Archive for Lewis Stone

The Sunday Intertitle: Zenda and the Art of Monocle Maintenance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 19, 2019 by dcairns

The Rex Ingram PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922) might contain Ramon Novarro’s best work. As the villainous Rupert of Hentzau, and still using his birth name, Ramon Samaniegos, he’s suave and charismatic, and his unmistakable air of camp fits neatly with the stereotype of the effete villain.

David Wingrove tells me that Ingram named Novarro because the actor’s bottom reminded him of the Novarro Valley — a scenic beauty spot south of the border.

Relieved of the later need to centre a film or be sympathetic, Novarro is awesomely charismatic, leaving the boring stuff to the awesomely boring Lewis Stone. In his first scene, where the conspirators plot the uncrowned heir to the throne’s abduction, he gets no intertitles of his own, but has the tightest close-up as he draws a line across his throat to suggest what ought to be done, and then makes a hilarious and sulky “Oh, pooh!” face when told violence is off the table.

Stardom awaits!

Scaramouche / Scaramouche

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by dcairns

Can you do the fandango?

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All the fops love me. I am down with the fops.

I watched both versions of SCARAMOUCHE, the Metro silent and the MGM talkie. Fiona bailed on both after ten minutes apiece. You have to be in the right mood for fencing and foppery.

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Rex Ingram helmed the 1923 version, starring his discovery Ramon Novarro and his wife Ellen Terry. It’s apparently more faithful to Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which one senses while watching because the plot makes sense and doesn’t depend on outlandish coincidence. Not so the remake.

Lewis Stone (below, left) is in both versions. I like when that happens. He’s the big baddie in the Ingram but is demoted to a lesser Frenchman in George Sidney’s 1952 swashbuckler. (It was seeing and enjoying Sidney’s KISS ME KATE that got me onto this SCARAMOUCHE kick.)

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In the remake, the title character is actually a drunken, disfigured actor who wears a mask to perform. Stewart Granger steals his identity and we never see him again. The makeup, we are told, is created by William Tuttle. “Created,” you note. Not just slapped on. CREATED. Tuttle does that weird thing he does (his brushwork is very recognizable) where the lines of the face seem like whorls, layers of liquid solidified in the act of pouring on like thick cream.

The role is played by Henry Corden, and he’s uncredited. In the title role! Poor bastard. He actually IS Scaramouche. Granger just takes his name and costume, the cheeky sod.

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The leads: in the silent, the cast are all equally decent and equally a bit miscast. Novarro reminds himself to laugh cynically upon occasion to remind us he was born with a sense the world was mad. In the Technicolor talkie, Stewart Granger is required to play the hero as a total dick for quite a lot of screen time. He does it with aplomb. Mel Ferrer is his opponent, and the plot has been rejigged to make their backstory suitable for contemporaries. Now, Ferrer’s character is also a dick, and one notices that he’s more than usually appealing in the role. In fact, either of these guys could have played the baddie, but neither is right for the hero. They have a kind of charisma but not a likability. I never really noticed Ferrer’s charisma anywhere else because the prevailing feeling was that I didn’t like him. Being a villain liberates him.

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Kudos to those two lugs also for committing to the really terrific duels, which Sidney shoots like musical numbers, sweeping crane shots broken up with a few static compositions that pop in contrast. The business looks physically exhausting and a little risky. The final sword fight is supposed to be the longest ever, but doesn’t feel protracted, just satisfyingly thorough. PRINCESS BRIDE fans may notice a bit of business.

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Much of the deforming of the storyline seems to be intended to favour Eleanor Parker as “Lenore,” a role seemingly created especially for her (note the name). The equivalent role in the silent is a fairly small bit by comparison. But the real female lead is Janet Leigh (above), the only American cast who doesn’t bother trying to change her natural accent, and as a result the most natural player in the film (Nina Foch does wonders, though, as Marie Antoinette). Best scene is probably Granger hitting on Leigh and then discovering she’s his long-lost sister. Well-played, Jimmy! (Granger’s birth name was Jimmy Stewart, which for obvious reasons he had to change, but everyone still called him Jimmy. Why didn’t he choose Jimmy Granger?)

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Both movies showcase dramatic glass shots.

