Archive for Lon Chaney Jnr

Shadows

Posted in Dance, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2017 by dcairns

Allan Dwan’s ONE MILE TO HEAVEN (1937) got popped into the Samsung at Fiona’s suggestion — she wanted to see more Fredi Washington, and this was the seminal IMITATION OF LIFE star’s swan song. It’s an odd film — perhaps the finest cast of tulpas ever assembled.

The most prominent doppelganger was child star Joan Carroll (billed as Joan Carol for some reason, possibly to save on type). An alarmingly precise Shirley Temple clone only without the singing or acting, this moppetganger plays Fredi’s daughter, and the plot revolves around the vexed question of whether the blonde sprog could be the black woman’s natural offspring.

The second animate thought-form in the cast is Sally Blane, lookalike sister of Loretta Young, a sort of lorettaganger if you will, who turns out to be the child’s natural mother, now a wealthy socialite who believes the child dead.

The rest of the players aren’t exactly shades or walkers, but they have their uncanny aspects. the actual lead is Claire Trevor as a fast-thinking reporter, looking startlingly fresh in this pre-STAGECOACH role. Her anything-for-a-story approach actually makes her, in a sense, the heavy of the piece, threatening Fredi and little Joan’s happiness, but the film deftly distracts us from this by putting her up against a trio of flyblown heels, fellow reporters who are nasty chauvinists, forcing us to root for Claire, in a slightly conflicted way.

Also present: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who’s partly on hand to help make us believe that this is a Shirley Temple picture, partly to add to the sense of a black community, which Fiona identified as the movie’s strongest asset. Bill plays a tapdancing policeman (Dwan proves to be an inept filmer of dance, alas) — when else have you seen a black cop in a thirties movie? We also see black shopkeepers, including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in unconvincing old age drag. The black people in this film aren’t train porters, maids and shoeshine boys: Fredi is a seamstress (for once, this profession is not a Code-friendly synonym for prostitution), and there’s a real sense of urban community, with the district NOT represented as a dystopian ghetto. Sentimentalizing poverty is another problem, of course, and this isn’t that more realistic than the rural black community in TALES OF MANHATTAN, but it does offer at least an alternative representation to the prevailing stereotypes of the thirties and after.

We see Robinson shuffle at the policeman’s ball, where we also meet a fresh-faced copper played by Lon Chaney Jnr. Sadly, we don’t get to see HIS act — I’m imagining either a lycanthropic quick-change routine or a magic show where he crushes rabbits INTO his hat.

I haven’t seen Robinson in anything since I was a little kid. Shirley Temple movies, like Jerry Lewis movies, seemed to be on A LOT. Interesting how Temple still connects strongly with little kid audiences (try it on your offspring, if you have any — they make a brilliant platform for cinematic experiments), and a shame how they aren’t being exposed to her. But my memory of Robinson was “old guy who dances” — he’s not old at all, just bald and, as Fiona remarked, absolutely gorgeous. His eye-rolling minstrel business IS embarrassing (Fredi was asked to do this earlier in her career and simply refused), and Dwan’s insistence on fragmenting the dance numbers into close-ups of feet (but dance happens with the WHOLE BODY) and face (but you NEED TO SEE THE FEET) is endlessly vexatious.

But but but. This lightly likable film deserves all kinds of credit for the many little ways it departs from the toxic norms of representation of its day.

Did you catch the story about the Memphis, Tennessee cinema taking off GONE WITH THE WIND due to complaints about the film’s racial insensitivity? I must admit, I kind of thought GOOD. That apologia for slavery has had a free pass for way too long. I think it should be screened — but screened kind of like the way BIRTH OF A NATION is screened, with discussion and context or at least shared awareness. It’s not AS nasty a film as BOAN, and Hattie McDaniel is a fine actor who deserves appreciation, but it’s problematic enough that simply calling it a “classic” and looking the other way never struck me as adequate.

