Archive for Harold Lloyd

The Sunday Intertitle: Switchboards and Switchbacks

Posted in FILM with tags , on March 18, 2018 by dcairns

Harold Lloyd’s Coney Island comedy NUMBER PLEASE is very good, but not quite great. It uses the classic Lloyd formula of “islands” — comic set-pieces joined by narrative chains, corresponding to Kubrick’s demand of his writers: “Just give me six non-submersible units.” Filmmaking as pontoon bridge.

Here, the joins are logical enough but the big moments still feel like they COULD be in other films. And Harold’s pushy go-getter on the make isn’t as sympathetic as his best roles, though his goal is romance and that OUGHT to be likable. The world loves a lover.


No comment.

The big scene is a protracted torture by telephone where Harold tries to get mama’s consent to date the pretty daughter, but getting past the inept switchboard operator actually takes longer than his rival’s journey overland to achieve the same goal. One can certainly identify, even if the switchboard operator of yore has gone the way of the rumble seat.

I feel that, even if we no longer require switchboard operators in our jet-age, push-button modern world of fax machines, Viewmasters and Spirographs, there should still be SOME job description that requires people to wear little trumpets on their chests. Maybe head of state?

Oh, and there’s this lovely image ~


The Sunday Intertitle: Gas-s-s-s Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2018 by dcairns

You don’t expect the disturbing from Harold Lloyd, the sunniest of the great silent comedians. The darkest business I knew of before watching RING UP THE CURTAIN was the menacing hobo in GRANDMA’S BOY, played by Dick Sutherland with considerable subhuman meanness. Critic Walter Kerr actually identified Lloyd’s unproblematic outlook as a problem: he risked blandness by being so All-American and nice and positive. The glasses helped suggest vulnerability, but as Kerr says, Keaton and Chaplin carried a shadow within them. So to avoid things getting too comfy, Lloyd heaped troubles on his character: hence those tall buildings.

RING UP THE CURTAIN is an early knockabout, when Lloyd hasn’t fully determined the parameters of his character or approach, I’d say: there was considerable flexibility in what Lloyd could embody (city swell or country boy) but he wasn’t generally loutish. In this one, he’s dressed all droog-like as a stage-hand, knocking over little people left right and centre. He tramples a dwarf, like Mr. Hyde carelessly knocking down that urchiness. There’s a romance (with Bebe Daniels) but it’s pursued with competitive toughness (Lloyd is often fiercely competitive, even later), which certainly doesn’t prepare you for him KILLING HIMSELF at the end.

Lloyd could do gags about attempted suicide and make that work fine with his persona, as did Keaton. Buster even succeeds at the end of COPS, which is a little dark and disturbing even for him. But in that case, the situation is comic and the neat structure establishes some kind of framework of APPROPRIATENESS. The Lloyd ending is just one of those random “how do we finish it?” jobs, with somebody saying, “Would it be funny if…?” and nobody else thinking of a better idea that week.

But really, Harold (and producer Hal Roach and director Alf Goulding), having your hero put his mouth to the gas nozzle and asphyxiate himself is not a socko finish.

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.