Archive for Gloria Swanson

Acting the Fool

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by dcairns

The key missing Leo McCarey film, which some lucky New Yorkers got to see a year or so ago, is PART TIME WIFE, a proto-screwball comedy from 1930. Parts of it were recycled in THE AWFUL TRUTH — the dog, and the lawyer bickering with his wife. Without being able to see that one, I’m left with McCarey’s early broad comedies, mostly starring clowns like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Bros, Mae West. DUCK SOUP is a masterpiece, the rest vary, but they rarely suggest the miraculous looseness of his mature work, the stuff which reaches a pinnacle with RUGGLES OF RED GAP, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, THE AWFUL TRUTH.

INDISCREET (1931) is more interesting to me than slapdash slapstick like LET’S GO NATIVE. It stars Gloria Swanson and Ben Lyon and has a kind of melodrama plot in which Gloria has to save her little sister from marrying a louse. She knows he’s a louse because he used to be her lover. A delicate problem.

Within that framework, McCarey pulls off some engaging farce — Gloria tries to put off the wedding by planting a rumour that there’s madness in her family, and then acting the part at a swank dinner. It’s not as funny as Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant’s floozy sister Lola in THE AWFUL TRUTH, but it’s pretty good. Especially because it’s Gloria.

The climax also has Gloria trying to smuggle her way onto an ocean liner past a suspicious guard, a lovely piece of low comedy — the ghost of screwball yet to come — a great, glamorous, serious star being silly.

Cutie Barbara Kent is cute, creep Monroe Owsley is creepy, and there’s a glorious, cartoony, entirely wrong performance by Arthur Lake who would later find his spot by playing a cartoon character, Dagwood Bumstead in the BLONDIE series.

The movie was planned as a musical, but because a bunch of the 1929 crop of musicals had flopped, the studio ordered McCarey to remove all the Buddy DeSylva songs (he retained one), a shame, since Gloria had a fine operatic voice. Rewriting the script was done in a hurry, and Leo was dissatisfied with the results. These early films are often most interesting for the ways they echo the early Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase films, and anticipate the later masterpieces. But this one also shows an early near-success in McCarey’s struggle to transition from shorts to features. How to sustain the momentum in a comedy over ninety minutes? McCarey’s solution, in the end, would be to make dramas, with comic developments and tone and climaxes. THE AWFUL TRUTH is a divorce drama. MY FAVORITE WIFE is a problem play.

Reading: I got ahold of Leland Poague’s The Hollywood Professionals volume on McCarey, but didn’t care for it too much. There’s nothing about the filmmaking in it. But then I found Edinburgh University Library had a PDF of The McCarey Touch: The Life and Films of Leo McCarey by Jerome M. McKeever. It’s a marvelous overview. McKeever seems to have dug up every bit of research material possible, and his observations are astute and illuminating. This was his PhD thesis — it should be published!

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A Miss

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by dcairns

Unable to see everything showing at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival — adding up the price of tickets and the price of transport, I decided to skip last night’s show of TOGETHER, Lorenza Mazzetti’s 1956 film, described by Lindsay Anderson as an early example of Free Cinema, and tonight’s showing of King Vidor’s THE PATSY, starring Marion Davies. This decision was something of a wrench! Maud Nelissen is doing the music for the latter, along with Filmorchestra The Sprockets, and she was behind the greatest musical/cinematic spectacle of my life, Von Stroheim’s THE MERRY WIDOW in Bologna.

But I have to save money somewhere, and schlepping to Bo’ness for one movie would not be economical. Plus I have seen THE PATSY on the big screen before (though I’ve totally forgotten WHERE — I think it must have been Edinburgh Film Fest and it must have been over a decade ago. I know I saw THE SCARLET LETTER).

THE PATSY is a charmer. Maybe less ambitious than SHOW PEOPLE but funnier. Marion gets to freak out wicked stepmother Marie Dressler by pretending to be crazy, and she also performs (on the slenderest excuse) drop-dead accurate parodies of rival movie stars ~

Gloria Swanson. Mae Murray.

Lillian Gish.

Pola Negri.

