Archive for James Cagney

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.

Angles and Dirty Phases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2020 by dcairns
A striking inverted angle from CASTLE ON THE HUDSON

Lesser Litvaks —

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON is a remake of Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING, which I’ve never seen, though the title fascinated me as a kid. I ought to do a compare-and-contrast. I found this one a bit by-the-numbers with John Garfield as a Cagney clone. (He’s better as a complete swine in OUT OF THE FOG, his other role for this director.) It’s got a lot of punch, but lacks Litvak’s usual fluidity: too many close-ups.

It really comes alive, though, during the few minutes when Burgess Meredith comes in takes it by the throat. I’m guessing Litvak admired OF MICE AND MEN since he snapped up Burgess here and Betty Field for BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

CITY FOR CONQUEST —

“That was a book by Aben Kandel that was quite successful at the time, a book very difficult to adapt into a motion picture, because it dealt with
as enormous a city as New York is I was fascinated by the book, and had a terrible feeling, a kind of horrible ambition, about doing a picture about the city of New York that I was so terribly· impressed with from the moment I came here. It was a challenge to me, because basically I still was quite a foreigner at that time. I spent quite a while in New York, just for my basic acquaintance with the city, and the people of the city, before I started on the story.”

Writer Aben Kandel came to my attention for his involvement as screenwriter in the rather drole SING AND LIKE IT (1934) but later was mixed up in TROG and CRAZE, two ghastly low-budget horror affairs made in Britain. How he descended from being an acclaimed novelist to that dreck is an unknown but no doubt depressing story.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars the actual Cagney, along with Ann Sheridan again, and a young and unusually appealing Arthur Kennedy. Plus Elia frickin’ Kazan, during his brief stint as a Warners character player. Both his big roles were for Litvak (BLUES IN THE NIGHT is the other) and he tears up the screen. But all the characters are from stock, and typecast accordingly. One is happy to see Frank McHugh as a sidekick, but not exactly surprised. Warners specialised in cramming the screen with yammering cut-outs, but somehow in this case thing feel thin.

Cagney & Kazan!

Cagney threw himself into training to play a boxer and really felt they were adapting a great book, but he was bitterly disappointed by the end result. “I worked like a dog on City for Conquest,” he wrote, or dictated, in Cagney By Cagney, “There were some excellent passages in Kandel’s novel, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction. Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise. The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel’s skeleton. What remained was a trite melodrama.”

He’s not wrong. Worse, you can see the trailing stumps of scenes and characters that clearly needed further development for the thing to make structural sense. Frank Craven as “the old timer” is set up as a Greek chorus, an old hobo who talks to the camera, but he only appears a couple of times. I think a lot of it might still have been corny, but it could have hung together.

Litvak: “I was crazy about Jimmy Cagney, and Warner Bros. was crazy about him because he was a big star. This is for the first time when Jimmy Cagney played the part of a weak man. As you know, Jimmy Cagney mostly played — particularly at that time — tough guys, dominating tough guys. I thought — I always felt– that Jimmy was a great actor, and didn’t have to do this stereotyped kind of a fellow, this gangster he had played for years. I came with this proposition to Warners and finally they accepted it. I found that Jimmy Cagney was a bit scared of this picture. I would say that in all my career this was one of the few times when I had trouble with an actor. I explain it to myself as a strange feeling Jimmy had about the part. He was not quite sure what he was doing. But I must say that I feel (and I think the public agreed with me too, and the critics) that it was probably one of the
best things Jimmy Cagney did on the screen.”

Maybe Cagney just didn’t have the weakness in him? What co-star could convincingly intimidate him?

Cagney did ruefully note the picture’s box office success, but strongly implies that the public was wrong. I am unable to find an original source for the star’s description of Litvak as “a natural born asshole,” but going by both men’s recollections it does seem quite possible that he said it at some time. Cagney always admitted to being difficult, but only when he was trying to give a good performance and felt he was being hampered.

Interesting that Litvak doesn’t mention the film’s truncation, which he SHOULD have been unhappy about, since the mutilation is hardly invisible.

Cagney as the blinded boxer redeems it a little with his convincing physicality both as prize-fighter (his dancing background pays off) and blinded newsie — he really tries to look properly, unphotogenically disabled. And Kazan is a knockout. He’s obviously intended to form the fourth corner of a structure that interleaves Cagney, Sheridan and Kennedy’s struggles, and the reduction of his role is really frustrating because he’s so bloody good, damn him.

“I coulda been a contender, Tola…”

I’m not sure if anyone ever asked Kazan about working for Litvak. He must have learned SOMETHING about screen acting from the experience.

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON stars Porfirio Diaz; Nora Prentiss; Hildy Johnson; The Penguin; Miles Archer; Kewpie Blain; Carson Drew; Lady Macduff; Danny Leggett; Pete Daggett; Michael Axford; Bim; Detective Bates; Egeus – Father to Hermia; Louie the Lug; Dr. Leonardo; Noah Joad; and Cueball.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars George M. Cohan; Nora Prentiss; Jackson Bentley; Battling Burrows; Asa Timberlake; ‘Spud’ Connors; ‘Pusher’ Ross; Nickie Haroyen; Alexis Zorba; Effie Perine; Madame Therese De Farge; Dixie Belle Lee; Inspector Crane; Detective Bates; El Gringo; Bim; The Obtrusive Gentleman; Max Jacobs; and Cueball.

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.