Archive for Greta Nissen

The Sunday Intertitle: No Great Sheikh

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by dcairns

Why a Howard Hawks Week? It just seemed like fun, and there are enough films I’d enjoy revisiting and enough I haven’t seen. Hope you enjoy.

FAZIL is an unapologetic dose of orientalism, and a late silent/soundie — it has a recorded music score and occasional roughly-synched representations of sound effects such as horses’ hooves, plus a bit of vocalisation — a vague stab at the  call to prayer, and a gondolier’s song, complete with superimposed music and lyrics (as a guide for cinemas which can’t play sound yet?)

It may be Hawks’ only soundie, but I haven’t seen TRENT’S LAST CASE, although I long to. I’m a Raymond Griffith obsessive.

FAZIL stars the quite un-Hawksian Charles Farrell, best-known for his Borzage collaborations, as an unlikely sheikh, with all the barbarity such romantic figures are supposed to have. The culture-clash plot sends him to Venice, so even the film’s representation of the west is exotic and romantic. My fuzzy, grainy copy is just barely good enough to let you see that this is a beautifully photographed film: lots of soft lighting and soft focus and shallow focus. It’s shot by L. William O’Connell, who lensed A GIRL IN EVERY PORT for Hawks the same year, alongside Murnau’s now-lost FOUR DEVILS. Yet he seems to slide into B-pictures as soon as sound arrives, his only big picture being SCARFACE, where he’s paired with Lee Garmes who usually gets credit for the more interesting stuff (Hawks certainly stressed Garmes’ inventiveness in interviews).

That gondolier’s song has a plot role to play, accompanying the central lovers’ first glimpse of one another, from opposite windows across a canal. Hawks crosscuts reverse angles, moving closer as the love-at-first-sight builds, and throws in tracking shots drifting past each lead from the gondolier’s point of view. It’s a very elaborate set-piece, quite removed from his usual, later low-key, apparently effortless mode of presentation. Very interesting to seen him stretch himself, as with the expressionist effects in SCARFACE.

Hollywood has already caught on to the idea of selling sheet music — so that gondolier’s ditty follows the characters about from canal to soirée. where a dissolve sweeps all the other dancers from the floor, leaving Farrell and Greta Nissen alone at last. Then the dance ends and the surrounding throng fades back into existence. There’s nothing else like this in Hawks, so it’s very interesting indeed: what one wants to balance it is some trace of the filmmaker to come.

We also get Mae Busch, always welcome, and John Boles with his huge cranium. To me he has the look of a man smuggling a busby under his scalp.

Censor-baiting screen narrative — we go from Farrell & Nissen on a gondola to her lying in bed in what’s obviously his apartment or hotel suite at dawn. Quelle scandale! Some dialogue, some kisses, and then an intertitle tells us we’ve slid from Venice to Paris during the fade-out and a newspaper headline informs us that the lovers are newly wed. Sex happens during fade-outs, but a lot more than that can go on, it seems. (“At least I had some fun with that.”)

It’s interesting that these Arab barbarian lover types are never played by actual movie tough guys — from Valentino to Novarro to Farrell, they’re all elegant rather than rugged. Farrell is a great big hunk of man, but we know he’s a softy from his other movies, and though he begins this one by having an insubordinate head scimitared off, his attempts to play the master of the house come across as petulant, the result of weakness rather than strength, and I suspect Hawks saw it that way too, frowning from behind the camera. (Actual quote from Hawks on Hawks: “Christ Almighty, can you imagine Charlie Farrell as an Arabian sheikh?”)

Big harem scene, staged as a proto-Busby Berkeley sex fantasy of flesh and art direction. The lovely Nissen — vivacious in TRANSATLANTIC but merely lovely here — comes close to swooning at the perfumed horror of all those diaphanous scanties. Remember, exoticism is racism’s sexy sister. You wouldn’t be seduced by racism… but the sexy sister? You might weaken. And be lost.

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William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.