Archive for John Cromwell

Pola to Kay

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2021 by dcairns

We watched CONFESSION (Joe May, 1937) and then discovered MAZURKA (Willi Forst, 1935) on YouTube. With subs!

Fiona had done her research and knew that the Warners picture is pretty well a shot-for-shot remake of the Cine-Allianz Tonfilmproduktions GmbH one. Warners bought the distribution rights and then instead of releasing the film, they remade it. One of the few cases of a Hollywood studio finding a foreign film so perfect they didn’t change everything around. See also Duvivier’s PEPE LE MOKO becoming John Cromwell’s ALGIERS (the musical version, CASBAH, is a slightly different story). Farrow even tried to cast actors who resembled the supporting players in Duvivier’s film. Kind of a good idea, since certain shots might only make sense with certain faces. Somebody pointed out that the very weird low angle shot of Norman Bates peering over at the motel register in PSYCHO makes sense with Anthony Perkins’ long, beaky face, and doesn’t work in at all the same way with Vince Vaughn’s big meatblock of a head.

Still, a comparison of the Duvivier with the Farrow clearly shows that everything Duvivier does works better than Cromwell’s attempts at imitation.

May is better at it — he seems to really understand why everything is the way it is, so his copying is more intelligent, somehow. Both Forst and May were Viennese and may have had a shared sensibility. Forst did make a few films after the Anschluss, always apolitical, usually musical — some give him credit for “subverting pan-Germanic Nazism” with his “ardent Vienna-Austrian topos” (Wikipedia, no source given).

Cheekily, CONFESSION even directly recycles some original footage from MAZUKRA, where no actors are involved.

Joe May’s Hollywood career was a serious come-down after his German success, though one could argue that his heyday was circa 1920 when he had his own studio and exterior lot. But his best films came in the late twenties. As an emigre, having to start over in his fifties, he couldn’t get properly started, his jobs were very intermittent, and he slid towards B pictures.CONFESSION is probably his finest moment in US film, and it’s not really his.

Image 1: a seduction. Image 2: a rape. Both from CONFESSION, but exactly similar versions appear in MAZURKA.

Still, his casting choices are good — Kay Francis isn’t an obvious replacement for Pola Negri, but she’s excellent in the part. Warners gave him access to Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp and, uh, Ian Hunter. He’s quite well-cast and does no major harm. May copies the cleverest parts — I must see more Forst! — there’s a great motif of light fittings, seen in point-of-view by girls being kissed — there’s a cunning reason for this — and enhances the odd moment with the larger resources available to him. His closing shot is a doozy, more epic and transcendent than Forst’s, though cornier —

CONFESSION is available from Warner Archive so you shouldn’t watch an old fuzzy TCM recording like we did. Even though it’s melodramatic froth, and even though it’s pretty well a clone of someone else’s film, it’s great.


Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on February 1, 2017 by dcairns

OK, time to finish this thing. CLOSE HARMONY, an early talkie which has been entirely lost apart from the talki (and music) making it genuinely, as the ads said, 100% talking. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack and trying to picture the pictures, mentally.

Now read on…

Nancy Carroll is trying to seduce apple-cheeked Jack Oakie away from his bandmates, as a vicious act of feminine sabotage. This leads to a bust-up between Oakie and “Skeets” Gallagher. The epithet “dirty double-crossing rat” is flung around, and then there’s a muted “pop” sound as of an apple-cheeked bandleader getting biffed on the snoot. It started in a simple scheme to get Charles “Buddy” Rogers a gig in the Babylon nightclub, but it has ended in… BLOODSHED.

SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ! This usually indicates a scene change in this film, although it’s just possible that some passing musicians, sighting the brawl, have launched into a number in order to provide encouragement and accompaniment to the mayhem. Oh, I recognize the tune — it’s “Running Wild”. And there’s a lot of yelling going on, so maybe my second guess was correct.


“I heard every word you said!” cries an irate Buddy — then there’s some crying from Nancy — “Wait! Let me talk to you!” The classic lover’s misunderstanding has kicked in. Buddy is upset because he thinks Nancy was sincerely romancing Oakie. If in fact he knew she was vamping Oakie in order to ruin his career for Buddy’s benefit, would he be delighted, like a true sociopath, or would he wonder what kind of fiendish girl he’s got himself involved with? I think I would feel at least a bit of a chill.

A bang, as of a cudgel descending upon a skull, then a rapidly diminishing auto engine rev and rumble. So either Buddy jumped in a car, slamming the door, and drove off, or he coshed Nancy with a length of plank and we heard the sound of a nearby vehicle diminishing to nothing as she sank into unconsciousness, an early, sophisticated example of subjective sound. This time I think my first guess is more likely to be right.

The next sound we hear is twenty seconds of audio crackle, with Nancy’s sobs breaking through in spots. This is consistent with either of the previous scenarios. Then a rumble, suggesting an elevated train more or less replaces the crackle. So I think we’ve made the transition from a scene of heartbreak to a scene of public transport. Astonishing the breadth of human experience this movie contains, even without its image track.


Now we hear the lisping, heavily accented tones of nightclub impressario Max Mindel, but we don’t hear precisely what he’s saying due to the lisping, the accent, and what could still be an elevated train. Skip it. He makes a phone call — it sounds like he’s asking for “Ben Birnham and Johnny Bakery” though no such characters appear in the cast list. Evidently he’s anxious to speak to his singers, Oakie and Gallagher. We hear a bell ring — sounding like a bicycle down a well, but apparently intended to suggest a telephone. The filmmakers show a commendable faith in their audience to figure this out, although I suppose a telephone position prominently in shot would have been of some help to the poor customers.

The word “Hello” is now spoken about ten times, and Max learns his star act has broken up.

A pause, with a sound suggestive of a rotary phone or possibly a pair of dice rattling in a cup. But it proves to be neither: it’s Charles “Buddy” Rogers, feeling sorry for himself. Not for the first time, I am impressed by his bold choices as an actor. Would Pacino have thought of using a soft rattling sound to suggest such depths of emotion? Of course he wouldn’t. He would have yelled something. Not Buddy. Nancy is consoling Buddy and maybe this is the Reconciliation Scene, in which case we can compare it to the one in King Lear. Less kneeling, more rattling.

Hitchcockian suspense as Nancy lays out her plan and a deathly silence falls, remaining fallen for some time. As it turns out, Buddy is horrified at the scheme, and when Max comes in and offers Buddy the gig, he resolves to get Oakie and Skeets back together, sacrificing his own possible career advantage for the sake of being a square guy. Buddy enunciates all of this in his best Phoebe Dinsmore English. Soon, the lads are reunited, using the term “Well I’ll take vanilla,” which speaks volumes.

But Nancy is appalled that Buddy has messed up his career prospects and their marriage prospects, and storms out. When you’ve been told off by Nancy Carroll, you know all about it. She even calls him yeller.

SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ! “Yeller, huh?” muses Buddy. CACOPHONOUS APPLAUSE. MORE SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ. I have no idea what’s going on or who’s playing. This one has some great mad percussion though. It sounds like a jazz band falling downstairs.

Then, before we can really make sense of any of that, Nancy and Buddy have their second reconciliation, very rapidly, and —



Talking, No Pictures

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on January 21, 2017 by dcairns

So, we still haven’t finished with CLOSE HARMONY, I’m afraid. The picture may be lost but I am listening to the soundtrack and relaying to you the mental images it provokes, so that this vanished early talkie can live, breathe and jump again.

Now read on…


This section opens with a loooong silence, broken occasionally by coughing or shuffling noises. It reminds me of the remix of the John Lennon track Two Minutes Silence. The guy who did a cover version had to pay royalties to Lennon for the use of the complete silence, but his “remix” on the B-side was ruled to be a completely new composition because he’d added a few little coughs.

I’m trying to get my imagination going to fill in the picture for you here but I don’t have a lot to go on. Acoustically, I’d say it’s an interior. So we’re in a room somewhere, possibly with Charles “Buddy” Rogers shuffling his feet and nursing a slight bronchial condition. Then, dialogue breaks out — we now know we’re dealing with Buddy and Nancy Carroll, but the visual aspect remains mysterious. They could be disembodied spirits floating in an ethereal void. Maybe everyone was dead all along?

