Archive for Donald Crisp

Pola to Kay

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2021 by dcairns

We watched CONFESSION (Joe May, 1937) and then discovered MAZURKA (Willi Forst, 1935) on YouTube. With subs!

Fiona had done her research and knew that the Warners picture is pretty well a shot-for-shot remake of the Cine-Allianz Tonfilmproduktions GmbH one. Warners bought the distribution rights and then instead of releasing the film, they remade it. One of the few cases of a Hollywood studio finding a foreign film so perfect they didn’t change everything around. See also Duvivier’s PEPE LE MOKO becoming John Cromwell’s ALGIERS (the musical version, CASBAH, is a slightly different story). Farrow even tried to cast actors who resembled the supporting players in Duvivier’s film. Kind of a good idea, since certain shots might only make sense with certain faces. Somebody pointed out that the very weird low angle shot of Norman Bates peering over at the motel register in PSYCHO makes sense with Anthony Perkins’ long, beaky face, and doesn’t work in at all the same way with Vince Vaughn’s big meatblock of a head.

Still, a comparison of the Duvivier with the Farrow clearly shows that everything Duvivier does works better than Cromwell’s attempts at imitation.

May is better at it — he seems to really understand why everything is the way it is, so his copying is more intelligent, somehow. Both Forst and May were Viennese and may have had a shared sensibility. Forst did make a few films after the Anschluss, always apolitical, usually musical — some give him credit for “subverting pan-Germanic Nazism” with his “ardent Vienna-Austrian topos” (Wikipedia, no source given).

Cheekily, CONFESSION even directly recycles some original footage from MAZUKRA, where no actors are involved.

Joe May’s Hollywood career was a serious come-down after his German success, though one could argue that his heyday was circa 1920 when he had his own studio and exterior lot. But his best films came in the late twenties. As an emigre, having to start over in his fifties, he couldn’t get properly started, his jobs were very intermittent, and he slid towards B pictures.CONFESSION is probably his finest moment in US film, and it’s not really his.

Image 1: a seduction. Image 2: a rape. Both from CONFESSION, but exactly similar versions appear in MAZURKA.

Still, his casting choices are good — Kay Francis isn’t an obvious replacement for Pola Negri, but she’s excellent in the part. Warners gave him access to Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp and, uh, Ian Hunter. He’s quite well-cast and does no major harm. May copies the cleverest parts — I must see more Forst! — there’s a great motif of light fittings, seen in point-of-view by girls being kissed — there’s a cunning reason for this — and enhances the odd moment with the larger resources available to him. His closing shot is a doozy, more epic and transcendent than Forst’s, though cornier —

CONFESSION is available from Warner Archive so you shouldn’t watch an old fuzzy TCM recording like we did. Even though it’s melodramatic froth, and even though it’s pretty well a clone of someone else’s film, it’s great.

Donald Crisp’s Invisible Dog

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2021 by dcairns

(Now with FIXED SOUND)

Fiona immediately felt, on seeing the above scene from THE DAWN PATROL (1938), that I should excerpt it for Shadowplay. And, obviously, I agreed.

When did Donald Crisp go from the scary guy in BROKEN BLOSSOMS (and the scary portrait in THE NAVIGATOR) to the lovely cuddly guy in THE DAWN PATROL and GREYFRIARS BOBBY? Maybe it was when he started pretending to be Scottish. This obscuring Celtic veil got Crisp a few jobs — the above-mentioned pooch film, it’s alternate-universe version CHALLENGE TO LASSIE (what if Greyfriars Bobby was a collie?) and arguably HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY (since in Hollywood terms, Scottish and Irish = Welsh) and MARY OF SCOTLAND and THE LITTLE MINISTER. But it’s not certain he couldn’t have grabbed those roles anyway just by his facility for doing a not-terrible Scottish accent (he’s one of the few actors trying to sound Welsh in HGIMV).

Anyway, this scene is adorable, as good as James Mason chasing his last pea round the plate in MURDER BY DECREE.

I ought to have more to say about this film soon, because we absolutely loved it. It’s much more Hawksian than the Hawks version.

Recalliery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2021 by dcairns

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.