Archive for Lowell Sherman

The Sunday Intertitle: Cementing Relationships

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by dcairns


Original Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein sent me a heads-up by email, advising me to check out A LADY OF CHANCE, which has some plum intertitles. Norma Shearer is the titular hustler, a brazen con-artist working with Lowell Sherman (dropping down several levels of the social register from his usual playboys, but still delightfully suave and caddish) and brassy blonde Gwen Lee. Remarkable to see Shearer play hard-boiled — she gets to skulk, flounce, coolly calculate and flirt outrageously — I can’t think why she didn’t insist on playing bad girls full-time. She’s actually good at it.


Sherman, that unassuming rogue, should be the subject of gigantic retrospectives — a wonderful player and a fine director too. I have definite issues with the whole MGM sensibility, but he’s someone who could channel it smoothly, his tendency to play the classier kinds of scoundrel or otherwise flawed characters militating against the studio’s habitual poshlust.

Another old smoothie, bisexual Brit Edmund Goulding, contributed to the script, but the titles are credited to Ralph Spence, “highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word.”

You can buy it: A Lady of Chance, (1928)

The First Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2014 by dcairns


Over at the always exhilarating Observations on Film Art, David Bordwell, whom I finally met in Bologna along with his lovely partner Kristin Thompson, summarises the Cinema Ritrovato experience by writing up a single day’s viewing, thus giving us a sorta-kinda idea of what the overall buzz is like. I thought I’d steal the idea, as a way of reliving the glory and because there are plenty of enjoyable screenings that wouldn’t quite make a full blog post on their own.

I got into Bologna — or at any rate the outlying suburb-thing of Pianora, on the Saturday the fest began, late at night, so I missed such goodies as BEGGARS OF LIFE (recently enjoyed in Bo’ness) and Aleksandr Ford’s THE FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM, acclaimed as a masterpiece by those who saw it, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE on the big, big screen in the Piazza Maggiore. And finding a bus on a Sunday to take me into town proved troublesome, so by the time I’d arrived and registered and had a cappuccino alongside new best pal Jonathan Rosenbaum and met longtime correspondent Neil McGlone and fellow Scotsman Mark Cosgrove, it was 12.15 and the only thing to see before the long, civilised lunch break, was the program of musical shorts previously discussed here.

Said program also featured YES WE HAVE NO… (the missing word is BANANAS), a silhouette-film seemingly directed by the ludic Adrian Brunel (it was found in his collection, anyway) and produced by Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson. A cartoonish treatment of the torment inflicted by catchy earworms, popular songs of the moronic variety that burrow into your consciousness and jam the controls on “REPEAT.”


After lunch with the man I really must stop calling J-Ro, who gave me some useful pointers for stuff to see, I made perhaps a mistake and went to see a William Wellman double feature instead of THE TEMPTRESS, which looked extremely alluring, was only on once, and proved to be one of the hot tickets of the fest, the kind of thing for which the safety inspector averts an eye as the aisles fill up with perspiring bodies. But the Wellmans were good/interesting — YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN starred Clive Brook, Florence Vidor, El Brendel (ack!) and Lowell Sherman, whose villainous smoothy is excellent value. Wellman starts with a spectacular building site disaster. A labourer rescues the chic Vidor from cascading scaffolding. Sherman steps in and takes the swooning beauty from his muscular but filthy grasp. “I think I can do this sort of thing better than you,” he suggests, via intertitle, and proceeds to take credit for saving her life.

The story goes on to be a backstage melodrama with Clive Brook as jilted lover, Sherman as interloper, El Brendel as a colossal pain in the ass even without dialogue, the whole thing a warning as to the inconstancy of woman. But it’s not nasty about it or anything.


THE MAN I LOVE was an early talkie, and showed Wellman struggling, sometimes inventively, with the new technology. Sometimes he has three cameras running on a scene but they’re all badly positioned for the action as blocked, so the editor’s attempts to maintain audience engagement by shuttling from one bad view to another come to naught. But sometimes he throws the microphone aside and shoots mute, as in the boxing scenes, which have some impressively RAGING BULL-esque movement and vigour. And sometimes he simply stays on a decent shot, and lets the actors, a mulish Richard Arlen and an uncertain Mary Brian, wreck things for him.

