Archive for Ralph Morgan

William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

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Phantom Limburger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 12, 2016 by dcairns

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Recently watched two fantasy-fright type films which had very interesting elements but were strangely boring overall. One was ANGRY RED PLANET, the other was NIGHT MONSTER, a Universal horror movie I’d never heard of and which I figured must be dull. How else to explain its obscurity?

Well, it mostly IS dull, and there are lots of irksome things about it — Bela Lugosi plays a butler, and he’s JUST a butler, not even a meaningful red herring. A mauve kipper at best. But unlike a real snooze like SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, it actually revolves around a cool idea…

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Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother, has been reduced to limbless paralysis by the fumbling efforts of his doctors. When said medicos, including Lionel “Pinky” Atwill (deep joy) start getting bumped off, only Morgan has the means, motive and spectacular lack of opportunity that must, by the rules of DR X, establish him as the perpetrator. But rather than mad science as facilitator for his limbless killing spree, the film gives us a cherubic swami whose ministrations have given Morgan the power to generate ectoplasmic extremities using the power of his mind, so he can walk and strangle and be avenged using phantasmal arms and legs which fade as the dew when no longer required. The perfect alibi.

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The movie begins charmingly, with the turbanned guru strolling up to Morgan’s mansion and remarking on the uncommunicative character of the local frogs. I immediately liked him. I did not, however, recognize him as Nils Asther, the once-sculptural beauty who specialised in oriental roles (a bit like Warner Oland, but lovelier) despite being Danish (a bit like Warner Oland, who was Swedish). A shame the interest is dissipated across too many characters with too little to do (the hero, as is often the case, is a waste of time), but a number of the supporting cast are better than they need to be. Movie serial specialist Ford Beebe directs with what one might call efficiency. He got it done inside two weeks, anyway.

Mind/Body Dualism

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2014 by dcairns

Rather brilliant trailer for movie serial THE MONSTER AND THE APE. There’s no monster, only a robot, remote-controlled and without a will of his own. Calling him a monster for that seems a bit harsh. Oh, there’s also George MacReady as a mad scientist, so it might be a reference to him. Hell, it might even be a reference to George’s unsightly mustache. It’s a work rich in ambiguity.

Everything the gorilla does in the trailer is hilarious, and this did seem to be true of the serial itself — I’ve watched three episodes. There’s a bit where the gorilla is taken along on a burglary by the criminal gang (it’s never explained how they came to have a pet gorilla — in the world of dumb-ass serials, that kind of thing is a given). After helpfully smashing in the front door, the gorilla is basically just a nuisance, yanking his chain and trying to wander off in the wrong direction, then gleefully bashing the object of their mission, a piece of delicate scientific apparatus, against a work surface in a bit of gratuitous simian joie de vivre.

Screenwriting manuals speak of “the obligatory scene”, in which, for instance, Sheriff Brody faces down the Great White Shark, or Rocky fights his opponent, or Shelley Winters perishes face-down in a large body of water. Obviously, to any child, the obligatory scene in THE MONSTER AND THE APE would be a spectacular square-off between the gorilla, who I’m going to call Alistair, because it’s a nice name, and the robot, who I think we should call Peter. The makers of this serial appear not to have realized this, so that the ape actually dies in a hail of bullets in the penultimate episode (shot by the Wizard of Oz’s brother!) whereas the robot spends most of his time in a crate being stolen.

My favourite thing, apart from the gorilla continually turning up in unlikely places, is the demonstration of the robot, in which to prove that it is a boon to mankind, the workman of the future, and unsuited for any purposes of dastardliness, they have it rip the door of a bank vault type structure. No possible evil applications there!