Archive for Frank Borzage

The Look 2: Lukas Rejects

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , on July 30, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-29-20h42m47s804

Reminder: I’ve embarked on an occasional series about moments when actors look at the camera.

A tricky one — I wasn’t sure if I was remembering this correctly.

But when I think of actors looking at the camera, I always think of Paul Lukas in STRANGE CARGO (1940), or STRANGE FILM as surely somebody else must have called it.

Frank Borzage’s films were often religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, but this one is a full-blown allegory, with Ian Hunter unusually effective as the Christ figure, who is part of an all-star group of escaped convicts including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Peter Lorre.

Lukas plays a serial killer of women — for profit. He leaves the group midway through the film to take up his profession again. Hunter has been on at him to repent of his sinful ways. Lukas leaves, but after doing so, when he is alone apart from US — he turns, glances about in the direction of the camera — eyes flickering wildly so that for a moment I was afraid my memory was playing me false and he wasn’t going to do it — and then he looks right down the barrel of the lens and says, very firmly —

“No.”

Borzage’s camera, which has been following Lukas, seems to have become briefly identified with the eye of God. This is Lukas’ final rejection of the grace of God. Delivered to us. As if we were all, collectively, the best stand-in for the deity that Borzage could think of.

So that’s nice of him.

Jiggety-Jig

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2016 by dcairns

Laughter_Hell_1933_1@2xLAUGHTER IN HELL: Pat O’Brien, Clarence Muse, Noel Madison

Home from Bologna, caught up on at least some of my missed sleep, and buzzing (in a bleary way) to write up in more details some of the wonders witnessed. 32 screenings in all, many of them containing more than one (short) film. 26 of them marvelous, and the others merely delightful.

By the way, Fiona came too. She didn’t want me to announce it on social media because she’s seen THE BLING RING and didn’t want Hermione from HARRY POTTER magicking her way into our vacant property and stealing all our bling crap.

Here’s the rundown of our last day’s viewing, a fairly light one —

entdeckung-mars-landung

9.00 a.m. I had been enjoying Mariann Lewinsky’s curation of the Krazy Serial, and wanted to see how it turned out. Bologna always has a 100-year-old serial, and this year the centenary of Dada was celebrated with an eccentric collection of episodes from incomplete serials, standalone shorts and scratch-assemblies of found footage. The last show memorialized WWI, with DIE ENTDECKUNG DEUTSCHLANDS DIE MARSBEWOHNER, a German sci-fi film in which Martians visit Munich (they are greatly impressed by the lid action on beer steiners); CAMP OF GOUDA, a newsreel study of a Belgian refugee camp in Holland (lacework and brush-making, the start of occupational therapy); NAPOLEON AND SALLY, in which the war is reenacted by two chimpanzees in fancy dress with ghastly, wraithlike shaved faces.

I congratulated Mariann on the serial’s climax: “It all came together beautifully.”

10.15. LIFE’S HARMONY, a very early Borzage. A sweet, naively ridiculous plot about rival church organists in a small town. Manages to pack amnesia and an evil twin into its denouement. Some beautiful shots in darkened rooms lit by source light including a fireplace. Borzage is already spreading his wings.

11.30. LAUGHTER IN HELL, a Universal pre-code which is everything everyone has already said it is, since it’s New York screening.

14.30. (long lunch to recover from previous) THE PALEFACE (Fiona was knocked unconscious by the heat and missed most of this); MAIDS AND MUSLIN, a wearisome Monte Banks comedy with some interest raised by Oliver “Babe” Hardy as villain, and some animated explosions and impacts scratched into the living celluloid; MONSIEUR DON’T CARE, a seven-minute fragment of one of Stan Laurel’s hilarious Valentino parodies. Stan plays Rhubarb Vaselino, fleeing the court of Louis IV in a world which features yellow cabs and giant safety razors. Also Stan in drag. Produced by Joe Rock, who later gave us EDGE OF THE WORLD. Even in fractured, flickering and fragmentary form, this laid them in the aisles, and made up for Fiona’s lapse into unconsciousness. A Keaton film like THE PALEFACE unfolds with measured logic in a way that can lull the sleepy viewer, but Mr. Laurel’s loopy spoofs (or perhaps spooves?) keep everyone caffeinated.

And then I was going to see FAT CITY in the Piazza Maggiore, a film I love, but it was late, I was drunk, the film was delayed, the pubs were roaring with football, and I drifted home.

But there was more to follow, on the very day of our leaving…

Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

x2

I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

x7

Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

x5

What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

x8

Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

x12

He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

x13

Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot —

x10

“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 723 other followers