This was almost a standard bit at the time — doesn’t Colleen Moore do more of less the same thing in ELLA CINDERS? Or maybe Beatrice Lillie in EXIT SMILING? I wonder how those parodied took it?

The Monday Intertitle: Barnstormers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2013 by dcairns

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In Tay Garnett’s riveting pre-code HER MAN, there’s a cameo by perennial bit-player Franklin Pangborn which may raise eyebrows. Pangborn is beloved of Preston Sturges fans and lovers of 30s and 40s movies generally for his finely-honed fruit characterisations, playing “the pansy” as comic foil, swelling more than a scene or two with his arch antics. It’s not exactly a politically-correct take on homosexuality, and of course it’s strictly coded so as not to offend the censors — Pangborn never, or almost never, has any visible other half with whom a homosexual act could ever occur, even off-camera — he’s “the only gay in the village” so that his persona exists only as a series of caricatured mannerisms. Nevertheless, everybody seems to love Franklin P, gay or straight.

What’s startling about HER MAN is that Pangborn isn’t playing it camp. “A pre-gay Pangborn” is how one amateur reviewer referred to his appearance here, and it’s a touch disconcerting to see that all-too-familiar actor suddenly disporting with unrecognizable attributes. I got the same uncanny valley feel from seeing Mischa Auer without his mellifluous Russian accent in something called SINISTER HANDS (1931), playing “Swami Yomurda.” I know these guys are comic specialists and what we see is schtick, not reality, but somehow I don’t want to see them any other way.

But this seems to be a one-off, for in EXIT SMILING (1926), the Pangborn we know and adore is present and correct, albeit silent.

Pangborn plays the butch leading man in a company of strolling players, who is naturally enough effeminate and sissified off-stage. All the familiar tropes are here — the narrowing eyes, the toss of the head, the near-perpetual air of grande-dame outrage. The following line occurs when the leading lady accidentally tumbles into his berth on the sleeper train.

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The movie’s real good too. Said leading lady is the great Beatrice Lillie, playing a role surely planned for Gloria Swanson (who excelled as a similar stage-struck drudge in STAGE-STRUCK), this being an MGM production. As good (and game!) as Swanson is, I don’t believe she could be as funny as Lillie, who is a true comedian’s comedienne, or vice-versa. I began to appreciate the brilliant things she was doing with her costumes. It soon seemed there would be a bit of amusing costume-work in every scene, from an apron that won’t stay on to a hat adorned with a pom-pom she’s just used as powder puff to apply her makeup, to a boa which she slings round her neck only to have it spontaneously unloop itself and slide down her back, affixing itself somehow to her skirt, to dangle like a skunk tail.

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This all seems like it’s going to climax with the scene where she drags up as the villain in a melodrama — twirling a moustache that comes off in her hand — but the film has a further comic set-piece up its sleeve, when she plays the vamp, and that one’s really good.

Lillie had a strange career — all the high points are decades apart. Her silent career went nowhere after this. She made a pre-code musical, ARE YOU THERE? which is now apparently lost save its soundtrack, and she starred in ON APPROVAL, forming a superb one-off double-act with an unexpectedly hilarious Clive Brook (who also directed). And then came THOROUGLY MODERN MILLIE.

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While Lillie loses something by not being able to use her precise vocals, her odd, sculptural appearance (midway between a novelty pepperpot and one of those figures who emerge from clockfaces to signal rain) and eloquent movements are all the equipment she needs to get laughs, and she may provoke a tear too. The material (story by Marc Connelly) is straightforward stuff and leading man Jack Pickford is a hair too rodent-like, but Samuel Taylor frames crisply and indulges in sweeping, formal camera moves, some of which bizarrely suggest Dario Argento in their precision. (I suppose I’m unduly influenced by an early tracking shot approaching a stage curtain and ending on a single eye peeping through a gap in the drapes.)

Taylor is mainly remembered for supposedly adding the credit “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” to his film of Shakepeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW. A shame, because he had strong comic and visual sense, even if he lacked the more common kind.

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EXIT SMILING is, happily, available to buy and would make a fine gift for the cinephile in your life: Exit Smiling The bittersweet ending is remarkable.