Archive for Payment on Demand

Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 1 – The Last Company/Die letzte Kompagnie 1930

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2020 by dcairns

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDB. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

Unfortunately, I can’t review Land Without Women/Das Land ohne Frauen 1929, Connie’s (and Germany’s) very first sound film because it’s currently lost, as much of Connie’s output is. Could someone start making a REAL effort to find this stuff please? Apparently one of his ‘lost’ films, Storm Over Asia/Tempête sur l’Asie 1938, isn’t ‘lost’ at all, it’s just sitting in an archive. What bloody use is that?

Synopsis – in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic war, thirteen men of an army detachment are left alive after a battle. They decamp to a nearby windmill where they find a family. The young daughter, Dora (Karin Evans), becomes emotionally attached to Captain Burk (Veidt) as they resolve to take a last stand against the enemy in what is essentially a suicide mission. The family flee but Dora sneaks back to be with her beloved Captain.

This film is now in a lamentable condition. Watching it was like receiving a film via telepathy from a not very good psychic. Bad show I say! It has some historical importance and deserves a restoration, although I doubt that’s possible because other, cleaner elements probably don’t exist any more. We even have moments where the image completely whites out. You can’t repair what’s not there. 

The Last Company was part of a popular series of films celebrating Prussian history and derring-do, and it’s solid, with a magnificent (and very long) opening tracking shot over the bodies of dead soldiers in a muddy field, while crows caw ominously in the background. This is probably the most cinematic part of the film until we get to the action-packed, death-sodden ending, which is dynamically shot and edited.

What comes in between is mostly a chamber piece which gives away its stage origins. The storyline is pretty thin, but what impresses is the naturalness of the performances. Nothing seems forced or projected to the back of the stalls. These look and sound like real people.  There’s some humour and a hell of a lot of hearty, bawdy, soldierly singing. (At one point David asked me if it was a musical.) We even get overlapping dialogue; pretty bold for something shot in 1929/1930. 

According to an intriguing review in Variety from 1931, an English language version was shot, then dubbed with British accented voices to match the German actors’ lip movements. The writer felt that the dubbing was distracting and badly done. So apparently Connie’s voice remained unheard outside Germany at this stage, which is a great pity, because the original proves that he was no “squeaking horror” as he referred to earlier efforts to record him. His voice was beautiful, unusual and distinctive.

The Squeaking Horror role goes to his leading lady, Karin Evans (Dora), who may have had a perfectly acceptable speaking voice when you were standing next to her in real life, but who sounds like she’s been hiding behind the flour sacks of the mill, inhaling helium between takes. It’s most disconcerting. But what’s really diverting is how Connie has completely changed as a film actor.

(Sorry about the lack of subtitling here. Basically the situation that’s unfolding is that his men are packing up to leave. What they don’t know is that they CAN’T leave, because if they don’t stay and fight it could mean the deaths of thousands of their countrymen. Understandably, Connie looses his temper when they question his authority)

He seems to have almost immediately grasped the difference between silent and sound acting. His theatre training undoubtedly played a big part in this. At no time do you associate him with the wild, expressionistic contortions of Caligari or Orlac. He’s singled out in the Variety review as giving ‘an exceptionally fine performance’ despite the dubbing hindrance, and having seen the original German version, I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Granted, he doesn’t have much to do apart from be intense, imposing, commanding and sombre. He does that for about 80% of the film’s running time. The other 20% is given over to his tenderly chaste romance with the Squeaking Horror and his firm but compassionate leadership of his men. He’s certainly a striking figure, with his immense height and searchlight eyes beaming out of his soot-blackened face.

This dubbed version doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless it’s lurking about in a vault with Das Land ohne Frauen. What are the chances of that? Two Conrad Veidt Talkies in which a woman shows up in a male-dominated environment and throws a spanner in the works, in English and then in German. Not the same woman obviously. (Strike that. I’ve just discovered, via David Bordwell’s blog, that the dubbed version was shown in Bologna in 2011 as part of a Veidt season. He says it was part dubbed, part redone with the actors speaking English, so maybe people outside Germany DID hear his real voice)

Amusingly, when Die letzte Kompagnie was released in the States in its lip-flapped state, it was retitled Thirteen Men And A Girl, which sounds like a Deanna Durbin musical or a porn film. Imagine a mash up of 13 Men, Deanna and porn, dear reader, then defenestrate yourself out of shame! David suggests Debbie Does Deutschland as a more acceptable alternative, but I don’t think he should be encouraged in these efforts. 

Marlene Dietrich (chums with Veidt), filming The Blue Angel next door, popped onto the set of The Last Company for a chinwag and to show off her frilly knickers. I love the way German directors wore lab coats, like they were ‘film scientists’ or something. Allegedly, Veidt repaid the compliment and nipped over to the Blue Angel set to watch Emil Jannings (another chum) have apoplexy because the film was being stolen from under his nose by Dietrich. 

Sidebar – Jannings would eventually marry Veidt’s ex-wife, talented actor, singer and cabaret artiste, Gussy Holl; an extraordinary volte-face on Holl’s part. I suppose talent and charisma count for a lot, despite what shape they come in. 

Director Kurt/Curtis Bernhardt, like so many German film artists of Jewish heritage fleeing the Nazis, would end up having a Hollywood career. Not an exceptional one, but not too shabby either. He would occasionally explode into brilliance, particularly on the ‘women’s pictures’ he became famous for. In Payment On Demand (1951), a Bette Davis vehicle, he utilised extraordinary transparent sets, and he guided Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, Joan Blondell and Eleanor Parker towards Oscar nominations.

