Archive for Donald Crisp

The Sunday Intertitle: OK Boomers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2021 by dcairns

Very weird double bill for our Saturday watch party — THE GOOSE WOMAN (Clarence Brown) and THE OKLAHOMA KID (Lloyd Bacon). Nothing really in common. The above was suggested as a very suitable Sunday intertitle, you can probably guess which film it’s from. Louise Dresser is speaking to Jack Pickford, America’s first rodent film star.

But OKLAHOMA KID is ram-packed with intertitles too, oddly since it’s a 1939 production. Felt good to be watching a Bacon film, since he keeps popping up in the Essanay Chaplins.

This one is famed for the surprise casting of Cagney and Bogart in a western. Shame it doesn’t have Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh too. They basically play it like a gangster film, but since this is post-code it doesn’t have the bite and amorality: Jimmy enacts a William Hart “good bad man” arc, redemptive in nature.

The politics follow a slightly different arc: they at first seem very conventional — we’re shown Grover Cleveland (!) agreeing to (forcibly) buy Indian land he’d previously promised they could keep, but the movie seems to soft-pedal the injustice — no suggestion that the price isn’t going to be fair. But then…

CAGNEY: In the first place, the white people steal the land from the Indians, right?

CRISP: They get paid for it, don’t they?

CAGNEY: Pay for it? Yeah. A measly dollar and forty cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun. Then the immigrants sweat and strain and break their hearts carving out a civilisation. Fine, great! And when they get all pretty and prosperous along come the grafters and land-grabbers and politicians, and with one hand skim off the cream and the other scoop up the gravy. Not for me. Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”

A primer in capitalism and empire-building, Warners style. Of course, Warners rarely follow through on their more radical impulses, but the movie does feature an attack on mob violence, before celebrating vigilantism of a more individualistic sort — Cagney announces he’s hauled in a wanted man. “Dead or alive?” he’s asked. “A little of each.”

And then Cagney is subsumed into civilisation and forcibly wed to Rosemary Lane (he has more luck with her than sister Priscilla). Is the film backing away from its earlier stance, or just admitting what happens to outlaws? Cagney himself went from leftist to self-described arch-conservative, so while it’s a disappointing ending it’s not necessarily dishonest, and the filmmakers probably hoped the ideas planted earlier might still germinate in moviegoers’ minds.

Lassie Go Home

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2018 by dcairns

So, to delve a little deeper into the career of FORBIDDEN PLANET helmer Fred MacLeod Wilcox I looked at HILLS OF HOME, one of his Lassie sequels — weirdly, it doesn’t have the dog’s name in the title, but takes the word “HOME” from LASSIE COME HOME as if that was a clear enough association.

It’s one of those animal movies where they really struggle to keep the animal at the centre of the story. This is a jumble of incidents from the life of a Scottish country doctor, in fact adapted from a source that has nothing to do with Lassie and may not even have a dog in it for all I know. The idea that a doctor needs a sheepdog assistant is a bit of a stretch, anyway.

Lassie also turns up in Scotland in CHALLENGE TO LASSIE (above), with some of the same co-stars, in which he takes over the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Sheer cultural appropriation, and I’m not talking about Americans (grumpy Richard Thorpe, director) stealing a Scottish tale, but a border collie filching a role from a terrier.

Lassie seems to teleport from story to story, country to country, turning up where he’s needed — his previous owners disappear from film to film, and he magically acquires a whole new backstory. Thinking about it, maybe he’s less like Doctor Who — or K9 in a Terminator style skin-suit — than Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap.

HILLS OF HOME stars Wilcox fave Edmund Gwenn, doing a wretched but consistent Scots accent, Hollywood’s favourite faux-Highlander Donald Crisp doing a better one, and Janet Leigh doing an appalling one that veers west at every opportunity. Still, it’s sort of nice she tried.

Sometimes I’ll watch a dull film to the end for the nostalgic feeling of being a kid in the 70s when nothing good is on TV. Though I would probably have quite liked HILLS OF HOME, and gone “Aww” whenever Lassie is abused, which seems to be the main form of entertainment being sold.

There is absolutely no Scottish location work (unlike in the much grander CHALLENGE), but another chance to enjoy the Scottish/Irish village set showcased in BONNIE SCOTLAND, THE SWORDSMAN, and even MAN IN THE ATTIC where it stands in for London.

