Archive for Douglas Fairbanks Jnr

Return to Zenda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2016 by dcairns

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“Why are old films so much better than new films?” asked Fiona in wonderment, as John Cromwell and David Selznick’s film of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) unspooled before us. It may or not be true, but it’s the kind of thought that certainly FEELS true when you’re seeing a classic Hollywood movie in which all the elements have come together. “The genius of the system” is the usual phrase on these occasions, because John Cromwell is not an auteur, because the source novel was adapted by a pretty big roomful of scribes, because “One-Shot” Woody Van Dyke handled some unspecified reshoots, because Selznick was very hands-on. “A good film can be made good by anybody – the writers, the actors, the editor,” said Orson Welles. “Great films are made by the director.” So in a case like this, the film is ascribed either to providence, an impersonal system, or else we downgrade the movie to just “good.”

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Well, whether or not ZENDA deserves the weighty name of Greatness, it is definitely excellent. Everybody in it is perfect. Ronald Colman gets to be dashing but also soulful; Madeleine Carroll gets to be beautiful but also alert and alive in a way people in costume dramas often aren’t (acting in the past tense); David Niven gets to be funny; Raymond Massey snarlingly villainous in a monocle; Mary Astor tragic; and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. seems to be having the time of his life. Funny thing about Jnr. — he had big shoes to fill (although: “How did he perform such amazing stunts with such tiny feet?” ~ Hedley Lamarr) and when cast as roguish heroes he sort of doesn’t quite make it, but cast as outright rogues, something is UNLEASHED.

Great fights in this movie. Colman evidently can’t fence like Flynn, even with the aid of undercranking, so he’s doubled in the wide shots, and then we get quick cut-ins to tighter frames in which a few slashes are exchanged. It’s tremendously dynamic and effective, even if it’s born of necessity. The huge wide shots mean the misty backlighting and Gothic sets provide much of the drama. Colman’s character is also a master of bricolage, enlisting tables and chairs to help him fend off bullets and blades and opponents. He does this so consistently that Fairbanks complains he can’t get used to fighting furniture.

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But despite all the action, the film is at heart a love story: the true effect of all the plot is to bring a pair of lovers together in an untenable situation. It works admirably, even though stories that have people sacrificing happiness for the throne do leave me asking “Why?” a little. But the movie has done such a good job of presenting the conceit that being an English gentleman is the best thing you can possibly be, that it even makes me swallow this final silliness. Besides, if you don’t put Ronald Colman through some romantic agony, you aren’t really making the most of his unique gifts (even if he’s playing a dual role).

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.”