Archive for Dick Powell

The Past is Prologue

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2016 by dcairns

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Marvelous Mary came round with a steak pie and was in a musical mood so we ran FOOTLIGHT PARADE. One of those films I can’t be sure I’ve ever see all the way through. I had seen the big musical numbers, for sure, but the plot, or rather plots, seemed new to me.

Warner Bros are recycling the GOLD-DIGGERS OF BROADWAY 1933 format, but they’ve made it even stranger —

Firstly, rather than a Broadway revue, showman James Cagney, having been put out of business by talking pictures (ironic casting), starts staging elaborate live prologues for movie shows (something like this really did go on in big theatres in big cities, but of course Busby Berkeley is going to offer up stuff that couldn’t staged anywhere except a movie studio).

Then, rather than showstoppers at beginning and end, this one has no real full musical numbers until the climax, where we get three back-to-back-to-front. Honeymoon Hotel and By a Waterfall both star Dick Powell and are very peculiar in the best Busby Berkeley manner — lots of creepy stuff with child-dwarf Billy Barty, and so on. It’s been pointed out that the colossal swimming pool on the latter number (where chorine meets chlorine), with its sheer ten-foot sides, would be a death-trap for any unlucky dancer whose doggie-paddle gave out on her.

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The true amazement comes with Shanghai Lil, in which Cagney, who up until now has been a vast improvement on Warner Baxter, now gets to be a vast improvement on Dick Powell too.

Of course, much of the number is a stupendous build-up to the crashing disappointment of Ruby Keeler in yellowface, clodhopping insipidly on a bartop, but we also get Cagney dancing, his body flowing like a trickle of liquid descending from his big, cocky cranium. So there’s the build-up, the astonishing pre-code detail (an opium den! racial mixing! naked girlies!) and Cagney, and the giant spectacle of it all, orbiting around the ordinary, untalented, unexciting R.K.

I did actually like Ruby in the film’s early part, where she plays a bespectacled secretary. The characterisation gives her something — character. An unfortunate example of a movie makeover robbing someone of interest rather than heightening their charm.

 

To the Neon God they prayed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2011 by dcairns

“He’s still talking about editing.”

“Make him stop.”

“I can’t.”

More about editing. Here’s the opening of MURDER, MY SWEET, directed by Edward Dmytryk. In his book On Film Editing, later collected in his bigger book, On Film Making, Dmytryk talks about the scene in Philip Marlowe’s office. Watch the scene. Does anything strike you as odd, or wrong? Continuity, perhaps?

Chance are you haven’t spotted it. If you have, tell me. I’ll know if you’re lying.

Here’s the story: Dmytryk covered the action with all the camera angles he felt he needed, but when he came to cut it together, he saw a problem. The action is partly lit by a blinking neon sign, which gives it classic noir atmos, and also allows for Mike Mazurki‘s appearance as Moose Molloy, reflected in the window, to have an eerie, spectral, now you see it now you don’t effect. But although the light simulating the sign had been faded up and down at regular intervals — three seconds off, three seconds on — it wasn’t precisely synchronized with the performances. This meant that when you cut from a wide shot to a close-up, the sign might blink off prematurely, or it might stay lit too long. Cutting the conversation according to the performances left the blinking neon all out of whack.

So Dmytryk and editor Joseph Noriego tried cutting for continuity. Trouble was, with the neon sign flowing smoothly again, three seconds off, three seconds on, there were now awkward pauses and unmotivated accelerations in the dialogue. The lighting was consistent, but the scene fell on its face.

So Dmytryk made the bold decision to cut for dramatic values and say to Hell with continuity. Now watch the scene and count along with the neon sign. Three seconds off, two seconds on, four seconds off, six seconds on… it’s completely crazy. And at one point it blinks on in an angle on Dick Powell, and then on again in an angle on Mike Mazurki, without ever having gone off. But Dmytryk found that when the scene was cut this way, nobody noticed the strangeness of the light’s behaviour. Cutting solidly for dramatic values put the audience’s attention squarely where it was supposed to be, and they only took particular notice of the light during Mazurki’s first appearance, when they were supposed to notice it.

By this argument, the unusually large number of continuity errors in Martin Scorsese’s films (caused in part, no doubt, by the use of improvisation, which causes each take to differ) can be seen as evidence of the high quality of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s work — the most obtrusive mismatches are permissable, as long as the dramatic flow is maintained. Check the bloodstains on DeNiro’s face during scene three of RAGING BULL, when Pesci hits him with a a fist wrapped in table-cloth. Hard to believe anyone would have the nerve to leave a howler like that in the cut. And that’s a good thing.

On Film Editing

Murder, My Sweet

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

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