Archive for John Barrymore

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by dcairns

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.

The Sunday Intertitle: Quaker Boats

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I was reminded of 1922’s DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS by a Guardian article about whaling in the movies, prompted by Opie’s recent HEART OF THE SEA. There is a great deal of whaling — actual whaling, with actual whale death, in DTTSIS, which is not surprising I guess since it’s produced by the Whaling Film Corporation. Not, I’m guessing, a hugely prolific outfit. Though the intertitles quote Moby Dick (accurately, unlike those of THE SEA BEAST, an official adaptation with John Barrymore s a sexy Ahab, later remade as an even more ludicrous talkie), the company never even got as far as doing Melville. Perhaps they could have tried adding a whaling component into popular stories of the day?

Mass cetacean snuff footage is not the only thing that makes this hard to watch in places. The movie has a part-Chinese villain, “Samuel Siggs” (Jack Baston), a yellowface stereotype who goes undercover in whiteface to seduce the heroine while defrauding her father. So it’s about the yellow peril and miscegenation nightmares in Massachusetts.

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The other reason I’d heard of it is the presence of the juvenile Clara Bow, and here at least the film isn’t appalling. Bow is a screen natural from the first, shown scrapping with a little boy, and though she doesn’t apparently know how to make a fist when fighting (that would be unfeminine), she throws herself into the action in a blur of flailing arms, porcelain features contorted in feline snarl. Hooray!

Also — Clara in drag!

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By the end she’s properly girl, in summer dress in a field of flowers, but still untamed — popping up from the petals to startle her beau and make him break all his eggs. New Bedford’s first flapper is about to be formed.

I provoked hilarity n Facebook by reproducing the credit “Personally directed by Elmer Clifton,” a branding which even seems comic when used by Griffith or Stroheim. On the forgotten Elmer it’s ludicrous. But in fact Clifton’s work is very able, setting up the life of the Quaker whalers with ethnographic precision, expressive detail shots and elegant wides. He can’t find a way to reconcile the vigorous naturalism of young Bow with the slinking melodramatics of Baston, but then the whole concept of Baston’s character is a ghastly mistake anyway.

And here’s Mr. Clifton’s name again ~

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The Monday Intertitle: Broken Hearts and Flap Shoes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The intertitle is brilliantly insane, and only enhanced by the fact that Nil Asther in this movie shares a character name with Chico Marx (no stranger to a life of self-indulgence). “Cut down on the eccentric piano playing and get a better hat and everything will be fine!”

As in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928) — reportedly his favourite of his own movies — features a scene where Chaney, in clown costume, argues with a member of the nobility over the hand of a woman. It’s a surprisingly uncommon theme in drama. It also has him in a quasi-incestuous relationship, a regular item in Chaney’s lexicon of emotional masochism — here he’s in love with his ward, teenage Loretta Young.

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Chaney, I submit, was wrong — HWGS is a much better film than LCL, which stinks of MGM “class” — but that’s not to say the later film is devoid of interest. Chaney, fifteen-year-old Loretta Young and Nils Asther make an intriguing romantic triangle, and the ending doesn’t leave any of the melodrama on the table. “Devastating” would be a fair description. But as attempts to inflate anecdotes to feature-length go (in this case it’s the one about the famous clown — usually Grock, sometimes Grimaldi, occasionally Pagliacci — who visits a doctor complaining of misery) it feels a little overstretched in places — even with substantial footage missing. Would that material have helped or hindered?

The ending (spoiler alert: it’s the ending) —

I think Chaney has been looking at Barrymore for those hand movements. Or is it the other way around?

The director is Irishman Herbert Brenon, who also did PETER PAN. He handles it well, but was reportedly a bully — Chaney took to hanging about the set even when he wasn’t needed for a scene, just to look out for Young.

You will also note that Chaplin stole practically the whole of LIMELIGHT from this movie — clown — in love with his ward — ballerina — stage fall — tragic death in clown makeup — fade out.

This regular Shadowplay feature may well be dominated by Chaney movies until Halloween — any objections?