Archive for Morocco

We’re three happy chappies in snappy serapes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on December 28, 2017 by dcairns

The above title has nothing to do with today’s post, but I did watch highlights of Disney’s THE THREE CABALLEROS and now I have the lyrics (by Ray Gilbert) swirling round in my head like your hopes and dreams going down a drain. Be that as it may, over at The Chiseler I continue my random quest through Marlene Dietrich’s films with Josef Von Sternberg. This time it’s MOROCCO, Marlene’s first Hollywood film, which always sends me to sleep. But it fascinates me too.

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

“I was blown up eating cheese.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2008 by dcairns

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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