Archive for Jane Darwell

All Our Yesterdays

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2016 by dcairns

Yesterday I broke my record — sort of.

When I looked back on my first experience of viewing at Bologna, two years ago, I was shocked that I never made it past four screenings in a day. Studying yesterday’s program, I calculated that I could actually take in SIX shows — ultimately I managed five, but bailed on one, not because it was bad but because I was too tired to appreciate it, and it wasn’t to be my last film of the day.

I began with THE CLUTCHING FOOT’s final, mind-boggling episode, in which Jacques Feyder dabbles in comic forms which still look modern today, while spoofing the serials of the 1910s, which decidedly don’t. This episode featured genuine guest appearances by Musidora and Fernand Ledoux, and fake ones by Chaplin, Theda Bara and Max Linder.

On the same program (therefore still only counting as one item) was DE BANKROET JAZZ (THE BANKRUPTCY JAZZ), assembled in 2009 from found footage, illustrating a previously unfilmed Dadaist scenario by Paul Von Ostaijen. It had some very funny bits and some great imagery which made me want to see the sources it was culled from in their entirety. And the plot, depicting Europe in financial crisis, was timely all over. “The new national anthem: I am bankrupt / You are bankrupt / We are bankrupt / They are bankrupt.”)

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Missing works by Genino and Kazan, I was then bowled over by John Stahl’s ONLY YESTERDAY (1933), which riffs of Zweig’s Letter from An Unknown Woman, featuring tracking shots more elaborate than the Ophuls, a central performance by Margaret Sullavan more moving that Fontaine’s, and John Bole’s best work on the screen. And Franklin Pangborn is for once shown with a boyfriend. We always knew, Franklin. Startlingly, Jane Darwell plays a southern bourgeois — I didn’t recognize her until she sat in a rocking chair. Was the rocking chair written into her contract on every film, or was it an actual part of her body she could detach for short periods?

FLESH AND THE DEVIL showed off Clarence Brown’s skill, Garbo’s beauty, Gilbert’s talent and MGM’s frankly insane sexual politics. The bromance between John Gilbert and Lars Hansen is interrupted by the divine GG, apparently a professional seductress. “These bloody women, they will not leave you alone,” as Pete & Dud once reflected. She drives them to a duel, then has a last-minute religious conversion — so God kills her. He’s funny that way. Nice to see Marc McDermott comprehensively cuckolded, since he steals Lon Chaney’s wife in my favourite movie. The print was newly struck from a rediscovered but incomplete original negative, and showed both great beauty and scary decay.

My big failure was FISTS IN THE POCKET, which looked fascinating but couldn’t keep me awake — I told myself that after I’d gotten over being tired, I would kick myself for missing it, but the pain in my head was more intense than any kick. Was amused to see Marlon Brando sneak into the movie, appearing as pin-up on the leading lady’s bedroom wall (plus a framed shot of him in Nazi uniform from THE YOUNG LIONS. He’s all over this festival.

“I’m not Marlon Brando,” protests Fred Astaire in THE BANDWAGON, screened in the big Piazza from Martin Scorsese’s 35mm print. A show that is really a show sends you out in a kind of a glow. Especially after a nice lasagna.

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Necktie Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by dcairns

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Talking to Michel Ciment about the thinking behind CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stanley Kubrick gave a summary of the anti-lynching movie which serves as a fairly devastating critique of William Wellman’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (and Fritz Lang’s FURY and the rest). Most anti-lynching movies show an innocent party being lynched or almost lynched, which would never deter a real lynch mob since they are generally convinced, however erroneously, that they have the right person. In CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick chose the guiltiest character imaginable, to show that even in such an extreme case, certain human rights should be considered inalienable.

(In turn, Richard Lester devastated PATHS OF GLORY as a supposed anti-war film by pointing out that the film basically shows some corrupt and incompetent generals: “If Kirk Douglas had been leading the troops we’d all have been able to go out and kill Germans more efficiently.” Neither of these arguments stops PATHS OF GLORY or THE OX-BOW INCIDENT from being great films, though…)

What’s sensational about OX-BOW is the emotional force it builds up, the psychological acuity of its analysis of lynch-mob mentality (I’ve never been part of one but it feels true), the boldly-sketched characterisations and the generous sense of plenty. It feels like nothing was enough for his scenarists —

