Archive for James Cagney

The Dirty Thirties

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2011 by dcairns

Time for another pre-code round-up. During Fiona’s nasty flu a few weeks back, we watched a bunch of early thirties Hollywood flicks — usually just over an hour long, snappy and fun, they’re easy to follow but hard to predict.

CHINATOWN NIGHTS

Not a hit with Fiona, this 1929 William A. Wellman gangland epic seems to have been a silent movie hastily sonorized: wide shots toddle along at 20 fps, with all the signs of having been post-synched: lip-flap and unconvincing background atmos galore. Meanwhile the close shots have been cheaply re-shot to incorporate dialogue.

While it’s impressive how quickly American film developed a fluid and expressive approach to filmed speech, it’s always interesting to catch them unprepared during the first couple of years: Florence Vidor, as a socialite slumming it in the Chinese ghetto, is terribly stilted, and even Wallace Beery and Warner Oland are painfully slow and careful in their enunciation. Seeing a gangster minding to sound his ‘T’s clearly is oddly dispiriting. Seeing Wallace Beery as a tong boss is plain surreal, but at least he’s not in yellowface. Somehow a big Irishman has gained control of one of the two principle gangs: no explanation for this is ever offered.

Just a few years later, and SAFE IN HELL shows Wellman at his hard-boiled peak. Dorothy McKail is supremely naturalistic, but there are as many kinds of naturalism as there are people. She seems quite unconcerned about looking pretty (Wellman hated actresses who fussed about their looks) and does odd things like continuing her dialogue while kissing Donald Cook on the lips. “Mmmff-mmf-mm!” she’ll say. Crisp enunciation is a thing of the past.

The plot sees her as a prostitute fleeing a manslaughter rap with sailor boyfriend Cook, and holing up in the one place without any extradition treaties, a repulsive tropical hell aswarm with caterpillars and fugitives from justice. These include Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Charles “Ming” Middleton and Victor Varconi, who see to it that the atmosphere of grubbiness is soon almost unbearable. Like FRISCO JENNY, this is one of Wellman’s tales of female sacrifice, and it packs quite a wallop.

Here’s the hangman’s POV of McKail.

Iris-in on neck! I’m fascinated by these survivals of silent film technique in the talking era. I don’t wonder why they’re there (at odd occasions), I wonder why they died out, since they seem to broaden the expressive possibilities of the medium. And they’re easier to achieve than tracking shots in the era of the microphone and heavily blimped camera.

Equally offbeat is Wellman’s THE PURCHASE PRICE, in which showgirl Barbara Stanwyck becomes a mail-order bride to George Brent to escape the attentions of racketeer Lyle Talbot (what a choice!). Wellman’s vision of rustic America is as rambunctious as his Warner pictures about bootleggers, hoboes and women of easy virtue. Wellman insisted on cramming his early talkies with camera movement, although it’s less flamboyant than his late silents like WINGS. He also claimed to have invented the microphone boom to facilitate this, a discovery that probably took place all over town (Dorothy Arzner is another parent to the boom) as filmmakers struggled with the medium.

Yikes.

SMART MONEY is courtesy of Alfred E Green, and is the only movie to pair Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, who turn out to have great chemistry, though Cagney has the decidedly smaller role. Robinson plays a gambling barber who builds a casino empire just by being lucky, and “dumb enough to think he’s smart.” Their interaction includes this terrific bit of pantomime –

An uncredited Boris Karloff shambles by, Evalyn Knapp and Noel Francis supply glamour of a kind (all the women are funny-looking thin blondes) and towards the end there’s the nicest image I saw all week –

Racism is very much in evidence, some of which falls under the heading of “accurate representation of 1931 American society” and some of which is just offensive. The fact that the black servants are all utterly servile and accept being called “stupid” as a matter of course is sadly credible (we never see what they’re like when the white folks aren’t looking) but the fact that the movie portrays them as stupid is just obnoxious. One character is called Suntan.

The movie is also offensive to women and dwarfs, but it takes a sympathetic line on Greeks, so I guess that’s something. Also, Edward G Robinson has a surprisingly pert bottom.

Oh come on — YOU’VE ALL THOUGHT IT!

Hollywood… or bust?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 24, 2011 by dcairns

What “Shadowplay — Live from Hollywood” really means is that I’m working on a top-secret project and therefore not free to blog very much. But I hope to still post daily updates while I’m out here, so don’t drift away! Limericks, BluRay reviews and left-over Zinnemann ephemera, including the story of MAN’S FATE…

Today I can belatedly link to an article written for The Chiseler which appeared last week, on a subject dear to my heart — the fellow pictured above. Said fellow is also profiled by Dan Callahan in another Chiseler piece which I recommend to you wholeheartedly.

