Archive for Isabel Jewell

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

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Women of Ceiling Zero

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2009 by dcairns

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Over at ONLY THE CINEMA there’s been an Early Hawks Blog-a-thon going on, and like a slug I’ve virtually missed it. I did pop CEILING ZERO in the old VCR, but then I got distracted and didn’t really watch it. I’ve seen it before, and my general impression was that james Cagney’s moustache was a thing of horror. He hasn’t got the face for it, somehow. And it rebounded upon his characterisation in an unfortunate way, also — Cagney’s playing a zesty, reckless daredevil mailman of the air, and he does it with all the arrogant brio he’s capable of, which is A LOT, as we know. And that would be fine, because he’s Cagney and we love him, but with the moustache he’s not only the kind of jerk who flies his plane in a foolhardy manner, he does it while sporting a disfiguring hairstrip on his upper labial concourse. And that comes close to tipping him over into the realm of the appalling.

But this time round it didn’t bother me much at all. Maybe because I wasn’t actually watching.

It did strike me how strange it is that Hawks delays J.C.’s entrance for so very very long, beyond what a normal delayed entrance would be, but since everybody’s talking about Cagney before he appears, it’s all in the name of build-up. It’s just unfortunate that until then we’re left in the company of Pat O’Brien. I’ve talked before of the terrible POB Drag Effect, the lumpen-faced star’s ability to suck the lifeblood from even the zestiest scene, and it feels both boring and cruel to harp on about it, but really — the correct use for POB is surely to keep him offscreen, fully costumed, and only bring him on when things are in danger of getting just a bit to interesting.

Be that as it may, Cagney eventually shows up, a wild man of the skies with a “skippy pump” (his amusing term for a bad heart), and everything is fine and dandy, and we can see the Hawksian worldview coming together quite nicely in this one, groundwork being laid for the superior aerial mailman flick ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (that one’s magnificent, this one merely excellent), but all I can really find to say, based on a half-hearted semi-viewing of this fine work, is that it boasts a fine array of women, not all of them strictly “Hawksian”, but a nice thing about Hawks is that he doesn’t always feature the exact same female character. Even allowing for the variations created by casting, and admitting that H.H. certainly does seem to have an ideal woman in mind a lot of the time, such disparate femmes as Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, Carole Lombard in TWENTIETH CENTURY, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, and Joan Collins in LAND OF THE PHAROAHS represent a genuinely varied line-up of female characterisation, not all of them progressive and positive, but all clearly interesting enough to deserve Hawks, and our, devoted attention.

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Martha Tibbetts.

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June Travis — a real Hawksian woman.

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Isabel Jewell.

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Carol Hughes.

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Mathilde Comont.