Archive for James Cagney

Otto Pilot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2022 by dcairns

We had a strange Otto Preminger double feature of THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL and BONJOUR TRISTESSE, two of the bald auteur’s movies I’d never caught up with. I find him simply unwatchable in anything but the exactly right aspect ratio, and TCMOBM hadn’t been screened on TV in anything but wretched pan-and-scans. Seeing it in ‘Scope was a revelation — unfortunately it was a revelation of how not particularly good a film it is.

(I’ll possibly look at BONJOUR in a separate post.)

The late Billy Mitchell’s family hated the casting of Gary Cooper, saying that he was a small, explosive man, and Jimmy Cagney would have been ideal. Cagney wasn’t quite the dynamo he had been by 1955, of course, but he’d still have held the interest better than Coop. HIGH NOON would tend to suggest that he’d be a good man to suggest the character’s inner torment — basically, the lifelong military officer is forced to denounce the army’s policy toward aviation in the press, because he sees it as essential to national security. In the dock, he predicts the attack on Pearl Harbor by decades. So you could imagine Coop’s eyes revealing a lot of tension and sorrow and doubt. Doesn’t really seem to happen, though.

It’s one of those movies, also, where you know exactly what to think. Preminger is often praised today for his even-handedness, but he isn’t able to get any of that in here: Cooper’s chief opponent in the army is Charles Bickford, a competent but unlikable actor, good at unlikable roles (as in Otto’s FALLEN ANGEL). The prosecutor is played by Fred Clark, king of the fatuous falling face, hired to look astonished whenever his prosecutorial gambits collapse on him. And then they bring in the heavy hitter, top lawyer Rod Steiger, who brings all the expected chubby smarm to the role. He’s exactly the equivalent of George C. Scott’s dangerous opponent in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but Scott is wonderfully unexpected in that role, which can’t be said for Rod. As Fiona observed in astonishment back when we viewed AOAM for the first time, “My God, George is sexy, even though he’s… almost deformed.” Sexy gargoyle beats smirking dumpling.

Still, Rod brings the entertainment. Prior to his appearance, there are some future TV stars making brief appearances, but the most characterful turn is by Ralph Bellamy, whom we love, but who perhaps can’t quite add the necessary animation and engagement to a static colossus like this. As an early Cinemascope film, the movie lacks the fluidity and dynamism of later Preminger outings — lots of flat twos. His previous MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, though hampered by cheap sets, was vastly more interesting.

The correct pairing for this film would have been IN HARM’S WAY, where Billy Mitchell’s prophecy of air war comes horribly true, but that would have been a REALLY dull evening.

THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL stars Longfellow Deeds; Oliver Niles; Bruce Baldwin; Mr. Joyboy; Lizzie Borden; Sheldrake; Honorious; Felix Leiter; Captain Clarence Oveur; Carl Kolchak; J. Jonah Jameson; Ben Hubbard; Cueball; Horace Greeley (uncredited); Lover Boy; Detective Dickens; and Fanning Nelson (uncredited).

The Sunday Intertitle: OK Boomers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2021 by dcairns

Very weird double bill for our Saturday watch party — THE GOOSE WOMAN (Clarence Brown) and THE OKLAHOMA KID (Lloyd Bacon). Nothing really in common. The above was suggested as a very suitable Sunday intertitle, you can probably guess which film it’s from. Louise Dresser is speaking to Jack Pickford, America’s first rodent film star.

But OKLAHOMA KID is ram-packed with intertitles too, oddly since it’s a 1939 production. Felt good to be watching a Bacon film, since he keeps popping up in the Essanay Chaplins.

This one is famed for the surprise casting of Cagney and Bogart in a western. Shame it doesn’t have Allen Jenkins or Frank McHugh too. They basically play it like a gangster film, but since this is post-code it doesn’t have the bite and amorality: Jimmy enacts a William Hart “good bad man” arc, redemptive in nature.

