Archive for Henry King

The Sunday Intertitle: Riders of the Purple Prose

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2019 by dcairns

Having missed Henry King’s film THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH in Bologna by rushing to the wrong cinema, I was happy to discover I own a good DVD copy of it, so we ran that.

Frances Marion adapts the script, a bit stodgily I’m afraid, and gets rather carried away with her desert similes and metaphors right at the start.

The desert, then, is a molten bowl AND an unconquered empress AND a tawny siren (more dangerous than the smaller barn siren) AND the End of the Rainbow. The desert, too, is sunk into the earth, whispers promises, and crushes out the lives of men with her poisonous embrace (?).

I recall John Huston being very dismissive of Frances Marion’s writing ability in An Open Book, which rather shocked me because I’d been taught to admire her as a powerful woman of early Hollywood. It’s true that she’s not actually great at words. Her gift was structuring the crowd-pleasing narrative.

Actually — IMDb lists Rupert Hughes as uncredited writer of the titles, which makes sense: HE was a commercial hack. It also adds Lenore Coffee, another powerful woman of early Hollywood and part of DeMille’s stable, or harem, of female writers, as another unlisted contributor.

It’s in the story structure that TWOBW adds support for Henry King’s claim to an artistic identity, since the shape Marion has hewn from “the famous novel by Harold Bell Wright” mirrors that of the later IN OLD CHICAGO to an uncanny degree.

Both films open with a fatality in covered wagon times. The child who loses a father will become protagonist (in IOC there are three children, and the child in TWOBW will lose both parents and get adopted). And both films end with a giant disaster movie climax which purges the undesirable elements (but is a bit hard on the innocent citizenry) and resolves the romantic plot (will Tyrone Power be noble enough to win Alice Faye? Will Vilma Banky chose Ronald Colman or Gary Cooper?)

Colman goggles
Cooper mans the theodolite

Both the flood in TWOBW and the great fire of IOC are extremely gratifying spectacles of mass destruction and group jeopardy. My point, however, is that probably only Henry King was thinking about the earlier film when he came to make the 1938 super-production. Therefore King deserves credit as auteur — for ripping off Marion’s structure.

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King of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by dcairns

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.

Maximum Effort

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2019 by dcairns

We started yesterday with King of the Movies — a 1978 BBC special in which the nonagenarian Henry King reminisces about his career. This accompanied an extensive BBC2 series of his films, an astonishing event to think of now. Unwisely, the show was programmed opposite an actual King film, which meant we had, for once, a relatively sparsely attended event in which the air-con could really roll up its sleeves and get down to business. The show itself was highly enjoyable, with King a terrific raconteur.

THE WARRIOR’S HUSBAND (1933) is a startling Fox film, from a Broadway play which had been a hit for Katharine Hepburn. Elissa Landi, in the lead, seems to have modeled her performance on KH, with lots of thigh-slapping and chin-jutting.

The story deals with gender war — Amazons versus Greeks — but the style is pure Loony Tunes, with “You Great Big Beautiful Doll” played on the soundtrack as Ernest Truex admires himself. Warrior women include Marjorie Rambeau and Maude Eburn (her helmet visor forever slamming shut with a cartoon twang), and David Manners turns up to show us what a real man looks like (!). Also two quick moments of interest amid the generally cheesy jokes: two black male dressmakers put their arms around each other — the comedy is blurring the lines between 1933 servant class and ancient slave class, between men performing women’s roles and men being gay, between men as female dressmakers and men as camp tailors. And then there’s Landi’s bath scene, resting chin and elbows on the brim of a huge raised bath, before throwing herself backwards into a backstroke, affording a few frames’ glimpse of what DeMille framed out in her milk bath scene with Claudette Colbert in SIGN OF THE CROSS.

Well, Fiona fell asleep in this film, which is not a distinguished picture but a very odd one. And then she did it again in TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, which is a very good Henry King picture with Gregory Peckory cast against type and compelled to do some real acting.

The early scenes contain the boldest stuff — violence, blood and dismemberment are not shown, but they’re DESCRIBED in graphic detail. Based on what I saw in MEMPHIS BELLE and THE COLD BLUE, the depiction of the US Air Force’s activities in Britain is fairly accurate. Unusually, there’s no flying stuff until near the end, when sadly the movie becomes a fruit salad of model effects, studio process shots and footage from Wyler’s aerial documentary and additional material courtesy of the Luftwaffe.

Peck’s mission is to discover what “Maximum Effort” really means — how much a flight crew can take without falling apart psychologically. Well, we had reached Maximum Effort at Bologna, after eight days, so we staggered through Buster Keaton’s MY WIFE’S RELATIONS — a version incorporating both Cohen Media’s restored footage and Lobster’s newly-discovered ending, which may never be shown again — and then collapsed back at our Airbnb.

I’m still convinced the film would work better if you put BOTH endings together, but there’s no evidence it was ever screened that way…

Today’s the last FULL day of Il Cinema Ritrovato but there are more screenings tomorrow and our flight back is on Monday. More to come.