Archive for Jackie Cooper

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

The Bowery Inferno

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2008 by dcairns

I’d wanted to see Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY for ages, but it’s not easy to come by. I knew it was a big influence on THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, and from the sound of things, an influence on the good bits. I also knew it was racially controversial. I wasn’t quite prepared for how it would feel to watch it.

As with BIRTH OF A NATION, it hurts. You know there’s historical distance, and with a lot of things you can watch with an ironic laugh and think “Thank God we wouldn’t dream of saying THAT anymore,” but some films break right through modern irony, bypass standard-issue offense and land in a very unpleasant place where you just feel a bit ashamed of being human.

Walsh’s film is lots of fun, or nearly, and with one scene removed it might fall into the category of ironically enjoyable political incorrectness, but with that scene, the whole film is poisoned. I don’t suggest censoring it, by the way: as a historical document it’s invaluable. (My copy turns out to come from Channel Four, which means it had an uncensored UK TV screening within the last twenty or so years…

Walsh starts as he means to go on:

But this being a tale of the Naughty/Gay Nineties (inspired by the success of Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG), we can allow this crass but period-accurate detail. Walsh follows this intro with a montage of outrageous behaviour on the streets and in the drinking dives of the Bowery, and it’s energetic, fun stuff. One can see how the creation of a sort of urban wild west influenced Scorsese’s period crime epic.

When Wallace Beery shows up like a big cartoon character with a joke accent — “I takes care o’ dat meself: poisonal!” — we warm to him. When his young ward Jackie Cooper turns up, fleeing a group of “chinks” whose window he’s smashed, it’s possible to take the racial attitudes as belonging to the characters, not the film. B. Kite once observed to me that much of Walsh’s appeal lies in his strange ability to make loutish behaviour appear charming, and he generally manages it. Sometimes the characters go too far, and this adds a bracing tinge of malaise to the fun. But Cooper’s fondness for breaking windows does seem like real racism, rather than an innocent, impish desire to destroy stuff. His ballsy, pugnacious performance, pitched to the same muggish level as Beery’s, is interesting at first, so perhaps judgement is suspended — besides, there’s plenty of time yet for character development. Give the kid a chance.

“It was only a chink’s winder.” “I know, but a winder’s a winder.”

Some good clowning ensues as George Raft turns up and begins sparring with rival Beery. Oddly, this film is the only one I can think of where both stars coincidentally have character names the same as two other stars of a later era: Beery plays Chuck Connors, and George Raft plays Steve Brodie. It has the same discombobulating effect as that bit in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when Robert DeNiro uses the pseudonym “Robin Williams”.

And now comes the apocalypse from which this film never recovers. A fire breaks out in a Chinese-American tenement, and Beery and Raft’s rival fire teams compete to put it out (this scene was recreated very closely in GANGS, only without the racial element). It turns out Cooper is responsible, his flung rock having smashed a lantern. As Raft and his men arrive, Cooper is sitting on a barrel which he’s positioned to conceal the fire hydrant until Beery’s gang arrive. But when Beery and co get there, the would-be rescue devolves into a riot as the opposing fire teams take to battering each other senseless. Meanwhile distraught “chinks” gesticulate from a high-up window of the blazing building. This is becoming uncomfortable.

Dissolve to later, and both fire teams have been punched unconscious, and the building has been burned to the ground — presumably with everyone inside. It would have been very easy to have shown the denizens escaping the inferno, even if they had to jump onto an awning, or something. I mean, the joke is these firefighters who are more concerned with status than with fighting fires, so the distressed victims make a point — but the joke, for me, is ruined if anybody gets killed, and the central characters totally lose sympathy. The sequence is clearly funnier if we don’t think anybody’s been seriously harmed. But the film thinks so little of these characters — they’re basically not regarded as human beings — that it can’t be bothered with an A-Team style “mercy shot”. Furthermore, Cooper is now a mass-murderer, but this is never addressed. We’re supposed to find him loveable and not be worried about his psychopathic behaviour. Although THE BOWERY has much to commend it, and I love pre-code Hollywood filth and nastiness, I’m afraid I stopped enjoying the film at this point…

Am I losing my sense of humour here?