Archive for Pat O’Brien

In Every City There Is One Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2016 by dcairns

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One of the standouts at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s series of films produced by Carl Laemmle Jnr., lesser-known movies excluding the James Whale horror masterpieces. Pal Fejos’ LONESOME was likewise left out in favour of the slightly more obscure, flawed BROADWAY and also the bizarre, grotesque and highly entertaining KING OF JAZZ, which Fejos worked on in some unspecified capacity (perhaps explaining why both those films feature outsize figures Godzilla-cavorting down miniature New York streets). Dave mentioned, though, that LONESOME is the real masterpiece, and I remembered that I own Criterion’s Blu-ray and hadn’t watched it.

BROADWAY is a tricky early talkie, given the stilted nature of much of the dialogue delivery (“new-minted clichés” as Mark Fuller put it). It’s a backstage musical gangster story, in which the musical numbers, staged on a cavernous sound stage, were shoehorned in at Fejos’ behest. Spectacular in themselves, thanks to the towering sets and the elaborate crane shots, they slow the narrative down even further than the flaccid speech. Any movie where Evelyn Brent gives the best performance is arguably in trouble. But Fiona was very taken with the slow-talking detective, Thomas E. Jackson, who actually drawls like he’s parodying an early talkie. It’s disconcerting to find Jackson actually had a long career, and was seen in other film. Hell, it’s disconcerting to find he wasn’t a hallucination.

The movie is a combination of pleasures and irritants, and in the irritant camp fall the two lead performances. Both characters are written as dopes — Merna Kennedy redeemed herself elsewhere in the fest with a spirited turn in LAUGHTER IN HELL (“He’s ma maan!”)– Glenn Tryon redeems himself in LONESOME. In BROADWAY he’s so whiny, insecure, yet at the same time obnoxiously egotistical, like a tap-dancing George Costanza, it actually takes a while to get used to how effective he is in LONESOME.

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One of the delights of Bologna was seeing actors in contrasting roles — Pat O’Brien yaps a very precise Lee Tracy impersonation in THE FRONT PAGE, yet walks through LAUGHTER IN HELL like a man in a dream (he can maintain audience sympathy after committing a double murder because his somnambular perf makes clear that he isn’t responsible — for anything), and see above for Merna Kennedy’s development. Barbara Kent isn’t so versatile, playing ingenues in both LONESOME and FLESH AND THE DEVIL. She’s cuter in modern dress, though, and can hold more interest when not competing with a young, newly-styled Garbo.

LONESOME experiments with model shots, location filming, camera movement, sound, dialogue and colour — there’s stencil painting and some kind of dye process which tints the highlights one hue and the shadows another. Fejos is running amuck, and the slender story is the perfect vehicle for such stylistic exuberance. Think THE LAST LAUGH: small-scale stories can sometimes support colossal artistic ebullience.

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LONESOME is a magnificent one-off — I wish the part-soundie era had lasted another five years. When the two leads abruptly start speaking to each other in live sound on the beach at Coney Island, the jarring transition from one medium to another is beautiful. You can’t get that in a perfect film, only in a makeshift masterpiece like this one, a superproduction assembled on shifting sands. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion, sudden nitrate decomposition afflicts the footage, with PERFECT artistic timing — it drives home the fragility of what we’ve been watching.

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

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

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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!

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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.)

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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.

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“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.