Archive for Pat O’Brien

The Monday Intertitle: Bum! There, I’ve said it.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-01-24-19h06m50s244

Al Jolson exults in for once being the palest guy onscreen.

My screening of HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM! (Lewis Milestone, 1933) was cut short by the realisation that I was watching a version recorded, I suspect, from Australian TV. Nothing wrong with that, and it should not be inferred that I bear any grudge against that antipodean continent, where Milestone himself shot one feature (KANGAROO, 1952). But in Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the word “bum” means something else. We know about the US usage, and might even occasionally lower ourselves to using it that way, but evidently the censor wasn’t going to let that pass.

The retitling was amusing and wouldn’t stop me watching and enjoying the film, but Al Jolson sings about the joys of being a bum in Central Park, and the censor drowns out the “B” word each time with an amplified bird tweet. Bizarre — and unusually inventive for a censor, usually not such a creative breed. It even fits in with the scene, which begins with Al whistling and features a chorus of crows. My question is, what did the Brit and Aussie audiences think was being censored? It HAD to be worse than “bum” in their minds.

Your best advice is to watch the scene, mentally subbing in the worst one-syllable swear-word you can think of whenever that twittering strikes.

Worse, it turns out the whole song has been massively chopped, with passages of Lorenz Hart recitative in which the bums tramps speak of their activities, which involve — gasp! — a lack of respect for law and order — pruned away altogether — you can hear the hot-splice in the celluloid as it bumps across the sound head. I’m actually intrigued now to watch both versions to see what else the British or Australian censor objected to in 1933…

What else do we need? Oh yes, an intertitle!

vlcsnap-2014-01-26-13h51m25s166

This is the opening of THE FRONT PAGE — it’s followed by a scene of the city hangman testing his gibbet with a sack of flour (“Sunshine Flour Ensures Domestic Happiness) — and it’s clear that Milestone is more interested in the Hecht-MacArthur play’s satiric intent than Hawks, or even Wilder. Hawks seems to disregard this aspect altogether, without removing it, so it sort of motors along in the background, an acid undercurrent to the romantic comedy and farce elements. One reviewer wrote of the Hawks movie, “The trouble is, when they made THE FRONT PAGE the first time, it stayed made. No longer really true, since HIS GIRL FRIDAY has eclipsed its predecessor utterly. And deservedly — it’s far funnier — despite Milestone’s amazing camerawork and a generally fine cast. (Pat O’Brien’s impersonation of Lee Tracy is spookily accurate, and rather outrageous, since he’d won the part from LT, who originated it on Broadway. PO’B must’ve been sitting in the front row with a miniaturized dictaphone yet to be invented.)

vlcsnap-2014-01-26-14h06m31s255

OK, since I love you, here’s another intertitle. From the silent version of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which I haven’t written about much directly during the ten days of Lewis Milestone Week, since it’s already very well-known, kind of to the detriment of LM’s reputation, but it’s informed everything I’ve written.

Andrew Kelly’s fine book, Filming All Quiet On The Western Front reports that several cast members told film historians that no silent version ever existed. Fortunately a print showed up to prove them wrong. So much of film history is based on oral accounts, and the human memory is so creative and tricky — before digital, it was the only medium that could not only store, but edit, re-colour, re-compose, re-light, enlarge, crop, keystone and diffuse.

OK, one more, because I can’t stop. And one more Milestone post, tomorrow, a sort of Grand Finally. And then, more or less, I’ll off be reporting from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and then from the Curzon Soho in London, both times in the company of my film NATAN.

vlcsnap-2014-01-26-14h17m36s238

“HELLYES!” Line is spoken by a parrot. The Hays Code was powerless, since its authority does not extend to the avian family.

This is from FINE MANNERS, which still shows traces of Milestone dynamism even though he walked off the picture after a disagreement with Gloria Swanson. I’m almost certain that, unlike the case of Von Stroheim and QUEEN KELLY, the disagreement did not involve him having somebody dribble tobacco juice on her, but you never know.

