Archive for Moonrise

Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot —

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

Are you now or have you ever been a romantic?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2008 by dcairns

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THE RIVER.

One of my favourite books, or two of them, is Richard Roud’s two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary – The Major Filmmakers, which has a nice piece on Borzage by Andrew Sarris, probably the first thing I ever read on F.B. I suspect I first turned to it after seeing those awesome clips from SEVENTH HEAVEN in A Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which blew my mind long before I was able to see MOONRISE.

Sarris quotes “David” (more usually Dave) Kehr as saying “MOONRISE [1948] is the last film Frank Borzage completed before the blacklist forced him into a ten-year period of inactivity.” (Borzage in fact directed some television in 1955 and 1956.) This remark, in the Spring 1973 issue of Focus! was apparently the first mention of Borzage in connection with blacklisting. It makes sense though, since Borzage was the embodiment of what HUAC called “premature anti-fascism”, having attacked the Nazi party in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?, THREE COMRADES and THE MORTAL STORM, an informal trilogy covering the history of Germany between the wars, and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, an innocent-seeming morale-booster features an appearance by some, apparently real, Russian soldiers who are celebrated (by Sam Jaffe) for having “exterminated” the Germans at Stalingrad. (An incredibly glamorous fighting woman grimly intones that should she face another German, “My hand will not tremble.”) This is certainly the kind of thing that could cause a filmmaker career problems further down the line.

Annoyingly, confirmation of Kehr’s claim is thin on the ground — even Sarris seems unsure how seriously to take it, and the Disgustingly Expensive Borzage Book seems to dismiss the idea. It’s been suggested that Borzage may have been banned from the studios because of his drinking problem rather than his political affiliations — more blackballed than blacklisted. There’s also the possibility that illness, particularly depression, stopped Borzage working, and the blacklisting was a figment of Kehr’s imagination or a glitch in his research.

I hoped to confirm Kehr’s remark, using the excellent documentary series THE RKO STORY — I clearly recalled Borzage’s name appearing on an actual blacklist. A black list. A list that is positively black. Legal proof, I thought. A frame grab of a DVD-R of a 16mm film of a document — what could be more legally binding?

Strangely though, when I scanned the show to find the name, it wasn’t there. A hallucination. A figment. Odd!

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Maybe somebody could ask Dave Kehr if he has further information?

Frank’s Wilderness Years

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by dcairns

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In a fit of perversity I reached for my old, unwatched VHS tape of HIS BUTLER’S SISTER, which is ironically one of the very few Frank Borzage films you can buy in the U.K. on DVD (blame the Deanna Durbin Box Set for this one’s availability). I thought I might like to try a very minor F.B. film since I was in danger of overdosing on masterpieces. LIVING ON VELVET and THE MORTAL STORM and MAN’S CASTLE and A FAREWELL TO ARMS are quite rich, quite emotional, and to some extent aim for the same kinds of sublimity and ecstasy, and the last thing I wanted was to burn out. This one seemed like a total change of pace.

I also wanted to see something from the years before MOONRISE but after Borzage’s peak period (usually given as late ’20s to very early ’40s), when he was also supposed to be combatting a drinking problem, and when he seems to have been assigned a few atypical projects that may not have been perfectly suited to his talents. This light musical comedy might be one of them.

It also has a weirdly duff title, a phrase that makes my head throb dully as I scan it for any implied drama or humour or promise of entertainment. Why would you call a film HIS BUTLER’S SISTER? If you would, then why not follow it with HER PODIATRIST’S COUSIN or THEIR MILKMAN’S FATHER-IN-LAW? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking something that isn’t interesting, and then placing it at two removes so you can’t quite get it in focus. I mean, Deanna Durbin actually plays a singer: that’s quite interesting, or at least lots of people in the ’40s thought it was. But we pass over that in this wretched title, focussing instead on her status as a sibling. OK, so she has a brother. And he’s a butler, you say? Well, I don’t see what business that is of mine, but I’m willing to accept your word for it. And then the addition of HIS, adding to the whole rigmarole a third character about whom we are to know nothing except that he has a butler who has a sister. WHY???

The only way I can think of to further disimprove this title would be either to add a third layer of character filtration, as in HIS BUTLER’S SISTER’S SCHNAUSER, or to just give up and call it HIS BUTLER’S QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

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But, as the credits role, hope springs! Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein (Google his credits and goggle in awe) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (far fewer amazing titles, but she collaborated with the Hoff on CLUNY BROWN, a favourite here at the Shadowplayhouse). Then we get an amusing novelty number, sung and danced at Franchot Tone in a train corridor. Franchot is a songwriter who’s sick of amateurs pitching their numbers at him. He’s also a broadway producer or something, on his way to Cleveland (?), and Deanna Durbin is a young hopeful bound for New York and HERE SHE COMES —

Borzage follows her back through two entire carriages, preparatory to the big reveal of her face, and WOW she’s at her absolute peak of beauty. I’m not, despite my celebration of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, a special Durbinite (my maternal grandmother loved her films though), finding her usual stuff a bit maybe saccharine, but she has enormous charm and this movie seems to be the one that captures her beauty just as she had left childhood behind. Oh boy, now I’m going to Google her and learn she was 14 and I’ll look like a pervert. No, we’re OK, she’s 22.

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Anyway the film is light and nice, although the writers perhaps need the Lubitsch touch to hit the heights, and the plot depends heavily on coincidence. Then there’s the menfolk. Pat O’Brien? Why not just fill a burlap sack with gravel and point a camera at that? And Franchot Tone? I have a sort of affection for him based on his playing a daffy psycho in PHANTOM LADY, which is a gloriously comic-book noir that captures some of the unreality of Cornell Wollrich’s novel. But Tone is a strange choice to pair with Durbin: don’t we want somebody a little more innocuous? Still, it’s a relief he makes it through the movie without having his head kicked in (this was always happening to Tone in real life: one episode of The Twilight Zone that he stars in shows him perpetually in profile, like Dick Tracy, because the more distant side of his face looked like the Somme). 

But Deanna’s introductory shot, which smacks of THE NARROW MARGIN only nine years earlier, is enough to convince me that Borzage’s rumoured drinking problem didn’t stop him coming up with bold and beautiful visual stratagems. I’m now inclined to believe that absolutely everything he’s made deserves full investigation. STAGE DOOR CANTEEN beckons…