Archive for Richard Arlen

The Sunday Intertitle: Pulse-Pounding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2012 by dcairns

While my closing night party hangover abates, I’ll fulfill my weekly intertitular obligations by reproducing what I wrote for the Film Festival’s Gregory La Cava retrospective screening of FEEL MY PULSE. It would be nice to think my blurb helped fill Cinema 3 for the screening of a rare private collector’s print with live piano accompaniment by Forrester Pike — but then I’d have to take responsibility for my blurb putting people off GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE —

Gregory La Cava’s background as a cartoonist was never more evident than in this riotous romantic comedy – not even in his broad WC Fields vehicles. The first image under the titles is an animation of a doctor applying the stethoscope to a disembodied, but vigorously beating heart, but some of the later live-action is even more cartoony.

Bebe Daniels, top comedienne of the twenties and thirties (and later a beloved radio and TV star in the UK) plays a dotty heiress raised by doctors in a sterile environment, becoming a complete hypochondriac. But when she accidentally takes a rest cure in a “sanatorium” that’s really a bootleggers’ den, the stage is set for slapstick, romance, danger, and a miracle cure.

Handsome Richard Arlen fulfils heart-throb duties, and William Powell, a few years before his fame as a suave comic lead in The Thin Man, is the leader of the bootleggers, in a sly and seedy comic performance of laid back stubbly malevolence that capitalizes on his underused rodental qualities.

In an age of daredevil stunts and vigorous knockabout, Daniels milks considerable comic value from a character for whom a short walk represents life-threatening exertion. That she actually enjoys robust good health is obvious to everyone except herself and her doctors.

A lot of the humour is carried by the witty intertitles, along with knowing performances by the stars and a rogue’s gallery of plug-uglies, but La Cava’s meticulous framing subtly enhances the humour of every moment. His deadpan compositions simply invite funny things to happen within them – except during a brief interlude of film noir, when the gloves come off, the lights go out, and the bad guys start acting genuinely bad…

The middle section, where the bootleggers pretend to be nervous wreck sanatorium inmates, is fine farce, but the chaotic finish, a full-scale gang war, is among the most frenetic action sequences in Hollywood comedy history. Daniels’ flailing, long-legged movement when she finally abandons her invalid lifestyle is all the more exhilarating and hilarious for having been suppressed so long, and inventive gags follow so fast upon each others’ heels as to leave the viewer gasping with laughter, astonishment and sheer breathlessness.

Quite a different kind of screen comedy than Chaplin or Keaton’s, Feel My Pulse exemplifies a tradition of slapstick that uses romantic leads rather than clowns, and which is all-too rarely revived or discussed today. The opportunity to enjoy it on the big screen with an audience should not be missed.

Fatheads

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2010 by dcairns

The twin attractions of Erle C. Kenton’s GUILTY AS HELL (great pre-code title) are not really leading men Victor McLaglen (a side of mutton dotted with sharp little teeth in permanent death-rictus) and Edmund Lowe (jocular ex-matinee idol going to seed, and fast), it’s [1] the outrageous bad taste, which is at times genuinely foul, reminding us that the liberty of the pre-code era could be used in both good and bad ways, and [2] Kenton’s ridiculously pugnacious camerawork, which delights in thrusting faces and fingers into the lens in giant macro-close-up, or gliding through walls and between scenes as if the whole film were taking place on a series of closely-crammed sets. Which it is.

Movie begins with an elaborately staged murder, with Claire Dodd miscast as the corpse. Kenton pulls out all the stops like a ’30s American Argento ~

Fast-talking reporter Lowe explodes into the cop shop, where flatfoots sit around idly, listening to the radio. “Say, how much would you guys charge to haunt a house?” Then he exchanges wisecracks, insults, and out-and-out abuse with detective McLaglen. The partnership is much like McLaglen and Oakie in MURDER AT THE VANITIES: brassy, vulgar and stoopid. And yet they love each other.

Called to the murder scene, the police and press set out competing as to how outrageously they can disrespect the dead, insult the witnesses and pillage the crime scene. One cop raids the refrigerator, while Lowe pockets the photographs of the victim. Then he taps cigarette ash on the corpse. McLaglen tosses a scrunched-up gum wrapper at the corpse. “Bullseye.” Great character actress Elizabeth Patterson quite rightly expresses horror at these outrages, and we’re meant to be amused.

The movie never quite recovers from making its stars so hateful in the first minutes of the story, but things pick up when the putative good guys have to save an innocent man from death row (Richard Arlen, who always seems to be an innocent man on death row). They’re kind of obliged, y’see, since they put him there. The resulting confrontations see Kenton rehearsing for the 3D movie he’d never make ~

People sit up or step forward into leering, porous close-up, then jab their stubby digits in our eyes, giving the focus-puller repetitive strain injury. Fun stuff, if cartoony.

Result: Arlen the perpetual patsy is freed, the real killer snuffs it, and Lowe sits on his corpse. The End.

Quote of the Day: an indifferent work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2008 by dcairns

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I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:

JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.

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“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”

I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”

“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”

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Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.

Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.

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In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)

Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:

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Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.

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This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.

The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.

The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.

The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and —

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— squee–ee–eeze…

Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius — goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.