Archive for Herbert Brenon

The Sunday Intertitle: Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2012 by dcairns

I thought I’d watched all the silent versions of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE but I’d missed a doozy, the 1913 feature with King Baggot. K.B., who has a fantastic name, proves to be quite the performer. His Jekyll is a stiff plaster saint in the Fredric March mould, for sure, but his Hyde… OH, his Hyde!

Now we see where Jerry Lewis drew his inspiration for Professor Julius Kelp. Baggot dons a set of comedy teeth and spasms at will. Most actors playing the role have assumed that the physical transformation of one’s entire body and face, brought on by consumption of a fuming flagon of peculiar poison, would be painful, and effect their metamorphosis by writing about in agony. Baggot stands stock still and transmutes via slow dissolve into his alter ego — THEN goes into paroxysms of contortion and crouching. He plays the whole part in a crouch, buttocks scuffing the pavement as he shuffles along, like Toulouse-Lautrec with intestinal cramps.

It’s an arresting spectacle. Director Herbert Brenon assists the weirdness by framing his shots for an erect man, so that his star wriggles wormlike across the bottom of the screen, great tracts of empty discomfort occupying the frame above his head. He also inserts some wonderfully confusing intertitles, with a less-is-more approach to grammar. Nearly every bit of text provokes minutes of head-scratching, greatly enhancing the overall effect of baffling strangeness.

Rather than the “vague sense of deformity” Stevenson’s characters attest to feeling in Hyde’s presence, the supporting players here either start in horror at the mere sight of Baggot, or fail to notice him altogether as he wiggles by like a Russian dancer.

Baggot was one of those silent stars who stuck it out but wound up an extra, probably unrecognized by the new generation of actors and directors he worked with. He’s an unbilled Courtroom Spectator in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and Man on Subway in Minnelli’s THE CLOCK. I like to think that this fall from stardom was occasioned by a perverse decision to play all his rolls crouching, almost curled into a ball, hopping and staggering around and gesticulating spasmodically with splayed, twitching fingers. Sadly, that’s just a fantasy, easily disproved.

But if I say that Baggot liked to polish his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by doing his patented Mr Hyde walk over it so that the seat of his pants dusted the shiny sidewalk emblem, who among you can prove I speak false?

The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by dcairns

Actually, we don’t bother with this “Mothering Sunday” stuff in Scotland, we prefer plain old “Mother’s Day.” And I can well recall my mother’s irritation when European Union interference caused Mother’s Day and daylight saving time to fall on the same day, resulting in a pitiful 23 hour Mother’s Day.

This week’s subject is PETER PAN, Herbert Brenon’s faithful and elegant filming of JM Barrie’s play. All the pantomime artifice of the play is preserved, but augmented with charming movie tricks — thus, Tinkerbell is a flying light in longshot, but with dream-continuity becomes a tiny girl in a billowing gossamer dress when viewed more closely. Nana the dog is played by a human in dog drag, and the crocodile likewise. Anna Mae Wong is Tiger Lily, and looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. (She so often has an air of solemnity or melancholy about her.)  Everybody seems jolly, except maybe the pirates…

Leading the cutthroat crew is Edinburgh-born Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, a hissable villain with quite a scary face. A familiar one too — he played Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. He’s splendidly outfitted, with a domino ring on the finger of his good hand, and Torrence compensates for his genuinely disturbing face by doing a lot of mugging and sneering and generally letting us know that he’s in on the joke. This kind of thing works for the kids sophisticated enough to interpret, but I can imagine toddlers being terrified of him nonetheless.

In the best panto tradition, Peter is played by a girl, the disconcertingly sexy Betty Bronson (those thighs!). Mary Brian plays Wendy, a surprise to anybody whose seen her in 1930s roles like HARD TO HANDLE with Cagney or GIRL MISSING with Glenda Farrell.

It’s the gayest film there is.

Never Never Land is a sumptuous studio creation with giant mushrooms, underground dens, fake lions, and all manner of wonderment and make-believe. It’s a movie which should be revived more — any kid old enough to read the intertitles, or with someone handy to read them aloud, would get a kick out of it. Even if they couldn’t read, familiarity with the story via the Disney version or the 2003 CG-fest. The edge this one has over those later versions is that it isn’t irretrievably vulgar. (Actually, I like the Disney, but especially for the cobalt blue skies of its Edwardian London nightscapes.)

The movie is so faithful to the play, it even reproduces the famous audience participation moment where we’re all invited to clap and save Tinkerbell’s life. Betty Bronson’s appeal to camera (I mean her dramatic urging, not her pansexual attractiveness) is played with such conviction — stylised conviction, that is — it fair brings a tear to the eye.

Staying with the Scottish connection, one has to love Kelly MacDonald for saying that her favourite aspect of her own career is the outtakes from FINDING NEVERLAND in which her flying harness malfunctions as she careens through the air in a stage production of Peter Pan — she sails majestically out of shot, there’s an abrupt thud, and the camera readjusts to frame her flattened against the stage wall like Wile E. Coyote after an unsuccessful rocket-assisted lunge at the Road Runner.

Worth buying that DVD for the extras alone, but the movie itself is very sweet ~

UK: Finding Neverland [DVD] [2004]Finding Neverland [Blu-ray] [2004]

Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…

USA: Peter Pan