Archive for Lionel Barrymore

The Sunday Intertitle: A Series of Tubes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2018 by dcairns

The skeletal remains of Angelo Rossitto, still sadly on display to this day.

THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND! So mysterious, nobody making it knew quite what they were doing. Jules Verne’s novel casts away its characters on an uncharted island which is inherently a bit mysterious. The island in the 1929 MGM movie is populated, and the story is told from the viewpoint of the people who live there. Who then get in a submarine and go somewhere actually mysterious, one of those undersea kingdoms you hear about.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it’s a mysterious-LOOKING island.

This silent movie was reportedly begun by Maurice Tourneur, who walked off when he saw his first production supervisor, continued by Benjamin Christensen, then turned into a part-talkie by its screenwriter, Lucien Hubbard, who ended up with sole credit. 10% talking! 0% dancing! 100% hokum! Sounds like my kind of movie.

Even with strong directorial personalities like the first two, it’s not easy to tell who did what, though the torture scenes might be more Christensen than Tourneur. The vaguely Russian look connects it to Christensen’s Lon Chaney vehicle MOCKERY, but that wasn’t a particularly personal work either.

The other thing that seems Christensenesque, and certainly has no obvious relationship to Tourneur père’s career, is underwater monster costumery as worn by little Angelo Rossitto and his diminutive cohort, connect the film to the amazing full-body make-ups of the demons in HAXAN (may I remind you that nobody seems to have any clue who was responsible for those, and if you told me Christensen personally raised and had photographed actual demons I should be compelled to believe you).

The production design (credited to Cedric Gibbons and, true, the aquatic Fortress of Solitude has a deco look) is ace: the sub controls have the pleasing chunkiness of Fritz Lang’s rocket gadgetry. Visual effects vary from beautifully unconvincing glass paintings, through tiny models, a crocodile with glued-on fins, an enlarged octopus, and an army of aquafellows, all jigging about behind a rippling “underwater” optical effect. Plus lots of interesting compositing.

The transitions from sound to silent are weird and distracting as usual. Unintentional bathos: Lionel “Always leave them asking for less” Barrymore is tortured, but it’s in the silent part of the movie, so he won’t talk. The action scenes have lots of rhubarbing dubbed over them, and slightly inadequate thumpings to simulate gunfire, explosions, pretty much everything else. But it’s an ambitious and detailed soundscape (of thumping and rhubarbing) for 1929.

I had to see this, not only because I’m a Snitz Edwards completist, but because of my too-long-neglected oath to see every film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of the Horror Movie, a quest entitled See Reptilicus and Die.

 

Starring Grigori Rasputin, Ted ‘Rip-roaring’ Riley, the Masterblaster, Lord Marshmorton, Florine Papillon and McTeague.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by dcairns

The reassuring smile of Boris Karloff

Weird coincidences. We have a great view of the moon from our front window, in the early evening. During the full moon, we had a double bill of John Carpenter’s THE FOG, which turned out to take place during the full moon, a fact we had forgotten (fun, and I hadn’t seen it since the days of my school film society) and PRINCE OF DARKNESS (not so hot), whose very first shot is the full moon.

Last night, looking for a spooky silent film to cull an intertitle from, I plumped for THE BELLS (James Young, 1926). Which turned out to have a much more disturbing contemporary relevance. I sort of thought I knew the story from having watched Bill Morrison’s THE MESMERIST, which is based around decayed fragments of the movie, but I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the plot (by fantasy writers Erckman-Chatrian, a sort of second-string ETA Hoffmann), centres on the murder of a Jewish traveler. The film’s attempt to find sympathy for the guilt-tormented murderer played by Lionel Barrymore fell on somewhat deaf ears, since I was preoccupied with thoughts of the anti-semitic terror attack in Pittsburgh.

