Archive for Jules Furthman

The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to the good people at Grapevine Video for digging up YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a silent romp which stars Shadowplay favourite Raymond Griffith as comedy coroner in a vigorous deconstruction of the whodunnit genre. Jules Furthman, later collaborator with both Hawks and Sternberg (he and Ben Hecht account for the odd congruence between the two otherwise contrasting filmmakers), wrote the story, displaying the genre-busting contempt for formula and cheerfully black sense of humour later displayed in THUNDERBOLT’s death row skits. Intertitles are by Ralph Spence (“highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word”) and Robert Benchley.

Ray utilizes the famous EXTERMINATING ANGEL maneuver.

Weirdly, in a generally sympathetic section about Raymond Griffith in his The Great Movie Comedians, Leonard Maltin complains that the film’s titles aren’t funny enough. On the contrary, I find them hilarious, my only complaint being that they perhaps carry too much of the film’s humour, although as ever, Griffith’s reactions are hysterical.

Griffith plays the coroner, Mr Green, in a Tarantino-like colour-coded dramatis personae featuring Mr White, Mr Black, Inspector Brown — confirming his tendency to play cheerful ciphers in fine clothes. And he plays him like an easy-going, simple fellow who’s just been handed the job, for no reason, and is trying whatever he can think of to make a go of it.

“Which of you spoiled the gentleman’s evening?”

“Won’t he stay murdered until after the theatre?”

“Well, which of you murdered him first?”

A Columbo-like finish shows this to have been, perhaps, all an act, but I was reminded of Benchley’s essay about being suddenly saddled with the job of building the Hoover Dam. Only in a dream could such an ill-prepared character suddenly find himself in charge of a murder inquiry.

Picking up my battered copy of Benchley’s One Moment Please I found a couple of pieces under the heading Fascinating Crimes, continuing his oneiric approach to tales of detection. The Missing Floor begins with the immortal lines “It has often been pointed out that murderers are given to revisiting the scene of their crimes. The case of Edny Pastelle is the only one on record where the scene of the crime revisited the murderer.” The Strange Case of the Vermont Judiciary caused me to make startling and involuntary noises, with its deceptively gentle opening: “Residents of Water Street, Bellows Falls (Vt.), are not naturally sound sleepers, owing to the proximity of the Bellows Falls Light and Power Co. and its attendant thumpings, but fifteen years before the erection of the light-and-power plant there was nothing to disturb the slumbers of Water Streetites, with the possible exception of the bestial activities of Roscoe Erkle.”

I’ll leave you to rush out and buy a copy so you can find out what happens after those opening lines.

At any rate, I’d say Benchley’s surreal vein is much more congenial to me than his observational comedy, and this feeling of strangeness informs the action of YOU’D BE SURPRISED in a persistent way.

There’s only one Griffith in the movies, and his initials ain’t D.W.

UK: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection

US: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of his Favorites (See all Satire Books)

The Sunday Intertitle: Total Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by dcairns

Bull Montana does what Bull Montana does best.

It was Hogmanay, in Edinburgh, the most Hogmaniacal city on this particular hemisphere of the planet, and we were all set to go round to friend Nicola’s to celebrate in comfort and warmth and alcoholic haze but (1) Nicola got a stinking cold and (2) I got a stinking cold, which meant Fiona and I celebrated in front of the TV with a good film, which is my answer to any crisis anyway (my late friend Lawrie, octogenarian, frequently housebound, paralysed down one side, after watching any decent film: “Ah, life is good“).

The film chosen was VICTORY, about which you can read a bit here (am I David Bordwell’s publicist? Or just a long-distance stalker?) — apart from its many dramatic and aesthetic merits, the film may contain cinema’s earliest over-the-shoulder shot, we learn. One of the great things about the o-t-s shot is that, used sparingly, it can still seem as fresh as when Maurice Tourneur tried it out in 1919. In THE KNACK, Richard Lester avoids the standard shot-reverse-shot formula so consistently that when he does do it, near the start and near the end, it seems almost like some crazy sixties gimmick he’s come up with, along with jump-cutting the actors around a park or winding the film backwards.

VICTORY is a 9-10ths faithful 1-crucial-10th travesty of Joseph Conrad’s novel, which incidentally Lester once planned to make with a screenplay by Pinter. The Great Harold’s script perhaps short-changes us on the romantic aspect of the story, which Tourneur and his scenarist Jules Furthman (later of Sternberg-Hawks affiliation) allows more expression, as you’d expect, but they cop out on the tragic ending. The result is a slightly weird moral to the story which equates true love with homicide — both are things you apparently have to be prepared to do if you want to live a full life. Hmm.

Mmm, that Rembrandt lighting, by René Guissart, about whom I need to learn more. He shot the 20s BEN-HUR, is all I know.

BUT — the film is visually a treat, with many many striking images. Conrad’s dastardly villains are one part of his novels that the movies can really get down with — see James Mason in LORD JIM as a frinstance — and here we can exult in Wallace Beery, Lon Chaney, LOST WORLD man-myth Bull Montana and a terrifying fellow called Ben Deeley as the psycho-albino Mr Jones, who becomes somewhat less terrifying as the film progresses but starts off as the most terrifying specter I’ve ever seen in a silent movie. Scarier than Chaney!

Some primo villainous musing from Deeley and Chaney.

