Archive for Gloria Swanson

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: La La Land

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2013 by dcairns

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Title from THE EXTRA GIRL, a Mack Sennett production starring Mabel Normand and directed by F. Richard Jones, in that order.

Title is followed in the movie by a scene of indescribable chaos, as jalopies run riot in the streets and buildings and sidewalks explode with firecrackers…

Plot is a basic MERTON OF THE MOVIES swipe though the story is credited to Sennett, and he got it into cinemas a year ahead of the first official adaptation of Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman’s play. The Gloria Swanson vehicle STAGE STRUCK tread similar water another year later. Basically, the humour derives from a real star playing a no-talent small-town dreamer who WANTS to be a star.

The starting point may be derivative, and the ending is a cheesy “woman, know your place” homily with Normand finding happiness in motherhood rather than a career, but there’s a pretty impressive climax with a lion running wild in the movie studio offices, while Mabel tries to thwack it away with a feather duster. You don’t see that every day.

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Actually, it’s not even the climax — the film unwisely tries to top it. Sennett never did have much structural sense, even in shorts. But not only does the lion sequence impress with its physical reality (no tricks), and serve up some delicious comedy of terror in the best Harold Lloyd manner, but nearly every image in it has a beauty-and-oddity shock effect, as seen above.

Anyway, I’m off to L.A. at an ungodly hour tomorrow morning. on secret business. I’ll try to keep you posted on what goes on there. Hopefully they’ll have the lion problem well in hand by now.

Another version of MERTON.

Buy this: 

The Sunday Intertitle: Marion of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2013 by dcairns

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Round at Marvelous Mary’s for steak pie, and sought to follow-up our previous screening of Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER with something more modern. We tried my disc of THE PALM BEACH STORY, but because Mary’s TV is stone age, the DVD player has to be connected to the TV through a VCR, and that set off the disc’s anti-piracy thingamajig, rendering the image unviewable. So we’ll have to have Mary round here to see it.

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No copy protection on SHOW PEOPLE, however. King Vidor’s comedy about going Hollywood is pretty simplistic compared to the elevated joys of Preston Sturges, but it’s truly charming. Stuffed full of guest stars, of whom we recognized John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin (because they’re named) and Doug Fairbanks, William S. Hart and King himself. Oh, and Marion Davies as Peggy Pepper gets to glimpse Marion Davies As Herself, which takes the celebrity cameo gag to a whole new level. But as you can see, there’s a lot more I should have recognized.

Leading man Billy Haynes is a convincing boy-next-door, and the whole thing spoofs Gloria Swanson pretty heartily — Davies does a killer Swanson imitation whenever she’s acting stuck up. Vidor’s visual style is tamped down, but his compositions are very crisp as always, which helps the comedy.

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The purist in me notes that despite spoofing that part of Swanson’s career when she was a reluctant participant in Keystone comedies, the movie is one of those late silent era films which gets most of its laughs with the aid of intertitles. In a way, the silents were already straining towards talk. Slapstick is celebrated in a way that’s already nostalgic, for its simple sincerity rather than the skill of the participants. A wind of change is already rustling the stage scenery…

Insert Marion Davies boilerplate here — better at comedy, more talented than her CITIZEN KANE counterpart, etc. We recently watched BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932), a backstage melodrama notable mainly for the understated perfs director Edmund Goulding obtains from such masters of schtick as James Gleason and Zasu Pitts. (Perhaps Goulding was making up for the same year’s GRAND HOTEL, upon which nobody could possibly have imposed a unity of dramatic style.)  Davies herself is very fine in it. This had me in suspense as to how the movie would digest its Jimmy Durante cameo, since Durante underplaying was something I have trouble picturing. In the event, he explodes into the movie in full schnozz mode, and only the fact that he’s performing at a party prevents this explosion of vaudevillainy from tearing the film out of its sprockets.

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