Archive for John Cromwell Week

All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.

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Sound on Disc

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on January 2, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell was first shipped out to Hollywood when sound came in, and it was felt that men with stage experience were needed to help the dumb actors talk. Of course, these new boys knew nothing of film technique — so Cromwell was paired up with A. Edward Sutherland (the former Mr. Louise Brooks) on the theory that Sutherland knew film grammar and Cromwell knew acting. Sutherland, in fact, was probably perfectly capable of handling his actors himself, whereas within a couple of films Cromwell had surpassed his partner in composition and camera movement. You either have the gift or you don’t.

CLOSE HARMONY (1929), the first Cromwell-Sutherland film, is now missing presumed lost. Nevertheless, I have not failed you, dear Shadowplayer. Am I not the man who, when devoting a year of his life to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, managed to review Hitch’s lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, using the power of a woman’s dream? So, learning that the soundtrack of CLOSE HARMONY still survives on disc, I obtained a digital copy and sat down to enjoy it in audio form, applying my imagination to the problem of the missing mise-en-scene.

Of course, a film soundtrack, stripped of imagery, does not automatically become a coherent radio play. Not even a Kevin Smith film guarantees that. So the action of this movie takes a fair bit of mental reconstruction, and is perhaps more fraught with ambiguity than would have appeared at the time to audiences who could actually see it.

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We begin with jaunty jazz music — the credits sequence, no doubt. Sutherland & Cromwell’s names would have appeared somewhere in here, along with stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers (a star from silents, notably WINGS) and Nancy Carroll (who also starred for the duo in THE DANCE OF LIFE) and the ingratiating Jack Oakie, already a veteran. Without titles, the tune seems to go on a long time and gets awfully repetitive — maybe it also covers the opening action? Suddenly voices break in — a conductor talking to his band — we’re present at a rehearsal! The light, pleasant voice sounds like Rogers as we hear him in talkies such as FOLLOW THRU and TAKE A CHANCE. Then a snooty lady breaks in and starts berating him: “Who gave you license to turn my house into a dance hall?” So we’re not in a theatre, as I had assumed, but somebody’s home. Rogers has apparently broken in and set up an orchestra in dead of night. The homeowner is understandably upset. But then she says, inscrutably, “Remember, you got a date. A business date with ME, Saturday.” We are three minutes in and this film seems more inscrutable than INLAND EMPIRE.

What seems to be a new scene begins with a slow, repetitive thunking sound. It’s either a ticking clock or a depressed man walking downstairs. This goes on for around forty seconds, making me suspect that possibly the image track was doing most of the heavy lifting here. It’s interrupted by the call of a cuckoo, so either it was a ticking clock or the staircase has led our downhearted protagonist out into a Viennese wood. I prefer the latter option, since as far as I can tell we haven’t had any exteriors yet, and I’m prone to claustrophobia.

No sooner has the songbird fallen silent than a fight breaks out, characterised by the sound of crashing furniture. What this stuff is doing out here in the woods I can’t say, so maybe we are inside after all. After ten seconds of this Donnybrook, Rogers’ voice rings out pleasantly with the words “Evening, Mrs. Prosser, hope I didn’t disturb you.” So that possibly we were not listening to a fight. I’m not even certain this is a different scene from the first one.

Mrs. Prosser, the same woman from before, snaps at Rogers some more, and I’m forming the impression that maybe he’s trying to sneak out of his rented accommodation. Then she starts yelling “Police! Police!” which either means I’m right, or the story has taken a surprisingly dark turn. This suspicion may be supported by the fact that her voice, though undimmed in emotion, suddenly gets much quieter. It’s possible that this signals the film cutting to a long shot, but I’m leaning towards the suspicion that the dastardly Rogers has zapped Mrs. Prosser with a shrink ray. No buddy, he.

Now an Irish-American policeman starts yacking and negotiates an agreement on the rent. Many exciting dramatic possibilities — shrink rays in the Vienna woods! — collapse into a bland singularity.

Then a well-spoken girl shows up — Nancy, I think — and pays the $35 Buddy owes. I’m assuming this is the girlfriend to the rescue, but the narrative takes a more intriguing turn when the supporting cast evaporate and Buddy remarks “You don’t even know me!” This is solid storytelling — the problem has been removed, but a mystery has taken its place. And I’d rather grapple with a mysterious Nancy Carroll than a problematic $35, even if I can’t see either one.

To be continued…

The Godless

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2016 by dcairns

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I sort-of disliked THE GODDESS, even though it’s maybe John Cromwell’s last major film — his last in Hollywood — and scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky.

(Cromwell directed two more movies, a mediocre B-thriller in Hong Kong & the Philippines, THE SCAVENGERS, and a drama in Sweden, A MATTER OF MORALS starring the versatile Patrick O’Neal and shot by the mighty Sven Nykvist — I have been unable to locate a copy.)

THE GODDESS is a roman a clef about Marilyn Monroe and how she’s doomed by the loveless emptiness of her existence — made while Monroe was still alive and working.

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Apparently this movie was hacked down considerably in post — some character called George Justin gets a credit as “supervisor.” For all the talent involved, nothing seems in sync. Kim Stanley is the first problem — we have to believe her, in some way, as a teenager when we first see her (Patty Duke gives a beautiful, melancholic performance as the child version of “Emily Ann Faulkner”). She then ages to 31, Stanley’s true age during filming. It’s a cruel observation, but at no point does she suggest the allure of a screen goddess or the freshness of a newcomer.

There are two ways to go wrong with casting a Monroe-like part: you could cast someone gorgeous who can’t act, or cast a strong actor who does not evoke glamour and youth and gorgeousness. Based on THE GODDESS, the second may actually be the more serious mistake, since it throws off all the other actors, removes the motivation for most of the story.

Not to pick on Stanley too long — there’s something more interestingly amiss. Chayefsy was a writer who, justifiably, fought to get his words on the screen as written. Here’s Stanley on her way to the casting couch —

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As photographed by Arthur J. Ornitz, THE GODDESS is full of powerful, expressive wides. A real hallmark of Cromwell’s style, going back to the early thirties. We know exactly what is going to be suggested in these scene — the shot speaks so clearly of patriarchy, power, sleaze. It’s as explicit as fellatio. So the fact that the scene continues into closeups and dialogue is redundant, boring, depressing. Arguably it’s Cromwell’s fault for saying everything the scene needed to say in a single image. But the old cliché about a picture vs. a thousand words applies, doesn’t it?

Some strange line flubs from Stanley late in the show. This is when her character is supposed to be disintegrating, so somebody may have decided they would seem appropriate, excusable. But humans misspeaking sound different from actors, usually — they correct themselves, or fail to, in different ways. Only very rare actors can stumble on a line and make it seem like a natural mistake in casual speech. And Chayefsky’s stuff is so precise, and in a way non-naturalistic (all that monologuing!) it really doesn’t benefit from people tripping over their tongues.

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And oh my God the trailing hand. THAT one hasn’t been seen since Barrymore’s day, and HE was spoofing it in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

Fiona has read more on Monroe than I have, and gave the film credit for acknowledging MM’s spiritual side, a real and overlooked aspect of her life. Chayefsky is the poet of emptiness, though, and religion in the end is another crutch, useless if it can’t forge a bond between the goddess and her distant mother (Monroe’s real mother, of course, suffered mental illness). Horrifyingly, Chayefsky diagnoses exactly where Monroe is going — more pictures, because it’s all she knows to do, with the likelihood of drink or pills or both getting her in the end. In an act not even as meaningful as suicide.