Archive for MGM

The Monday Intertitle: Broken Hearts and Flap Shoes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by dcairns

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The intertitle is brilliantly insane, and only enhanced by the fact that Nil Asther in this movie shares a character name with Chico Marx (no stranger to a life of self-indulgence). “Cut down on the eccentric piano playing and get a better hat and everything will be fine!”

As in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928) — reportedly his favourite of his own movies — features a scene where Chaney, in clown costume, argues with a member of the nobility over the hand of a woman. It’s a surprisingly uncommon theme in drama. It also has him in a quasi-incestuous relationship, a regular item in Chaney’s lexicon of emotional masochism — here he’s in love with his ward, teenage Loretta Young.

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Chaney, I submit, was wrong — HWGS is a much better film than LCL, which stinks of MGM “class” — but that’s not to say the later film is devoid of interest. Chaney, fifteen-year-old Loretta Young and Nils Asther make an intriguing romantic triangle, and the ending doesn’t leave any of the melodrama on the table. “Devastating” would be a fair description. But as attempts to inflate anecdotes to feature-length go (in this case it’s the one about the famous clown — usually Grock, sometimes Grimaldi, occasionally Pagliacci — who visits a doctor complaining of misery) it feels a little overstretched in places — even with substantial footage missing. Would that material have helped or hindered?

The ending (spoiler alert: it’s the ending) –

I think Chaney has been looking at Barrymore for those hand movements. Or is it the other way around?

The director is Irishman Herbert Brenon, who also did PETER PAN. He handles it well, but was reportedly a bully — Chaney took to hanging about the set even when he wasn’t needed for a scene, just to look out for Young.

You will also note that Chaplin stole practically the whole of LIMELIGHT from this movie — clown — in love with his ward — ballerina — stage fall — tragic death in clown makeup — fade out.

This regular Shadowplay feature may well be dominated by Chaney movies until Halloween — any objections?

The Monday Intertitle: Mrs O’Grady — Old Lady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Two versions of THE UNHOLY THREE — I think I’d previously watched the talkie version, but zoned out a bit at the end — the key ideas had certainly lodged in my mind. And I’d convinced myself that I’d watched the silent but I hadn’t, else how could I have forgotten the giant chimp?

The original is a pretty perfect Tod Browning flick, with wild animal carnage, bizarre crime, ludicrous disguise and constant betrayal the order of the day. Plus an opening that serves up gat fat lady and Siamese twins in short order — plus this guy ~

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The ready acceptance of this flick by contemporary audiences explains why Browning thought he could get away with FREAKS. After all, when midget Harry Earles kicks a child in the face in Scene One, you’re laying out your stall pretty fast. In addition to Harry’s Tweedledee there’s Victor McLaglan, oddly unrecognizable in silent movie pancake makeup and lipstick as the brutal strong man Hercules, and of course Lon Chaney as transvestite ventriloquist Mr Echo.

The talkie, directed by Jack RED HEADED WOMAN Conway, is very faithful, but replaced McLaglan with burly Latvian Ivan Linov, who seems engaged in a contest with Earles regarding who can garble their lines most incomprehensibly.

Oddly, the silent version begins with a slightly decomposed MGM lion, staring proudly yet mutely, whereas in the talkie he roars — but no sound comes out.

The big question about doing a silent movie about ventriloquism is not so much “Why?” — since silent movies were all they had, the question hardly arises — as “How?” The solution devised by Browning and his colleagues is perfectly in keeping with the film’s comic book tone –

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Although an archetypal example of the Browning-Chaney-MGM school, the movie manages to prefigure Warner Bros pre-code crime flicks, the EC horror comic, and channel the pulp fiction weirdness of Cornell Woolrich. Without Chaney, this grotesque and carnivalesque approach to melodrama could not survive long at the studio — while Universal made out like bandits with horror movies in the ’30s, MGM made one attempt, FREAKS, and then ran scared. Their other weirdie, KONGO, was a remake of a Chaney picture. Had Chaney lived, the whole studio might have had a different personality.