Bernhardt would direct Veidt again in Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Committed Murder 1931, the next film I’ll be tackling. Join me as we explore the little discussed Veidt sound filmography. 

Danke.

Crossfade

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to David Wingrove for recommending PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) — I think we were discussing theatrical tropes in film and he mentioned this Curtis Bernhardt flick — co-written by Bernhardt himself, unusually enough. Bette Davis plays a tyrannical homemaker whose husband leaves her, prompting a reassessment of their lives via flashback — the really interesting part of the film. There’s a good bit afterwards where Davis ruins hubby in the divorce settlement, and then a rather unconvincing bit where she has to redeem herself, which is a depressing thing for Bette to have to do. With the new look dresses comes a new conformity. In the old days she would have fallen under a train or something, but at least her vivacious malevolence would be undimmed until the final fade-out.

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Bernhardt’s framing and cutting are sharply expressive. In the best scenes, every shot brims with tension, and clashes boldly with its predecessor and postdecessor (well that ought to be a word).

But those flashbacks are remarkable. Here’s how Bernhardt gets us into the first, which shows the young Bette (“Not too close!”) plotting elopement with future hubby (Barry Sullivan).

Present tense: Bette was all dressed up to go to a party, but since it turns out her husband is leaving her, she begs off. Sitting at the dressing table, she removes her jewelry and grows wistful. A soft focus effect fades in, blurring her surroundings in luminous mist. I think how you do this is an in-camera effect — there’s gauze — possibly a bit of silk stocking with a hole in — over the lens, but it doesn’t show up until the light hits it. So it’s a Death of a Salesman type lighting change effect, and not the last.

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Then, rather than do a straight dissolve, Bernhardt mixes through ever so slowly, keeping Bette’s head and shoulders solid as her environment melts away and is replaced by the past. This is either a complex optical involving a circular wipe to remove Bette’s background, or it’s simply a lap dissolve over a shot in which Bette’s surroundings have been faded down on a dimmer, a spotlight keeping her face illuminated so that it cuts through the dissolve and remains dominant (the CITIZEN KANE approach). I suspect it’s optical, and a bit of an afterthought, since ideally you’d have Bette’s bedroom, around her head, disappear much earlier, and this would be perfectly easy to do with faders on the set.

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But wait! This is where it gets really interesting, and beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. As Bette’s pensive visage disappears, we find ourselves looking at a peculiar inside-outside environment. A barn interior with a silhouetted buggy. Behind it, a farmhouse seen from outside. As Bernhardt slowly dollies in towards “teenage” Bette (“Not too close!”) and “teenage” Sullivan proposes that, since it must be the 30s, they should run a way on a freight train and she should disguise herself as a boy (he’s very keen on this part) like in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Plan B: she can say she’s his sister, like DAYS OF HEAVEN), something very strange happens.

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An openly theatrical lighting change causes Bette and Barry to emerge from the shadows (“Not too clearly!”) while a wall fades in to obscure the farmhouse. We’re now in an enclosed set. The farmhouse was only visible due to the kind of X-ray vision that Bette Davis has in her memories, apparently. This means that during the Old Hollywood scenes in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Bette’s character can see everyone naked. Bear that in mind next time you watch it.

Since the camera is in motion, we know this isn’t a dissolve (since motion control hadn’t been invented yet, though Howard Hawks rigged up something similar for the fake 360° pan in RED RIVER — a motorized pan — and on careful examination we can see faint traces of the planks of the barn wall visible over the farm exterior. So that whole wall is painted on translucent gauze, and becomes opaque in as the lighting changes. A technique unseen until Coppola revived it for ONE FROM THE HEART, unless I’m forgetting something.

At the end of the scene, Bette’s mother starts calling from the house, an echoing offscreen spoil-sport like the mothers in PSYCHO and KING OF COMEDY, and Bernhardt renders the barn see-through again to visualise her — a great black building with staring bright windows. Bette is a tiny outline in the foreground. Then we dissolve back to New Look Bette in 1951.

And this is just No. 1 in a cluster of flashbacks, all of which contain some similar trick — lighting changes that melt walls away, impossible inside-and-outside perspectives, theatrical as hell but inhabiting that strange space where the theatrical becomes the cinematic. OUR TOWN (1940) is the only earlier example that comes to mind, though RED GARTERS is a weird parallel from three years later. I do suspect Death of a Salesman, staged in ’49, is the key influence. I also suspect that Bernhardt got a little carried away with the opportunities for this technique and rushed ahead before he’d worked out his story properly. I’m not even convinced the flashbacks happen in the right place. But they’re magnificent.

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These two totally different frames are actually from the same angle, with only a slight pull-back. Bette’s beau and her partner are revealed digging roads since their law practice hasn’t taken off yet. They enter what seemed to be a shadowy diner and it lights up and becomes a kind of site office, the back wall materializing at the same time to close it off for a more naturalistic scene which plays out in a single shot, returning to the astral-ghost perspective at the end.

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Panels of miniature hillside — the little one on the right is a mirror. Crossfade lighting so that night falls outside and the bedroom appears, Bette hoisting her offspring.

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The baby is crying, I think, because she’s the only one who’s noticed they live in a square tent made of translucent gauze where the lights keep dimming up and down.