Archive for Ernest Torrence

The Sunday Intertitle: Lust in the Dust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by dcairns

One of Bologna’s discoveries this year was Mary Nolan, who loped limply through two rather stiff early talkies, Tod “the plod” Browning’s OUTSIDE THE LAW and YOUNG DESIRE. While everybody in those films apart from snarling Eddie Robinson essays the sluggish performance style of the period, all tipsy enunciation and medicated pauses, Nolan MAKES THIS WORK. I had to see more.

I’d seen more already — Nolan is excellent in WEST OF ZANZIBAR, in which Tod does not plod, but that film is so crowded with eye-popping incident and performance that she can’t emerge pre-eminent. DESERT NIGHTS, on the other hand, is just an hour of Nolan, John Gilbert and Ernest Torrence looking at each other, surrounded by miles of nothingness. Fortunately for us, all three performers are at the top of their game, and the chemistry between them is sulphurous and sizzling.

It’s a tale of suspense and survival: diamond thieves Torrence and Nolan abduct Gilbert along with a flask of gems, and then get stranded in the Kalahari. From that point on, talented journeyman director William Nigh lets intense close-ups dominate, until you can practically feel the stubble sprouting from the men’s chins. Nolan is excused stubble, but boldly allows herself to become shiny, bedraggled and desperate. Her usual louche and limpid demeanor alternates with bursts of rather shocking savagery, and the romance with Gilbert blossoms while he’s languishing in fly-blown bondage.

The plot really isn’t much — to let romance bloom, Nolan’s bad girl is allowed an unearned redemption. Masquerading as “Lady Diana Stonehill” when we first meet her, she’s never even supplied with a true name, just “Baby.” The team of writers employed to cobble this together were being kind of lazy. But the film blazes, thanks to Gilbert’s crisp toughness (“You know me, anything in a pith helmet,” ~ THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), Nolan’s sultry, hopeless beauty (read her bio if you want to have a cry) and the unusual sight of Torrence underplaying (he’s still massive).

Film researcher/detective Lenny does an excellent Torrence impersonation. It’ll startle you!

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William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

Big Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by dcairns

Yesterday —

9am THE ROAD BACK — major James Whale, a rediscovered director’s cut. Huge production values and a brilliant script by R.C. Sherrif which mingles humour with the tragedy. “It was nice to see Andy Devine being given big things to do.” If it has a flaw, it’s an over-literal approach to emotion, an on-the-nose quality, so that if a character is written as wistful, Whale casts the most wistful guy he can get and has him play it wistful. This cuts down on the humanity you get in something like THE MORTAL STORM or (showing here later) LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?

10.45am SHERLOCK HOLMES. Kept my seat and let them project another movie at me. This was William K. Howard’s 1931 tongue-in-cheek travesty, with Clive Brook dragging up and Ernest Torrence hamming it up. I’d seen a very fuzzy copy in which it was clear Howard was trying interesting things, mainly montages in between the scripted pages — on the big screen, in splendid quality, his direction seemed even more dazzling. Second John George sighting this fest.

12 DESTINATION UNKNOWN. Early thirties Tay Garnett is a mixed bag, but after HER MAN wowed everyone last year, we had high hopes for this. Visually, it doesn’t deliver anything like the same panache, but it fascinates by its oddness. A semi-wrecked rum-runner drifts aimlessly, becalmed. The gangsters, led by Pat O’Brien’s mild wheedle, have control of the water supply. The sailors, led by Alan Hale’s ridiculous Swedish accent, want to get it. Nobody is sympathetic. Then Ralph Bellamy turns up, effulgent. Everyone seems to think they recognise him — from long ago when they were innocent. A religious parable is clearly being palmed off on us, but we’re also tempted to anticipate the line, “He looks like that guy in the movies, what’s his name, Ralph Bellamy.”

The creepy Jesus pulls off one startling miracle, changing wine into water.

Very spirited work from Chas. Middleton (Ming the Merciless), who actually throws in a dog bark at the end of a line, out of sheer joie de vivre.

Fish and chips for lunch, with Charlie Cockey.

14.15 KINEMACOLOR — running late I missed the explanation of how this miracle process worked, but the results are striking, and became even more so when I remembered to take off my sunglasses.

16.00 I remained in my seat to see MILDRED PIERCE, stunningly restored — better than new? “I’m so smart it’s a disease.”

18.15 THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. In a way, I was remaining in my seat to see the thing that terrified me on a small black and white screen as a kid. Here it was on a huge colour screen and I was front row centre, looking right up that cyclops’ nose. I guess they’ll never be able to get the grain remotely consistent — that would be remaking, not restoration — the cave entrance, which I assumed was a matte painting, looks very granular indeed, as do the titles. During monster bits, the monsters are much finer-grained than their backgrounds, but oddly the matte shots with tiny Kathryn Grant seem very sharp. All this will be less problematic on a smaller screen and if you’re not front row centre, of course. The efforts to get the film looking as good as it can (faded Eastmancolor negative — the image is now vibrant again) are appreciated.

Dinner with friends Nicky, Sheldon, et al.

22.15 CARBON ARC PROJECTION. More early colour processes, two vintage projectors. Beautiful. I was very tired and snuck away before the end.