Archive for Lionel Barrymore

Grave-y Browning

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2020 by dcairns

Halloween is coming! Don’t forget to buy Sight & Sound with me and D. Riccuito interviewing Barbara Steele!

I grew up mad at the BBC because they rarely honoured All Hallows Eve with the kind of zeal I felt was required. In general, Scotland was more into witchy stuff in late October than the English, and the BBC is essentially English. There was rarely anything on to mark the occasion. And now here I am on Shadowplay not doing my bit. That must change. Expect some horror posts.

My favourite thing in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is the George Romero zombie groaning that accompanies every appearance of Bela Lugosi and Carol Borland as the vampires. There’s no explanation for it. It’s also mixed way down low on the soundtrack, so it qualifies as subtle, especially compared to the Lionels, Atwill & Barrymore, hammering the single notes of their respective performances until repetitive strain injury of the thespic kind sets in.

The best BAD thing, in a film with many bad things — Tod Browning was surely defrauding MGM by pretending he was coming in to work on this one — is the opening “transition” from a painting of a church roof by daylight, to the live action set, which is a night scene. It’s one of those optical printer moves, which works so well at the start of CASABLANCA for instance, and works so NOT well here that it’s momentarily hard to tell what’s meant to be going on: are we panning off a movie screen that’s been hung on the side of a church?

Six men worked on this script, each devotedly removing anything of quality the others saw fit to add — an unending task — some say you can still hear the clack of typewriters as you pass the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on a dark night. Even if this weren’t already a remake, it would be fatally unoriginal — even the gratuitous opossum looks tired.

We-ell, I been sick…

I guess we know Tod was about because of the opossum, and the various rats and creepy crawlies — not just fake bats, but fake spiders and a — is that meant to be a CRAB? — inapparopriate fauna are very much a Browning trope.

Anything that’s any good, apart from the groaning, in the movie, is via James Wong Howe’s cinematography and Cedric Gibbons and his unnamed worker elves who cobbled together the spooky sets. You could cut the thing down to about five minutes of master shots and lose nothing but verbiage and folderol. Every spooky shot looks absolutely iconic — maybe because THIS seems to be the principle inspiration behind Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Gothic imagination.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE stars Mr. Potter; Mrs. Copperfield; Dr. Vitus Werdegast; Inspector Krogh; Dr. Paul Christian; Mr. Twiddle; Nurse Peggotty; Amschel Rothschild; Daffy Dolly; Fat Girl with Hamburger; Rula Murphy; Dr. John Lanyon; and Dr. Kluck.

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.

 

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.