Archive for Love Me Tonight

The Sunday Intertitle: Having a Ball

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by dcairns


Well, this is more like it — a proper intertitle. But from a talkie.

Lubitsch’s sublime THE MERRY WIDOW could be seen as a revival of the short-lived operetta-film form which he’d pioneered in the very early days of sound. Ruritanian romance, musical interludes, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald — Lubitsch brings them all back, and this time configures the elements so perfectly that there was really no need to revisit the form again. He got it right.


The movie benefits from a technical smoothness made possible by advances in sound and camera equipment, and from a gigantic MGM budget, not that THE SMILING LIEUTENANT or the others really suffers from a lack of those things. It also has really delightful performances from its leads — Lubitsch had a remarkable skill at getting light comedy performances from performers not necessarily associated with that tone… I guess I’m talking about Jeanette. I like her in LOVE ME TONIGHT just fine, but she’s more winning here, and there’s genuine chemistry with Chevalier. She played a lot of romantic comedy, I guess, but usually seemed a bit of a prig. Here, that’s part of her character, but she still has warmth.

Dancing on the spinning globe — that’s not easy to do!

There’s also Edward Everett Horton and Herman Bing and Una Merkel and George Barbier and Sterling Holloway and Akim Tamiroff… And a plethora of babes dropping by on their way to stardom or near-stardom or obscurity, making this the 1930s version of THE KNACK. We get delicious Lona Andre for about a line, Kathleen Burke (the Panther Woman from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS), Luana Walters…

vlcsnap-2013-01-13-11h40m41s25Lona Andre, right.

The Merry Widow 1934, (Region 2 import) Maurice Chevalier Jeanette MacDonald


Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 14, 2012 by dcairns

In a service to cinephiles/nerds everywhere, guest-Shadowplayer Mark Medin has created a pre-history of pre-code films that used the recently developed zoom lens. The list at bottom doesn’t claim to be complete — neither of us has seen every film from this period — but with your help, we can make it more so. Write in if you’ve seen a zoom in any Hollywood films of the period not listed below. And by all means spread the list around — we’d like to build up as complete a picture as possible of zoom use at the time.

D Cairns

Zooms In Cinema

1) Pre-history of the zoom

The zoom lens was not new when it first made its cinema appearance in 1927. It had been described many decades before and an example was even patented in 1902. For cinema of the time it wasn’t an ideal solution, as the cameraman had no way of seeing exactly what he was shooting while in the act of shooting it (true reflex finders didn’t arrive in cine cameras until the Arriflex, but see a clever way around the limitation below). One advantage is it needed to only be focused once and the lens would stay in focus throughout the shot. So, it had uses even in its original form for cinema and was developed and patented by more than one person. Now, the optical elements of a zoom could not be patented outside any novel lens formulae, but the mechanism used to zoom could and was. The problems were worked on, and so came a small number of patents. The first major one applied for came from Rolla T. Flora in early 1927 and was granted patent #1,790,232 in January 1931. This was what was known as the Paramount zoom, and was the earliest cine zoom used. The third was Joseph Walker’s zoom (#1,898,471 applied for September 1929 and granted March 1933). From a profile on Walker, he had been working on a practical zoom for years, but there is no evidence of a useful patent emerging from his work before this, and no evidence this mechanism itself was then useful. I’ve found no examples of the Walker zoom in use. So in the years from 1927 until 1932, the zoom lens was essentially exclusive to Paramount. It was used immediately: In the first shot of the 1927 film IT, when establishing the store setting: After the Waltham’s sign is shown, the camera tilts down then zooms to the bustling sidewalk storefront. Unfortunately a great number of Paramount films of the late silent era are lost so I can’t say how many times it was used in the silent era, but it was certainly used in early/precode sound. Director Erle Kenton was of course closely associated with its use. Some directors at Paramount used it only occasionally or perhaps not at all.

In early 1932, a commercially available zoom began to be sold by Bell and Howell (pat#1,947,669). This was known as the B&H/Cooke Varo. Initially it was made to order, but later was available as stock. In later advertisements the lens was said to have been acquired by all the major studios and by the government. As confirmation of studio use, I have found zooms in films by RKO, Fox, and MGM, but as yet no sightings in Warner/First National productions. The lens was also available as a rental to any reputable producer, so it may have found its way to independent producers or a small studio like Monogram.

2) Tech Gibberish (skip this if uninterested)

Now for a bit more optical tech geekiness. These early zooms had problems. With no existing antireflective coatings, the lenses could only have a limited number of glass-to-air surfaces (The fast Planar-type’s 8 was considered the maximum before light loss was too severe, though if you look at the Varo lens patent, it has 16!) Due to the light loss, they used a small number of glass elements to correct for optical aberrations, and the lenses had limited ability to change focal length (magnification). So the zooms were short on magnification (3x seemed the limit), very large, “slow” (from descriptions the fastest was f/3.5 – as slow as standard amateur cine lenses of the day), had uncorrected aberrations, and also had to be stopped down (to f/8) to be usable along the full length of the zoom. The B&H/Cooke Varo had another advertised limitation. Removable supplementary lenses for different distances were required, and these had to be changed out to suit the distance of the subject to the camera. I don’t know if the Paramount zoom was similarly limited (documentation apart from the patent doesn’t appear to exist online), but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it had similar or other limitations. Also consider that without the ability to see each shot through the lens as it was being filmed (though a partial solution is shown), a zoom shot had to be framed in advance, and with just a viewfinder to use, only the extremes of the zoom’s framing range could be permanently marked in the viewfinder. Any smaller zoom ranges the director planned had to use a mask marked especially for the shot, which is why most zoom framing of the time is limited to keeping the most important part of the image framed as close to center as possible.

3) Usage

Despite all this, the zoom was used quite a bit in precode days. Most early uses at Paramount look to be functional/cost-saving and were not meant to be expressive, as in filming a shot without the trouble of having to use a crane or dolly. The one zoom shot in the film Only Saps Work illustrates this kind of use well. The shot is merely an overhead of Leon Errol in a car, and after he is zoomed in upon, he waves. Simple, and it saved the use of a crane. A more elaborate zoom use in Only The Brave had the camera follow Gary Cooper as he rode his horse and while panning, zoomed in. As the cameramen got familiar with how to use it, more expressive ways were found, but it still was limited.

Although use appeared to tail off during the ’30s, Paramount kept with development of the zoom, which led to another patent and a faster lens (f/2.7), though how far this design got in use is also a puzzle. (pat. 2,159,394). These zooms may not have been much in their day, but when Dr. Back created the Zoomar in the 1950s, he cited some of the design elements incorporated in these first zooms in his patent.

Zoom at 0:53, in case you’re doubtful.

A scattered, incomplete list of films which used the zoom:

It (1927) Paramount
Wings (1927)* Paramount

Our Modern Maidens (1929) MGM

Tide of Empire (1929) MGM

Where East is East (1929) MGM

Only Saps Work (1930) Paramount
Only The Brave (1930) Paramount

Guilty As Hell (1932) Paramount

Island of Lost Souls (1932) Paramount

Love Me Tonight (1932) Paramount
Make Me A Star (1932) Paramount
Prestige (1932) RKO
Thunder Below (1932) Paramount
What Price Hollywood (1932) RKO

Down To Earth (1933) Fox
From Hell To Heaven (1933) Paramount
King Of The Jungle (1933) Paramount
King Kong (1933) RKO
Night Flight (1933) MGM
Sweepings (1933) RKO
The Stranger’s Return (1933) MGM

Search for Beauty (1934) Paramount

Private Worlds (1935) Paramount

*: claimed in print but unconfirmed by viewing as yet.

Private.Worlds from David Cairns on Vimeo. First zoom at 1:02.

(1) Journal of S.M.P.E. Oct. 1932, p.329-339

Film Club Monthly: La Rupture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2009 by dcairns


I came to Claude Chabrol’s 1970 drama-thriller LA RUPTURE with little advance knowledge, having seen a pretty sparse smattering of Chabrol movies, and knowing nothing of the plot beyond the words “divorce drama.” Which is quite a good approach if you want to be blown away.

I guess this means that people who haven’t seen the film shouldn’t read this. Maybe read far enough to get excited, then run out and buy it before I spoil everything.


