Archive for Robert Z Leonard

The Sunday Intertitle: Wirework

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by dcairns

1910’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (Otis Turner) is a very sound example of those earlies that almost seem to be built around their intertitles. The system is simple: reduce a famous book everyone sort-of knows to about eight sentences. Insert shots illustrating those sentences in between thee titles. Film done!

Dorothy is blown to Oz along with a cow and a donkey and a scarecrow (he’s not an Oz native in this version, so we’ll have no mucking about with dreams at the end). The animals are men in costumes — I’m assuming they’d be men, in which case the cow is also a drag act. The loose-limbed Scarecrow is pure Ray Bolger, a welcome link forward to what we all feel is the authentic OZ film of ’39.

On touchdown, most of the characters are shown already in situ, just sort of ACTING as if they’ve been dropped by a cyclone, but the Scarecrow drops from a great height, falls gently to earth, then rolls over several times before getting his bearings. This worried me, rather. I’ll explain.

When Mark Cousins interviewed Donald Sutherland, the Great Man talked about doing his rope-dangling but in the church in DON’T LOOK NOW by himself because “The stunt-man, at the last minute, didn’t want to do it for some reason.” (If it were me, I’d be very curious about the reason.) Years later, Sutherland was complimented on his bravery by another stuntman. “Oh, it was quite safe, I had a Kirby wire on.” “Yes, but you were going LIKE THAT,” [rotates finger to indicate spinning] “Yes?” “Well, when you go LIKE THAT [rotates finger] on a Kirby wire, the Kirby wire BREAKS.”

So I hope that scarecrow didn’t do too many takes.

Anyway, turns out Dorothy is played by a tiny, nine-year-old Bebe Daniels and the Scarecrow is future director Robert Z. Leonard. He would have been on the MGM lot when they were filming the ’39 version! He could have said, “Remember, play him LOOSE-LIMBED!” I’m fantasising — Ray Bolger never in his life needed THAT bit of advice.

Oh, Momba the Witch (Winifred Greenwood) also enters by wire, and it’s a real coup de cinema, as she soars over the heads of a throng of Ozites, who scatter as she lands, centre-screen and resplendent. Glinda the Good (Olive Cox) pops from the undergrowth on a wire that just elevates her a few inches off the ground for a moment, but gives her rise a fluid, effortless grace. Amazing what you can do with wires. When you consider the actors who have done their most popular work on wires (Chow-Yun Fat, the entire cast of THE MATRIX) it’s surprising we don’t attach all our actors to wires all the time. We might not choose to yank Tom Hanks twenty feet in the air to emphasise a dramatic moment in THE POST, but the facilities would be on hand if we did.

The Lion is a man in a costume, but he wears a great big lion head, so he doesn’t have Bert Lahr’s expressiveness. (You know that W.C. Fields nearly played the Wizard? He went so far as to annotate his script with additional dialogue. The best line read, “Remarkable! He even smells like a lion.” The friend who told me this added, “It would have been a whole. Different. Movie.”)

The Tin Woodsman, looking just like Jack Haley, is surrounded by a bleak landscape of massive deforestation. Leave him rusty! Seeing him referred to as The Woodsman got me thinking about David Lynch, a big fan of the Victor Fleming version. And bang on cue, a winged frog shows up! Coincidence? I think not!

Momba’s house has an evil face. I wondered if, like Baba Yaga’s domicile, it could get up and walk. But it doesn’t bother.

Momba’s fatal dowsing doesn’t make her shrink through the floor, she just fades away, like Graf Orlok in NOSFERATU.

The Great Oz himself is Hobart Bosworth, who would direct what may have been America’s first feature film, THE SEA WOLF, a few years later. It’s lost now, swept away on the great cyclone Time.

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Strabismus of Passion

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by dcairns

THE DIVORCÉE (1930), an early talkie from MGM, is one those films that’s only really enjoyable when you watch it with my wife.

