Archive for Esther Ralston

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

Lost and Gone

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by dcairns

I sort of miscounted and the film preservation blogathon For the love of Film ends today, but I have a few mini-posts left. I shall issue them over the coming week, since I don’t have time to write other things to keep the blog going this week if I posted them all today. But this is the important one — trailers for lost movies. These little peripheral pieces are all that survives of the original films — or almost (see below).

I don’t know anything about IN THE DAYS OF DANIEL BOONE, but it looks pretty spiffy. What I call an epic!

THE SILENT FLYER also stars a bunch of no-name actors, at least for modern viewers, but it’s canine star is the biggest challenger to Rin Tin Tin, a handsome hound called Silver Streak, who starred in his own rival set of movies in parallel with Rinty’s career. The knock-off dog looks pretty good, although we don’t see him filling a canteen or unlacing his booties, as Rinty does in CLASH OF THE WOLVES. But the makers compensate for their Alsatian protagonist’s lack of versatility with a string of Thrilling Action Climaxes –

See! The Fistfight with a FatMan!

See! The sleighride to mayhem!

See! The rather nifty ice-yacht! Seriously, I want one. Wait, the blew it up? Aw nuts.

THE AMERICAN VENUS opens with a series of recommended vital statistics, proving that body fascism is not a new phenomenon, and that it even predates the other kind. It’s Louise Brooks’s first credited role, and this is all we have of it. Also Esther Ralston, who was very big, and who also starred in a Von Sternberg lost film, THE CASE OF LENA SMITH (a tiny fragment of this one survives). Maybe if these films survived, Esther would be a bigger name today.

I’ve seen a very funny interview with ER where she goes on at length about how Dorothy Arzner had her doing lots of “inappropriate” sexy stuff in TEN MODERN COMMANDMENTS. This in a documentary called THE SILENT FEMINISTS.

“Filmed on the same sweeping scale as BEAU GESTE –” the trailer for BEAU SABREUR wants to tell us that it’s basically exactly the same film, but can’t quite work up the courage. VERY early Gary Cooper, plus fellow Sternberg people William Powell (who had a clause placed in his contract after making THE LAST COMMAND, stipulating that he would never be asked to work with Josef Von S. again) and Evelyn Brent. The director is given as “John Waters,” but we shouldn’t expect to see Gary Cooper eating dog shit or William Powell getting raped by a crustacean. Different guy. Somehow Waters the 1st got sidelined into 2nd unit work later in life, contributing to DAVID COPPERFIELD, NINOTCHKA, THE BIG COUNTRY… Gary Cooper meanwhile went on to even greater stardom as a talking star, even taking the lead in a legit version of BEAU GESTE (directed by William Wellman, who made a star out of Coop by casting him in WINGS just a year before this missing minor masterwork).

Saving the best for last — THE PATRIOT is one of many lost Lubitsch films, including even a few Hollywood ones. But this one stars Emil Jannings! The trailer is fantastically useful and interesting, as well as heart-breaking, because it shows a more active and probing camera style, likely influenced by Murnau and THE LAST LAUGH, and unlike what we see in other Lubitsch films.

This is the movie that’s a weeny bit less lost than the others. Because there’s a good chance you’ve seen bits of it — as stock footage in Sternberg’s THE SCARLET EMPRESS. Sternberg writes that Lubitsch not only wasn’t aware of the swiped material, but in his capacity as Paramount boss (a job Uncle Lube didn’t last in for long), he castigated Sternberg for spending so much on these extravagant crowd scenes. Sternberg, perverse in all things, did not point out the source of the material. He also liked Lubitsch, but never told him this. (All this info comes from Sternberg’s magnificent autobio, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. You are free to disbelieve it.)

The one thing I’m left wondering though is whether the spectacular torture montage at the start of EMPRESS is original, or from THE PATRIOT, or from elsewhere? It’s an eye-popping sequence of explicit sadistic pornography, astonishing even by pre-code standards, and the temptation naturally is to attribute it to Sternberg, but I’m really not sure.

That’s Maria Riva, Dietrich’s real daughter, and biographer, playing her as a young girl (why does her accent change from American to German when she grows up? Futile to ask questions of this kind). and the harness she has to wear for a year is (a) part of the film’s continuous equine imagery, a sly reference to Catherine the Great’s rumoured demise in the throes of passion with a stallion, and (b) autobiography, as you can learn in Sternberg’s book. His arms were tied to his sides for a year, he says, to stop him scratching the flea bites on his scalp.

“Hear and see THE PATRIOT — and know how great a motion picture can be.”

But we CAN’T.

Donate here.

The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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