The opening, of course, is a shocker. Like a very very compact version of THE SHINING — Stephane Audran’s husband, the disturbingly-faced Jean-Claude Drouot, even does the “crazy Kubrick stare” a decade before Jack Nicholson displayed it so memorably. The domesticity in the first couple of shots has a nervous, unstable quality, sparked into edginess by Chabrol’s zippy pans and quick cuts. Then — total violence! Drouot’s half-throttling of Audran is abrupt and startling enough, but the child-hurling incident is practically unprecedented, barring Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING. And then Audran fights back with kitchenware, bludgeoning hubby into submission with deadly Gallic efficiency.

Horror movie titles appear over the fast traveling shots that take Audran and her fractured son to the hospital, accompanied by Chabrol regular composer Pierre Jansen’s galumphing musique concrete score. The slasher calligraphy clashes with the documentary street photography in exactly the way Chabrol’s elements of naturalism and stylisation clash throughout the movie.


My Chabrol problem: I don’t like his zoom-happy camerawork in the 60s and 70s, although I like all kinds of zooms in others’ hands. I also don;t find the look of this film very pleasing, but I suspect the yellow-green pall  suffusing it is down to fading film stock. Why would you want a film to look like that? Chabrol’s interior design is also mildly suspect — I know it’s 1970, and I know a lot of the action takes place in a down-at-heel hotel, but there are still pleasing aesthetic choices available… but movies like TEN DAYS’ WONDER and ALICE show that CC has more than one string to his bow, and I’m actually learning to like what he does in his more typical films.

The plot, set in violent motion before the credits have even rolled, now settles into a quasi-naturalistic tone, lulling us to expect a slightly more normal divorce drama. Drouot, we learn, is a struggling writer (shades of Jack Nicholson again) whose mind has been derailed by drugs (Chabrol seems to have odd ideas about drugs; I don’t think he’s very experienced in that department — the nature of Drouot’s addiction is quite unclear, but drug-induced psychosis is at least credible: the psychedelic trip later on is less so). He’s now back in the care of his monstrous rich parents, who wish to win custody of their battered grandson from Audran, whom they despise because she was once a stripper and now works as a barmaid.

I think the film’s class-war aspect could have been raised a bit had someone other than the unswervingly elegant Mrs Chabrol played the lead. A smart, powerful working-class woman is a rarity, so it’s a shame to see the part played by someone who seems so bourgeois. But maybe that’s part of the point — Audran’s parents-in-law misunderestimate her from the start, and thus set in train a lethal chain of events that gradually tip the film from the approximately realistic into the bizarrely melodramatic. Which is a good thing, in this case, you understand.

Michel Bouquet, as dad-in-law, makes the mistake of hiring Jean-Pierre Cassel, the son of a former business partner Bouquet has ruined, to find evidence that will make Audran look bad in court so he can take her son away. Cassel’s antipathy to his new boss is a handy red herring, for as his job gradually entails more and more dirty work, we wonder if he will at some point back off and betray his boss. In fact, the opposite happens, with Cassel preparing an outrageously nasty scheme that’s far beyond anything Bouquet would have asked him to do (although Cassel deduces, probably correctly, that his employer will be happy  with any crime as long as he gets the result he’s after).


Cassel’s big scheme only starts ticking along after the film has been going for some time, and Chabrol prepares for it by undercutting his realistic locations, sound, and central performances, with wild fantasy characters, who seem to have been hammered into slots in the naturalistic storyline, bent all out of shape but still retaining their too-vivid colours. The three old ladies at Audran’s boarding house reminded me of the three spinsters in Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT. Rather than weaving a tapestry like the Fates, they play with Tarot cards. The unemployed actor (Mario David) is a strolling tragedian hammier than any sketch-show caricature, whose every line reading threatens to blow the set walls down. Intriguingly, he gets more low-key as the story progresses, revealing authentic human qualities hidden beneath the bombast and bluster. Indeed, one of the narrative’s surprise delights is the gradual revelation of a world of goodness struggling along in what had seemed an irretrievably fallen universe. The nastiness established early on is such that nice young men like Audran’s doctor and lawyer never seemed quite trustworthy, but they turn out to be just as honest as they tried to appear.