The politics follow a slightly different arc: they at first seem very conventional — we’re shown Grover Cleveland (!) agreeing to (forcibly) buy Indian land he’d previously promised they could keep, but the movie seems to soft-pedal the injustice — no suggestion that the price isn’t going to be fair. But then…

CAGNEY: In the first place, the white people steal the land from the Indians, right?

CRISP: They get paid for it, don’t they?

CAGNEY: Pay for it? Yeah. A measly dollar and forty cents an acre, price agreed to at the point of a gun. Then the immigrants sweat and strain and break their hearts carving out a civilisation. Fine, great! And when they get all pretty and prosperous along come the grafters and land-grabbers and politicians, and with one hand skim off the cream and the other scoop up the gravy. Not for me. Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”

A primer in capitalism and empire-building, Warners style. Of course, Warners rarely follow through on their more radical impulses, but the movie does feature an attack on mob violence, before celebrating vigilantism of a more individualistic sort — Cagney announces he’s hauled in a wanted man. “Dead or alive?” he’s asked. “A little of each.”

And then Cagney is subsumed into civilisation and forcibly wed to Rosemary Lane (he has more luck with her than sister Priscilla). Is the film backing away from its earlier stance, or just admitting what happens to outlaws? Cagney himself went from leftist to self-described arch-conservative, so while it’s a disappointing ending it’s not necessarily dishonest, and the filmmakers probably hoped the ideas planted earlier might still germinate in moviegoers’ minds.

Funny-Walk-On

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2020 by dcairns

THE KNOCKOUT is an unusual early Chaplin because he’s only a supporting player, and yet he’s in the Tramp costume (I hesitate to say “playing the Tramp character” because said character is still forming). As successful as Charlie already was, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a big star too, in every sense. The director is Mack Sennett per the IMDb, but Wikipedia assigned the job to one Charles Avery, so it’s also an exception in that CC isn’t in charge.

Regrettably missing — the only only lost Chaplin short — is HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, made immediately before this, co-starring and co-directed by Chaplin and Mabel Normand, who evidently had a generous nature and had forgiven Chaplin for refusing to take direction back on the ironically-titled MABEL AT THE WHEEL.

Director Avery impresses at once as an incompetent, with mismatched shots of two hobos atop a freight train and a railyard bull yelling at them, but then Arbuckle enters in a fulsome medium shot, dog under one arm, and it’s quite smartly done. Luke the dog would later appear in Buster Keaton’s screen debut, THE BUTCHER BOY, and was directed by Buster in THE SCARECROW. He was a pro.

The hobos are Hank Mann (prizefighter in CITY LIGHTS), and Grover Ligon (cool science fiction name). It’s not immediately clear why the film spends so much time introducing them.

Some quirky flirtation with Minta Durfee (Roscoe’s real-life wife). Roscoe is getting screen time to develop character and display whimsical interactions which Chaplin had to fight for in his early roles. Then some roughhouse stuff with a local tough: Roscoe does that Three Stooges trick of grabbing the other fellow’s nose then slapping his own hand away. Looks painful for the nose’s owner. Did people ever really do that in street altercations?

When Roscoe turns his back, one of the ruffians starts flirting with Minta: her contemptuous reactions are quite enjoyable. Roscoe returns, and sees red: he advances into an actual close-up, which, owing to its sparse use, has tremendous force. Griffith had been doing this kind of thing in e.g. MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) and this feels like a parody of the effect.

Violence ensues. Bricks are thrown. With Fatty being so outnumbered, it feels a bit dramatic rather than merely being amusing roughhouse. Minta getting a brick in the face in closeup, no less, is actively unfunny. Seems to me Keystone films don’t always know how to integrate women into the slapstick without it seeming ugly. I mean, it’s already pretty ugly. But Fatty knocking over five men with one brick is pretty amusing.

The gang is led by Al St John and evinces skill and enthusiasm falling into a trough etc. My heart warms nostalgically at the thought of a time when men could earn an honest crust just by falling down flamboyantly and getting up again. Most of these guys had careers into the early thirties at least. Hank Mann would still be turning up as an extra in things like INHERIT THE WIND. James Cagney was blown away by his slapstick skill on THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES.

