Archive for John Boles

The Gift of Life

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2013 by dcairns


Finest Christmas gift this year was the Universal Monsters Blu-Ray, which got slapped into the Maidstone player as soon as decency allowed. While Fiona was out and her brother was dozing, I previewed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, a snoozy film but a very fine transfer, with super-saturated Technicolor seeping from every frame.

Then, in the evening, FRANKENSTEIN! Roddy enjoys this one very much, and Fiona and I are big Whale fans. I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD, and now Blu. I’m not sure I’d watched it in the last ten years, though, so it all seemed quite fresh, helped by the munificent new detail…


Had we seen that the bouncy skeleton at the medical school has something clenched between his teeth? I don’t think so, and I’m still not sure what it is he’s got there: Fiona proposes a rubber surgical glove, I thought it might be a rolled-up piece of paper. You would need a screen as wide as Victor Buono’s ass to be sure, and we only have the James Coco model.


We saw the little dust-clouds stirred up by Karloff’s feet as he tries to escape. We laughed hysterically at Dwight Frye’s mood swings, his tiny walking stick which makes movement more difficult, and the way he pauses to pull up one sock before hurrying to assist at the monster’s birth. We gazed in wonderment at the sheer majestic scale of John Boles’ big dull head. We marveled at the fact that Edward Van Sloan, a Dutchman from Minnesota, choose to play a German doctor with a prissy Scottish accent.

Maybe it was the new clarity of the image, or the fact that I’d forgotten the original experience of viewing the film, or my arguable greater maturity, but the emotional arc of the movie, which is all Karloff’s, though smuggled in as a subtext beneath the romantic sufferings of Colin Clive and Mae Clarke (eyes scanning fearfully in search of approaching grapefruits) , hit home with greater clarity. I had remembered the sublime reaching for the light, and the scene by the lake with the little girl, but in isolation. I also remembered that Karloff spends a lot of the time snarling in an almost feline manner. But putting the famous moments in order and experiencing them again meant seeing how the monster moves from innocence through fear to anger. And realizing that the moment when the little girl offers him a flower inspires his first ever smile brings a lump to his throat.


Clive and Karloff stare at each other through the windmill’s central cog, and it resembles a giant wooden zoetrope: their POV’s blur into each other as the rotating timber flashes by — monster and maker become one, and mad science and cinema are conflated.

There’s also the horrible nastiness of the monster’s fate, burned to death in that windmill (he’s created in a mill too), when fire is his greatest fear. I’m glad Whale was to revive him, only slightly singed, to meet a death of his own choosing, blown to atoms. Of course Karloff played the part again, and the monster continued to lumber about after Boris kicked off his tar-spreader’s boots, but Whale’s diptych is a self-contained thing of beauty, and the characters are all finished with when he’s finished with them.

vlcsnap-2013-02-18-20h44m51s155All images come from the old DVD, I’m afraid.

Buy: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

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.

Gloria Swan Song

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2011 by dcairns

MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934) is the last film of the first phase of Gloria Swanson’s career — she would return to the screen for one movie in the early 40s, then make a more decisive, immortalizing comeback in SUNSET BLVD. Already here she’s playing an egotistical diva, a sort of light comedy sketch for the Norma Desmond to come. And one of her writers is one “Billie Wilder.”

But that isn’t even the most interesting aspect of this film, a Bavarian-set operetta-film which tries hard for charm but just misses. Joe May’s direction is solid, and maybe “solid” isn’t the word you’d want to describe a soufflé, but it’s apt here. Movie also features Douglass Montgomery (AKA Kent Douglass, in a baffling mid-career name switch), unjustly forgotten star, looking very fetching in lederhosen (literally, singing-trousers), June Lang, real-life gangster’s moll, more of less convincing as an innocent small-town gal, and John Boles as Gloria’s ham beau. Montgomery and Lang’s singing is dubbed, apparently, but the full-throated work of Swanson and Boles is their own. But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the film either.

No, what’s most interesting about the film is the way its plot intersects with that of Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID, mad twenty years later. Just as in the later film, the hero is a smalltown teacher and aspiring songwriter with an ambitious partner. Success seems to depend on winning the favour of a music biz bigshot, but romantic entanglements threaten the stability of the hero’s home life. Intriguingly, the 30s version stems from a musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, whereas Wilder credited the inspiration for the 60s iteration as Anna Bonacci’s L’Ora Della Fantasia, by way of the 1952 Lollobrigida epic WIFE FOR A NIGHT.

I’m stressing the similarities, but there are substantial differences. The showbiz star played by Dino in KMS is split in two here, with John Boles and Gloria as singing stars and partners. And it’s the pair of them who are neurotically jealous, as well as obsessively philandering, so that in a sense both of them are playing Dean Martin and Ray Walston at the same time. And rather than staying in a small Bavarian village/Climax, Nevada, the movie relocates to Vienna for its second act.

If the movie isn’t too funny, and only gestures towards the endearing, featherweight charm it wants to own, it nevertheless is put together with skill and a dash of wit, and certainly doesn’t get anywhere near the hinterland of discomfort and revulsion that makes KISS ME, STUPID so… memorable. If we look at KMS as a kind of unofficial semi-remake, it puts it in line with Wilder’s demusicalisation of IRMA LA DOUCE, as well as his refusal to make CABARET and his discomfort with THE EMPEROR WALTZ — something in Wilder’s character made him reject the musical.

This is an interesting specimen, by the way — since the characters are mostly songwriters and musical stars, pretty well all the songs emerge from the action in a more naturalistic way than we associate with the form: Boles introduces a song of seduction by telling June Lang that it’s a number from his upcoming show, but he’s changing the lyrics to suit her. To call it “meta-textual” might be overdoing things, but it sort of is