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Gang Aft Aglae

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2014 by dcairns

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Polanski saw Milestone’s OF MICE AND MEN as a kid and was impressed by it — he hated that it ended so tragically, but as he thought about it, he realized it couldn’t end any other way — and so we have the ending of virtually every film Polanski’s made since.

Confession: I haven’t read the book. I was expecting to be moved though — I knew I was going to be a wreck by the end as soon as it started. Fiona thought she had seen it and wasn’t expecting such a powerful effect. Halfway through she realized she’d only seen bits and didn’t know where it was headed. The ending just wrecked her. I’ll shed a manly tear myself, but she was virtually incoherent for ten minutes after it was over. I had a lump in my throat the size and texture of Akim Tamiroff. This film needs a health warning.

On a related note, Steinbeck and Milestone joined forces again for THE RED PONY, which I consider over at The Notebook in this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten. Which means that it’s also time for The ’68 Comeback Special over at Apocalypse Now, where Scout Tafoya considers BLACK JESUS, previously explored in The Forgotten, which is kind of neat to think about as we near the end of our odyssey through Cannes ’68.

Cunning Stunts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2013 by dcairns

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LUCKY DEVILS is a pre-code about stuntmen with rather podgy heroes (William Boyd and the reliable unappetizing William Gargan), a childish but slangy screenplay, and some spectacular stunt action. Co-writer Bob Rose was a stuntman himself, which perhaps explains the mixture of unconvincing dramatics and insider knowledge and jargon. Without pushing a particular agenda, the movie does manage to make the movies seem a pretty cut-throat business, from the suicide attempt staged in front of a blinking Hollywood sign, to the cold-blooded demands of inconsiderate directors seeking ever more risky stunts.

The movie opens with a dynamic, violent and destructive bank robbery, much more extreme than most Hollywood action sequences of the day (well, maybe SCARFACE and BEAST OF THE CITY come close), and proceeds to serve up a wide variety of daring leaps, plunges, crashes and smashes. One in particular, a swing over a burning building, is cinematically exciting as well as hair-raising. Director Ralph Ince, youngest of the Ince brothers, has got his hands on a zoom lens (the same year saw RKO using it in KING KONG) and he uses this to lucidly set up the forthcoming action and its participants, panning and reframing from one to the other. Once Boyd (or rather, his stuntman — the actor may have gone on to embody Hopalong Cassidy but I doubt he’d be game for this) is dangling from a rope fifty feet in the air, Ince uses the zoom to make little nervous adjustments to the shot, really creating the sense that it’s happening “live”. By injecting an air of the extemporaneous into what one hopes is a carefully planned event, he ups the tension considerably. I found myself wondering if the stunt was supposed to be this dangerous, with the faux-Boyd swaying back and forth repeatedly, unable to get a toe-hold on the safety platform. This is exactly how a modern director might use the zoom (if he isn’t just restlessly jerking it around out of sheer indecision).

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CITIZEN KANE’s Vernon Walker put together the special effects, which include a plunge into a burning building, and rear-projection work which incorporates footage from Clarence Brown’s TRAIL OF ’98, an MGM movie where four stuntmen were actually drowned (according to testimony in Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series). On the one hand, it’s considerate of the makers to spare their stuntmen a fresh set of risks, preferring to recycle previous death-defying or death-inflicting acts, but on the other, it’s more than a little tacky to exploit this footage again, even if we don’t actually see anyone going under…

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Supporting players include Bruce Cabot and a slender Creighton Chaney, a few years before he became Lon Jnr. “He’s almost good-looking!” exclaimed Fiona. Also, there’s stuttering comedian Roscoe Ates, from FREAKS. The mean humour milked from his speech impediment here is pretty distasteful to modern sensibilities. In FREAKS, they were smart enough to cast him as kind of a heavy, where his perpetual manly bluster could be undercut by the stammer (his character was married to one of the siamese twins, and you did rather think she could do better for herself/her sister). I see Ates was still acting in the early sixties, appearing in a couple of Jerry Lewis movies. I have no memory of him in THE LADIES’ MAN and THE ERRAND BOY — maybe he’d dropped the schtick?