Archive for Fox Films

The Sunday Intertitle: Not-so-fresh Hell

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2020 by dcairns

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I watched the 1924 Fox Film Corps DANTE’S INFERNO for my new Forgotten By Fox column, but found it not good enough, partly because the only copies on YouTube are grim fuzzfests in which squinting gains you nothing, partly because the pisspoor telecine job is not rigorously incompetent enough to wholly erase the film’s script, co-written by Edmund Goulding.

The movie is actually one of the great poetic work’s more faithful adaptations — if you can call something faithful that omits two whole books of the Divine Comedy. But it folds its expensive and ambitious hellscapes — more like reconstructions than adaptations, since Mr. Alighieri’s travelog is low on narrative development, especially if you chop off purgatory and paradise — into a silly Scrooge plot in which a slumlord on the verge of a nervous breakdown is scared straight by the epic poem, hallucinating a hellish comeuppance for himself before it turns out to have all been a dream.

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The inferno itself isn’t quite as impressive as the one in the 1935 film — Fox again, this time inserting the Stygian depths into a moral narrative about an ambitious carny played by Spencer Tracy. The thirties hell is a place of gliding camera movements, whereas the earlier one, directed by one Henry Otto, adopts the more sedate tableau style, the better to craft artful multiple exposures, which time, and Grapevine Video, have done their best to occlude.

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My favourite Bad Moment is when, in his catastrophic nightmare, “Mortimer Judd,” the Ebenezer figure, orders his invalid wife to leave the house. Then he goes out, and upon his return learns that she’s now dying. Leading his son to say:

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Not great, Edmund Goulding. NIGHTMARE ALLEY’s better.

There’s also a butler character in blackface, but on the other hand the most “famous” person in it is Noble Johnson, Skull Island chieftain, as “demon whipping girl.”

The IMDb reports, sadly, “An incomplete nitrate print (missing Reel 2 out of five reels) survives in the UCLA Film and Television Archives, and is not listed for preservation.” One might argue that, given its many inadequacies, the movie should be listed for destruction, but those hell sequences are pretty special, and it upsets me that we’re apparently losing them forever.

After the Fox

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2019 by dcairns

Yes indeed, there’s some interesting stuff in Henry King’s swashbuckler, even if the drama itself isn’t always that engaging. Tyrone Power does his usual bad-boy-turns-good thing. Orson has a spectacular first scene, with some extraordinary expressions playing across his massive mug, then normalizes a bit into just a good Welles villain role. Rewriting the script on location he bolstered Everett Sloane’s role…

…with this feather.

The whole film looks beautiful, thanks to stunning Italian locations and Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which raises my estimation of him even higher. (In THE BRAVADOS he showcases his usual Deluxe Color palette, with orange light and blue shadows, sometimes ignoring logic and light sources altogether, just routinely doing what he does, so that the imagery so stunning in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN came to seem slightly tired.)

Was Orson whispering suggestions to King? He had dominated the experienced Robert Stevens on JANE AYRE, and he still had the vestiges of Hollywood stardom to give him clout. I commend to you, at the very least, the film’s second scene (commencing 2.47).

There are low angles: when Welles mounts the podium, we view him from below, like a member of his entourage, but the reactions shots of them are taken EVEN LOWER. There’s a tracking shot running counter to the movement of Welles as he sweeps in. Those shots of the reacting listeners, at around 4.55, with the camera sweeping from one face to another in fast pans and pushy track-ins, are really extraordinary. It feels like Welles exerts more influence here than anywhere else, but it’s perhaps not PURE Welles.

The restlessness of the camera, not quite in sync with story values, driven purely by its own enthusiasm, has an early thirties vibe to me. And King hasn’t indulged in this kind of brio SINCE the early thirties. He’s back at the Fox Film Corporation, channeling the house style with youthful enthusiasm, prodded along impatiently by his Cesare Borgia…

PRINCE OF FOXES features Leonard Vole; Hank Quinlan; Pila; Pilar; Polonius: Flavia; Mr. Bernstein; and Dr. Satan.

King of the Movies

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

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.