Archive for Maurice Tourneur

Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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Akimbo

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona and I debated the merits of this shot in Milestone’s THE RED PONY. She at first admitted it was striking. The she said it was silly.

I argued that it’s practical. It’s not just a decorative Sid Furie flourish. The framing, while tricksy, gives us two performances for the price of one. In the Colonel Custer beard is Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino AKA the Walking Fontanelle), and the shot obviously shows his attitude by displaying his facial expression, or that part of it that manages to fight its way past his whiskers. With her back to camera is Myrna Loy, as beautiful as ever if you could see her. “You can’t see her performance,” says Fiona. No, but you get her attitude.

When I went looking for Milestone images online I immediately found this, from MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY ~

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Not the same shot, but again, an image that gets more value that an over-the-shoulder would. A shoulder rarely gives you much character. This angle gives sex.

The OS shot, seemingly invented circa 1919, possibly by Maurice Tourneur in VICTORY, is so fantastically useful it should only be used as a last resort. In my first short film, I didn’t have any because four of my six main characters were hunchbacks (the film was called, logically enough, THE THREE HUNCHBACKS) and the actors had pillows stuffed up their shirts to raise bumps that completely hid their heads from a rear view. So rather than a head and shoulder creating a convenient corner to frame another actor in, the camera would simply have seen obscuring mounds.

(I was coming home from the last day of shooting carrying the pillows, which came from my parents’ house. I didn’t have a bag for them, but pillows sort of ARE bags, so I just carried them by their corners. A drunk stopped me. “Can I ask why you’re carrying those pillows?”

“Well, I’ve just made a film about hunchbacks.”

“Fair enough.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Swarthy Opponent

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by dcairns

Maurice Tourneur’s version of TRILBY (1915) foregrounds his renowned lighting effects right from the get-go, and though he doesn’t move the camera at all, he breaks up his tableaux staging with lively montages of close-ups, especially when the heroine sings. Our juvenile lead (31-year-old Chester Barnett) is introduced beside a shadow which looks like it should be his, except that he’s standing still while it rocks with laughter.

In the title role is Clara Kimball Young, whose name I knew but whom I’d never seen act. From her name I expected a plump Victorian matron, even though that wouldn’t fit the role created by George DuMaurier at all. That never stopped the Victorians. But CKY is young, spry and ebullient — she dominates the room, which makes her transformation under Svengali’s influence all the more affecting. CKY may play it big a lot of the time, but she’s never broad — the quicksilver transmutations of her expression draw the eye and keep it fixed upon her. She’s certainly more boisterous than Marian Marsh, the only other actress I’ve seen in the part.

Though set in London and Paris, with a few stock shots of the City of Light, the movie is a product of that other magical place, Fort Lee, New Jersey, the predecessor of Hollywood as America’s movie capital.

It’s slightly surprising that there were so many silent versions of this (full adaptations and even sample scenes — the story was so well-known early audiences could simply fill in the rest themselves), since the plot revolves around singing, but it’s also surprising to me that there haven’t been more recent versions. The character names and set-up are familiar even if the novel isn’t much read, so there’s an exploitable framework. I think the problem may lie in the somewhat semitic nature of Svengali, played here by the corpulent Wilton Lackaye as a sort of telepod fusion of Rasputin and Fagin. The Brits allow this evil Eastern European wanderer into their circle, he borrows their money and he steals their woman. It’s also about how women should choose marriage over a career. Virginal artist Billie is shocked that his sweetheart poses nude for artists, and then he tears her away from her successful stage act. Woman, know your place!

Plus, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA stole the best bits of the story and added deformity, masks, an underground lair and fifty more thicknesses of melodramatic excess. How do you go back to the stolid British original after Lon Chaney?

Fiona named her cat after Trilby because her purr turned to a trill in moments of extreme happiness. Here is the late Trilby ~

Like her namesake, she had a fine singing voice, as you can see.