Now somebody’s singing scales. Jack Oakie? Buddy’s rival combo seem to be falling out, and this seems to be the result of offscreen activities by Nancy, setting them against each other. I say “offscreen,” but everything in this movie is offscreen. I guess I should say “off-mic”.

Now a brief convo between Oakie and the fifty-foot maid, in which we learn that Nancy has stood him up. This bombshell is followed by another pensive silence, during which to be honest anything might be happening. Oakie might be strangling the fifty-foot woman in a fit of rage, or vice versa, or the scene might have ended and a new one begun in at a deserted dog race, a beached canoe or a bottling plant during a power failure. After some seconds, the aural quality of the nothing that’s happening changes, and we perceive what might be a heavy rainfall.

John Cromwell circa 1940s

John Cromwell brought to you by the miracle of photography

Cutting through the crackling spatter trills a female voice — impossible to figure from the cast list who she is, but she strikes up a chat with a glum Buddy. He thinks Nancy has jilted him because she hasn’t let him in one her plan to sow discord amid the rival band by flirting with each member in turn. WHY she hasn’t simply explained this is mysterious, unless it’s because the plan is so sleazy. Anyhow, Buddy now goes off with this other girl — at 45 minutes in, the plot is finally starting to thicken, to a nice stodgy Charles “Buddy” Rogers consistency.

Sudden loud jazz! We’re at the party where all the rival band are waiting for Nancy. “Wait? I’ll grow a beard!” remarks one. The music stops and what we take to be thunderous applause breaks out, though it sounds like an audience of sea lions. A more gentle tune begins — we’ve heard it before, it’s “All A-Twitter,” the favourite tune of America’s new president.

Buddy’s date is now mentioned by name, so we can deduce that the actor is Greta Granstedt in one of her few roles that actually has a name. The character she made a habit of playing, according to the IMDb, was “minor role,” occasionally branching out into “extra” or “blonde.” And she kept this up for 29 years. Also at the IMDb, a Jim Kalafus supplies some exciting biographical detail for Greta ~

“Greta Granstedt was the San Francisco room-mate of explorer Bessie Hyde, who vanished, under mysterious circumstances, along with her husband Glen, while attempting to become the first couple to navigate the length of the Grand Canyon solo. Miss Granstedt’s parents were aboard the liner San Juan, which sailed between San Francisco and Los Angeles, when she sank less than three minutes after colliding with a tanker. Mr. Granstedt survived, his wife did not. According to the newspapers, they were en route to L.A. to visit with their actress daughter when they were caught up in the August 1929 disaster.”

So that disaster happened the very year CLOSE HARMONY was released. We don’t know if Greta is smiling through her tears as she plays this very scene.


Greta in something else.

“Ain’t you glad you got me here all alone?” asks Oakie, suddenly, so we’re somewhere else, but not far away — we can still hear music. So I’m guessing he and Nancy have passed noiselessly through the French windows and are maybe out on some rooftop under the moonlight. Moonlight itself makes no sound, unless it sounds like Jack Oakie. I guess that’s possible. Just as, in colour movies, moonlight is portrayed as being blue, when in fact it is colourless and so dim as to render everything else colourless too, perhaps a similar convention existed in early talkies: whenever there’s moonlight, dub in some dialogue from Jack Oakie. So my impression that Oakie is in this scene in person may be a misapprehension. Perhaps Nancy is talking to the moon.

“Gee, it must be great to play on Broadway,” says Nancy, which doesn’t clear things up any. I mean, you could equally well say that to the moon as you could to Jack Oakie. If anything, the moon seems a more plausible listener. Nancy now gets her interlocutor to bad-mouth the character played by Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Oakie’s musical partner. So I’m starting to think he’s not the moon. I don’t see why the moon would have a strong opinion on Skeets. I’m also visualising Skeets listening in on this, his face aflame, ears incandescent. I think such a thing was well within his range as an actor, and if not, well, *I’m* the one visualising this picture now, so I can easily render him capable of furious jealousy worthy of Othello. Though I don’t know if he would find it more natural to project such emotion at jack Oakie or at the moon. It may be there’s no real difference.

To be concluded…