Nevertheless, Chaney is impressive, with an unpleasant makeup and some impressive athletic work, and that powerful presence and ability to distort his body in expressive, expressionistic ways. What a performer he was. This shouldn’t really be considered as “a Lon Chaney movie” — it’s early in his career and he has only a supporting part, but in many ways, it utterly IS — the grotesquerie and violence, faithfully transferred from Conrad (a moment where a character falls face-first into a bonfire is an unconvincing special effect but memorably wince-making all the same) seem to exact prefigure Chaney’s later stick-in-trade.

Maurice Tourneur, whose work is nearly all hard to see via legit channels, is somebody who really should be honoured with a fat box set sometime. Here’s what’s available just now in the USA — I highly recommend it all. Nothing whatever is available in the UK.

The Blue Bird

The Poor Little Rich Girl

The Last of the Mohicans (1920 – Silent)

Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, N.J. – Early Moviemaking in New Jersey

NB — if you follow the links and buy anything from Amazon, I get a percentage!

You can lead a whore to culture…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by dcairns

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MOSS ROSE is a moderately pleasing Gothic thriller, fairly predictable but enlivened by some odd casting and writing — the biggest fault in the film is also its most interesting feature. Faults are rarely as enjoyable as this one.

Peggy Cummins, the Welsh whirlwind, is Rose, a music hall chorus girl whose friend is murdered by a mysterious maniac — and by the corpse, a single flower, identified by horticulturally-inclined sleuth Vincent Price, as  a moss rose. Having reason to suspect Victor Mature, Rose behaves rather oddly — rather than rushing to Uncle Vinnie and spilling the proverbial beans, she blackmails Big Victor into inviting her down to his country home for a couple of weeks, under the very noses of his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and bride-to-be (Patricia Medina).

This is odd behaviour for a heroine. We expect Peggy to turn amateur gumshoe, following the bloody trail to the lair of the killer. Instead she exploits the crime for her own selfish ends, seeking to learn the airs and graces from miscast aristocrat Victor. The movie is like MY FAIR LADY with a body count. And indeed, the corpses keep coming, rapidly reducing the list of suspects to the point where even Scotland Yard might be able to figure it out.

Peggy Cummins is never less than endearing (except in GUN CRAZY where she’s flat-out sexy and psychopathic), and here her cuteness is enhanced by a cocker-knee accent which she rather struggles with: not that she can’t do it, but you’re conscious of the sheer effort of remembering to drop every single “H,” while adding others in so that “H” is pronounced “Haitch.” Actually, that’s how it would be pronounced in a well-ordered universe. It’s ridiculous that “H” begins with a silent “H.”

Our leading lady being a blackmailer could make for an interesting plot point if the movie had any plans for how to exploit it. If Peggy turned out to be the killer (she isn’t)… if she was a cold-blooded vamp (she isn’t supposed to be: she makes several comments about her poor dear murdered friend, invested with all the emotion actress and writers can muster)… if she was secretly working for the police (she isn’t)… One expects, in the days when the Production Code reigned supreme, that P.C. would get some kind of ironic comeuppance for her actions, but even on that score the film shows no signs of acknowledging the oddity of her scheme. Quite apart from the morality angle, it’s a little peculiar that she doesn’t feel herself to be in any danger from the man she believes murdered her friend.

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I was reminded of the Douglas Sirk noir SHOCKPROOF, based on a mangled Sam Fuller script, where the hero is a parole officer who falls for his client, helping her jump bail, leave the state, and steal a car. Despite the Production Code, all ends happily for the disgraceful pair: after they are returned to the long arm of the law, no charges are made. Sometimes the need for a happy ending could outweigh the need for crime not paying. Some filmmakers worked hard at finding clever ways to flaunt the Code, but others apparently solved the problem with sheer stupidity. SHOCKPROOF and MOSS ROSE can both pass for morality tales if you simply fail to think about them.

Direction (adequate) by Gregory Ratoff, script (odd) by Niven Busch, Tom Reed and the great Jules Furthman, whose weird hand can perhaps be detected in these oddities.

Another minor pleasure the film offers is this bridge —

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— recognizable as the same one depicted in Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT. A set which Lang claimed did not exist. Having been forbidden by Zanuck to shoot the bridge scene, Lang set about finding a way to do it in secret and for free.

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Frame grab from The Auteurs’ Notebook.

“All we had were cobblestones on the street. Then I said, ‘Ben, I saw a railing around here that looks like a bridge.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Does it cost anything?’ He said, ‘No, that you can have.’ But we needed two, so I said, ‘How much would it cost to make a second one–at my expense?’ I think it was forty dollars. I talked with Arthur Miller–he was a genius as a cameraman–and he said it was possible to light in such a way that the background gradually faded away in the fog, so we didn’t even need a backdrop. We had the cobblestone street and we had the sidewalk, on which we put these two railings. We had a lamppost in the foreground, then a second lamppost, and we hung progressively diminishing lightbulbs–say, a 100-watt, then 80, then 50, and so on; and over the whole thing we put a little London fog. We started at four o’clock in the morning–just Ben, Arthur Miller and myself–and we fixed up this whole set. […] I shot the scene and Zanuck didn’t say a damned word about it. All he said was, ‘WHERE THE HELL’S THAT SET? I want to talk to Silvey! You keep that set and we’ll shoot a whole picture on it.’ ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Zanuck,’ said Ben, ‘there was no set.'”

Quote from Lang interview in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich.

Not for the first time, we find Lang bending the facts, although the set is undoubtedly a forced perspective illusion and there’s no backdrop. It also looks like there might only be ONE “fence” — we never see two at a time.