Cagney: “What’re you talking about grapefruits for? I never even seen a grapefruit!”

Police chief: “Lock him up and show him a grapefruit.”

~ Dialogue from HARD TO HANDLE.

Leading Parts

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by dcairns

Drawing by Roland Topor.

After weeks of time-consuming research into the bins round the back of the leading movie studios, Shadowplay can present this exclusive look into the untold stories behind the body parts of the stars. This mission was inspired by a discussion with Mike McCarthy, filmmaker (CIGARETTE GIRL) and comic book artist, whose strip cartoon heroine Cadavra is assembled from pieces of dead movie stars. “Does she have Jayne Mansfield’s head?” I asked, immediately. “No, she has the Black Dahlia’s head,” answered Mike, looking at me as if I were crazy. I had a melancholy intuition into why Mike isn’t a millionaire. Clearly, Mansfield’s head, subject of an entirely legendary decapitation, makes a better head for Cadavra than the Black Dahlia’s. The BD, AKA Elizabeth Short, wasn’t a famous movie star, having done only one screen test, and she was sawn in half, not decapitated. Mike seemed to me to be messing about with his own premise. Still, it’s his premise.

CIGARETTE GIRL.

Considering body parts of the stars in isolation from the stars themselves is something of an obsession of mine: I’ve previously documented the post-cinematic career of Nicole Kidman’s nose, waxed lyrical on the possibilities of Stefania Sandrelli’s chin, and worried as to the possible whereabouts of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s clitoris.

With all respect to Mike, here is an alternate history of the Hollywood body part, the pitfalls and pleasures, tinsel and truncations of the life of limbs in Silver Screen City.

Laughton and his hump pictured together.

1) Charles Laughton’s hump.

Laughton and his hump formed their profitable double act in 1939 for THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and were a big hit with audiences. The Hump wanted to carry on their partnership into a series of movies — RICHARD III, JEAN DE FLORETTE, but Laughton became jealous of the attention the Hump was receiving and chose to go it alone. The Hump signed a five-year deal with MGM, but his first solo feature, I WANT YOU, BACK, was not a success, and most of his supporting role in ZIEGFELD GIRL ended up on the cutting room floor. The Hump drifted into work as a background artist, appearing as a series of hillocks and tuffets in outdoors movies of the forties, and also picked up a salary doubling for Mickey Rooney, but his days of stardom were behind him.

2) Rod Steiger’s stunt ass.

Rod Steiger’s nude scene in AL CAPONE was eventually deleted from most prints on humanitarian grounds, but the story of its inception is a remarkable one. From the beginning, Steiger and director Richard Wilson were agreed that a stand-in posterior would be needed to give Capone’s character the authority he needed. Supporting player Harley Thomsett was hired, after extensive auditioning, but his casting presented a problem. Blacklisted for his outspoken leftist views, Thomsett could not officially be hired by the studio, so he had to arrange for a friend, Buck Gough, to front for his rear. This meant that although Thomsett was the official body double, Gough was the world’s first and only body triple.

3) Orson Welles’s nose collection.

Welles has always been celebrated for his versatility, a large part of that came from his tendency to appear in a new nose with each appearance. “My own nose is nothing,” Welles would say. Each new snout would be hand-crafted by studio artists to the actor’s exacting specifications, and at the end of filming would go into Welles’ private collection. Each nose therein had its own display case and its own name, although the names did not correspond to the names of the characters the noses were designed for. Sheriff Hank Quinlan’s bloated drunkard’s schnozz, for instance, was named Sandra, for instance. The aquiline hooter worn in his television King Lear, made by cutting the corner from a shoebox,  went by the nickname Sloane Jnr. On social evenings, Welles would perform magic tricks with the noses, making them vanish, or performing a variation on the old shell game, using three noses and a garden pea.

O’Brien exercises his oral skills.

4) Pat O’Brien’s tongue

While cross-eyed Ben Turpin had his trademark strabismus insured against any unforeseen normalizing, and Betty Grable’s legs were insured for a million dollars lest shrinkage or snapping jeopardize her standing as the forces’ sweetheart, less has been written of Pat O’Brien’s tongue. This is no doubt because people don’t like to read about Pat O’Brien’s tongue. Pat O’Brien’s tongue was heavily insured against a variety of complaints including allergic reaction, hypothyroidism, acromegaly, tuberculous infiltration and tertiary syphilis. All these conditions can cause thickening of the tongue, which O’Brien feared would limit his ability to talk very rapidly, a skill to which he attributed, perhaps with some accuracy, his entire success in pictures. Less kind friends suggested that, if O’Brien was worried about his livelihood, he should forget about his stupid tongue and take out life insurance on James Cagney.