The film attempts to enlist compassion for Barrymore from the start, even though he’s attempting to ingratiate his way into political office by giving away free beer. When this leads his finances to a desperate state, he murders the traveler on New Year’s Eve in order to steal the money belt full of gold the guy rather injudiciously shows off. Now, Barrymore has been depicted explicitly as NOT anti-semitic, as he welcomes the traveler at his inn when others are more hostile. But that sort of kindness only goes so far. With my sensibilities perhaps heightened by the day’s tragic and horrible news story, I couldn’t escape feeling that while Barrymore doesn’t hate the Polish Jew for who he is, he is able to see his way to murdering the guy because he’s Not One Of Us.

So I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind his quest for redemption.

But my, it’s a beautifully made movie. And features an early exploitation of Boris Karloff’s unique physiognomy. And Barrymore is good. There’s also an early iteration of that trick with filters made famous by Mamoulian in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (and also used in SHIT! THE OCTOPUS!), where Lady Macbeth-style phantom bloodstains appear and disappear on Lionel’s hands, all in one shot (revealed and concealed by a red filter. If you ever carried a Coke can into a dark room and watched half the design disappear when the red light made the red and white parts of the can look the same, you’ve seen this rather uncanny effect in action).

 

But a creeping discomfort about the film’s attitudes remains, and the intercession of a plaster Virgin doesn’t alleviate it.

Winthrop-Wilfong

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by dcairns

“My God, the film begins with flagrant underwear-flaunting.”

Leslie Howard is Dwight Winthrop! Clark Gable is Ace Wilfong! There’s no excuse for a Dramatis Personae containing both those names.

This is Wilfong. But this is not Wilfong’s hat.

It’s a Norma Shearer movie, though. But it contrasts with THE DIVORCEE with a more low-life milieu and a more pre-code atmos. It begins by teasing us with an offscreen nude Shearer, the implication that Lionel Barrymore is her sugar-daddy, the aforementioned undies-flaunting, and then the revelation that Lionel is her actual daddy. James Gleason appears, cranium like a misshapen light bulb.

The very talented Clarence Brown directs, and though, with rare mobile exceptions, each scene tends to fade up on a static wide shot, the soundtrack full of pensive crackle, the thing is actually pretty cinematic. Brown delivers some truly expressive angles, as when Shearer and Howard face off over a barrier in a prison visiting room.

“They would never allow that much physical contact in a visiting room,” protested Fiona during the subsequence embrace.

“I think they had more leeway in MGM’s visiting rooms,” I suggested.

Fiona felt the film was missing a trick — preventing the bodily touching could be really powerful. Barriers are dramatically valuable. But this IS MGM. How can they pass up a clinch?

Gable won on the rematch in GONE WITH THE WIND, arguably, but the levels of stardom are quite different at this point, giving Leslie Howard advantages over the jug-eared, oddly canine-featured newbie. Maybe it’s that tiny clown hat that makes him look like a cartoon bulldog?

Gleason is the most credible performer — you assume that meeting him, he would be just like that. And he wasn’t — check his perf in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for a whole different characterisation. Next best is probably Gable, radiating confidence and not bothering to apologise for his character’s nastiness. Howard is fine, Shearer fluctuates between genuinely excellent and painfully fakey. She still strikes poses madly, and affects a musical laugh which may either delight or cause subconscious contraction of the hand muscles, producing a strangler-like-effect.

Lionel Barrymore as her dad is in a whole different school, stylised and theatrical like Shearer but doing it at a much higher level of expertise, pulling it off consistently. Really it’s his film — he plays an alcoholic lawyer who will end up defending one of his daughter’s lovers for shooting the other, and convicting himself as a lousy parent in the process. It’s a very well-structured play — ambitious location shooting can’t shake of the aura of the stage (Adela Rogers St. Johns is credited for her source novel, but it comes by way of Willard Mack’s stage version), and Brown’s dramatic angles aren’t frequent enough to turn it completely into a fluid movie, but it does represent a big step on from THE DIVORCEE. The frame, rather than just capturing the Cedric Gibbons sets and the actors’ poses, contributes to the storytelling a lot more, and the pacing is a hundred times sharper.