Archive for Richard Barthelmess

Hawks and Sparrows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Douglas Fairbaks Jnr. looks with affection at his last hand grenade.

The movie is the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL. Richard Barthelmess’s hard-drinking WWI flier in this looks set to transmute into his character from THE LAST FLIGHT, made the following year. This is an early Howard Hawks talkie. If SCARFACE is atypical of the filmmaker, with its psychopathic characters and expressionistic flourishes, other titles of the same period often show Hawks searching for the fluidity of his mature style, and wrestling with subject matter that isn’t always sympatico.

Aviator/writer John Monk Saunders’ source story, The Flight Commander, deals with people on the verge of destruction, with equal odds whether said destruction will be self-inflicted or brought about by war. Hawks never liked crybabies much, and would have made a lousy grief counsellor, so for the first half of the film he struggles to generate sympathy for Neil Hamilton’s booze-and-guilt-ridden Major. But Hawks liked the story enough to recycle elements later — the active pilot hates the desk jockey, and then he gets the desk jockey’s job, sending other men out to die.

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Richard Barthelmess (great, underrated actor), in engine oil and goggles hobo clown makeup, comforts a traumatized Gardner James. While the callous viewer prays that GJ can get shot down to lighten up the film.

The movie seems to get more fluid as it goes on. Early scenes are stilted, with a distinct LACK of Hawksian overlapping dialogue — it’s underlapping, if anything — one scene has two characters commenting on an offscreen argument, which they can apparently hear. But we don’t get to hear anything, imparting a surreal, mediumistic tinge to their conversation.

Ernest Haller’s oily smudge photography is wonderful, all soft focus and blurred shadows. The sets look cheap up close (painted brickwork fails to trompe l’oeil) but terrific in wide shot. And in places, the dipso camaraderie, heartless yet earnest professionalism, and underplaying (especially Barthelmess, decades ahead of his co-stars) suggest the Hawks of a few years later.

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The cast also sports Frank McHugh and, in an almost unique dramatic role, James Finlayson. The frequent Laurel & Hardy antagonist is fascinating to watch, dialling down his comedy schtick and turning it to (sort-of) dramatic purposes. This includes a very mild exclamation of “D’oh!” early on, and towards the end an actual double-take, as he witnesses the wrong man getting into a plane for a suicide mission. Probably you shouldn’t cast the Finn in a tragedy, but that’s just the kind of thing Hawks WOULD do.

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Below should really have been the film’s last shot, every story point having been settled by this scenic moment, but the filmmakers can’t resist a spectacular bomber raid sequence, one of several dazzling and no doubt dangerous action climaxes. This one combines high-quality miniatures, dodgy rear-projection, and gobsmacking real aerial and demolition footage, including two shots pointing straight down at the target as a bomb dwindles into invisibility and then sends half the landscape erupting upwards straight into the lens. Real stuff!

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“Going west.”

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Seventeen Hours of Something or Other

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2013 by dcairns

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On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.

The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.

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Also: gayness!

Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.

Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.

Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.

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But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.

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That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.

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Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.

David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~

“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”

Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.

Your image fix for the day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by dcairns

Startling visuals from ALIAS THE DOCTOR, directed mainly by Michael Curtiz (I’d say he’s the father of the Warner style, along with Anton Grot), with some additional scenes by Lloyd Bacon. Curtiz’s high style subsumes Bacon’s more traditional approach.

Curtiz also gets a lot of visual beauty out of medical equipment insert shots — as he would in THE WALKING DEAD.

Richard Barthelmess plays a medical student who takes the rap for a drunken friend, and then is forced — forced! — by circumstance to masquerade as a qualified medico. Impressive and compact plot contrivance makes this all, not plausible exactly, but compelling, before the story does kind of choke on its own unlikeliness.

Marian Marsh is pretty and smiles a lot, Norman Foster is as unreliable as ever, and Barthelmess agonizes wetly. He’s the pre-code cinema’s number one drip, with David Manners as number two (see the great THE LAST FLIGHT, in part to see two starkly contrasting drips attempt to play world-weary together, a truly thrilling sight, and I’m not being facetious). Remarkable how much gravitas and genuine world-weariness Barthelmess has picked up by the time of ONLY ANGELS HEVE WINGS.

The sinister pathologist, hovering like an angel of death over the proceedings, is played, in a wordless bit of sepulchral moping, by the distinguished Nigel de Brulier, in movies since 1914 — regular bad guy support for Fairbanks, Chaney, Barrymore…