Archive for Guy Kibbee

Sexy Sadie

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2014 by dcairns

Joan Crawford joins a long list of Hollywood divas who underestimated their iconic roles. Joan thought Lewis Milestone’s direction was insipid and so she gave the performance she thought right and later regretted it.

But what I want to talk about is technique. At 01.24, Milestone begins the movie proper with billowing clouds and a rainstorm beginning with single drops in closeup detail. Kind of reminds me of Antonioni’s scene without people in L’ECLISSE. Sequences like this recur in the movie, the music warning us to expect a real typhoon, either meteorological or  emotional.

At 8.32 there’s a long tracking shot — one of many — which leads us to meet Joan Crawford, the last major character to be introduced. But the point of the shot is not the long, fluid movement — a strain to achieve in early sound days — but the way it contrasts with her entrance, which is another series of details.

First, her appearance is heralded by a hurled bottle and a reject male being violently ejected from a doorway. Both have presumably been drained by Joan so she has no further use for them.

Then we get a series of delighted male faces feasting their boggling eyes on the awesome spectacle of Joan in all her glory — still unseen by us. This builds anticipation and creates a new, staccato visual rhythm. The bulbous mugs of Guy Kibbee, William Gargan &c also prepare us for something more aesthetically pleasing.

Then, rather extraordinarily, Milestone shows us a hand gripping the doorframe, another hand gripping the other side, a white heel perching on the threshold, another be-ribboned shoe positioning itself on the other side, then joined by its partner, and then —

Joan’s face slides into shot, practically Leone-close, cigarette semi-erect, lips irresistably recalling Tony Curtis in SOME LIKE IT HOT, who copied them, eyes baleful and hooded like a cobra as she leans against the doorjamb as louche as you like.

I think this is a really amazing bit of visual drama, as bold and startling in its way as Boris Karloff’s backwards shamble into view in FRANKENSTEIN the previous year. Did women scream and strong men faint at the sight of Joan’s erotic glower? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Afterwards, Milestone reluctantly allows the ecstatic fragments he’s assembled to join up and create a more cohesive space, where we can actually see where everyone is rather than just inferring it — the camera’s slight pull back relaxes the tension as Joan starts bantering with the boys.

Like the rain montage, this sequence of shots will be repeated later too, to stunning impact.

16:07 — someone puts a record on, and Milestone starts dancing the camera around the actors and the phonograph as if tied to the rotating disc by invisible wires. Long tracking shots are one thing, but this kind of move, rare right up until the invention and adoption of the steadicam, was unheard of. Probably there’s some earlier example, but I haven’t encountered it. I’m not even 100% sure HOW Milestone and cameraman Oliver T. Marsh (who already lensed this story once before for Walsh) are moving their great clunky sound camera — on tracks or on a crane or ceiling tracks maybe? The latter, which you don’t ever hear of anymore, might be it. You’ve then got the problem of concealing the crew, particularly the microphone, since the roving lens is going to take in 360º of the room.

Not that filmmakers should be applauded just for doing something difficult. What I like is that the effort is worthwhile, as it gives us initially a sense of free, gliding exuberance, literally lifting us off our feet with the music — and then when the camera stops as Mrs Mellow-Harsher starts sniping away about it being Sunday, after all, our mood turns earthbound again. Tip-top filmmaking.

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By the way, the whole thing is about sex,as embodied and conjured up by Joan’s drag-queen sensuality. You should watch it, if you haven’t already. A year of film school in under 1hr 34.

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A Dunne Deal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by dcairns

In his magnificent memoir, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, the ebullient Tay Garnett’s chief complaint about his Hollywood career seems to be the number of times he had his titles swapped on him by producers. In the case of JOY OF LIVING, which started out as JOY OF LOVING, the author of the switcheroo was the Breen Office, who objected to the perceived Lubitschian lubriciousness of the original name.

It’s an odd film — torn between the travails of Irene Dunne as a Broadway star who’s working herself into the ground to support her layabout family (who include favourites Guy Kibbee and Lucille Ball), and the romance with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who inveigles his way into her life, and the movie, coming across rather like a crazed stalker (as many romantic comedy lading men did in those days). Fairbanks also disturbs by doing Donald Duck impersonations (producers RKO also distributed Disney, so Fairbanks’ vocalisations are authentic), which makes him seem disturbingly like Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER.

For the first half, we weren’t sure this film was working at all. The Jerome Kern songs aren’t remarkable. The oppressive opening, in which Dunne is persecuted by admirers as soon as she gets off-stage, has a genuinely exhausting relentlessness (and a shot of Dunne’s face-cream, ruined by discarded cigarettes during an opening night party that’s invaded her dressing room, provoked an exclamation of sympathetic pain from Fiona), but is never actually funny, even with Eric Blore as a butler. In fact, the film throws all the character comics it can at the screen, not always effectively, BUT —

Franklin Pangborn as an orchestra conductor is great value. Garnett had used FP since silent days, and in HER MAN (1931) the comic even drops his traditional “flustered homo” persona to punch someone out. Everybody has to brawl in a Garnett movie. “Who’s Tay Garnett again?” asked Fiona. “He did HER MAN and SEVEN SINNERS, with the great brawls,” I said. “I want to see Irene Dunne brawling!” exclaimed Fiona, suddenly enthused. She got her wish!

