a medical student who takes the rap for a drunken friend, and then is forced — forced! — by circumstance to masquerade as a qualified medico. Impressive and compact plot contrivance makes this all, not plausible exactly, but compelling, before the story does kind of choke on its own unlikeliness.

Marian Marsh is pretty and smiles a lot, Norman Foster is as unreliable as ever, and Barthelmess agonizes wetly. He’s the pre-code cinema’s number one drip, with David Manners as number two (see the great THE LAST FLIGHT, in part to see two starkly contrasting drips attempt to play world-weary together, a truly thrilling sight, and I’m not being facetious). Remarkable how much gravitas and genuine world-weariness Barthelmess has picked up by the time of ONLY ANGELS HEVE WINGS.

The sinister pathologist, hovering like an angel of death over the proceedings, is played, in a wordless bit of sepulchral moping, by the distinguished Nigel de Brulier, in movies since 1914 — regular bad guy support for Fairbanks, Chaney, Barrymore…

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Man Unwanted

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I’m your… secretary.” David Manners is quick on the draw.

One of the pleasures for the code-literate viewer watching movies from the post-1934 classic Hollywood era is figuring out how the writers are going to come up with an ending which pulls off a dramatic surprise, satisfies viewer requirements (not necessarily a happy ending, but an apt one) and gets by the production code. If the protagonist commits a crime, for instance, morality demands that they be punished, but box office demands they be somewhat sympathetic or anyhow compelling, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.

In pre-codes it’s different. Not only are subjects verboten in later years frequently dealt with or at least hinted at, the films’ attitudes to them are rarely predictable. Some of the movies are shamelessly sexist or racist, others would seem unusually sophistic, nuanced and acute if made today. In MAN WANTED, Kay Francis plays a magazine editor whose playboy husband is always urging her to take it easy, like him. But Kay loves her job. And does she lover her husband? The arrival or male secretary David Manners tests that proposition.

This is one of the slowest pre-codes I’ve seen (well, after we get past the early talkie slump, when everybody was enunciating like classically-trained zombies), but that works for the picture. The general rule seems to have been that rich folks led languid, relaxed lives, and so their stories have an easy-going, meandering approach, whereas the working class were all fast-talking go-getters, so a rambunctious tone and a rat-a-tat pace were compulsory. Here, the working stiff is Manners, who never had much rat-a-tat in him, poor boy, so the overall feel is elegant rather than hectic. Andy Devine rasps comedically in the background. The slow pace suits the story: a gradual creeping-in of illicit sexual attraction allows sympathy to be maintained even as everybody is cheating on everybody else.

Best of all, without the Production Code’s floor plan, we get lost in the story and have no trail of moralistic breadcrumbs to lead us out. Is divorce occasionally the lesser evil, and do some women like to earn a living outside the home? These conclusions are at least up for discussion in films of this period, and you might guess from my enthusiasm that the movie gets things right, but I don’t want to spoil anything…

“It’s too lovely an evening to wun down womance.” The writers entertain themselves by giving Kay Francis a lot of lines with R in them.

A more problematic, but nevertheless invigorating case is SHE HAD TO SAY YES. Loretta Young is in peril again! How could we say no? That title leers suggestively at you.

A movie which basically preaches that men are all fucked up could be accused of stacking the decks in its favour by casting Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot in the lead roles, and indeed Toomey, though looking less like a plain-clothes circus clown than usual, is vile and pinched, but Talbot actually achieves sympathetic moments. The premise: young exec Toomey suggests that his firm use girls from the stenography department to “entertain” out-of-town clients. But he doesn’t want his own girl, Loretta, taking any part in that. At least until he starts an affair with office floozy Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn, in mysteriously her only movie role) and then it seems like a good idea to keep Loretta busy. Once Loretta becomes a hit entertainer, the unjust suspicion that she’s going all the way with clients provokes Toomey into breaking up with her, although he’s soon tormented by doubts. He’s the kind of paranoid-jealous type who seemingly NEEDS to believe his lover is cheating.