Wilcox’s direction remains absolutely competent, absolutely uninspired, but there are no special effects save the odd matte painting, no electronic tonalities, and no invisible monsters, or none that I could see.

Thundering Beef

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by dcairns

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A religious motto in the background establishes Joel McCrea’s righteousness — as if that were necessary! — as he opposes the villain’s hubris.

The title RAMROD was guaranteed to reduce my inner smutty schoolboy to helpless sniggering, but the re-teaming of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, with Lake’s husband Andre DeToth at the helm, merited more serious attention, clearly. Olive Films have released the picture on a good-looking Blu-ray so serious attention is perfectly possible for anyone with the cash to spare.

The movie begins with a clusterbombing of exposition, characters heaping up without much introduction, so that my sleepy self quickly started to despair of being able to follow things. Also, DeToth’s noir sensibility seemed to be inflecting everything with twistiness and ambivalence — black hats and white hats seemed apt to get swapped at any moment, and usually lovable or at any rate amicable actors were already sliding out of place into shadowy terrain — Veronica Lake seems spoilt and stroppy, Charlie Ruggles is severe and inhumane, Joel McCrea drinks too much, Donald Crisp is a vacillating lawman, Preston Foster is a power-hungry cattle baron and Lloyd Bridges… well, that guy always did a nice turn in psycho hoodlums, so it’s no surprise to find him sneering from the sidelines.

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The exposition was so deep after a few minutes of in media res backbiting that I was expecting a noir flashback to give us a second go at understanding things, but this never happened. In other respects, though, this is far more noir than western. Moral certainty is filled full of lead early on and never rises from its sickbed.

Gradually I perceived the fault lines running through the town and family at the film’s centre — think Mann’s THE FURIES, another western by a noir specialist with ranchers as Borgia-gangsters, fraught father-daughter relationships, violent passions and murderous politicking. McCrea, despite a token alcohol problem and an inability to decide between the two leading ladies, does preserve his righteous image, but it takes a little more of a shaking up than usual.

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Maybe that’s part of why McCrea disliked the film. He also didn’t care for DeToth either personally or professionally — he didn’t like all the beautiful elaborate tracking shots winding through it (“John Ford didn’t need that”) and felt DeToth’s relationship with Lake harmed his ability to direct her. He told Patrick McGilligan, “When you work with the director’s wife, this is for the birds. Because he’s not going to be tough with her, you know, or she’ll kick his ass when he gets home at night.”

Mind you, I saw DeToth in person, and though he was in his nineties at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone kicking this bullet-heated Hungarian cyclops’ ass.

Those snaky tracking shots and crane shots are very gorgeous, animating the scenery (DeToth always liked to seek out less familiar locations for his westerns) and making the environment more than just backdrop. He pulls off some punchy compositions too, frequently boxing Lake in as if he wanted to build a protective house around her.

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It’s a really interesting role for Lake, maybe the only femme fatale she ever got to play? — and the outcome is interesting too, because she’s not punished for her various crimes and manipulations, other than not getting her man at the end. She wins everything else, with an outcome that’s almost a Revenger’s Tragedy until you reflect that a surprising number of nasty characters are still walking around, either partially redeemed or simply judged not important enough to be worthy of Stern Western Justice.

Early on, Lake blows her top at her father, who’s been trying to fix her up with the wealthy cattle king as husband. Her rebellion against him emerges in a startlingly bitter and aggressive tirade, which seems both utterly sympathetic and too real to be just acting. Lake, who had been pushed into movies by her mother, renamed and restyled and boxed in, lets rip at this parental figure who’s trying to plot out her entire life for her with a fury that’s surely authentic. DeToth reported that she hated movie acting, but it sure looks like she’s getting something out of this scene.

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Oh, also, her character name, Connie, is her own real name. Veronica was her mother’s name.

So I loved the hell out of this. A western without the more clichéd visuals and without the cosy moral certainty. Particularly good work from Don DeFore as the most ambiguous character of all, the womanizing cowhand who is loyal yet a traitor, murderous but just, bad but noble. His schismatic nature is magnified across the whole movie. Amazing.

Ramrod [DVD]