Having shown such pugilistic flair and killer instinct, Fatty is a natural to sign up for the boxing contest where the Act I hobos have just enlisted. St John, his recent rival, certainly thinks this is a swell idea. He no doubt has some cunning revenge in mind.

Fatty’s back to being an underdog, a big innocent kid tricked into the dangerous Dingville Athletic Club. Dingville must be close to Bangville, setting for BANGVILLE POLICE, the first Keystone Kop Komedy. You can tell how they got named.

Meanwhile, hearing that their prospective opponent is a large man, the two volunteer hobos head off to check out the competition. Even as Fatty is being beaten by the punchbag, prey as he is, like Chaplin, to any object that can swing to and fro. Keystone comedians are simply unable to deal with such moving parts, which always strike them (literally) as unpredictable and perhaps demonically possessed.

Fatty persuades the camera to tilt upwards coyly as he removes his overalls, an early version of the hand-over-the-lens gag in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Then he performs feats of strength that make the hobos flee in terror, even as a real prizefighter shows up (played by Edgar Kennedy with good swagger) and gives them an added shove on their way. But what were the hobos in the film for at all?

Meanwhile, Minta Durfee has disguised herself as a boy. To what end? There was a bit where she seemed to be explaining a costume change to Fatty, but I couldn’t make out why. Just so she can sit in the audience? Or just sheer, exuberant gender-fluidity?

By the way, the IMDb has Chaplin down as the writer of this thing. For decades it was bandied about that Keystone never had scripts, but several of the pesky pamphlets eventually turned up, and it now seems they would generally have a sort of rough scriptment or description of the action made up, which would allow preparation of a few special props, casting, and so on.

PART TWO

The fight approaches, and so does Chaplin, but Sennett is falling prey to his usual compulsion to cram the frame with funnymen, all fighting for our attention to no particular effect. Enter Mack Swain, with his biggest, droopiest moustache yet. He mutters a few words to the camera, but how even the most observant lipreaders can make anything of this in the shadow of his hanging face-fungus is beyond me. He’s some kind of western desperado and gambler, adding suspense by threatening to shoot Fatty if he loses.

So by the time Charlie prances in, we don’t really need him, but it’s interesting to see him try to hold our attention in this madhouse. He’s wearing the Tramp moustache and suit minus jacket, hat and cane, and he’s not playing drunk. His very energetic entrance suggests he’s been looking at some real-life referees as models for this schtick. So it’s outward bits of Tramp costume and a different character inside, maybe. Still, this may lead to some development of the Tramp…

My hopes seem dashed when he’s immediately punched unconscious. But he’s up again, just as I notice the foreshadowing of CITY LIGHTS’ boxing match. This isn’t AS choreographed, but there are certainly moments where both boxers and ref seem to be moving in sync.

Sennett can’t even give us a decent view of the ring, he insists on broadening the frame to squeeze Swain in, a character who has his own cutaways anyway where he rightly belongs. And the boxers’ teams crowd round the outskirts, dancing about. It’s lively, but it isn’t “a good clean fight” — it’s all distraction, no focus. Chaplin manages some clever moments, dragging himself along by the ropes on his backside, but he’s fighting against a sea of chaotic movement all the time.

His entire performance is delivered in a single camera set-up.

This is a longer than usual “farce comedy” so the ending gets to be bigger than usual, with Fatty stealing Mack’s six shooters and terrorizing everyone. The kops are kalled. The six shooters apparently never need reloading, a handy thing since have you ever tried reloading a pistol in boxing gloves? Come to that, ever tried firing one? You can’t, you know, with your trigger fingers tucked inside.

Skegness is so bracing.

Charlie disappears from the picture forever (a relatively light day’s work for him, excluding the “writing” which I don’t believe he had any hand in apart from devising his own moves). There’s a long, involved chase with Fatty, Kennedy and the Kops, in which it’s hard to imagine any satisfactory outcome, then Fatty and the Kops fall off a pier into the sea, the end.

What would have made this better?

Having Chaplin appear on the pier, counting Fatty out as he splashes and splutters in the brine.