Archive for Hattie McDaniel

The Sunday Intertitle: Drinks on Pete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by dcairns

In THE GREAT LIE (1941) — it’s not that great — Bette Davis and George Brent demonstrate their domestic happiness by making a home movie starring their kid. This featurette is a big-budget Hollywood affair, featuring its own intertitles, illustrated in a Norman Z. McLeod manner (i.e. crappy stick-figures), presumably by one parent or the other. It also manages to act as a metanarrative on race in Hollywood, caricaturing Hattie McDaniel in broader terms than the surrounding film itself.

 

The filmmakers attempt to simulate a projector malfunction by having the film weave off its sprockets, and then mysteriously come back with the image reversed. It would take a pretty fancy projector to achieve that, but I suppose it’s possible that George spliced the baby close-up in upside down (the big dope) and it was his rotten splice that caused the sprocket problem.

Rather than superimposing the movie afterwards using splitscreen double exposure, director Edmund Goulding and his team have done things for real, or almost: I think the movie is being rear-projected on a translucent screen embedded in the set wall, while the projector operated by Brent is merely a prop, giving a much dimmer light. But having a real image allows Goulding to move the camera, have actors block off part of the screen, etc, so it’s much more convincingly part of the scene than the usual approach.

By coincidence, we also watched PERFECT UNDERSTANDING (1933), which has its own home movie sequence, a record of the honeymoon of Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier. — a surprise teaming which actually works well. Rather than Gloria doing her grande dame bit (which in fact emerges only occasionally in her silent career, in fleeting gestures like the arm flung over the face in distressed longshot), and Larry trying to keep up with arch tongue movements or putty noses, the two try to outdo each other in naturalism, and it’s a joy seeing them bounce off one another in a loose, casual manner.

Thorold Dickinson edited this, and the director was Cyril Gardiner, a former editor who had cut Gloria’s first talkie, 1929’s THE TRESPASSER (1929) — which, come to think of it, was directed by Edmund Goulding. The honeymoon sequence is full of undercranking, dutch tilts, handheld wobble, and other devices intended to suggest amateurism, a far cry from the lavish production values of George & Bette’s polished effort.

Upside-down again! But this is used as Olivier’s POV after the home movie shows him drinking a large glass of beer. Larry and Gloria, far more sophisticated characters than George and Bette, are creatively mucking about with the technical possibilities of their cine-camera and film language. Not content with a nostalgic recreation of silent movie-making, they eschew intertitles but go full Georges Melies.

The footage is incorporated into the action in a much less ambitious way — we simply see it embedded in a screen within the screen, or rather the mere OUTLINE of such a screen. But I like how the reverse angle is shooting straight into the projector beam, a perfect Ozu-like 180º cut.

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Bette Noir

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2018 by dcairns

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.

Shadows

Posted in Dance, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2017 by dcairns

Allan Dwan’s ONE MILE TO HEAVEN (1937) got popped into the Samsung at Fiona’s suggestion — she wanted to see more Fredi Washington, and this was the seminal IMITATION OF LIFE star’s swan song. It’s an odd film — perhaps the finest cast of tulpas ever assembled.

The most prominent doppelganger was child star Joan Carroll (billed as Joan Carol for some reason, possibly to save on type). An alarmingly precise Shirley Temple clone only without the singing or acting, this moppetganger plays Fredi’s daughter, and the plot revolves around the vexed question of whether the blonde sprog could be the black woman’s natural offspring.

The second animate thought-form in the cast is Sally Blane, lookalike sister of Loretta Young, a sort of lorettaganger if you will, who turns out to be the child’s natural mother, now a wealthy socialite who believes the child dead.

The rest of the players aren’t exactly shades or walkers, but they have their uncanny aspects. the actual lead is Claire Trevor as a fast-thinking reporter, looking startlingly fresh in this pre-STAGECOACH role. Her anything-for-a-story approach actually makes her, in a sense, the heavy of the piece, threatening Fredi and little Joan’s happiness, but the film deftly distracts us from this by putting her up against a trio of flyblown heels, fellow reporters who are nasty chauvinists, forcing us to root for Claire, in a slightly conflicted way.

Also present: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who’s partly on hand to help make us believe that this is a Shirley Temple picture, partly to add to the sense of a black community, which Fiona identified as the movie’s strongest asset. Bill plays a tapdancing policeman (Dwan proves to be an inept filmer of dance, alas) — when else have you seen a black cop in a thirties movie? We also see black shopkeepers, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in unconvincing old age drag. The black people in this film aren’t train porters, maids and shoeshine boys: Fredi is a seamstress (for once, this profession is not a Code-friendly synonym for prostitution), and there’s a real sense of urban community, with the district NOT represented as a dystopian ghetto. Sentimentalizing poverty is another problem, of course, and this isn’t that more realistic than the rural black community in TALES OF MANHATTAN, but it does offer at least an alternative representation to the prevailing stereotypes of the thirties and after.

We see Robinson shuffle at the policeman’s ball, where we also meet a fresh-faced copper played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Sadly, we don’t get to see HIS act — I’m imagining either a lycanthropic quick-change routine or a magic show where he crushes rabbits INTO his hat.

I haven’t seen Robinson in anything since I was a little kid. Shirley Temple movies, like Jerry Lewis movies, seemed to be on A LOT. Interesting how Temple still connects strongly with little kid audiences (try it on your offspring, if you have any — they make a brilliant platform for cinematic experiments), and a shame how they aren’t being exposed to her. But my memory of Robinson was “old guy who dances” — he’s not old at all, just bald and, as Fiona remarked, absolutely gorgeous. His eye-rolling minstrel business IS embarrassing (Fredi was asked to do this earlier in her career and simply refused), and Dwan’s insistence on fragmenting the dance numbers into close-ups of feet (but dance happens with the WHOLE BODY) and face (but you NEED TO SEE THE FEET) is endlessly vexatious.

But but but. This lightly likable film deserves all kinds of credit for the many little ways it departs from the toxic norms of representation of its day.

Did you catch the story about the Memphis, Tennessee cinema taking off GONE WITH THE WIND due to complaints about the film’s racial insensitivity? I must admit, I kind of thought GOOD. That apologia for slavery has had a free pass for way too long. I think it should be screened — but screened kind of like the way BIRTH OF A NATION is screened, with discussion and context or at least shared awareness. It’s not AS nasty a film as BOAN, and Hattie McDaniel is a fine actor who deserves appreciation, but it’s problematic enough that simply calling it a “classic” and looking the other way never struck me as adequate.