Archive for Frances Marion

The Sunday Intertitle: Dot on the Line

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2023 by dcairns

Concluding Maurice Tourneur and Frances Marion’s A GIRL’S FOLLY.

It’s a notoriously shaky proposition, identifying “firsts,” but this movie’s portrayal of a movie studio commissary may well be the original of its kind, evoking a mildly surreal, giddy feeling from the spectacle of cops and cowboys dining together. On my first visit to the BBC’s offices in Glasgow I got treated to this kind of sight, less common today when so few TV programmes are made in-house, especially the kind that involve dressing up. The canteen scenes in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and BLAZING SADDLES are very fine examples of the type.

Flashback! Not as uncommon as you’d think in 1917. Doris Kenyon looks thoughtful, and Tourneur fades up a field of flowers, and we get the idea of a mild, wistful homesickness. It might not be a specific memory of a field, it could just be an imaginary vision of the general concept of fields and flowers, therefore not a flashback so much as an act of imagination, but curiously enough this ambiguity doesn’t result in muddle: whichever it is, the idea comes across.

The next significant intertitle deals with our butterfly’s rival. Since it would, apparently, outrage morality to have Robert Warwick’s movie star a married man cheating on his wife, and to have Doris Kenyon the kept woman of a married man, the intertitle affects ignorance of the nature of the relationship.

A low-key decadent party — Johnny Hines sups an admixture of everybody’s drinks from a lady’s shoe. then announces his intention to dress up as a “sky-pilot” and marry the whole throng. I haven’t heard this slang term for preacher used outside of MASH, where it’s flung at Robert Duvall when he prays, I think. It seemingly never occurred to Damien Chazelle that blasphemy would be a potent form of bad behaviour back in silent Hollywood. Surprising to find it in use here.

Doris’ mom crashes the party — the only reason she was set up earlier was so she could do this — and the film starts dissolving in a blaze of nitrate decomposition. This is the usual effect of your mom showing up at your party unannounced. An “A” composition captures Doris’ expressions as Warwick turns on the charm, so mom won’t suspect anything amiss.

Shades of LA CAGE AU FOLLES — the party must now pretend to be thoroughly respectable — and just at the wrong moment, Johnny Hines comes prancing back in, dragged up as a minister. Everyone pounces to subdue him.

Warwick’s gentility here is a quality he’d retain — the decorous way he treats a bereaved Veronica Lake in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS echoes his kindness here.

Another rather startling appearance by the SILENT MOVIE SWASTIKA — in those substantially pre-Hitlerian days, it was often used as a good luck symbol. Like the dog in DAMBUSTERS its a disconcerting reminder of different times, but is actually completely innocent in this context. Let’s not go copying it though.

Warwick, touched by Dot’s mom, suggests to his possible-mistress that they’re ABOUT TO make a grave mistake. Which reassures the censor that he hasn’t had it off with her yet. With hot sex with a muscular movie star off the cards, Dot yields to her mother’s complaint of loneliness (and the message from Johnny Applesauce or whatever his name is, her country beau) and gives up the fleshpots of Fort Lee for a quiet, virtuous, boring existence in the hills.

This is all delivered quite straight, as if it were sincere, despite the self-evident fact that the choice of peaceful rusticity over movieland misbehaviour is not one that anyone whatever involved in this film would dream of making. To take the curse off it, Johnny Hines, still with his collar on backwards but secreted behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, gets a last gag —

I’m not familiar with this use of “flivver” — I knew it meant a car, as the intertitle suggests, but it also seems to mean “bust” or “wash-out.”

Warwick returns to his previous wife/mistress — played with a bit of melancholy and a bit of tenderness — Dot returns to the boondocks, where her reunion with Johnny Applecart provokes an ironic commentary from two train station employees:

How do you pronounce “romantick”?

A GIRL’S FOLLY starred Mr. LeBrand; Mme Pompadour; Mrs Brand; Torchy; and Rita Pring.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Last Day in the Country

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2023 by dcairns

A very dislikable throwaway gesture in Maurice Tourneur’s A GIRL’S FOLLY: movie star Robert Warwick hits his fussing dresser with his hat. The dresser/PA is Black, you see. It reminds me of Warner Baxter hitting Clarence Muse near the start of BROADWAY BILL — a film I’ve always turned off at that point, because I’ve been turned off by it. The blows struck aren’t hard, wouldn’t be physically painful. But white servants in old movies are NOT struck. It’s done without thought or malice, because a Black person is not considered fully human, so you can let of steam by hitting them as you might kick an item of furniture.