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

Wicked Women

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2010 by dcairns

It’s easy to be a little down on Capra: the sentimental overdosing (he always pushes it further than you think he can, and then he pushes it too far), the pretence of saying Big Things about Society without ever actually doing so, the political prevarications. But I may turn up at some of Edinburgh Filmhouse’s forthcoming season of Capras to reconnect to his virtues and see if I find them substantial enough.

A movie like PLATINUM BLONDE, which is enjoyable enough in its own right, kind of invites resentment because it’s easy to get a copy of it, while many superior pre-code movies are obscure and unavailable. Blame Capra’s fame for getting that movie out there at the expense of, say VIRTUE (1932).

Lombard with the magnificent Shirley Gray Maya Methot.

Written by Robert Riskin (future Capra support) from a story by Ethel Hill, deals with a woman (Carole Lombard) being run out of New York for prostitution, who meets a hardboiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (Pat O’Brien) and falls for him. After they’re married, as they save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

Then I watched PICK-UP (1933) in which a woman (Sylvia Sidney), fresh out of prison after a “badger game” (yeah, I had to look it up too) went sour, meets a hard-boiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (George Raft) and falls for him. They don’t get married, but save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

What’s fascinating is how two such similar stories play so differently. Edward Buzzell’s film is the mini-masterpiece, benefitting from Lombard’s sophistication and an unusually winning turn from PO’B, even when he’s being a jerk. As the title suggests, the issue is Virtue, and the movie makes the point, possible only in the pre-and-post-code era, that true virtue has nothing to do with sexual purity. The moral heroes of the film are a pair of prostitutes who do the right thing at cost to themselves.

This is inspiring stuff in a mainstream film from any era, and it’s helped by Lombard not asking for our sympathy — she plays it sassy and earns our sympathy. Riskin’s dialogue keeps it brisk and witty — after Lombard makes a crack about O’Brien’s homely kisser, his complacent whine, “Say, my face is okay!” is followed by her “Yeah, okay for you: you’re behind it.”

It all snarls up in a not-wholly-plausible thriller plot involving (yes!) Jack La Rue as a (yes!) murdering swine, and, as in PICK-UP, there’s a courtroom climax with our gal falsely accused. Check how speedily the coda wraps things up.

(Watched this with our friends The Browns. Ali is a professional costume designer, and while both were wowed by the snappy patter of depression America, she was particularly taken with the skilled use of headgear. Modern movies are quick to throw out the hats, for fear of concealing the actors’ eyes, a supposed problem which VIRTUE takes in its stride, with chic results.)

Sylvia Sidney in PICK-UP is more the whipped dog, playing put-upon rather than pert, a more on-the-nose interp which is effective but doesn’t have the Lombard magic. But she scores with her beautiful Bronx accent and that face! That smile! In a modest departure from the VIRTUE mold, SS has a ratfink hubbie (William Harrigan) in the stir, so she can’t marry Raft (an acceptable perf), and so he gets tempted by a dizzy society dame (Lillian Bond) who finds him simply too “he-ish”.

You may be wondering how anybody could be tempted away from Sylvia, but this is Lillian Bond (also seen in THE OLD DARK HOUSE) ~

Impressive, although, as Fiona observed, she’s “sucking in that gut” in the manner of the late Robert Mitchum.

Things soon get back on track — Raft gets wise to himself, Sylvia is on trial for a crime she didn’t commit, things get sorted out through a piece of wildly incredible courtroom shenanigans and love finds a way, although the lawyer gets the garage as part of his fee.

The title card shows an actual Fanny Magnet in operation.

PICK-UP was smoothly directed by Marion Gering, of DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and 24 HOURS fame. In place of Capra, I might actually suggest everybody spends the next ten years watching Marion Gering, Rowland Brown, Edward Buzzell and of course Del Ruth, LeRoy and Dieterle in their pre-code phases. More radical, more peppy, more beautiful.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers