Archive for Esther Ralston

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Blackfeet, red face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by dcairns

Heap big thanks to Ihsan Amanatullah and the National Film Preservation Foundation for Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, a typically smashing box-set trove of films, fragments and ephemera. These collections are among my very favourite things.

One item of particular interest is Gregory La Cava’s third feature as director, and his first for Paramount. WOMANHANDLED is a romantic comedy from 1925 that pokes good-natured fun at the myth of the west, in much the same way as Doug Fairbanks did in WILD AND WOOLLY (reviewed here). The film is incomplete, but Treasures gathers enough scenes to form a reasonably coherent narrative.

In both films, a western community transforms itself into a fantasy vision of the past to fool a romantic visitor: in this case, it’s heroine Esther Ralston who has the hots for cowboys, and her beau, Richard Dix who sets out to live up to her fantasy.

Only the jaunty front wheels defy the frame’s robust squareness.

The whole film’s very pretty, with some flat-on establishing shots that are actually breathtaking in their graphic simplicity. It’s not especially hilarious: as other commenters have noted, neither of the stars is a particularly gifted comedian. Ralston is simply decorous, whereas Dix does try to get into the spirit of things, hamming it up a little at times. He’s a very sweet hero, though, smiling earnestly at Ralston even as her horrendous little cousin (and ancestor of the pint-sized monsters who would plague W.C. Fields, sometimes in La Cava films) sets about his achilles tendon with a tomahawk. You can’t associate him easily with the captain of THE GHOST SHIP, coldly threatening to shoot the hero “in the abdomen.”

Funniest moments are those that puncture the air of charming whimsy with some bracing nastiness, as above. When Dix orders some horses, the nags that turn up are virtual walking skeletons. Casually, without even seeming to think, Dix hangs his straw boater from the protruding pelvis of one shriveled mare.

Worse (and better) yet, Dix induces the “colored help” to don redface and impersonate Indians.

When Ralston naively asks what tribe this family is from, Dix improvises —

The friend I tried this line on went into a sort of strange loop of conflicted response — “That’s funny — but terrible — but funny — but terrible…” Join him in his world of pained amusement! As IMDb reviewer and legend F. Gwynplaine MacIntryre puts it, “At this point “Womanhandled” enters the delirious realm of double-decker racial stereotypes.”

This disc comes with copious notes and commentary tracks —  apparently, 1925 was the Year of the Western, with a third of all American movies going west. Esther Ralston’s career, it’s noted, is hard to assess since so many of her films are lost, including THE AMERICAN VENUS, whose trailer features in an earlier Treasures, and Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH. I know her mainly from a late-life interview in the documentary THE SILENT FEMINISTS: AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN DIRECTORS, where she’s asked about Dorothy Arzner and goes into a protracted, unstoppable and very funny rant about how Arzner kept trying to get her to do sexy scenes until she complained to the studio boss. I get the impression this wasn’t the kind of insight the earnest documentarists behind the camera were after, but they cheefrully included it anyway, for which we can be grateful.

Buy: Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938