As mentioned in comments earlier, the MGM movie surprisingly omits the French Revolution, which is built up to and then dropped as an apparently still-hot potato. Structurally, this is acceptable because it allows the movie to climax with the splendid duel, but it does seem to imply that the (off-screen) King’s democratic compromises were successful in appeasing the people. The Metro version takes the more mature line that the Revolution was good but the Rein of terror bad, but this means that it kind of lacks a strong ending, fizzling out with the hero and his new-found family simply running away. But it finds a more satisfying fate for its bad guy (whereas Mel Ferrer simply evaporates, an odd result in a film driven entirely by the hero’s thirst for revenge).

A new version could be interesting. Neither movie quite joins the dots between the hero’s politics, his revenge quest and his career as a clown, whereas the first sentence of Sabatini’s book already gives me confidence that he’s working on a Unified Theory of Revolutionary Swashbuckling.

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In the 70s, when Richard Lester was having a lot of success with, broadly speaking, this kind of material, Dustin Hoffman, of all people, approached him with the idea of a remake. Part of his obsession with playing superannuated students, I guess. Lester met him and they got on well, but politely declined the job, feeling that Hoffman’s perfectionism and we might call his own kick-scramble-bollocks approach were ill-matched and bound to end in heartache or nervous breakdowns.

 

The Speak

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by dcairns

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The first film adaptation of Preston Sturges’ hit play STRICTLY DISHONORABLE (followed by a 50s musical with Janet Leigh) takes some time to get going. It’s miscast all to hell, and the poor condition of the sound on the copy I saw had a glooming effect on the ambience. What Guy Maddin calls “the warm bath of audio hiss” gets discomfiting when the volume rises above the dialogue — you feel the actors are drowning in that bath, their merry chatter a mere displacement activity to divert their minds as the lip of the water rises around their smiling faces…

Paul Lukas isn’t miscast, really, although he’s mean to be playing an Italian opera singer. By Hollywood standards, where anybody foreign can play anybody else foreign, a Hungarian as an Italian is practically typecasting. It should be easier to accept New Yorker Sidney Fox (nee Leiffer) as a southern belle, but it sure isn’t. Still, Fox with unexpected puppy fat is enticing to look at, if not to listen to.

The guy who runs the speakeasy in and above which the action takes place is an early Sturges funny dialect character is played by an actual Italian, William Ricciardi, a fatal error. Maybe Sturges hadn’t intended his usual babbling malaprop figure (Akim Tamiroff or Lionel Stander or Luis Alberni), but I can’t believe this illicit barkeep was meant to be played like an Italian count.

Lewis Stone, who never struck me as a comedian, still doesn’t strike me as a comedian, but manages a few laughs as a drunken judge. It’s hard to know how many other laughs he might be stifling, though — director John Stahl seems content to let the humour fend for itself as the cast trample all over it.

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It pains me to say that Sidney Toler, who made a very poor Charlie Chan despite his eyelids, and who has the kind of face the Germans talk about, gives the best performances as Mulligan, a stereotypical Irish-American cop character. The first time you’d know this was a comedy comes when Riciardi refers to his joint as a speakeasy and the friendly cop advises him, “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t know what kind of place this is?” That’s half an hour into the film.

“I’m not getting much sense of Sturges from this dialogue,” remarked Fiona, and she was right — I don’t think it’s Hollywood rewriting, I think it maybe is just the cast clumsily smashing everything in their mouths.

The next great bit is, improbably, from Stone. “Speaking ex officio, I would say that honour should be tempered with the milk of human kindness, that is, if it’s possible to temper anything with milk.” Very Sturgesian — a platitude is derailed by the vagaries of language, leading a character up an unfamiliar and original branch line he hadn’t inteded to explore.

Then it takes a while but Fox gets a zinger: she’s contemplating sex out of wedlock, and Stone tries to dissuade her, stating that in all the instances he’s heard of, such decisions have ended in sorrow. “Well, maybe it’s just that when you don’t hear about them when they end happily,” she suggests, with faultless sex pixie logic.

Curiously, Lukas never really gets a classic Sturgesian moment, suggesting that while he seems to suit his role to the extent of never actually clashing with his surroundings, he can’t quite energize the material the way a Sturges actor would.