A rare image of Beyoncé with her parasitic twin, Bernard (note the face on her torso, also the third arm.

5) Beyoncé Knowles’ parasitic twin.

I have previously discussed the open secret of Beyoncé’s conjoined twin Bernard, a sentient parcel of flesh and tooth positioned to the right of the singing star’s spleen. At last it can be revealed — Bernard is actually the singer. That’s the boy whose voice you heard and loved tonight. He’s the real star of the picture. Bernard Knowles! Beyoncé just lipsynchs and moves her hips in a distracting manner.

6) Angelina Jolie’s high-heeled feet.

Movie fans got to see these medical curiosities just once, in Robert Zemeckis’ experimental exercise in conflicted response and random shouting, BEOWULF. In other movies, Angelina simply blackens the bony extrusions projecting stiletto-like from her feet, and pretends they are shoes. Or she uses a skilled foot double, Harold Chan, famed for his ladylike feet. Or she deploys modern CGI effects to paint out her unusual appendages. Ironically, Zemeckis pioneered digital effects to remove Gary Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP — using the same technology subsequently used to remove Sinise from the cinema screen altogether — but opted to go the other way with Jolie’s freakish feet. The lizardlike tail she sports in his three-dimensional flickbook is fake, however — Jolie’s own tail was considered too fluffy and unthreatening for the character.

Note camouflaged background, with Chandler’s tusks painted to blend in.

7) Jeff Chandler’s jaw.

Hunky he-man Chandler carried with him a dark secret — a rare anomaly known as a herniated jawbone, which cause coral-like encrustations of bone to project from either side of his face, like ivory handlebars. The manly star refused to have these tusks sawn off by the studio doctor, saying he found them beneficial to his love life (documents pertaining to this have been sealed for fifty years, so will have to wait for details). The skull-extensions could easily be airbrushed from publicity snaps, but for actual motion pictures, the problem was harder. Chandler suggested that he might stop making films altogether, and maintain his star presence entirely in still photographic form. In 1953, Photoplay magazine gave away Jeff Chandler masks on sticks, which audiences could hold aloft before the movie screen, transforming any character in any film into a Jeff doppelgänger, but the fad was shortlived. Eventually, traveling mattes were used to optically remove the appearance of antlers from Jeff’s jowls, and in shots where the actor appeared against blue sky, his jaw-bones were painted a matching hue to blend in. This explains the preponderance of low angle shots in his movies.

Dentally disturbed.

8) Peter Lorre’s teeth.

The Lorre teeth underwent a startling transformation a few years after the star’s arrival in Hollywood. As long as the German actor confined his appearances to Japanese or otherwise deformed characters, his mouth, an exploding cemetery of enamel fingers, was judged satisfactory. But when leading man roles beckoned, the gnashers needed fixing. After a grueling month-long series of operations, one entire extraneous tooth was removed, whittled down, and transformed into the actor William Lundigan, while the rest were realigned and hewn into humanoid appearance. A strange psychological aftereffect of this reconstruction is worth remarking upon — for years afterwards, Lorre was convinced that he had been fitted with the teeth of Nelson Eddy, and would battle a powerful urge to feast upon human flesh.

That leg.

9) Peter Weller’s leg.

To prepare for his role in ROBOCOP, the notoriously dedicated actor installed parts from a VHS toploader deck into his thigh. With the power cable trailing out amid a slew of gristle and loose skin, Weller would place a water pistol in the tape compartment and practice his quick draw. Sadly, the wound became infected and Weller risked becoming a real-life cyborg with an artificial limb, but he was spared that indignity because none of this happened.

Henry Travers with Jimmy Stewart — note the tell-tale bulge.

10) Henry Travers’ wings.

A heartwarming story to end on. When Frank Capra was casting the role of Clarence, the trainee angel in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, he was naturally intrigued by reports of a winged actor in Tinseltown. Henry Travers was eventually traced via his agent, Irving “Septic” Bazaar, and proved to be ideal for the part. Not only was a he a skilled actor with an air of sweetness and innocent wisdom, he also sprouted two voluminous, white-feathered wings from his shoulder blades. Capra realized he could strap the wings down with bandages, as had been done on WIZARD OF OZ with Judy Garland’s 33″ breasts. And at the end of the film, when Clarence gets his wings, they could be aloud to burst forth and fill the screen with their radiance, an effect not possible for Judy in 1939. Alas, the whiteness of the wings was simply too glaring to be photographed in studio conditions, and Capra reluctantly abandoned the idea. But he always maintained that it was all worth it, since the quest for an actor with feathers had led him to the perfect choice for the role. “Jesus Christ, that fucker could act,” the director reminisced fondly.

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