Archive for HB Warner

White Squaw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by dcairns

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Majestic as David Chierichetti’s book Hollywood Director is, and as I’ve said before it deserves to be counted among the very best filmmaker profiles ever assembled, I think perhaps it underrates BEHOLD MY WIFE, his 1934 melodrama. With its implausible and hokey plot, its Amerindian impersonations by Sylvia Sidney and Charles Middleton, and its wayward tonal shifts (any film with both a tragic defenestration AND Eric Blore as a bumbling valet has got some major ground to cover), it can’t possibly be counted among Mitchell Leisen’s best directorial efforts. But he seems to invest a lot of effort into keeping the thing afloat, maybe because it has a trip to Mexico in it and Leisen was mad about Mexico, maybe because Gene Raymond and Sylvia S seem like agreeable leads for a Leisen film.

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The show is stolen, however, by Ann Sheridan as the unfortunate defenestree, whose plunge to street level curtails her role in terms of duration: nevertheless, she packs a lot into her few minutes of screen time, ably suggesting an honest working girl all excited about her approaching nuptials to society swell Raymond, until his sister (Juliette Compton) arrives to call it off. She lies, pretending that Raymond is a serial dalliance kind of guy who enjoys toying with women’s affections. She does it with every apparent sympathy, but as Sheridan descends into powerfully rendered despair and starts sobbing, she heads for the door with an air of exultation, like a child who’s just gotten away with something deliciously naughty. A pretty hateful character, which is worth remembering when we get to the end of the movie…

With Sheridan’s powerhouse perf over with, we follow the distraught Raymond: justly blaming his family for his sweethearts death, he motors off south, drinking and driving recklessly. Cue Vorkapichian madness of spinning wheels and superimposed relatives murmuring “Disgrace!” over and over again.

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A father in every hub cap. Sexy Jesus HB Warner does his Vorkapich thing.

Crashing his roadster conveniently close to a bar, he makes the mistake of buying whiskey for an Indian (a young Dean Jagger) and gets shot for his trouble. Sylvia nurses him back to health and eventually falls in love with the rather obnoxious rich kid. Not before a deliriously sadomasochistic bullet removal scene, where she distracts him with tales of Indian torture and revenge as she digs around in his bicep with the sterilized tweezers.

Raymond marries Sydney purely to shame his family — of course he’s eventually going to realize he really loves her, but not before SS can languish in some of her trademark suffering and heartache. Leisen moves mountains to keep as at least slightly invested in Raymond, selfish prick that he is, and just about pulls it off. A third act murder may just push the story over the Precipice of Madness, but you can’t say it isn’t fun.

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Chierechetti dismisses the story as ordinary, and one can see what he means — it isn’t amazingly skilled or deeply meaningful — but what strikes one at this added historical distance is how barking mad it all is. In a sense, that’s business as usual for 1930s Hollywood, but for devotees of the peculiar, this elegantly shot (by Leon Shamroy) movie has much to commend it. Watch particularly for the moment in Sydney’s shack when the sun suddenly comes out, offscreen, and a glow sweeps across the dingy interior, illumining it with love’s radiance.

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by dcairns

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How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.

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He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)

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DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.

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DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah –

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]

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