Just up the hill at the Cinema Jolly, I could see UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE and LA CHIENNE, so I did. I’d never seen the latter, so comparing it to Lang’s remake, SCARLET STREET, was extremely interesting. Obviously the original is not a noir, and has a weird serio-comic tone of its own which leaves some strange moments undigested in the Lang, particularly the big punchline of the dead husband’s return. And Renoir is able to end the film in an anti-moralistic way: with a change of emphasis Lang could have his hero cheat the law and get away with murder, but be nevertheless destroyed by his guilt, and by the fraud already perpetrated against him. But in Renoir, the protagonist may be down on his luck, but he no longer cares. To society, he would seem to have been punished most severely, but he’s a perfectly happy guy. That’s much more unsettling.


UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE is a masterpiece, of course.

Jonathan R had recommended Paradjanov’s SAYAT NOVA, which I had always known under its Soviet-imposed name of THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES, so I clocked in for my last show of the day at 9.30 at the Sala Mastroianni. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen all of it before — it’s that kind of film. But the familiarity induced by the abrupt ending convinced me I must have, probably in Derek Malcolm’s Film Club on BBC2 or something. Probably a VHS recording of same, in fact.


A film about a poet that is in itself poetic is a rare thing. In fact, it’s very hard to tell whether Mr. Nova was any good as a poet — much of his verse is presented solely as title cards in Cyrillic, so you can’t even tell what it would sound like. And the bits that are translated have an almost adolescent whining tone — “I’m a really unhappy guy. Life stinks. Everybody hates me.” The one line that stuck out was “The world is a window.” Which is, you know, GREAT. Especially with Paradjanov’s stunning images as accompaniment.

Worrying about the poetry turned out to be part of a pattern with me — the last film of the day was usually one I had trouble getting into, owing to tiredness (with two magnificent exceptions — THE MERRY WIDOW and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.)

The film, now restored in its Ukrainian version, is so fantabulous that it’s quite wrong of me to want to use it simply as a stick with which to beat Peter Greenaway. The temptation still arises, though, because it would make such a terrific, all-annihilating stick.

Ye Gods!

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2012 by dcairns

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS was watched for either the Forgotten Pre-Codes series at The Daily Notebook or the Late Show: Late Films Blogathon, but ended up missing both. A shame, because it’s weird as hell and twice as interesting.

It’s the last film of director Lowell Sherman, that suave and portly screen Lothario who helmed plenty of sophisticated affairs in the early thirties — he died shortly after completing it, and it finally opened in 1935, after the Production Code was fully established, but it still has a certain racy vibe to it — where else can you see the hero of a film wilfully petrify a fishmonger?

Let me back up slightly and explain. The movie is from Universal, part of that great swarm of movies never released on home video — Universal have been good about getting their 30s horror films out, but have left the whole rest of their back catalogue festering in a vault, somewhere, it would seem. The film begins with this warning / statement of intent / helpless shrug —

Thereafter we meet an eccentric family, living under a barrage of explosions caused by mad scientist Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbry) and his crazy experiments. When Mowbry eventually achieves his goal, a magic ring which can turn things to stone, his first act is to use it on all his annoying relatives, save the glamorous Peggy Shannon, whom he likes.

All of this is fairly high-concept and understandable, but then Hawke meets a leprechaun, gets drunk with him, and starts a relationship with his daughter (the free-and-easy, strongly implied extra-marital sex seems bold for post-code). This, to me, falls under the heading of Double Voodoo — when a film contains more than one unrelated aberrant concept, it is in danger of disintegrating into a bag of bits. It seems valid , for instance, for Dracula to meet the Wolfman, since they’re both Mitteleuropean folkloric characters of supernatural origin, but if you throw in the Frankenstein monster, the product of electro-galvinism, you risk incohesion.

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS, it is fair to say, not only risks incohesion but pursues it relentlessly with slavering jaws. Hawke discovers that his ring can also transform stone into living flesh and blood, so he sneaks into the local art gallery after dark and brings to life all the Roman statues, who all turn out to have the personalities and powers of the mythic figures they represent. Soon, he and his leprechaun lover are running wild in the streets with Neptune (Robert Warwick, obsessed with fish), Hebe (Geneva Mitchell, obsessed with cups), Bacchus (George Hassell, unused to modern bootleg liquor) and too many others. Hawke casually petrifies anybody who gets in his way, behaving altogether more like a psychopath than one is used to seeing in a lead character of the period, outside of gangster films.

It’s very silly, mildly diverting and completely bananas — the early warning that most of the more insane parts are a dream is unfortunate, because it compromises the overall craziness which is the film’s chief merit and trait.

“He’s a hideous creature,” said Fiona of Mowbry, which is true, if a little unkind. But, as Hunter Hawk, his aristocratic bearing works well with his privileged, dreamy, inhumane character. No wonder his son Hudson turned out to be a burglar, forever trespassing in art galleries himself.