Archive for Mary Pickford

Time’s Arrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2020 by dcairns

The trouble with online film festivals is similar to that with physical film festivals — finding time to see everything. Pordenone has been putting everything up for around twenty-four hours, though sometimes mysteriously not quite that long, which does alleviate the problem. But I didn’t organize my waking hours correctly so I saw mere minutes of Cecil B. DeMille’s ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS.

So this isn’t a review, and doesn’t aim to answer the question of whether Howard Hawks was right to say “I learned what to do by looking at John Ford, and what not to do by looking at C.B. DeMille.” However the answer is “yes.”

But the opening minutes of ROTR do showcase what was obviously popular about DeMille: he threw lots of bold images at the screen and made a naked appeal to the audience’s emotions. The tableau above is just gorgeous, and the scene fades up with everyone frozen in place just like a painting, and then presumably Cec blasts “Action!” at them through a megaphone the size of a Christmas tree, and everyone comes alive. Are the ridiculous aspects of this movie down to the merciless passage of time, my own cynicism, or a lack of delicacy on CB’s part? That one I can’t answer.

Lots of wild night/day clashes in the first minutes. Of course there was no satisfactory way of doing consistent night scenes in 1917, but it’s very weird when CBD cuts from the above day exterior to an interior of the stagecoach, in continuous time, and the bandit is seen inhabiting an abstract black void.

But I kind of enjoy this kind of naïve technique.

It’s 1849. Everybody’s naïve! The particularly naïve Mary Pickford, newly orphaned, is, it seems, keen to join her uncle prospecting in the California Gold Rush. She admires a photograph of the geezer. Cecil cuts to a wagon train, where said uncle is rapidly beset by marauding injuns. Cut back to Mary preparing for her journey. Carefully rolling a jar of conserves in cloth, packing plenty of essential frocks. “Jenny, your uncle’ll be so proud when he takes you to a ball!” predicts her friend. They pause to admire unc’s photo again.

CUT TO:

Bold, bloody and bathetic. You can’t fault Cec for timidity. As his brother, the more modest William, put it, “Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, and then chewing it.”

But then he immediately provides some more clearly deliberate humour: when Mary’s friend shows her the book illustration reproduced up top (a vaguely BUSTER SCRUGGS moment), Mary shows her the sensible precautions she’s taking, by producing, with infinite care, the world’s tiniest pistol:

Quite sorry I couldn’t see all of this one.

Frame-frabs mostly by Mark Fuller. Thanks, Mark!

The Sunday Intertitles: Fight or Flight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2020 by dcairns

Pordenone Silent Film Festival is a joy. Unfortunately I’ve only been once, with NATAN, but this year the festival is online — not the same thing, I know, but the price is extraordinarily reasonable, less than 10 euros for the whole show, which runs until the 10th with two shows daily. Sign up!

Day one brought us travelogues of different places and times, fulfilling our thwarted desire to stretch our legs a bit during this here pandemic. There were scenes of Egypt (above), Krakow, New York, Paris, and a fantasy travelogue about a flying house, which would be the very thing right now.

Sadly the escapade ends with the house buffeted by a thunderstorm, then set ablaze by a volcano, then exploding and crashing, so I guess that’s why we haven’t heard more of the intrepid Vendebout and Courandair.

The evening show was PENROD AND SAM, a Booth Tarkington adaptation that eschewed plot for a series of expressive sketches, varying between comedy and tragedy, depicting the adventures of two boys, their dog, their gang, and various rivals.

The dog Duke was played with great skill and sensitivity by the dog Cameo, a movie veteran with, like director William Beaudine, Mary Pickford films in his CV. Although I think they missed a trick and his character should have been called Tooth Barkington.

