Archive for Douglas Fairbanks Jnr

The Mother of Them All

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2016 by dcairns

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Our Indiegogo campaign is finished, and we scored 94% of our £5000 target, which is damned good. Anybody who still wants to donate and was waiting for payday can get in touch and contribute by Special Arrangement. The money raised will make our ambitious music score possible (Jane Gardner and her trio plus a roomful of early electronica) and cover the fact that our sound mix is going to cost twice what was initially budgeted, and reward our lowly effects artists, who are starving in their respective garrets and working longer on this thing than anybody else. We’ll also be assisted in publicising the film and getting it out to festivals. Anybody out there good at designing posters and postcards?

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Finished picture editing early enough yesterday to make it through to Bo’ness for the closing gala of STELLA DALLAS, the 1925 version directed by Henry King, not the better-known Stanwyck. Composer Stephen Horne is a great fan of this one and he fulfilled an ambition by scoring it — his multi-instrumental accompaniment supplemented ably by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on harp, resulting in a sensitive and versatile score which enhanced the film’s humour as well as its obvious effectiveness as a weepie of “mother picture” as the contemporary press called it.

By crazy coincidence, in between edit and screening, my bathroom copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema fell open at Henry King, who made it into the chapter Subjects for Further Reasearch despite a write-up from the arch-auteurist that makes it sound like the world would be a better place had King been strangled in his cradle. It’s true that, side by side with vigorous stylists like Sun Yu (channeling/ripping-off Sternberg and Borzage) or E.A. Dupont, King’s coverage might seem prosaic at times, but he has his finger on the emotional pulse of the story and stages the climax in grand style. The true auteur is scenarist Frances Marion, and then we have Arthur Edeson as cinematographer and Stuart Heisler as editor to back King up.

Belle Bennett has the role of a lifetime as Stella, with Ronald Colman as her husband, and an embryonic Douglas Fairbanks Jnr pops up, looking very junior indeed. Jean Hersholt conceals his humanitarian tendencies as the unappealing Mr. Munn.

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Confession: I’ve never seen King Vidor’s remake. But I felt fine about that last night, as it meant I was experiencing the story fresh, and can now see how it was covered in the 1937 version.

Excellent intro and programme notes by Pamela Hutchinson, making the excellent point that Olivia Higgins Prouty’s source novel features characters whose perception has been influenced by cinema (“Laurel had seen too many closeups of faces not to recognize that look!”) The film’s climax (above and top) is all about the emotion of the act of looking, and the huge picture window through which Stella watches a wedding appears like nothing less than an illuminated motion picture screen.

Hawks and Sparrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Douglas Fairbaks Jnr. looks with affection at his last hand grenade.

The movie is the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL. Richard Barthelmess’s hard-drinking WWI flier in this looks set to transmute into his character from THE LAST FLIGHT, made the following year. This is an early Howard Hawks talkie. If SCARFACE is atypical of the filmmaker, with its psychopathic characters and expressionistic flourishes, other titles of the same period often show Hawks searching for the fluidity of his mature style, and wrestling with subject matter that isn’t always sympatico.

Aviator/writer John Monk Saunders’ source story, The Flight Commander, deals with people on the verge of destruction, with equal odds whether said destruction will be self-inflicted or brought about by war. Hawks never liked crybabies much, and would have made a lousy grief counsellor, so for the first half of the film he struggles to generate sympathy for Neil Hamilton’s booze-and-guilt-ridden Major. But Hawks liked the story enough to recycle elements later — the active pilot hates the desk jockey, and then he gets the desk jockey’s job, sending other men out to die.

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Richard Barthelmess (great, underrated actor), in engine oil and goggles hobo clown makeup, comforts a traumatized Gardner James. While the callous viewer prays that GJ can get shot down to lighten up the film.

The movie seems to get more fluid as it goes on. Early scenes are stilted, with a distinct LACK of Hawksian overlapping dialogue — it’s underlapping, if anything — one scene has two characters commenting on an offscreen argument, which they can apparently hear. But we don’t get to hear anything, imparting a surreal, mediumistic tinge to their conversation.

Ernest Haller’s oily smudge photography is wonderful, all soft focus and blurred shadows. The sets look cheap up close (painted brickwork fails to trompe l’oeil) but terrific in wide shot. And in places, the dipso camaraderie, heartless yet earnest professionalism, and underplaying (especially Barthelmess, decades ahead of his co-stars) suggest the Hawks of a few years later.

