Archive for Prestige

The Sunday Intertitle: Backchat

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Tay Garnett, based on his terrific autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, could either be said to have led a charmed life — a long and frequently successful career, narrow escapes from death — or an unlucky one — a long and just as frequently UNsuccessful career, narrow escapes from death that left him with serious injuries. The big missed opportunity for me seems to come in the early thirties when, with HER MAN and PRESTIGE, Garnett showed himself to be visually just about the best director in town. The former film is also a very good movie, seemingly inventing a lot of the roughhouse comedy John Ford would come to specialise in.

For whatever reason, Garnett soon tamped down his photographic flamboyance, and made his best-known movies in a more anonymous style. A shame.

But all this made me very curious to see even earlier TG films. The only silent I could source was THE SPIELER, which came heavily recommended by The Chiseler’s Danny Riccuito, who praised its slangy intertitles. Here’s a fairly late silent movie whose title and concept are predicated upon speech, that of a carnival barker, played with characteristic and wearisome ebullience by Alan Hale (above). “You sure print a mean waffle,” he tells Renee Adoree. But it’s the scenes with bad-guy crook Fred Kohler (of UNDERWORLD) that get all the best slang.

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“Listen, Red — the twist caught me pinchin’ a pigskin. She aired me.”

It’s forgotten today, but this movie caused a Hollywood-wide apostrophe shortage, so informal were its intertitles.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but sadly THE SPIELER does not supply the wheeling, whooshing and arching camera moves of the Garnett pre-codes. There are a few snazzy bits, but they’re parceled out cautiously in key moments. The good crooks versus bad crooks in a crooked world approach does seem to anticipate the Warners worldview of later years, but I find all that more compelling with actual audible gab. Still, there’s a quaint thrill to be had from a prolonged closeup of Hale moving his lips rapidly, displaying the kind of verbal dexterity a movie of this era simply has to leave to the audience’s imagination.

 

The Monday Intertitle: No Atheists in the Foxholes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2014 by dcairns

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I was wondering, looking at early Lewis Milestone talkies, what made him so kinetic and exciting? The charging camera of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, surging headlong across the battlefields, is the best-known example of this, but the kinetic, fluid and nimble movements of RAIN are extraordinary, and in THE FRONT PAGE he seems to be pushing for the steadicam thrillrides of vintage Scorsese before the technology existed to allow it. In the less celebrated NEW YORK NIGHTS he goes so far as to stick his camera in a dumb-waiter and ride it up to the second floor. Yet my impression was that in silents, Milestone had not distinguished himself with the dynamism of his camerawork. Why did he becomes so willfully fleet-footed at exactly the moment sound technology made the roving eye of something like WINGS almost impossible to achieve?

(The other guy with itchy tracks was Tay Garnett, whose restless visuals in BAD COMPANY paved the way for SCARFACE, no question, and who combined tracking and panning with the Paramount zoom lens on PRESTIGE, with results that seem to echo Visconti or Fulci for ADHD antsiness.)

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So seeing TWO ARABIAN NIGHTS, a big-budget WWI romp (a far cry from the anti-war sentiments of ALL QUIET) from 1927, is instructive. It’s true, there are few impressive camera movements, but nor are we stiff or static. Designer William Cameron Menzies is much in evidence, a man who liked to design not just sets but SHOTS, reducing the director to mere drama coach for the cast (here, a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd and thuggish Louis Wolheim, paired as an imitation of Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglan in the previous year’s Raoul Walsh smash WHAT PRICE GLORY?). Early on, the two frenemies are fighting in a crater, unmindful of the encroaching Germans. When they realize they’re surrounded, we get two shots which flamboyantly make this apparent, one a low-angle POV, in which the shallow ditch they’re in is suddenly fifty feet deep to afford the best view, and a God Shot looking down like Busby Berkeley in which the bomb-site is a fairly shallow depression, but much wider. The lesson comes from German expressionism, of which Menzies was a student — a different set for each angle gives you the strongest possible graphic impact, which is fine if what graphic impact is what you want.

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At any rate, the central mystery remains, and will do until I’ve seen more silent Milestone, preferably with the distinctive influence of Menzies removed from the equation. Unfortunately, I’ve only got THE RACKET to watch, plus FINE MANNERS and THE KID BROTHER, each of which Milestone directed parts of — and we don’t know which parts.

How about a Lewis Milestone Week, everybody?