Archive for Man’S Castle

There’s glory for you

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2018 by dcairns

I have a goddamn cold, with accompanying lung-ructions so body-racking that I may have to forgo my scheduled trip to Glasgow tomorrow to see Joe Dante’s THE MOVIE ORGY, a prospect that vexes me even more than the sniffles, consumption and sweats.

By co-inky-dink I pursued a Borzage project by watching NO GREATER GLORY (1934), in which a small boy’s zealous pursuit of gang warfare (the cute, rough-and-tumble kind, not the nasty, switch-blade and chains kind) results in him contracting pneumonia. Borzage is often weird, and this anti-war parable or-is-it? is a fine example. The boy’s life-threatening condition introduces the other kids to the real stakes of warfare, but at the same time allows him to demonstrate pluck and grit and schoolboy honour, which the film appears to value just as fervently as its young heroes.

George P. Breakston is the main kid. He went on to co-direct THE MANSTER, which I suppose I have to rewatch now in search of Borzagean influence.

Good use of Frankie Darro’s haunted mug (top), as he morphs from strutting bully/fascist to hollow-eyed witness of tragedy. Great, almost purely physiognomic work: when he plays mean, you hate his ugly face and can’t see him as anything other than villainous. When he plays sad, you think, “What a great tragic face he has.”

There’s also some wild rear-projection used for pedestrian action, something of a Borzage feature at this time (see also MAN’S CASTLE). Here, little Georgie towers over an approaching motorcyclist in a background presumably intended for an adult star.

Based on a Ferenc Molnar autobiographical novel (they were running out of his plays?), this is one of those countless thirties films set in Hungary for no discernible reason, so Borazage unspools some scenic Budapest footage behind his actors. Capra associate Jo Swerling wrote the script (we’re at Columbia).

I’m not sure if this is first-rate Borzage, but maybe I’m just too packed with phlegm to appreciate it fully. But he’s certainly fully engaged, shooting it almost like a silent film. I believe it would be perfectly clear without sound. There are none of the expressionist irruptions I love so much in FB’s work, apart from some feverish hallucinations during the pneumonia sequence ~

I hope I don’t get a translucent Jimmy Butler persecuting me as I toss in my delirium.

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“If it’s a man kid it’ll never grow up.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2008 by dcairns

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Jon Kricfalusi would love these off-model Mickey Mices.

MAN’S CASTLE is a neatly double-edged title, since Spencer Tracy, the titular male, starts the film as apparently self-confident and indomitable, the kind of guy who creates a feudal estate out of any surroundings, but by the end of the picture his insecurity and immaturity have been firmly established, and we imagine something maybe more like a sandcastle for him to play with…

Jo Swerling, author of several Frank Capra depression-era fantasias, penned this beautiful and strange Borzage masterwork. The similarities and differences are plain enough: like any piece of Capra-corn, this movie raises the spectre of the depression but sugar-coats it with hope. Unlike in Capra, though, the protagonists this time don’t end up materially better off. It’s a tale of survival and romance, rather than one of triumph over the odds in the capitalist game.

Spencer Tracy as Bill is wearing a tuxedo and  feeding popcorn to pigeons when he notices the beautiful Trina (Loretta Young, gorgeous) eyeing the bird-feed hungrily. He takes her for a meal, and then we discover that this fellow, who dresses like a debauched swell, hasn’t a cent to his name. The dinner jacket is part of his costume: the shirt front lights up as an ad for a store. We discover this as the pair escape the restaurant and walk to Bill’s digs, through back-projected streets populated by EERIE GIANTS.

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Arriving at another piece of studio artifice, the city’s New Deal shanty town, Spencer becomes swiftly nude and jumps in the river for a wash. Loretta follows, in a bit of pre-code spice. The pair presumably become lovers at this point. This is pretty surprising (they’ve just met) but in keeping with Borzage’s sexual sophistication. He’s a spiritual filmmaker, and his branch of spirituality is explicitly Christian, but he finds room for sexuality in his world-view. He’s like Prince, in that respect. There, I said it: Frank Borzage is like Prince. Only without the purple blouse.

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Even though this is the pre-code nudie bit, there isn’t a racy sense of Warner Bros smut: they look like souls drifting in space. A fat soul and a thin soul.

Spencer Tracy can be an issue: “It’s difficult for me to look at him,” says Fiona around this point, “because I find him physically repulsive. But he’s fascinating to watch.” It’s a good performance, with only occasional stomach-churning moments, but a GREAT role. Even Tracyphobes like ourselves are won over.

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Let’s face it, he’s not the most handsome man. He looks like a potato would look if God got drunk and tried to make a potato out of lard. He also looks like Stretch Armstrong. Stretch was a toy my best friend Craig had when we were little, and he was made of special rubber so he could stretch his arms and legs and torso like Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic or Mr. Fanplastic. Eventually he burst, emitting tetragenic latex sap, a noxious white fluid that stank the room out. I believe Spencer Tracy contains the same substance, slopping around inside him as he lopes through the city on his amazing stilts (he’s trying to compete with those eerie rear-projected giants).

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The theme of a hovel transfigured into a castle, or a heaven, by love, is a classic Borzagean concept, expressed fully in SEVENTH HEAVEN and reprised in a straight rip-off in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? Style is self-plagiarism, and Borzage sees no shame in repeating a successful trope. Bill and Trina set up in his shack, where a sliding hatch exposes him to the sky (“my hunk of blue”, he says, paraphrasing Wilde) whenever he needs a dose of freedom, but the sound of the freight trains constantly passing calls to him, and torments Trina . Initially afraid of everything, she flowers under his protection, and comes only to be anxious that he’ll leave her. Bill becomes MORE afraid, as he starts to sense how hard it’s going to be for him to get away. Trina’s pregnancy brings things to a head.

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I think I agree with Arhur, who calls this a truly great film. It takes a non-judgemental and intimate look at an unconventional relationship between two extraordinary people. Trina comes from nowhere — we don’t learn anything about her past. She’s just poor. Bill has obviously been around a bit, and may have a history with Flossie, the shantytown drunk. His way of showing affection to Trina is to insult and threaten her. This verges on the harsh, alright, but the way Loretta Young reacts shows that she fully understands that this is just his way of masking affection: it means “I love you.” There’s a risk that, accepting all this verbal abuse, Trina could seem like a doormat, but Loretta just GLOWS — she’s receiving compliments and expressions of love with every insult. It’s not masochism, it’s just an ability to read Bill’s true meaning. The only thing that upsets her is when he talks about leaving.

Bill starts off as an admirable, self-reliant larger-than-life character who teaches Trina to live. But like most larger-than-life characters, he’s soon found to have intolerable as well as admirable traits. He operates according to a personal code, and he broadcasts the fact loud and clear, but he doesn’t really live up to his own standards. He’s unfaithful to Trina (with Glenda Farrell, the Personality Kid, so we kind of understand) and when he learns she’s expecting, he throws himself into a scheme to steal the payroll from a toy factory — the plan being to give Trina the money so she’ll be OK when he runs off and leaves her. Of course, Bill becomes more interested in the toys. He’s a big kid.

Now that she’s pregnant, Trina comes into her own and emerges as the stronger, more mature character. Another beautiful and strange Borz ending — his characters don’t tend to get rich, they continue struggling, but the optimism comes through in Borzage’s core belief that love will make struggling worthwhile.

“I was blown up eating cheese.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2008 by dcairns

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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