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The cast also sports Frank McHugh and, in an almost unique dramatic role, James Finlayson. The frequent Laurel & Hardy antagonist is fascinating to watch, dialling down his comedy schtick and turning it to (sort-of) dramatic purposes. This includes a very mild exclamation of “D’oh!” early on, and towards the end an actual double-take, as he witnesses the wrong man getting into a plane for a suicide mission. Probably you shouldn’t cast the Finn in a tragedy, but that’s just the kind of thing Hawks WOULD do.

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Below should really have been the film’s last shot, every story point having been settled by this scenic moment, but the filmmakers can’t resist a spectacular bomber raid sequence, one of several dazzling and no doubt dangerous action climaxes. This one combines high-quality miniatures, dodgy rear-projection, and gobsmacking real aerial and demolition footage, including two shots pointing straight down at the target as a bomb dwindles into invisibility and then sends half the landscape erupting upwards straight into the lens. Real stuff!

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“Going west.”

A Dunne Deal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by dcairns

In his magnificent memoir, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, the ebullient Tay Garnett’s chief complaint about his Hollywood career seems to be the number of times he had his titles swapped on him by producers. In the case of JOY OF LIVING, which started out as JOY OF LOVING, the author of the switcheroo was the Breen Office, who objected to the perceived Lubitschian lubriciousness of the original name.

It’s an odd film — torn between the travails of Irene Dunne as a Broadway star who’s working herself into the ground to support her layabout family (who include favourites Guy Kibbee and Lucille Ball), and the romance with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who inveigles his way into her life, and the movie, coming across rather like a crazed stalker (as many romantic comedy lading men did in those days). Fairbanks also disturbs by doing Donald Duck impersonations (producers RKO also distributed Disney, so Fairbanks’ vocalisations are authentic), which makes him seem disturbingly like Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER.

For the first half, we weren’t sure this film was working at all. The Jerome Kern songs aren’t remarkable. The oppressive opening, in which Dunne is persecuted by admirers as soon as she gets off-stage, has a genuinely exhausting relentlessness (and a shot of Dunne’s face-cream, ruined by discarded cigarettes during an opening night party that’s invaded her dressing room, provoked an exclamation of sympathetic pain from Fiona), but is never actually funny, even with Eric Blore as a butler. In fact, the film throws all the character comics it can at the screen, not always effectively, BUT —

Franklin Pangborn as an orchestra conductor is great value. Garnett had used FP since silent days, and in HER MAN (1931) the comic even drops his traditional “flustered homo” persona to punch someone out. Everybody has to brawl in a Garnett movie. “Who’s Tay Garnett again?” asked Fiona. “He did HER MAN and SEVEN SINNERS, with the great brawls,” I said. “I want to see Irene Dunne brawling!” exclaimed Fiona, suddenly enthused. She got her wish!

(There’s nothing inherently funny, to our modern minds, about someone slapping a woman. Oh, I know, everyone used to think it was just great. What amuses me here is pure timing, most of it la Dunne’s. That, and Irene’s unusual reaction to each slap — there’s the beautifully judged pause, then the wise and insolent look which makes the whole affair kind of surreal, and diffuses most of the potential offense.)

When Fairbanks takes Dunne out to show her a good time on two bucks, we get drunkenness, a slapping dance, and Billy Gilbert bulging his eyes fit to pop. In Common Physical Complaints of Hollywood Character Comedians, a popular medical text of the ’40s, you can read how Gilbert once went too far in a double take on COUNTY HOSPITAL and popped his eyes right out of his head. They had to be pounded back into their sockets with small mallets, a process which took several hours. “It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole played with my face,” remarked the comic, looking like a panda afterwards.*

Garnett, a former Sennett gag-man, also finds work for his stunt-man buddies by staging an elaborate roller-skate rink sequence, featuring copious contusing pratfalls from the cast and their doubles. Gratuitous stuff like this actually gets the movie up on its feet so that by the end it feels pretty nearly successful. Not a classic, just a good fun film — a drunken Dunne makes anything worth seeing, so it wouldn’t really matter if everything outside of the beer hall was images of metal corrosion shot on dental film.

*Skeptics may point out that Whac-a-mole was introduced to games arcades in 1985, and Mr Gilbert died in 1971. “How, then, could he make that analogy?” ask the skeptics. To which I say, look at the man’s body of work. He was clearly ahead of his time.