All the kids are great. The adults or quasi-adults include Rockliffe Fellowes (charmless kindly bootlegger in the Marx Bros’ MONKEY BUSINESS) and Mary Philbin, but are fine. We weren’t as enamoured of these scamps as the film would like — they are bullies and cheats, and that’s just the good guys. And the adults sometimes behave implausibly to make stuff happen for the slender narrative, although that’s a sensation that feels kind of accurate to childhood experience.

The treatment of race, as the programme notes pointed out, is unusually lacking in horrible stereotyping. In a standard bit of business when someone is accidentally ensheeted and appears as a ghost, it’s one of the Black kids who CAUSES the fright, rather than being a wide-eyed victim. And the scenes of flirtation between a Black boy and girl are charming and really unusual. Generally speaking there’s humour without mockery. The Black kids are ragged and uneducated, it’s true, but they’re part of the gang, and though they’re not leaders, they appear equal with the rest.

The film’s attitude to perfect gentleman Georgie Bassett is much more troubling. He wears glasses and (horrors!) a wrist watch, so is not equipped for tumbling out of trees with the rest. He’s played by the skilful Master Newton Hall with much fey fussiness, and while the movie-makers probably don’t quite see him as an incipient pink menace, he’s clearly condemned as a sissy, someone too eager to be an adult, someone who will make everything less cool by his very presence.

The film is nevertheless charming until its abrupt conclusion: since the movie isn’t interested in reforming its enemy boys, no full resolution is possible, and ultimately there’s a sense that nothing is accomplished. But maybe that’s part of what the film is aiming for — with no narrative progression or character development, it can conjure the illusion of a golden boyhood that will go on forever.

Director William Beaudine very nearly did go on forever: his career began with some short screenplays in 1913, he started directing features in 1915. In 1943 he made THE APE MAN (his best-known title per the IMDb), so his career would seem to be in serious trouble… but he kept going, without anybody particularly appreciating him, until BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA in 1966 (last movie) and Lassie in ’69 (for TV). He died in 1970, but that didn’t stop him, as he had several posthumous releases including two features carved from episodes of The Green Hornet he had directed years previously and which had now acquired new value due to the demise of Bruce Lee. His career seems to attest to a Great Truth of Hollywood — if you just keep plugging away for fifty-six years… you might get a film festival screening of something you made during your first decade, fifty years after you’re dead.

Secrets and Les

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by dcairns

SECRETS (1933), is Mary Pickford’s final film, and a remake by writer Frances Marion and director Frank Borzage of their 1924 drama of the same year, which I only realised after twenty minutes as I felt the deja vu lapping around my ankles.

Leslie Howard is male lead this time, replacing Eugene O’Brien, which helps Act 1 play as a romantic comedy (Norma Talmadge was the star of the original, which I caught in Bologna). Act 2 is a western, Act 3 is a kind of political/society drama, and then there’s a romantic comedy coda with the stars in old age make-up.

I don’t know what drove FB & FM to remake this film, since it never hung together the first time. With rapid course corrections as to tone and genre and location, and the characters aging from young (Pickford plays a teenager at forty-one without straining one’s credulity) to old (the make-up is kept shadowy but holds up well, as do the perfs), the only thing to stop this disintegrating into a bag of bits would be a thematic link, as suggested by the title. But the various story units don’t keep the idea of secrecy in play — it gets produced from nowhere right at the end to con us into thinking we’ve been watching something with connective tissue, cohesion, a reason to be one long film rather than three or four short ones.

That said, the chapters all have merit, and our protags make a sweet couple. Borzage ha become a lot more experimental since the early twenties, though he was always likely to reach for an unconventional touch from time to time, from the early days up until at least MOONRISE. Pickford talks well, and acquires, as Fiona observed, a bit of Howard’s technique — if it IS a technique — of stumbling over words and repeating them, adding naturalism to the theatrical situations. But her best moments are visual, and a tragic sequence where her baby is killed in the midst of a wild west gunfight leads to a masterclass in wordless performance, played out as bullets smash the window panes behind her, unnoticed by the grieving mother,