Meanwhile Loretta has met Talbot, one of the out-of-town clients, who drunkenly paws her. She tells him she doesn’t go for that stuff. “Perhaps you just haven’t been pawed properly! It’s really very nice.” Sober, he apologizes sweetly, and starts to win her heart. Talbot is actually quite good at the vulnerable stuff. God knows, he can’t carry off cockiness without provoking bemusement (“What’s this chump so cocky about?”) The early 30s was a thin time for genuinely attractive leading men, it seems to me. Cary Grant was still learning to act, the young Ray Milland looks like an Yves Tanguy abstract (cloth draped on sticks), and John Wayne’s mouth was still a Pandora’s Box, spoiling everything by opening. David Manners is easy on the eye, but he has a Ken doll’s sexuality.

A glance through Marlene’s roster of screen squeezes illustrates the problem neatly: yes, there was Gary Cooper, who makes up for a lot, but there’s also Victor McLaglan, for whom nobody can possibly atone. Cesar Romero, Clive Brook, Lionel Atwill… possibly Sternberg was just seeing how far he could push a grotesque private joke…

SHE HAD TO SAY YES is a pretty ferocious attack on the kind of man who wants a desirable woman, wants other men to desire her, and becomes psychotically jealous whatever happens next. And it classifies that type of men as ALL MEN. Which may have some degree of truth in it, or at least be a relevant analysis of a certain trend of male-female relations in the early 1930s in America. What it doesn’t lend itself to is the kind of happy ending where the hero gets the girl and the audience feels happy. The screenwriters attempt to be true to the box office formula of boy meets girl and produce an awkward, unconvincing and disturbing finale where Loretta joyously accepts a marriage proposal from Lyle minutes after he has tried to rape her. In between, all he has to do is punch out Regis Toomey to win her over. Admittedly, he earns our eternal gratitude for doing so, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite trust him yet.

Nevertheless, an ending that sits so uncomfortably can’t fail to provoke thought: one thought being that it’s perhaps impossible to make a solidly feminist piece with the underlying assumption that the girl must always end up as half a couple, no matter what. That darkened-bedroom moment, with Lyle Talbot in the throes of fervid lust-hate, wanting to believe Loretta is good so he can love her, but wanting more to believe she’s bad so he can screw her, and Loretta stopping him with the plaintive words, “Is that all you think of me?” is a pretty strong scene. I guess we’re meant to think he’s an OK guy at heart because he’s capable of stopping himself. I’m not convinced this is a sign of the film’s age, I think audiences have always had a higher ideal for their leading men characters than that.

Still, Winnie Lightner is around to provide snappy put-downs, and Hugh Herbert plays things surprisingly straight as a cheating husband, apart from a high-pitched laugh signaling the character’s sexual arousal/anxiety.
MAN WANTED is directed by William Dieterle, with shapely compositions and lots of art deco. SHE HAD TO SAY YES is directed by George Amy, a successful editor who only helmed a few films.

The Cat’s Pajamas

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by dcairns

Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT (previously described here) is notable for being possibly the first Poe adaptation to take the title and nothing else from the source story — it certainly wasn’t the last. It’s also the first film to pair Karloff and Lugosi, Universal’s two great horror stars. And its Bauhaus castle is rightly noted as a triumph of modernist design in the horror movie.

But watching it with Fiona and our friend Mary, we were struck by a little-appreciated aspect of the film that deserves your attention: the wondrous variety and quality of night attire depicted.

Boris Karloff’s snazzy black robe with a cinched waist, dazzles the eye. Bela Lugosi’s slavic/chinese ensemble looks both practical and suave. Leading lady Jacqueline Wells has a whole array of nighties, robes and negligees, and at the film’s climax, as she flees the detonating mansion, her skirt flies off of its own accord, reducing her to boudoir-type attire. Hubby David Manners is, as usual, not so interesting as everyone else.

I seem to recall Lucio Fulci’s fave film was Ulmer’s DETOUR, so he must have liked this one also: he made his own, somewhat more faithful, version of the story in the 70s. And I’m sure Dario Argento has sung the film’s praises. He cites Poe’s “non-cartesian” approach as a major influence on his own storytelling. While Ulmer and his co-writers leave out everything except the titular cat, they certainly take a non-cartesian view of things, weaving an oneiric tapestry of perversity, tragedy and wildly inappropriate humour…

About those co-writers: credited scribe Peter Ruric was in fact George Carol Sims, who contributed to Lewton’s MADEMOISELLE FIFI (not a fright film, alas, but a very good melodrama/propaganda piece). Under the name Paul Cain he wrote thrillers for Black Mask magazine. His collection Seven Slayers features one yarn which, as my friend Comrade K pointed out, compresses the whole plot of Hammet’s Red Harvest into about ten pages. Hammet is famously terse. Cain is terseness personified. But it’s a little hard to detect his precise influence on THE BLACK CAT.

