Archive for John Huston

The Sunday Intertitle: Riders of the Purple Prose

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2019 by dcairns

Having missed Henry King’s film THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH in Bologna by rushing to the wrong cinema, I was happy to discover I own a good DVD copy of it, so we ran that.

Frances Marion adapts the script, a bit stodgily I’m afraid, and gets rather carried away with her desert similes and metaphors right at the start.

The desert, then, is a molten bowl AND an unconquered empress AND a tawny siren (more dangerous than the smaller barn siren) AND the End of the Rainbow. The desert, too, is sunk into the earth, whispers promises, and crushes out the lives of men with her poisonous embrace (?).

I recall John Huston being very dismissive of Frances Marion’s writing ability in An Open Book, which rather shocked me because I’d been taught to admire her as a powerful woman of early Hollywood. It’s true that she’s not actually great at words. Her gift was structuring the crowd-pleasing narrative.

Actually — IMDb lists Rupert Hughes as uncredited writer of the titles, which makes sense: HE was a commercial hack. It also adds Lenore Coffee, another powerful woman of early Hollywood and part of DeMille’s stable, or harem, of female writers, as another unlisted contributor.

It’s in the story structure that TWOBW adds support for Henry King’s claim to an artistic identity, since the shape Marion has hewn from “the famous novel by Harold Bell Wright” mirrors that of the later IN OLD CHICAGO to an uncanny degree.

Both films open with a fatality in covered wagon times. The child who loses a father will become protagonist (in IOC there are three children, and the child in TWOBW will lose both parents and get adopted). And both films end with a giant disaster movie climax which purges the undesirable elements (but is a bit hard on the innocent citizenry) and resolves the romantic plot (will Tyrone Power be noble enough to win Alice Faye? Will Vilma Banky chose Ronald Colman or Gary Cooper?)

Colman goggles
Cooper mans the theodolite

Both the flood in TWOBW and the great fire of IOC are extremely gratifying spectacles of mass destruction and group jeopardy. My point, however, is that probably only Henry King was thinking about the earlier film when he came to make the 1938 super-production. Therefore King deserves credit as auteur — for ripping off Marion’s structure.

Advertisements

King of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by dcairns

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.

Back to Work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 5, 2019 by dcairns

The tireless work of the labourer in cinema. Got back from Bologna on Monday and recorded Anne Billson, our celebrity cat-sitter, for a video essay we’re doing on an undisclosed subject. This is our first real collaboration, though we’ve talked a lot about doing a screenplay together. It’s for Masters of Cinema but that’s all I’m saying.

The following day I recorded a VO for another video essay for another company, Arrow Video, title also undisclosed, and the next day we began editing it.

Today there’s a screening of the graduation films from Edinburgh College of Art — many of which won firsts — so I’ll be at Filmhouse later.

With all this going on, I haven’t had time to watch any films apart from those the video essays deal with, so as you may have noticed, I have nothing to say.

Oh, if you have a Criterion Channel subscriptions, you can watch my two video interviews with the great Angela Allen, who talks about her work with John Huston, Tony Richardson, Roman Polanski and Ken Russell (all of them bad boys). Photographed by my longtime collaborator Jane Scanlan and edited by Stephen C. Horne.

The picture at top is not a clue.