Archive for John Gilbert

The Sunday Intertitle: An Eleven Letter Word

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by dcairns

What unmentionable word is John Gilbert mentioning here in THE BIG PARADE (1925)? Not BASTARDS, surely. Too many letters. I think it must be BUTTFUCKERS.

You have to remember, it was a different era.

I first knew of this movie through Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series, which I saw on first airing some thirty-nine years ago, so it’s pretty bad that it’s taken me this long to catch up with it (and worse that I open my analysis with a sodomy joke). Sometimes the makers of that legendary series would make a film look even better than it was, by careful extraction of the juiciest morsels, and that’s sort of true here. Nearly everything involving the pastoral love affair with Renee Adoree is either a drag, or frankly incredible (not her fault). And then there’s the repulsive Karl Dane as a comic relief buddy out of Nosferatu’s worst nightmares.

But the great bits are indeed great, elevating the whole proposition to well-deserved classic status.

Vidor writes in his book that he took care to always film the advancing US army traveling from screen left to screen right, because on a map, west is left and east is right. An army going from America to Europe and then advancing should have a rightward movement — this will seem subconsciously CORRECT to an audience and if you stick to it, all confusion can be avoided. It’s a beautiful, simple, almost dumb idea.

In fact, Vidor abandons it for his most celebrated sequence, the death march through the forest. I’m not sure why. Much of the scene is purely frontal, but for the really wide shots, the army is moving right to left — maybe because that creates slightly more tension in a western audience comfortable reading text from right to left.

Vidor specified that the scene should be scored with just a slow, solo drum beat — which he had used to choreograph it during filming, his soldiers marching and dying to the rhythm. Carl Davis, rescoring the movie for Thames Silents, can’t bring himself to go THAT stark and simple, but he does allow the steady, deadly percussion to dominate.

The most impressive thing, though, is how Vidor initially keeps Death in the background.

As the men march, we slowly become aware that there are bodies strewn here and there among the fallen leaves. Gilbert has to step over one, which brings them more sharply into our consciousness. Then — BANG! — an out-of-focus figure in the background throws up his rifle and drops.

You can just see him, on his knees by Karl Dane’s elbow on the right.

Then, in a closer shot on Tom O’Brien, another one goes (far right). The closer view makes the casualty seem even more incidental, somehow. Our protagonists seem unaware of what’s happening (an ambiguity of silent cinema: surely they’d hear the gunshots?). By putting the fatalities in the background and out of focus, Vidor somehow emphasises them by refusing to emphasise them. There’s a greater quality of “Look out!” since we can see what the men cannot.

There are a lot more great moments in the film. The POV that follows, tracking towards an enemy position… It feels like this may have influenced the execution scene in PATHS OF GLORY, the hit in the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING, the climax of THE WAY AHEAD…

THE BIG PARADE stars Count Vronsky, Nag Ping, Starbuck, Wolf Larsen and Stupid McDuff.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Lust in the Dust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by dcairns

One of Bologna’s discoveries this year was Mary Nolan, who loped limply through two rather stiff early talkies, Tod “the plod” Browning’s OUTSIDE THE LAW and YOUNG DESIRE. While everybody in those films apart from snarling Eddie Robinson essays the sluggish performance style of the period, all tipsy enunciation and medicated pauses, Nolan MAKES THIS WORK. I had to see more.

I’d seen more already — Nolan is excellent in WEST OF ZANZIBAR, in which Tod does not plod, but that film is so crowded with eye-popping incident and performance that she can’t emerge pre-eminent. DESERT NIGHTS, on the other hand, is just an hour of Nolan, John Gilbert and Ernest Torrence looking at each other, surrounded by miles of nothingness. Fortunately for us, all three performers are at the top of their game, and the chemistry between them is sulphurous and sizzling.

It’s a tale of suspense and survival: diamond thieves Torrence and Nolan abduct Gilbert along with a flask of gems, and then get stranded in the Kalahari. From that point on, talented journeyman director William Nigh lets intense close-ups dominate, until you can practically feel the stubble sprouting from the men’s chins. Nolan is excused stubble, but boldly allows herself to become shiny, bedraggled and desperate. Her usual louche and limpid demeanor alternates with bursts of rather shocking savagery, and the romance with Gilbert blossoms while he’s languishing in fly-blown bondage.

The plot really isn’t much — to let romance bloom, Nolan’s bad girl is allowed an unearned redemption. Masquerading as “Lady Diana Stonehill” when we first meet her, she’s never even supplied with a true name, just “Baby.” The team of writers employed to cobble this together were being kind of lazy. But the film blazes, thanks to Gilbert’s crisp toughness (“You know me, anything in a pith helmet,” ~ THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), Nolan’s sultry, hopeless beauty (read her bio if you want to have a cry) and the unusual sight of Torrence underplaying (he’s still massive).

Film researcher/detective Lenny does an excellent Torrence impersonation. It’ll startle you!

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.”)

margaret sullavan 6

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.