(There’s nothing inherently funny, to our modern minds, about someone slapping a woman. Oh, I know, everyone used to think it was just great. What amuses me here is pure timing, most of it la Dunne’s. That, and Irene’s unusual reaction to each slap — there’s the beautifully judged pause, then the wise and insolent look which makes the whole affair kind of surreal, and diffuses most of the potential offense.)

When Fairbanks takes Dunne out to show her a good time on two bucks, we get drunkenness, a slapping dance, and Billy Gilbert bulging his eyes fit to pop. In Common Physical Complaints of Hollywood Character Comedians, a popular medical text of the ’40s, you can read how Gilbert once went too far in a double take on COUNTY HOSPITAL and popped his eyes right out of his head. They had to be pounded back into their sockets with small mallets, a process which took several hours. “It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole played with my face,” remarked the comic, looking like a panda afterwards.*

Garnett, a former Sennett gag-man, also finds work for his stunt-man buddies by staging an elaborate roller-skate rink sequence, featuring copious contusing pratfalls from the cast and their doubles. Gratuitous stuff like this actually gets the movie up on its feet so that by the end it feels pretty nearly successful. Not a classic, just a good fun film — a drunken Dunne makes anything worth seeing, so it wouldn’t really matter if everything outside of the beer hall was images of metal corrosion shot on dental film.

*Skeptics may point out that Whac-a-mole was introduced to games arcades in 1985, and Mr Gilbert died in 1971. “How, then, could he make that analogy?” ask the skeptics. To which I say, look at the man’s body of work. He was clearly ahead of his time.

Johnny Depot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 21, 2009 by dcairns

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It was B. Kite (a sort of psychic hologram created by the intersection of two universes) who first alerted me to the pleasures of UNION DEPOT, a short and almost preternaturally snappy Warner Bros crime flick of the pre-code variety. I expressed doubt as to any film that chooses to trumpet the word “depot” as part of its title. It’s not a spine-tingling word, that, depot.

You can’t even juice it up with more exciting attention-grabbers: VIOLENT DEPOT and NAKED DEPOT still fail to generate convincing thrills. PRINCE OF THE DEPOT, STAR-SPANGLED DEPOT and THE MAGIC DEPOT are titles that just kind of lie there. If you try too hard, BLOODFREAK DEPOT, BLAZING DEPOT and ATOMIC DEPOT are just confusing.

It’s actually a little more effective to go the other way and accompany the D word with other deadening and joyless language: PLASTICS DEPOT, WOUNDED DEPOT, SWARTHY DEPOT, BACON DEPOT and IMITATION LEATHER DEPOT start to sound positively gripping.

B. Kite told me to  just watch the damn film. Three years later, I promptly did.

A partial checklist of things in UNION DEPOT may go some way to recovering it from the rather municipal title:

1) A giant crane shot gliding through the station doors and onto the main concourse –

2) A limping, porn-obsessed mad doctor with dark glasses (a syphillitic?) who’s stalking a dancer because he wants her to read to him –

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3) Joan Blondell as the dancer (yowza!) –

4) Frank McHugh as a comedy inebriate whose suit is stolen by –

5) Vagrant Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who fits the suit perfectly despite McHugh being shaped like a kidney bean and Fairbanks like a string bean. But Fairbanks is a tough-talking criminal with a streak of honour and actually makes an exciting, unusual hero –

6) A panoply (yes! an actual panoply) of 1930s whores, yeggs, bozos and amusing ethnic types –

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Blur of deadly locomotion.

7) Two gobsmacking stunts where a man (Alan hale’s stunt double) is, first, actually HIT by an actual TRAIN, and, second, knocked UNDER a train where the camera observes him patiently waiting for it to pass over his head so he can continue his desperate flight –

8) Guy Kibbee, America’s largest rodent.

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These early Warners thrillers are doubly gripping because of the unexpectedness of the social attitudes: a crook or bad girl might get forgiven, or not, a member of a minority group might be treated with humour or pathos or derision. When we see a black porter saying goodbye to his girlfriend on the platform, it seems like a rare moment of ethnic normality in an old Hollywood film. Then her new lover alights from the train as it chugs off. Is the movie saying this is what all black women are like? Possibly it is — but then, everybody else in the film is grafting and cheating too. The world of Warners’ precode movies is cheerfully amoral, impossibly energetic, and simultaneously dark and light.

Best joke is probably the snooty woman asking a Jewish news agent if he has a Town & Country. “I did, but they took it away from me three thousand years ago.” There’s quite a lot to unpack in a joke like that.