Archive for Lloyd Bacon

B is for Bugambilia

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2011 by dcairns

Part two of David Melville’s occasional alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodrama!


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

B is for Bugambilia

Fans of old Hollywood may remember Dolores del Rio as a ravishing beauty who couldn’t act. Moving from Mexico to the US in the late 20s, she played decorative roles in largely mediocre films. Even the classic South Seas romance Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932) used her less as an actress than as a live Gauguin painting. The musical Wonder Bar (Lloyd Bacon, 1934) gave her little to do beyond a sadomasochist tango with whips. By the early 40s, not even her liaison with Orson Welles could get Dolores a role in a decent film.

So it was a shock all round when Dolores – who was just short of 40 – returned home to Mexico, and promptly became her country’s reigning dramatic star. Her role as a virginal peasant girl in María Candelaria (Emilio Fernandez, 1943) proved that yes, she could act after all. Just not in English (in which she never seemed at ease) and not in the frankly unactable roles that Hollywood chose to give her. At a time when the US industry, cut off from its European audience, was making half-hearted efforts to woo the Latin American market, the romantic melodramas of del Rio and Fernandez were proof – glorious proof – that latinos could go it alone.

The fourth and most lavish of these is Bugambilia (1945). (The title, and the heroine’s nickname, is a florid purple flower that runs wild on every available wall in hot climates.) In this one, Dolores (refreshingly) does not play a poor but virtuous peasant waif, albeit one who strays in photogenic and melodramatic ways. Her role here draws on her own upper-class background. (Her family, like that of her distant cousin Ramón Novarro, had lost much of their land and fortune to the Mexican Revolution.) Here she plays a spoiled and capricious 19th century coquette, flouncing about in crinolines and bathing in an Olympic-size marble bathtub, afloat with rose petals.

Her character, of course, is instantly recognisable as Bette Davis in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) or even Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957). Yet much of our pleasure in Mexican melodrama lies in the way it emulates Hollywood models – yet also transforms them in unexpected, often subversive ways. Her key relationship, for most of the film, is not with her love interest (Pedro Armendáriz) but with her fiercely possessive (indeed, borderline incestuous) father. A rich widower, he cherishes her as “something more than a daughter…more like a living copy of her mother.” A huge Gothic portrait hangs on the wall, Rebecca-style, as if to prove the point.

Into this menage comes Armendáriz – a swarthy, moustachioed peasant whose profession (in a stroke of none-too-subtle symbolism) is that of cock fighter. He drops in to introduce his prize cock to del Rio’s prize laying hen. In what is surely a first for a ‘family’ movie, the cock mounts the hen while Dolores – her eyes widening in her exquisitely sculpted face – does a creditable job of looking shocked. Later on, she attends a grand ball, where she knows her lover is watching from the street outside, and has an enormous sequinned cock (of the bird variety) spangled on her fan.

We know, of course, that the liaison is doomed. Class barriers normally prove to be insuperable in Mexican movies, with a cynicism (or, perhaps, an honesty) that is rare in films from north of the Río Grande. Still, the ball scene is the film’s lyrical highlight, an orgy of billowing gowns and sparkling chandeliers that’s easily comparable to Vincente Minnelli’s film of Madame Bovary (1949). Platoons of waltzing ladies spread across the floor, petal-like, in overhead shots that might have been engineered by Busby Berkeley’s long-lost Mexican cousin.

An obsessively literal-minded viewer might complain (as Michael Caine did after a trip to Mexico) that del Rio and Armendáriz always look like film stars and never look like anything else, and “that is what is wrong with Mexican films.” Such a complaint is only slightly more logical than watching a performance of Swan Lake and saying that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn always look like ballet dancers – as if that detracts, somehow, from their dancing. We are dealing, in both cases, with a stylised art form that appeals on a supra-literal level of archetype and myth. No sane person, least of all a working class Mexican viewer of the 40s, would take Bugambilia for an exercise in gritty realism.

In fact, the opening and closing scenes (the bulk of the film is a long flashback) move Bugambilia away from the genre we think we recognise and into the realm of a Gothic ghost story. The mise-en-scene shifts to that of Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) or Dragonwyck (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1946) or Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948). Our heroine, sobered by her inevitable defeat, walls herself up inside her crumbling ancestral mansion. The camera (directed by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa) pulls back in a spectacular crane shot; we sense the ghosts of Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond hovering just outside the frame. Dolores del Rio is easily their equal in the high melodrama stakes. A pity that nobody in Hollywood had the sense to see it.

David Melville


Your image fix for the day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by dcairns

Startling visuals from ALIAS THE DOCTOR, directed mainly by Michael Curtiz (I’d say he’s the father of the Warner style, along with Anton Grot), with some additional scenes by Lloyd Bacon. Curtiz’s high style subsumes Bacon’s more traditional approach.

Curtiz also gets a lot of visual beauty out of medical equipment insert shots — as he would in THE WALKING DEAD.

Richard Barthelmess plays a medical student who takes the rap for a drunken friend, and then is forced — forced! — by circumstance to masquerade as a qualified medico. Impressive and compact plot contrivance makes this all, not plausible exactly, but compelling, before the story does kind of choke on its own unlikeliness.

Marian Marsh is pretty and smiles a lot, Norman Foster is as unreliable as ever, and Barthelmess agonizes wetly. He’s the pre-code cinema’s number one drip, with David Manners as number two (see the great THE LAST FLIGHT, in part to see two starkly contrasting drips attempt to play world-weary together, a truly thrilling sight, and I’m not being facetious). Remarkable how much gravitas and genuine world-weariness Barthelmess has picked up by the time of ONLY ANGELS HEVE WINGS.

The sinister pathologist, hovering like an angel of death over the proceedings, is played, in a wordless bit of sepulchral moping, by the distinguished Nigel de Brulier, in movies since 1914 — regular bad guy support for Fairbanks, Chaney, Barrymore…

The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by dcairns

From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.

A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.

By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.

Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:

“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”

There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”

“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”

It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]