For me, the trickiest unreal character was, not the balloon-seller (a nod to Fritz Lang’s M?) but the landlady’s handicapped daughter Emilie. Apparently a young woman, but dressed as a little girl, she’s played by Chabrol fave Katia Romanoff in a manner that seems more mime-show than observation. She wears unattractive glasses, but where you might expect thick lenses (since brain damage is often accompanied by poor vision) they have ordinary glass. Everything about her is unconvincing — she’s no particular type of “mentally handicapped person,” as Drouot is no particular type of drug addict. I was never entirely comfortable with her, but I think she probably does work in the context of the other unreal elements.

Anyhow, she’s central to Cassel’s crazy plan, which only starts unfolding after a lot of what could be flat exposition, but which is put across with weird jolting flair by Chabrol. Audran tells her lawyer of her past on a tram ride, with frequent cutaways to the trolley pole sparking on the overhead power line, and the view out the front window of oncoming street, with an eerie reflection of the driver’s hand clutching the dead man’s switch. (All tram terminology pulled out of thin air.)

“Do you like films in which someone says, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ and then we cut to the beach?” Chabrol once asked an editor. The implication is that HE doesn’t like that — but he does it all the time here. I’ve always found it a prosaic but highly efficient way to propel action forward while maintaining clarity. Certainly Chabrol’s direct cutting (associated with nouvelle vague cinema but very common in Duvivier also) adds welcome zip to his long and winding narrative, which has to divert into side-stories about Cassell and his constantly naked girlfriend, Audran’s landlady and her alcoholic husband and daughter with learning difficulties, and the dastardly in-laws’ legal proceedings.

The plan: Cassell, having tried and failed to find evidence that will discredit Audran, and faked up a lot of general gossip against her character, suddenly takes the plunge into overt criminal depravity with a scheme which will involve fraud, kidnapping, theft, and sexual assault. His giggling slut of a girlfriend (a borderline misogynist cartoon, except Chabrol wins points for Audran’s strong character, and the grim-faced but honest landlady, and anyway, such persons do perhaps exist — American readers won’t have heard of Danielle Lloyd, and maybe in a few years none of us will have, God willing) is happy to take part in all of this, and moments where Cassell looks like he might be having second thoughts are pure red herring. In fact, he’s an expert at compartmentalizing: when he’s with Audran, his affection for her seems real, and may in fact be so. But it’s not going to stop him destroying her.

What’s so great about Audran is that she’s never dumb, she never lets the audience down by falling for something we wouldn’t fall for. In fact, given the slightest grounds for suspicion, she’s instantly alert, and she’s totally strong-willed and unwilling to compromise where she knows she shouldn’t. She’s so much smarter than we would be, I suspect only the fact that we’re given so much more information than her allows us to keep up. And this is incredibly unusual in thrillers.


Analysed coldly, Cassell’s plan is preposterous and bound to miscarry, but the film keeps us off-balance with its crazy storybook characters and blasts of realism that genuine suspense is created. Even if Cassell screws up completely, he could still get Audran killed, or someone else, or in any number of ways destroy all prospect of a happy ending.

Chabrol manages to create an edgy, uncertain happy ending, amid a flourish of psychedelic solarized imagery, flying balloons, and hokey homicide. The cartoon characters all act out of character, breaking through into a third dimension after two hours of silly caricature, and Cassell’s defeat is both satisfying and awful. The whole movie strikes me as a brilliant balancing act, one that involves crossing a high-wire not by walking or unicycling, but on a pogo-stick, wearing a suit of armour and flippers. It’s such a grotesque and peculiar display that Chabrol can even get away with the occasional misstep, since who’s to say such stumbles are not part of the act?


Suggestions are now open for more Chabrol I should be seeing! He’s made 69 films, the awful bastard, and while I might not be willing to make next year Chabrol Year on Shadowplay, I’m very keen to see more.

Questions:  who does Flemish surrealist Harry Kumel play? I know what he looks like but I couldn’t spot him. Is he in the satanic porno?

What is the connection to Murnau’s SUNRISE?