I can uncover little about Tom Kilpatrick, the uncredited additional scenarist, but he did have a hand in one other horror/fantasy classic, DR CYCLOPS. But nobody involved in this film ever made anything like it again. There IS nothing like it.

Another filmmaker who idolizes the movie is Raul Ruiz, and I can see why. Like his version of TREASURE ISLAND, it’s a “house of stories”. I never saw this one as a kid, but later read about it in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, where he points out the abiding strangeness of the film’s “plot” — moving in fits and starts, setting up lines of action and restlessly abandoning them, with blurry backstory branching off in all directions, and expectations spluttering out at every turn. Some of this is probably due to post-code censorship (when pre-code movies were trimmed for re-release, they chopped the original camera negatives, making restoration often impossible) — Ulmer’s daughter Arianne reckons there was more spiciness to the black mass originally. Never mind, what we do get is a lovely upended crucifix, and Boris Karloff mouthing Latin homilies in lieu of satanic verses (“In wine is truth… with a pinch of salt…”)

As good as it all is, nothing is as good as the basement of Hjalmar Poelzig’s castle, a reinforced concrete torture dungeon, where dead women float as ornaments, and Ulmer’s camera floats away from the action to chart the illimitable darkness of the vast, death-haunted bunker (“Even the telephone is dead.”) That place is like the bottom level of dream, the nightmare basement way down in our back brains, the place where sense itself stops functioning and obliterating fog roles in over reason and sanity…

We also watched EDGAR ULMER: THE MAN OFFSCREEN, which I’d held off on for ages because I wanted to like it so much I was afraid of not doing so. I needn’t have worried. We met Arianne Ulmer, the Great Man’s daughter, when she attended Edinburgh Film Fest’s Ulmer retrospective some years ago. She’s a font of movie-world knowledge and gossip, having been around film sets since infancy: naturally, Fiona & I were smitten.  So I was disposed to like this film. Arianne Ulmer’s labour of love charts her father’s career/s, interviewing admirers and collaborators, and skillfully using extracts to evoke the mysterious beauty of the filmmaker’s low-budget masterpieces. Director Michael Palm films most of the interviews in moving cars, which works well, keeping the images moving, situating the interviewees in their various cities, and providing a rolling backdrop of illustrative opportunities: when Wim Wenders talks about being a German in Hollywood, we see a billboard behind him advertising TROY, directed by Wolfgang Petersen. The whole conceit pays off even more when Palm uses a car in front of a rear projection screen to interview the late, great Anne Savage, star of DETOUR (much of which unfolds in front of just such a screen), and Jimmy Lydon, star of the appropriately named STRANGE ILLUSION, who wanders behind the screen to give the film its loveliest image ~

Other talking heads include Joe Dante and John Landis, Roger Corman, and Peter Bogdanovich.

I rarely see movie documentaries which attempt anything interesting, and when they do, it often backfires. I still groan to think of the THIRD MAN doc which projects all its clips on Viennese monuments, a momentarily diverting idea which swiftly becomes irksome as the clips go on and on, and we can’t see what’s happening in them. THE MAN OFFSCREEN is a real success in the way it uses cinematic language without obscuring its informative purpose. And, fascinatingly, it allows doubt to be cast on some of Ulmer’s stories. It could easily have been a hagiographic exercise in hero-worship. Instead, it first tells Ulmer’s story as he told it, and then allows some more cynical voices to question whether he really worked on almost every classic of the German silent cinema, while also working in America at the same time. In the end, the question is left open — I’m certain Ulmer did work on at least some of the Lang or Murnau films he mentioned, but I’m pretty sure not all of them. But we can’t know. Fittingly, the life of the director of THE BLACK CAT branches off into tributaries, separate lifelines which fade out into a fog of mystery, and nothing can be said with certainty.

“We have seen too much of life.”

US buyers:

Edgar G. Ulmer – Archive

The Bela Lugosi Collection (Murders in the Rue Morgue / The Black Cat / The Raven / The Invisible Ray / Black Friday)

UK buyers:

The Black Cat [1934] [DVD]