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Let’s not just show a lynch mob, but let’s crowd the film with characters and situations. Let’s give Hank Fonda a sweetheart who’s jilted him while he was out on the trail and has married a short-arse Napoleonic stuffed shirt; let’s have a religious black guy as the conscience of the film if we can’t actually have a black victim (lynching as a social phenomenon chiefly impacted black people in the south, always); let’s have Jane Darwell as a cackling sadist on horseback (we can hire a matte artist to paint out the rocking chair grafted to her backside); let’s make Fonda a mean drunk who picks fights and kicks a guy in the face; let’s make him totally ineffectual as hero; let’s make the victims widely disparate and not wholly noble (they are sympathetic because Dana Andrews is nice, Paul Hurst Francis Ford is pathetic, Anthony Quinn is unbelievably cool); let’s have a twisted ex-officer and his coward son he’s trying to make a man of; let’s have the coward show more backbone than Fonda.

It’s very RICH, thanks to Lamar Trotti’s writing, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s source novel (a novel is a good source precisely because it usually gives the scenarist TOO MUCH) and Wellman’s direction. At the film’s climax, a quiet scene contrasting with the violence of what would SEEM to be the climax, Fonda reads a letter. It’s a defense of the rule of law, but what makes the scene far more than an eloquent bit of preaching is Fonda’s steady performance — he’s basically re-doing his big speech from GRAPES OF WRATH, and it’s not just the cast that make the film seem very Fordian — and Wellman’s framing. This may be the best shot of his career, even factoring in Cagney’s two (two!) death scenes in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

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It could easily seem contrived. As Fonda reads, Wellman tracks in slightly — no problem with that, since a long speech almost demands some camera movement to keep it alive. Rather than cut to the various listeners, Wellman just retains Harry Morgan, Fonda’s lovable rodent sidekick, in shot, or part of him anyway.

Where we end up is with Morgan’s hat brim occluding our view of Fonda’s eyes, so that Morgan;s eyes, as they listen, have to supply the visual emotion to compliment Fonda’s reading. It’s a very simple reading — Fonda doesn’t pretend to stumble over the words, but he plays it fairly flat, like someone who’s not much of a reader. The delicacy and restraint are more powerful than reaction shots and bluster could ever make it.

The closest equivalent in terms of this identikit shot — one guy’s mouth and another guy’s eyes — is VERY different in tone and effect.

Lynch mobs exist now mainly online: some news story provokes outrage and disapproval, and the public joins in condemning somebody. Sometimes the subject is serious and worthy of discussion, sometimes it’s just a feeding frenzy. The filmmakers have usefully portrayed the behaviour of a lynch mob so that you can tell if you’re part of one. You are part of a lynch mob if you have joined a crusade and ~

1) You don’t really care.

2) The sense of outrage is secretly pleasurable.

3) It’s reassuring to be surrounded by people all het up about the same thing.

4) Appeals for calm seem threatening.

5) Anybody who suggests you’re all hysterical must be an enemy.

6) Your own guilty secrets fade from memory in the warm pleasure of denunciation.

More suggestions are welcome, I’d like to make this definitive and free of wriggle-room.

The Sunday Intertitle: Small Beer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2011 by dcairns

OK, not technically an intertitle — it’s the start of the film, and we’re still looking at the handsome leather-bound folio which is supposed, somehow, to contain the movie. The reference is to prohibition, the film is BACK STREET.

And this is what we get almost immediately after.

It’s an odd way to start a melodrama, but they were agreeably easy-osey about tonal consistency in them days. The film, starring Irene Dunne and the giant stone head of John Boles, is pretty uneven to begin with — it has a great third act, but doesn’t seem sure how to get there. So the movie throws in Jane Darwell (sitting in the rocking chair which was actually part of her body) and the development of the early automobile, and spontaneous human combustion ~

In fairness, some of this stuff turns out to have plot or character or thematic significance, but little of it seems able to perform more than one function at a time, accounting for the bitty feeling. But it’s all worth it for the devastating ending, which is pre-code in a very nice way — the movie wants us to know that unconventional relationships can, under certain circumstances, be as meaningful, or more meaningful, that church-sanctioned marriages. And that’s precisely the sort of talk the Code stamped out. Because censorship is always political.

The most emotional use of “Let me call you Sweetheart” in any film? After the tragedy, the false happy ending, an imaginary sequence which ends things on a more bittersweet note — because the audience can enjoy the moment of lightness, while still knowing that it’s not real. Apart from making this a prototype of the SOURCE CODE style quantum narrative, this brings on the bittersweet Bokononism of the intelligent Hollywood ending — the comforting lie that is recognised as such, so it stings even as it soothes.