Archive for MGM

Winthrop-Wilfong

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2017 by dcairns

“My God, the film begins with flagrant underwear-flaunting.”

Leslie Howard is Dwight Winthrop! Clark Gable is Ace Wilfong! There’s no excuse for a Dramatis Personae containing both those names.

This is Wilfong. But this is not Wilfong’s hat.

It’s a Norma Shearer movie, though. But it contrasts with THE DIVORCEE with a more low-life milieu and a more pre-code atmos. It begins by teasing us with an offscreen nude Shearer, the implication that Lionel Barrymore is her sugar-daddy, the aforementioned undies-flaunting, and then the revelation that Lionel is her actual daddy. James Gleason appears, cranium like a misshapen light bulb.

The very talented Clarence Brown directs, and though, with rare mobile exceptions, each scene tends to fade up on a static wide shot, the soundtrack full of pensive crackle, the thing is actually pretty cinematic. Brown delivers some truly expressive angles, as when Shearer and Howard face off over a barrier in a prison visiting room.

“They would never allow that much physical contact in a visiting room,” protested Fiona during the subsequence embrace.

“I think they had more leeway in MGM’s visiting rooms,” I suggested.

Fiona felt the film was missing a trick — preventing the bodily touching could be really powerful. Barriers are dramatically valuable. But this IS MGM. How can they pass up a clinch?

Gable won on the rematch in GONE WITH THE WIND, arguably, but the levels of stardom are quite different at this point, giving Leslie Howard advantages over the jug-eared, oddly canine-featured newbie. Maybe it’s that tiny clown hat that makes him look like a cartoon bulldog?

Gleason is the most credible performer — you assume that meeting him, he would be just like that. And he wasn’t — check his perf in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for a whole different characterisation. Next best is probably Gable, radiating confidence and not bothering to apologise for his character’s nastiness. Howard is fine, Shearer fluctuates between genuinely excellent and painfully fakey. She still strikes poses madly, and affects a musical laugh which may either delight or cause subconscious contraction of the hand muscles, producing a strangler-like-effect.

Lionel Barrymore as her dad is in a whole different school, stylised and theatrical like Shearer but doing it at a much higher level of expertise, pulling it off consistently. Really it’s his film — he plays an alcoholic lawyer who will end up defending one of his daughter’s lovers for shooting the other, and convicting himself as a lousy parent in the process. It’s a very well-structured play — ambitious location shooting can’t shake of the aura of the stage (Adela Rogers St. Johns is credited for her source novel, but it comes by way of Willard Mack’s stage version), and Brown’s dramatic angles aren’t frequent enough to turn it completely into a fluid movie, but it does represent a big step on from THE DIVORCEE. The frame, rather than just capturing the Cedric Gibbons sets and the actors’ poses, contributes to the storytelling a lot more, and the pacing is a hundred times sharper.

Strabismus of Passion

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by dcairns

THE DIVORCÉE (1930), an early talkie from MGM, is one those films that’s only really enjoyable when you watch it with my wife.

It’s so early, the MGM lion doesn’t actually produce any sound when he roars, he just sort of moves his lips like Jean Hagen.

This is the first image. So we know it’s going to be cutting edge entertainment. This cheeky fellow’s actually performing Singin’ in the Rain, because this is MGM — it segues into You Were Meant For Me a little later.

The film is stodgy and stagey, and what narrative drive it has is seriously hampered by awkward framing, acting and general pacing. Star Norma Shearer makes the mistake of marrying Chester Morris, overlooking in her ardor the fact that his nose is an extension of his sloping forehead, as if he were wearing a medieval helmet made of skin. When she finds out he’s cheated on her, she cheats on him with Robert Montgomery (only unclenched performance in the film) and then she actually clutches the drapes, so hard she leaves a permanent kink.

Fiona: “My God she’s terrible. And they must have used a lot of starch on those drapes.”

Me: “All that was left over from the cast.”

But the costume changes by Adrian kept us watching. “She’s a great clothes-horse.” Not just gowns but sportswear. Anything, really.

“She’s OK in THE WOMEN,” Fiona admits. Of which this is a clear precursor, having almost the same story but none of the funny, interesting or special qualities.

And Cedric Gibbons dresses the sets just as beautifully. The slow pace, and the desire to exploit the possibilities of offscreen sound, result in some nice empty frames of the kind you know I like.

“Look at that coffee set! My God, look at the creamer! I can’t remember ever being so excited by the china in a film. Look at that vase!”

Director Robert Z. Leonard manages to rustle up a montage of hands, the dialogue playing outside the frame, a sophisticated touch slightly deflated by the linking of shots by fades to black, in case things got too lively. There’s also a crazy drunken rear-projected car ride followed by screaming hysteria, smashed metal, bloody faces and stark lighting, an unexpected break from the drawing-room theatrics. And the turgid pace allows us to appreciate the invention applied to solving the problems of the immobile mic, location filming, unusual wide shots, etc.

“We need to watch another film as an antidote.”

A couple of mugs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 5, 2017 by dcairns

Continuing our exploration of Oliver Hardy’s criminal career.

From BONNIE SCOTLAND (1935), which alas isn’t too good. The anti-talents at MGM doing their best to destroy a winning formula.

But I like how Stan is doing his Sad Face in the frontal shot and his Happy Face in profile. A man of mercurial moods.

“You can see I wasn’t feeling very good,” begins Stan in explanation, “You see, my left -” but then he is interrupted, leaving us to wonder always.