Archive for Frances Dee

The Loin King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2012 by dcairns

I’ve never seen Buster Crabbe’s turn as TARZAN THE FEARLESS, but the same year he played a Tarzan knock-off for Paramount in KING OF THE JUNGLE, a film about a different kind of lion-man from those Buster rubbed manly shoulders with in FLASH GORDON. Kaspa was raised by lions (and did screenwriter Fred Niblo Jnr read up on feral kids and uncover the tale of Kaspar Hauser?)

Right up front we get an audacious scene change — as Kaspa’s parents acquire a pass to go exploring in lion country, they’re asked if they think it’s safe taking their pre-school kid with them. They shrug off the potential perils — dissolve to the tattered permit lying athwart their scattered bones, bleaching in the desert sun. Tiny Child Buster is mysteriously unharmed and undistressed, though we do rather fear for him as he clambers a rocky escarpment with a glinting blade in one pudgy fist. The scenes with him and the lions are carefully staged — he has rough-and-tumble antics with the cubs, but a variety of effective tricks prevent him from getting too close to Mrs Lion’s jaws.

You can see Paramount are determined to work that zoom lens until the zoom bar drops off.

Another blithe dissolve gives us full-grown Buster in leopard-skin loin-cloth, hanging out with his lion pals. This is pre-code cinema’s most revealing loin-cloth, so aficionados of that garment are urged to beat a hasty path to KOTJ to enjoy the taut, tensing buttocks of Mr Crabbe in all their gluteus glory.

Captured by Douglas Dumbrille and Sidney Toler for a traveling circus, Buster is shipped to San Francisco, escapes, and is tamed by schoolmarm Frances Dee, who plays him chopsticks and otherwise imparts the benefits of civilization. But Kaspa is discontented with circus life, and longs to free his feline pals. A spectacular circus fire allows him to save the day and effect a return to Africa, with Dee in tow. Randall William Cook points out that the story follows the same arc as MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, and probably served as a sewing pattern for the later gorilla thrilla. KOTJ likewise features scarifying live animal action even more alarming that MJY’s — a hissing, snarling, biting and scratching lion-vs-tiger catfight — the movie should carry a credit saying that the Human Association couldn’t bear to look.

The furry flurry is impossible to frame-grab effectively, but just imagine the sound of a sackful of disgruntled tomcats rolling down a hill in slow motion…

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Teh Gay Deceit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by dcairns

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William Wyler’s THE GAY DECEIT stars Frances Dee and Francis Lederer, who, as regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove puts it, looks “quite capable of a gay deceit.”

Wyler’s name is not commonly associated with humour, with the unutterably charming ROMAN HOLIDAY being the only really well-known comedy among his many celebrated films, but he did direct Preston Sturges’s script of THE GOOD FAIRY, probably the best example of Sturges writing for another director outside of Mitchell Leisen’s unbeatable EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT. Plus FRIENDLY PERSUASION has some good stuff with a duck.

But Wyler is not only an incisive director of emotional dramas (and don’t listen to anybody who accuses him of Strained Seriousness or any such alliterative allusion, at least without checking for yourself), he’s a good all-rounder. THE GAY DECEIT is pretty enjoyable from start to finish, although if anything it could probably do with more of a dramatic spine to hang the silliness on. Frances Dee is sweet and appealing and pretty good at physical comedy (nothing knockabout, just a bit of running and faffing around) and Lederer’s light comedy playing is delightful enough to make you almost completely forget that he once played Jack the Ripper.

The real pleasure, though, is in the supporting cast. If the posh hotel setting reminds us of the Hotel Louis in EASY LIVING, Luis Alberini, who played Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis, is on hand to cement the connection. And two actors who later played interchangeable comedy foreigners for Sturges in separate films, here play interchangeable comedy foreigners in the same film: Akim Tamiroff and Lionel Stander.

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Best of all is Lennox Pawle (centre), whom I’d never encountered before. Marvellous. He sounds like a duck being strangled at the wrong speed. And that face! Like an unfinished sculpture of a dyspeptic baby carved from an ice cream brick.

Alas, movies had just begun to talk in the later years of this fine comic’s life, so we never got to see him in a Sturges film. What an enjoyable man.

Messing About in Boats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2008 by dcairns

“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.

Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.

Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).

The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.

Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.

Plotting a course…for MURDER!

Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.

Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)

One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.

Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”

“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.

Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.

Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.

And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.

My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.

Ming for the defense.

Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.

I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.

Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…