Archive for Kay Francis

Traffic cop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2021 by dcairns

ASPHALT has a great charcoal look and is not quite a great film, I think. Because the story moves slowly without surprises. But it’s a curious cross between a Kammerspielefilm (literally, “room-talk-film”, I think) and an epic city symphony, only most if not all of the film’s Berlin is a studio construction.

Director Joe May pulls a strange trick early on: after we meet rookie cop Gustav Frohlich (wonderfully natural and boyish, a stark contrast to his hysteria in METROPOLIS) and his family, May creates an ambiguous splitscreen out of the domestic caged bird and the street traffic outside. After a fast montage of Deutsch-tilted streetcars and regular cars, he repeats the composition with Frohlich’s traffic-cop hand in the centre.

The suggestion that Frohlich resembles the bird is sort of clear — a suggestion of innocence and vulnerability? But the placement of the bird amid the traffic at first seems completely opaque in meaning. I suspect the film’s original score (this is 1929 so I imagine a big film like this would have a score written) may have created a musical connection — tweet tweet from the birdie, then toot toot from the car horns. Karl-Ernst Sasse does a great job with the film’s modern score, it’s really lovely, hire him to do your movies, but the aural connection hasn’t occurred to him.

The other thing I want to say about this film relates it to CONFESSION, probably May’s best Hollywood film, discussed here. The movie is a shot-for-shot remake of Willi Forst’s MAZURKA, except for the last shot. Now it turns out that May also stole the last shot, but from his own film, more or less. Here’s ASPHALT and CONFESSION, side by side:

ASPHALT is the more beautiful, with the foreground figure offsetting the symmetry and single-point perspective, but both shots show the heroine going off to jail, nobly. There you go, two spoilers in one!

I read a bit more about CONFESSION’s derivation. Supposedly it’s not only shot for shot, but each shot was timed to match the original, a crazy idea. Given that the films were made in different languages, matching the length of a dialogue scene with Pola Negri to one with Kay Francis would require a translation of the dialogue that comes to the same duration, or else Kay would have to speak faster or slower than Pola had. Which would make for a different effect on the viewer, whether the shot was the same length or not.

Where did the idea come from to match shot lengths? It seems like a producer’s idea: smart on the surface, dumb underneath. Not because producers are all dumb, but when they get to thinking about problems that are more naturally directorially, they can be. The reverse is also true. Joe May was a producer and a director, so it might be his idea — thinking directorially with his producer head, or vice versa. Or it could be Hal B. Wallis, a very smart guy but prone to smart guy mistakes, or Jack L. Warner. I’d like to know. The idea was new, experimental. And obviously it was discussed, maybe used in publicity, because it’s come down to us as a thing that is known. And maybe it’s not even true, just ballyhoo — I’ll need to run the two films alongside…

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.

The Daltons

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2020 by dcairns

George Marshall’s 1940 western starts with a bang: a low angle shot of a forested road, the branches forming a vertiginous-in-reverse canopy overhead, the gang riding past us, a looong whip-pan after them, landing on a reverse of the road and the gang riding off, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, as Slim Pickens would say.

Then there’s a very verbose bunch of print, all basically to tell us that what follows will be so historically inaccurate you won’t believe your eyes, and then a really nice narration by some never-identified old-timer (Ford fave Edgar Buchanan), and then it finally starts. And very rambunctious it is: does any western really need THREE surly lugs (Brian Donlevy, Broderick Crawford and George Bancroft) or two raspy goofs (Stuart Erwin and Andy Devine)? George Marshall never did like to stint on character. In fact, Bancroft and Erwin underplay so as not to clash with their co-stars.

It’s not all rootin’ and tootin’, though — Kay Fwancis is on hand, who may have tooted occasionally but certainly never lowered herself so far as to root.

Randolph falls for her, but she’s Brod’s broad. And he’s such a swell guy (all the soon-to-be bank robbers are loveable). “Why couldn’t Bob be a low-down no-account worthless Indian?” asks Mr. Scott, hypothetically. (Throwaway racism is something the movies can’t do anymore, which is mainly a good thing, but it means you can’t do lightweight period movies anymore without whitewashing away all the uncomfortable stuff that would have been there. Peter Jackson’s proposed DAMBUSTERS remake hits the rocks because the flyers gave their dog a racist name. (I think you could and should just rename the dog. Unless you’re making a serious film which notes that the raids killed 1,600 civilians and 1,000 forced labourers. If you do that, then you have to change the theme tune, I’m afraid.)

In this movie, the Dalton’s become outlaws when landgrabbers try to, well, you know. And there’s a fight and one of those guys with the narratively convenient glass skulls gets knocked down, so now it’s murder. In reality, they turned to crime after working in law enforcement and finding the horse thievery paid better. But their careers robbing trains and banks was largely disastrous. I like the sound of that movie. But in 1940 they made this kind. A shame, because I think Marshall quite liked bad guys, and would have made a good, piratical movie about them. He gets close, once things really get going here, which takes a while.

Ma Dalton is played by the great Mary Gordon, recently murdered by the Frankenstein monster and soon to take up landladying for Sherlock Holmes. The real Adeline Dalton was not only mother to most of one gang, but aunt to the Younger Gang and a cousin to Frank & Jesse James. This may be the biggest role our Mary ever had: not quite as much screentime as Randolph, but close. Because Randolph has VERY little to do, puttering impotently at the edges of the action and spending most of the climax unconscious.

Yakima Caunutt doubles Broderick to slide under a stagecoach, just as he’d done in STAGECOACH the year before. They’re figured out that giving this gag to a random Indian is less effective than giving it to a protagonist. “We’ll do it different this time,” growls Brod as he clambers aboard again to deal with the guy who knocked him under there.

The real Emmett Dalton, played by Frank Albertson here, had only just died three years before this movie. He had done fourteen years in prison then moved to Hollywood. He acted in one 1916 movie, THE MAN OF THE DESERT.

 

The movie’s OK, I guess. Easy to forget that westerns had been regarded as kids’ stuff for most of the ’30s until Ford made STAGECOACH. This wants to be adult — while Scott has nothing to do as an honest lawyer, the Daltons themselves are slowly by their brutal lifestyle. The trouble is it’s so full of phony stuff. Just as Scott is pledging his troth to Kay Francis, formerly Brod/Bob’s broad, a brick comes through the window with a message from Brod/Bob. Chased by a posse, the gang abandon their horses and leap from a convenient bluff, I believe is the word, onto a passing train — but how could they have known the bluff was there? Somehow, Ford’s movies use lots of unrealistic genre tropes (bullets cost nothing in the west) but seem passably true to life as well as compelling and beautiful. (One of this film’s writers, Harold Shumate, wrote westerns all through the kidstuff period of the ’30s, and that’s maybe the trouble.)

The ending — well, not the cozy VERY ending, the climax, is practically peckinpahesque, with great physical perfs from the various bodies who expire in it.

Randolph Scott faced the Dalton’s again in BADMAN’S TERRITORY, then again in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN, then joined the related Doolin Gang in THE DOOLINS OF OKLAHOMA.

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE stars Gil Westrum; Mary Stevens, MD; Quatermass McGinty; ‘Bull’ Weed; Harry Brock; Merton Gill; Link Appleyard; Sam Wainwright; Mrs. Hudson; the Wienie King; and The Mister.