Archive for Mervyn Leroy

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…

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Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin —

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit —

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

X-Ray! X-Ray!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2011 by dcairns

It’s positively Boris Karloff this time!

The most pertinent possible film in light of the continuing News of the World tabloid phone-hacking shitstorm has to be FIVE STAR FINAL, which shows how the drive for circulation drives out any other human impulse and destroys any other purpose journalism might be expected to pursue. I screened it for a couple of lucky students at my workplace last week, and have now written about it for The Chiseler, here.

In other news — HUGE congratulations to my friends Colin and Morag, whose feature DONKEYS won the Big Prize at BAFTA Scotland, and to their leading man, James Cosmo, who won Best Actor.