Archive for Philip Yordan

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

Bonita, Meet Belita

Posted in Dance, FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2018 by dcairns

  

SUSPENSE (1946). Directed by Frank Tuttle, script by Philip Yordan, who probably hadn’t started fronting yet, so he probably did write it. Here, Bonita Granville, in rare vamp mode, tranmogrifies into ice-skating queen Belita.

Starrng Belita, Captain Mark Markary, Dr. Cyclops, Nancy Drew, Friar Tuck and Toothpick Charlie.

The only ice-skating noir film — apart from MURDER IN THE MUSIC HALL, which also has an intriguing cast (the Honorable Betty Cream, the Spirit of Christmas Past, Trigger).

Eugene Pallette’s last movie before he retreated to his fall-out shelter to await Doomsday. The plot is basically GILDA, without the homoerotic overtones, or any overtones, really.

Well, Albert Dekker does have a cat, which might mean he’s gay. But he also smokes a manly pipe, so he can’t be gay. I’m confused. He and his wife, Belita, have separate beds. But then, everybody in 1946 had separate beds.

“How can I know what you’re talking about if you don’t talk about it?” complains Huge Euge. He speaks for me.

The skating/musical numbers are pretty spectacular — Belita was a ballerina as well as an Olympic skater, so she can really move. Which is more than the rest of the film manages. It takes way too long to set up any source of the titular emotion, and doesn’t give us any reason to care. (But does GILDA? I can’t remember, but I remember it works like gangbusters.) So SUSPENSE succeeds only in moments and sequences — Tuttle may not have drilled his cast into a pacey rendition of the lines, but he stages some interesting angles once the plot finally gets going in the last act.

The drama is HUGELY helped by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score — remember how much he contributed to LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN? Even if Ophuls complained that the Hollywood composer was like the man with the cheese in an Italian restaurant, always ready to dart in and spoon some more parmesan on our spaghetti when you’re not looking. “You have to watch him.”

Snowbound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2015 by dcairns

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In this movie, there’s actually eight!

With Tarantino’s frosty western gorefest about to splatter all over us in glorious 70mm (it opens in the UK while I’ll be busy shooting my own, much, much smaller film), and with this being the season when I quite like looking at snow without having to touch it, I popped Andre DeToth’s DAY OF THE OUTLAW in the Panasonic, wowing Fiona, who is not normally an enthusiast of the oater. “Am I mellowing, or was that really good?” she asked, afterwards.

The story, credited to Philip Yordan (a talented guy, but he fronted for so many blacklistees I’m never sure he’s the actual author), based on a novel by Lee E. Wells, depends on a silly coincidence — plot #1, a standard cattle men versus farmers fight, with an adulterous love affair thrown in, gets interrupted just as the central figures, including tower of spasming muscle and venom Robert Ryan, square off for a climactic duel. Plot #2 now commences, in which this one-horse town is held hostage by Burl Ives and his band of savages, a Quantrill’s Raiders bunch of psychos, introduced by Ives in a cool/scary/hilarious role call.

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This new plot is much more compelling and high-stakes, and it has the advantage of making the rather unappealing antagonists of plot #1 — fuming near-psycho Ryan and peevish Alan Marshal — become relatively sympathetic, so bad are the bad guys and so awful is their new situation.

For people who don’t care for plot, this movie would serve as a good illustration of the value of a strong dramatic situation. As Billy Wilder put it, “A guy comes in the door, you got nothing. He comes in the window, you got a situation.”

DeToth, that fearsome bullet-headed Hungarian cyclops — many Hollywood directors were tough eggs, not many conspired, as DeToth seems to have done, to get his leading man decapitated (on HOUSE OF WAX), benefits from the script, the cast, and Alexander Courage’s glittering music and Russell Harlan’s cinematography. The landscapes are impressive, but so are the compositions for straightforward compositions. Though DeToth is a little happier to hold a flat two-shot than he ought to be, I think, he also delivers packed and dynamic shots that bristle with tension.

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The empty chairs formerly occupied by Tina-Louise’s husband and child earn their place in the shot as a kind of barrier between T-L and RR.

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Snow!