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In the talkie, Charles Gemora rampages in his gorilla costume, as if to say “We had to end the thing SOMEHOW” — but the original’s solution is much stranger, deploying a chimpanzee in miniature sets, with Harry Earles doubling for Chaney (easily spotted by his bulbous baby head ballooning from under his hat like a Salvador Dali flesh-swelling). I haven’t seen many giant chimp effects — there’s the memorable fellow in the Fairbanks/Walsh THIEF OF BAGDAD, outfitted in black satin hot pants by Mitchell Leisen. And there’s the odd solution taken by MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which has Gemora costumed up in longshot but cuts to close-ups of an anonymous chimp (I like to think it’s Cheeta) to enhance/destroy the illusion. And in KONGA (not to be confused with KONGO) Michael Gough’s special mad science causes an ordinary household chimp to expand into a man in a gorilla suit. It’s as plausible as anything else in that film.

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McLaglan, Earles, Chaney.

The remake lacks some of the brutality (the child’s face doesn’t gush blood) but has good dialogue co-written by co-star Elliott Nugent (a decent pre-code director himself) –

Lady responds to talking parrot: “Isn’t that a biblical quotation?”

Chaney as Mrs O’Grady: “Yes. You see, this bird used to belong to Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Nugent: “It’s wonderful how your grandmother can make those birds talk.”

Lila Lee: “Aw, she could make Coolidge talk.”

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We had fun suggesting stars for a remake, but few of our modern players can do surly/grotesque like Lon Snr. Maybe Pacino? But where would you find a dwarf small enough to star opposite him?

Buy it: The Unholy Three (1925)
Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection (He Who Gets Slapped / Mockery / The Monster / Mr. Wu / The Unholy Three / The Unholy 3)

The Sunday Intertitle: Gold Fever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Clarence Brown’s THE TRAIL OF ’98 makes somewhat morbid viewing, if you’re aware of the story told about its making — a boatload of stuntmen overturned while running the rapids, and a rope strung across the river to help them resist the current proved ineffectual, because the assistant director hadn’t reinforced the dangling nooses with wire. The nooses hung limp and froze into knotty poles — the numb fingers of the perishing crew men could not find purchase, and four were swept off to their deaths. Only two bodies were recovered, the other two being carried away into the glacier.

So we’ll get them back any day now.

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The movie is spectacular — the Chillcoot Pass sequence easily dwarfs its equivalent in Chaplin’s earlier THE GOLD RUSH — but lacks a plot for most of its running time. An opening montage shows how the discovery of gold energizes a motley band of hopefuls to drop everything and Go North, and then we follow their travails, but the drama is stubbornly not on a human scale — we can’t learn much that differentiates Dolores Del Rio’s character (she’s not playing Mexican here, which is interesting) from, say, Tully Marshall’s scraggly preacher or Karl Dane’s comedy Swede (yes, he does say “Yumping Yiminy!”)

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The only one to make a real impression is Harry Carey as the villain, because he has such a fiery screen charisma. Just by grinning coldly he lets us know that this guy is dangerous. Later, he rapes Del Rio, and Brown films a driving track-in on her terrified face from Carey’s point of view — the scene fades out with a Vitaphone scream, this being an MGM soundie (also featuring gunshots and a song).

The movie is also a pre-code, which means that Del Rio, forced into prostitution, doesn’t have to die — she and her lover are reunited and he begs her forgiveness, since it was his abandoning her to go hunt gold that led to her downfall in the first place. MGM movies weren’t usually so progressive, but Clarence Brown does embody the studio’s more humane and liberal tendencies (making the brutality of this film all the more startling).

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At the impressive climax, Carey biffs it out with hero Ralph Forbes, in the bloodiest bit of stage fighting I’ve seen outside of RAGING BULL or TOKYO FIST. Finally, Carey draws a gun and Forbes lets him have it with an oil lamp — the blazing Carey (or rather, his double) staggers down the corridor, setting fire to the building as he goes, then topples over a balcony onto the dance floor. He’s still trying to pull himself along by his hands as the whole of Dawson City bursts into flames…

The movie isn’t exactly likable — movies with fatalities seldom are — and the thinness of the plot doesn’t help it, but the spectacle is shockingly good. A special effects avalanche saved them from killing even more people, and though you can see that the victims vanishing beneath the falling snow are actually being removed by an animated wipe, it’s very effective.

The IMDb reports that Jacques Tourneur was an extra in this and that Dolores Del Rio’s stunt double was Lou Costello. This is hard to imagine, but fairly amusing if you manage it. The main problem with the anecdote is that Dolores doesn’t jump out of any windows, but plenty of other people do, so the possibility of Lou donning drag and defenestrating himself cannot be dismissed altogether.

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