Archive for Ernst Lubitsch

Lamp Post

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by dcairns

Occluding lampshades are a favourite compositional device, and this one, from Curtis Bernhardt’s MGM noir HIGH WALL, is particularly interesting, though perhaps not wholly successful.

Being an MGM noir, it’s full of hedging and excuses, and that’s what stops it being great — it’s gorgeously shot, exciting and well cast — Robert Taylor even has some excellent moments, and the miscasting of Audrey Totter as a kind of Ingrid Bergman shrink complicates things and makes the story more intriguing. There’s a natural edge and intensity to Totter which makes you not quite trust her when she’s required to be sweet…

Anyway, this lamp. Herbert Marshall has to do a lot of WALKING in this film, and he manages it very well for the most part. But you can hear his wooden leg SQUEAK, which I’m amazed wasn’t fixed.

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Towards the climax, Marshall and Walker have to engage in a vigorous fight, falling all over the furniture in Marshall’s flat, and this was obviously too challenging for Marshall to perform himself, so Bernhardt has devised a ruse. Yes, this also falls into the genre of “How to conceal Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg,” a trope most famously illustrated in THE LITTLE FOXES where he briefly exits frame on the left, so that his identically-dressed stand-in can stagger up the stairs while our main focus is on Bette Davis:

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So, here’s the scene. Marshall has shut the door, thinking himself alone, but then he hears a noise, and a dramatic shadow in snap-brimmed fedora crosses his form — Bernhardt gets to do lots of Germanic lighting in this one, which often LOOKS more Warners than MGM.

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SLOWLY he turns… and Bernhardt tracks back, the camera movement synchronized to Herbert’s pivot… and Taylor’s shoulder, side of head and hat brim slide into view.

vlcsnap-2020-05-09-14h01m03s798It’s a terrific effect: it not only reveals the intruder in a dramatic and mysterious way, it makes Marshall shrink as he becomes more vulnerable, with Taylor’s positioning making him seem, in a way, gigantic.

And Bernhardt now maintains this shot for several lines of dialogue, resisting a reverse angle and showing the kind of nerve few directors have these days.

When he finally cuts, it’s to a closer view of Marshall, showing the calculation in his expression and cueing up a POV shot which tells us that he’s looking at his revolver, across the room and behind Taylor…

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Having shown us what’s on Marshall’s mind and allowed us to guess what his plan is, Bernhardt now lets us see him execute it. The fact that we can anticipate what he’s up to is obviously good for suspense, as we can ask ourselves if he’ll succeed.

Bernhardt cuts back to the earlier over-the-shoulder framing of the cornered Marshall and pulls back as Marshall advances, Taylor finally coming into clearer view as he turns to follow his opponent’s movement…

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But now the shot gets weird. Berndardt’s camera pulls back to what should be a flat two of Marshall and Taylor, but turns into a shot of a lamp and Taylor…

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It’s one of those clever-but-stupid ideas. Because there’s no good dramatic reason for us to be observing the action half-hidden by a lampshade.

But the clever bit is, while he’s still talking, and while we can still see a good bit of his body, Marshall does a quick shuffle and steps back out of frame, letting his stand-in replace him. This happens while we can still see part of him.

By the time we get this next composition, Marshall has been replaced by his pod person:

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The out-takes must have been hilarious (and swiftly burned), with Marshall colliding with his identically clad stunt-herbert, or the substitution not happening quickly enough, so that we see both Herberts at the same time, awkwardly weaving around one another…

But the trick is done imperceptibly in the movie, the only flaw being our puzzlement about why this lighting fixture suddenly has a featured role.

So now the fake Herbert can grab for the gun, the real Taylor can leap on him, the lamp can go flying (fulfilling, at last, a discernible dramatic function) and the two men can crash to the floor and tussle.

We even get a bold glimpse of the stunt-herbert’s face, with the filmmakers confident that we won’t notice that it’s not our star because there’s too much going on, it’s too quick, and anyway, we clearly saw that it was him at the start of this shot.

The other main fake Herbert bit I remember is in TROUBLE IN PARADISE, where Herbert springs out of frame, dashing for the stairs, and Lubitsch whip-pans IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, rotating almost 360 to catch the fake Herbert leaping up the staircase two steps at a time, convincing us that the star is an athletic biped but that his director is drunk…

Olive Borden IS John Ford

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2019 by dcairns

Pictureplayer magazine got several leading ladies to drag up as their directors, a thing not often enough done. Olive Borden had just experienced John Ford’s little ways in THREE BAD MEN.

Nobody ever does Fred Niblo. I’m impressed.

Bebe picks the wrong DeMille brother, from History’s viewpoint, though maybe not Art’s.

I’m not 100% sure the skirt is authentic. William DeMille said, “Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, then chewing it.”

This obscure choice may be why we don’t hear so much about Dolores.

Marvelous. Should really be a cigar, though, right?

The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.