Archive for Esther Ralston

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.

 

This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?

 

And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.

Sadie McKee’s Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2017 by dcairns

As opposed to Robert McKee’s Story.

This piece is ALL spoilers.

SADIE MCKEE is MGM and 1934 — right on the join between pre-code and post-code. So Joan Crawford can sleep with a man out of wedlock, marry another man for money, divorce him, and still end up alive at the end, ready to win the man she always wanted (Franchot Tone, art doing its best to imitate life, life not being quite up to the challenge).

Still, MGM’s class-consciousness is apparent. Like Joanie’s early soundies and talkies (OUR BLUSHING BRIDES, OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), the movie is indecently obsessed with analysing the right and wrong way to marry money. Sadie is the daughter of a cook who ends up a rich lady, and in the end she has her mum come and live with her — as cook. And her best friend, the inestimable Jean Dixon, clearly coded as a prostitute, is now the maid. That’s kind of odd.

That aside, what a terrific film. Clarence Brown was one of MGM’s finest directors, and though somewhat known as a woman’s director (which at MGM meant Joanie and Garbo) works wonders with the leading men. Franchot is always pretty good, of course, though he always looks like some kind of reptile — a gecko or a turtle perhaps. Mellifluous voice. By playing a blue-blood blue-nose stiff-necked moralist who’s wrong on all counts he allows the film to shake loose at least some of its Metro dignity.

Gene Raymond as a louse helps some more — great musical moments, singing “All I Do Is Dream of You.” A love rat who’s convincingly romantic, until Esther Ralston, channelling Mae West, steals him off. He’s even better than Franchot.

I like the first version best, but the second one has the marvelous DRAWER FULL OF CHORINES that slides out from the stage, like something from the morgue at the Copacobana. You didn’t know they had one there, did you? But of course they do — gotta keep the customers on ice until they can figure out Who shot who?

And then Edward Arnold, as the drunken millionaire — one of his best turns, encapsulating in quick succession how nice it would be to be drunk all the time and then how horrible it would be to be drunk all the time. Really surprising how brutal they let him get, after considerable screen time spent on establishing him as a sweet-natured souse. The only part that’s unconvincing is his reformation, but I guess they were saddled with that. He also gets a musical bit, snoozing through a great rendition of “After You’ve Gone” performed by Gene Austin and novelty jazz act Coco & Candy.

This bar is one of my favourite places in the film. The sleek Cedric Gibbons automat is pretty amazing too, like a porcelain spaceship, but the bar has Akim Tamiroff as the very enthusiastic manager. When Arnold orders champagne for everyone, Tamiroff has a giggling fit like he’s been pumped full of helium and nitrous oxide. Elated to the point almost of BURSTING. He’s a happy fellow.

Huge swathes of Joanie’s career are unfamiliar to me — one thing I’ll allow the rather shabby Feud — it’s got us watching Joan. Good as her three menfolk are in this, they’re all there to bask in her light.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Twist in the Tale

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d never seen the 1922 OLIVER TWIST, directed by Glasgow’s own Frank Lloyd (why don’t we do a retrospective on his amazing career, which includes MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY?) despite owning it in T-shirt form. It’s billed as an “all-star” version, but Time has anonymized the cast to the point where only Jackie Coogan as Oliver, Lon Chaney as Fagin, and, rather dimly, Esther Ralston as Rose have any vestigial fame left. Ralston should have chosen to play Nancy if she was looking to be memorable, but she had a good-girl image to protect (she protested when Dorothy Arzner tried to sex her up in undies) — Gladys Brockwell is rather good in the role, with her strong features, aspiring to the condition of a symbolist painting.

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Audiences today are likely to come for Chaney’s sake, and he rewards with a fascinating makeup and physical performance. This is Fagin as grotesque, with the more sympathetic aspects added by Lionel Bart and Ron Moody in the musical quite some way off, but it’s not the icky ethnic stereotype of Alec Guinness either — Chaney avoids the crude beak effect, extending his nose DOWN towards his lips rather than hooking it. The straggly beard adds character, and he essays a marvelous hunch, just by stooping — no vast plaster hump required here. Despite his simpering villainy, the last shot of Fagin in prison still inspires pathos.

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Good though Chaney is, the miracle of Jackie Coogan still holds the film together. Still hanging onto his infant cutes, Coogan delights with Chaplinesque business which makes Oliver far pluckier and scrappier than any other rendition of the character. In a sound film, Coogan’s accent would have killed it, but he has an edge over most filmed versions prior to the Polanski. For some reason, despite being raised in a workhouse, Oliver is always played posh. As if his mother being a respectable woman means that young Ollie would be genetically superior and would be born speaking like a BBC presenter. John Howard Davies and the eerie Mark Lester both cemented this idea so firmly that when we imagine the phrase “Please sir, I want some more,” most of us probably still hear it in a plummy soprano.

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Coogan’s pantomime performance includes great details like Oliver swiping finger-smudges of gruel off the ladle even as he’s being lambasted for his temerity in requesting seconds. Details like this make the character a feisty hero, not a passive victim, and make us care MORE, even if he suffers less than most of his successors in the role.