Archive for Karl Struss

Stage Door Connie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2021 by dcairns

Talentless poet and war veteran Arthur Phelps (Conrad Nagel), blinded by an exploding cigar given him by New Mexico bar girl Poll Patchouli (Dorothy Dalton), is obsessed with French ballerina Rosa Duchene (Mildred Harris) — but Poll tricks him into marrying her by putting on an ‘Allo, ‘Allo accent — I suppose, being blind, he’s more easily fooled by her Franglais intertitles — Poll also leads him to believe that a slender volume of recipes is his poetry, accepted by a publisher at last — but when a miracle eye doctor comes to El Paso, Poll realises she must shatter Senor Phelps’ illusions by giving him his sight back — bitterly disappointed by what his restored sight shows him, Phelps divorces Poll, who sets fire to his shack in revenge, but it’s OK, in a way — he’s just struck oil and is now rich, enabling him to zoom off to Siam where Rosa is enchanting a young Prince (John Davidson) — Phelps rescues a lamb that was going to be thrown into an alligator pit as a sacrifice to buddha (bloodiest of the eastern gods) — Rosa challenges her two suitors to rescue her opera glove from the “sacred reptiles” — the Prince has a go but requires rescuing by Phelps — both Phelps and the Prince realise that Rosa is No Good and Phelps returns to the arms of Rosa, who at that moment gets stabbed by her gaucho paramour John Rodriguez (Theodore Kosloff) but the wound is non-fatal and the recuperating Poll kisses Phelps while their dog, Chum, tries to get in on the final clinch. Fade-out. Painting of a jester for no obvious reason.

That’s a condensed version of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1921 crazed romance FOOL’S PARADISE, shown at/streamed from Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. It’s what I call an epic.

I have made nothing up, distorted nothing. I’m reminded of a line in Gilliam’s BARON MUNCHAUSEN: “This is exactly the sort of thing no-one ever believes.”

“Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew,” said brother William, “and then chewing it.”

This farrago of implausibilities is visually sumptuous, with costumes by Mitchell Leisen, Clare West AND Natasha Rambova — my guess is, Rambova did the ornate ballet, Leisen may have done the exotic stuff, but he could do realism too, so that may have been West. Cinematographers Alvin Wyckoff and Karl Struss, both super-talents, shot it.

Pordenone likes to shine a light on lesser-known talents, and fest director Jay Weissberg made special mention of screenwriters Sada Cowan & Beulah Marie Dix. DeMille had this whole staple of female screenwriters who helped him target his films, very successfully, at the female cinemagoer’s heart. It is hard, at this historical distance, to imagine anyone taking this cascade of nonsense seriously, except Cecil himself. But you can imagine them enjoying it. We enjoyed it. I hadn’t seen a lot of Conrad Nagel. I feel I have now.

The Sunday Intertitle: Lamplight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2018 by dcairns

Incredibly beautiful.

I ought to be binge-watching Borzage for a project. Feels like I’m a bit behind. LUCKY STAR (1929) is one of the masterpieces Frank B. made at Fox as the silent era ended. Most famous is SEVENTH HEAVEN but STREET ANGEL and this one probably deserve to be right up there. Along with THE RIVER, which survives only as a fragment. The original titles of LUCKY STAR are lost also, so we have simple, tasteful reproductions which are probably a good deal less elaborate but at any rate don’t look jarringly anachronistic like all too many attempts to fake up authentic cards. And the film itself is in terrific shape. I’m just over half its age and I don’t look nearly so good.

Now check this out.

As Janet Gaynor hands over a lantern in this shot, you can see an electrical cable trailing from it (through the lower left window pane). But rather than get hyper-critical about the artifice (this whole film is studio artifice at its height), we should be impressed that they’ve figured out how to light a scene with a lantern, even a jerry-rigged electrical one. The great Nestor Almendros once pointed out that, for all the beauty of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) when a search party roves through the night carrying kerosene lamps, the lamps do nothing but glow faintly, far too weak to actually light the scene. Of course that film’s cinematographers, Rosher & Struss, could hardly have had a half-dozen power cables trailing from those prop lamps, since the search party are on boats. Even the lack Health & Safety culture of Hollywood’s Golden Age had to draw the line somewhere. But for LUCKY STAR, DoPs Chester M. Lyons (praised already here) and William Cooper Smith have worked out a way to have a convincing moving light source.

That lamp is obviously INCREDIBLY bright in order to light the interior: Gaynor has her eyes almost closed, trying not to be blinded, and she seems a little scared of this high voltage death-trap in her hand. Don’t blame her.

As you can probably tell, I’m not very far into this film yet, but I am impressed so far.

Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2010 by dcairns

In MURDER BY THE CLOCK, Aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) is a nasty old woman with a morbid fear of premature burial. Taking a leaf from Poe, she’s installed the family crypt with a kind of horror horn, which she can sound off should she awaken unexpectedly entombed. Meanwhile she’s changed her will, various grasping relatives are plotting her assassination, and her “idiot” son Philip (Irving Pichel) has an unhealthy obsession with murder: when she asks him what he’d like to do in life, he replies “Kill!”

I was seeing this movie as part of my ongoing odyssey to view every movie depicted within the quaint and curious A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, and it just happened to tie into Poe Week, via the premature burial theme, so it serves as a suitable aftershock of that festivity. It’s not great, but it’s from 1931 so it’s a fascinating historical artifact, showing how the fear film hadn’t yet gotten to grips with the supernatural can of worms opened by DRACULA. Here we’re in CAT AND THE CANARY terrain, with every creepy event solidly rooted in the criminal psychology of melodrama.

Apart from Mr. Pichel (above, right), who would go on to direct SHE and co-direct THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, we have clown-faced Regis Toomey, stalwart William “Stage” Boyd, and sultry Lilyan Tashman (above, left), who seduces three men into killing for her. Her husband is particularly unfortunate: strangled by Tashman’s lover, he’s revived by an adrenalin shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style, then nearly stabbed to death by the lover, and finally scared to death by the spectre of his resuscitated aunt, before he can name the man who originally throttled him. Unlucky stiff.

With its witless comedy and on-the-nose dialogue, this creaker is no classic — it makes James Whale’s often rigid FRANKENSTEIN look fluent and pacy, and lacks that movie’s moments of the sublime. But it is extremely handsome, photographed by Karl Struss in the Paramount soft-focus style, which makes for an unusual-looking horror film. Director Edward Sloman sure lives up to his surname, but obtains good perfs, especially from the sly Tashman and amiable maniac Pichel.

Seeing as how most talkies by 1931 had shed the stumbles, cracklings pauses and enunciation of the early sound misfires, I guess it was deliberate policy to play horror movies slower, for creepy atmos and suspense. Makes sense. But when it doesn’t quite work, it feels like the movie’s slipped back to 1929…