Emigre filmmakers in America were often more sensitive to race relations because they viewed them innocently, as outsiders (having probably been blind to racism in their homelands). Maurice Tourneur evidently did not have that kind of sensitivity.

Meanwhile, after a flirtation with Warwick, starstruck country girl Doris Kenyon decides to run off and join the galloping tintypes. Having examined her face in the light, the studio manager decides to give her the big build-up:

If this seems a slightly implausible version of the movies rags-to-riches motif, we must remember that it’s 1917 and the path was a little easier: also, our heroine is sponsored by an Important Leading Man who presumably hopes to bed her.

Tourneur and writer Frances Marion have helpfully inserted a full tour of the facilities into their narrative, so we get to see the dailies being dried out on great wheels, spun by hand. This stuff very likely meant nothing to most audiences at the time, but it’s a gift to anyone curious about filmmaking back in the day. (Nobody involved in BABYLON seems to have been quite curious enough.)

We pass through a room filled with women winding film on smaller reels — editing it, possibly, but we can’t see quite what they’re doing. The nearest one seems to have both two reels mounted before her, and a smaller spindle before her, so I suspect they’re editing by eye, without the benefit of anything resembling a Moviola or Steenbeck. Not even a jeweller’s eyepiece to enlarge the vital frames?

Then into a tiny cramped projection room, informally seated with a cluster of loose metal chairs. The lights dim and a soft round glow appears from the projector lens — not the brilliant flare we’d see if this were real. Since lens flare was verboten before Pasolini and Laszlo Kovacs, some dim bulb has been inserted to suggest the real thing without dazzling us.

Tourneur then gives us a montage of closeups — Doris, beaming at her (unseen) image in the screen test, the director, co-lead and studio manager frowning. I don’t know whether the concept of a screen within a screen seemed too troublesome for M. Tourneur — I kind of doubt it, such things had been seen since Griffith’s THOSE AWFUL HATS and before — or if he simply thought this would be the most interesting storytelling approach, a pre-Lubitschian indirection which would allow us to add up the sum ourselves. Perhaps Tourneur simply found previous movies-within-movies unconvincing, and this idea occurred to him as a preferable approach.

Meanwhile, Warwick’s character, who is married, is having trouble with his jealous wife, so he’s not present.

Doris walks out of the studio through a landscape of empty boxes, discarded like herself. Everything about the studio seems a touch temporary — they throw their trash outside because they don’t expect to be here long. The screening room chairs aren’t fixed to the floor. And indeed, within a few years everybody would have left Fort Lee for Hollywood.

An almost unique intertitle idea: the same caption but with an illustration that changes by jump-cut!


Tourneur tournage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 24, 2023 by dcairns

Wow, A GIRL’S FOLLY is more contemptuous of silent filmmaking than BABYLON, which is going some.

Director Maurice Tourneur and screenwriter Frances Marion have the excuse that they’re demystifying a current situation and so the sneering is a corrective to the lies of the fan mags. But I have an unpleasant suspicion we’re meant to be appalled to learn that the stars’ autographs are forged by a Black studio employee. At least the joke is on the unseen fans, not the onscreen actor.

We get to see a horse opera being filmed, with Robert Warwick as cowboy hero, and title cards give us samples of the direction being offered by the ebullient auteur:

The IMDb says that Tourneur himself plays the role of film director and Josef Von Sternberg appears as cameraman — but I think they’re just doing extra work as A director and A cameraman, rather than these featured roles — the director is too old and too bald and nothing much about the cameraman suggests the flamboyant aesthete of the 1920s. Though it’d be amusing if this scruff were little Jo before he got artistic. The perpetually sullen expression seems like the only trace of resemblance though.

Damien Chazelle please note that this is Fort Lee in 1917 and they’re already filming indoors in a big studio with sets that rotate to follow the sun. BABYLON’s idea of 1926 filmmaking is already ridiculously passé at this point. No doubt somebody was still shooting on exterior sets in 1926, but not in Hollywood.