Archive for James Dunn

Monkey with a Movie Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by dcairns

I’m not used to days that have CLIMAXES — Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN in the Piazza Maggiore with a full orchestral accompaniment was certainly one.

Mind you, the day began with OVER THE HILL, a simply brilliant Henry King drama from 1931 which showcases Fox’s mobile camera style and James Dunn’s performing. It’s a bit like MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW only with the worst son receiving a punitive ass-kicking at the end.

Dunn turned up again in HELLO, SISTER! a weird Fox romance, begun by Von Stroheim (Zasu Pitts co-stars) but finished by Edwin Burke and maybe Alan Crosland, Raoul Walsh and Alfred “I’ll finish it” Werker. The tonal shifts, which could induce whiplash in a less hardy reviewer, may be the result of surviving Stroheim footage. Romcom, slapstick, rape and an exploding tenement — half the plot and cast seem to be recycled from Borzage’s BAD GIRL. Enjoyed the mess thoroughly.

SURRENDER! was more coherent but duller. William K. Howard’s long tracking shots are among the best Fox ever had, but this was a boring story with a snoozy cast. Warner Baxter, Leila Hyams. Ralph Bellamy is somewhat amusing as a disfigured war veteran, half his face concealed beneath a black mask.

I’d been missing the Eduardo de Filippo season so was glad to catch FILUMENA MARTURANO, the 1951 original of MARRIAGE – ITALIAN STYLE. Slightly less funny than the celebrated remake, but even more emotional, thanks to Filippo and his co-star Titina de Filippo. Talented family. Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

Births, Deaths and Marriages

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2018 by dcairns

A tender-hearted boxing match for fathers — an uncanny pre-echo of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN — Coney Island in her pomp — cracker barrel philosophy — cracker barrel sociology — phony stars that aren’t phony — all in Frank Borzage’s BAD GIRL, a movie with everything except a bad girl.

Showing soon at MoMA in New York, written up today at The Forgotten.

Annie Laurie, Slight Reprise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by dcairns

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One night after being wowed by WILD RIVER, we sat down to A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Elia Kazan’s first feature. Ironically, the blue and golden light of the 1960 movie had caused me to erroneously deduce it to be photographed by Leon Shamroy, whereas ATGIB really IS shot by Shamroy, and by Kazan’s own account, the visual direction of the film is largely Shamroy’s — Kazan wasn’t technically confident at all, and so was encouraged to direct it like a play, with Shamroy figuring out how to cover it. The performances are superb, but I also wanted to compliment Kazan’s visuals, but I guess they’re Shamroy’s. (Lyle R. Wheeler’s production design is also remarkable — always a bit weird seeing huge Hollywood resources targeted at recreating poverty, and Kazan himself felt he failed to capture the real quality of slum life, which he knew well — the sets impart an epic scope which mitigates against the movie becoming depressing.)

Kazan confesses to manipulating tears from his young star, Peggy Ann Garner by discussing her father, who was in the air force, and subtly implying that he might never come back from the war. Later, when the scene required her to mourn her character’s dad, he just needed to reconnect her to that emotion, and it was unleashed. Then his producer ordered him to reshoot it because it was too raw, too mushy — filming her with her back to the camera resulted in a more discrete and affecting emotion. It’s very frequently true that the audience won’t engage with shocking displays of raw emotion — too much of the work is done for us and we can’t find space for our own reaction. I must say, my face was soaking by the end of this movie. It’s a movie with a free wash thrown in.

Kazan’s secret weapon is James Dunn as the drunken father, whose rendition of “Annie Laurie” was the only scene in the movie I knew. Kazan’s assistant Nick Ray, a lifelong alcoholic himself, spoke with immense admiration of the director’s patience in coaxing that performance out of a vulnerable man. Kazan chose Dunn because he WAS the character: once a promising star, his career had been wrecked by booze. The disappointment and sense of personal failure were written in his face. Rather cruelly, Kazan was making Dunn play himself, and making him confront his own inadequacies, but he also got from him his one really effective performance, and immortalized him.

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Most people seeing this film have never seen Dunn in anything else, but because I love pre-codes I’d seen him in SAILOR’S LUCK, THE GIRL IN 419 and TAKE A CHANCE. My impression was always one of desperation, eagerness to please that shades into mania, anxiety trying to look like charm, flop sweat personified. All those qualities can now be acknowledged and used, which allows the actor’s real charm to emerge around the edges.

Also nice — Joan Blondell, of course, a pre-code performer who was always utterly relaxed and natural, Dorothy McGuire excellent in a challenging part, the underrated Lloyd Nolan… and it’s always nice when James Gleason drops the why-I-oughta schtick (which he was so good at) and plays a human being (see also NIGHT OF THE HUNTER).

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“They should stop making films,” I said to Fiona afterwards, drying my soggy face. “After this, it’s all just noise.” I suppose I’ll get over that feeling — I have to, I’m making a film of my own — but when a film is this powerful, it puts a lot of stuff in the shade. Through a mix of blind ego and ignorance I’m able to make my little films and not worry about comparisons with the greats, most of the time, but once in a while I see something and think, “Well, I can’t even hope to touch that…”