It’s so early, the MGM lion doesn’t actually produce any sound when he roars, he just sort of moves his lips like Jean Hagen.

This is the first image. So we know it’s going to be cutting edge entertainment. This cheeky fellow’s actually performing Singin’ in the Rain, because this is MGM — it segues into You Were Meant For Me a little later.

The film is stodgy and stagey, and what narrative drive it has is seriously hampered by awkward framing, acting and general pacing. Star Norma Shearer makes the mistake of marrying Chester Morris, overlooking in her ardor the fact that his nose is an extension of his sloping forehead, as if he were wearing a medieval helmet made of skin. When she finds out he’s cheated on her, she cheats on him with Robert Montgomery (only unclenched performance in the film) and then she actually clutches the drapes, so hard she leaves a permanent kink.

Fiona: “My God she’s terrible. And they must have used a lot of starch on those drapes.”

Me: “All that was left over from the cast.”

But the costume changes by Adrian kept us watching. “She’s a great clothes-horse.” Not just gowns but sportswear. Anything, really.

“She’s OK in THE WOMEN,” Fiona admits. Of which this is a clear precursor, having almost the same story but none of the funny, interesting or special qualities.

And Cedric Gibbons dresses the sets just as beautifully. The slow pace, and the desire to exploit the possibilities of offscreen sound, result in some nice empty frames of the kind you know I like.

“Look at that coffee set! My God, look at the creamer! I can’t remember ever being so excited by the china in a film. Look at that vase!”

Director Robert Z. Leonard manages to rustle up a montage of hands, the dialogue playing outside the frame, a sophisticated touch slightly deflated by the linking of shots by fades to black, in case things got too lively. There’s also a crazy drunken rear-projected car ride followed by screaming hysteria, smashed metal, bloody faces and stark lighting, an unexpected break from the drawing-room theatrics. And the turgid pace allows us to appreciate the invention applied to solving the problems of the immobile mic, location filming, unusual wide shots, etc.

“We need to watch another film as an antidote.”

Death and the Non-Maiden

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by dcairns

ZIEGFELD GIRL is interesting and diverting alright. It’s in some ways the complete MGM film — it returns to the Follies, a subject of obsession for the studio, it would seem, and it reprises the formula of all those late silent/early soundie Joan Crawford movies (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS, OUR BLUSHING BRIDES etc), featuring three girls (the title sells it short) with dreams of success. In such stories there’s always a Bad Girl who has sex, we are led to believe, out of wedlock and for reasons of business rather than love, and her success is short-lived with a bitter aftermath. The Good Girl usually achieves what the Bad Girl wanted by holding back on sex until it’s been sanctified by a priest and the Hays Office. There’s also an In-Between Girl who can show a middle path or be comedy relief or, in this case, be Judy Garland, whose storyline has nothing to do with sex or romance at all.

What’s interesting is to see the MGM studio machine trying to digest Busby Berkeley. There’s less black and much, much more white in these numbers than one would get at Warner Bros, and there’s slightly more of an attempt to weave the musical numbers into the plot and to make us believe they might really be happening on a stage, though of course we’re not fooled.

Busby’s earlier work had something to do with death — actual fatalities feature as part of the choreography in ROMAN SCANDALS, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and 42ND STREET. Here, there’s what ought to be a great opportunity for him, with Lana Turner (the Bad Girl) passing out drunk during a show and nearly suffering a severe accident while dressed as an exotic tree. But it feels like MGM have subdivided duties on this, with Robert Z Leonard (The Z that stands for Zigler) handling Lana’s swaying and woozy closeups, while Berkeley just stages a big musical number without reference to the turmoil beneath the surface. Although I guess it IS a particularly grotesque, distended and peculiar one, and Judy Garland IS more than usually maniacal. But there’s no welcome sense that this is due to any subjective affect emanating from Lana.

Later, Lana leaves her sickbed to attend one last Follies show as customer, an amazing colossal extravaganza (which, loooong as it is, seems to have been truncated by MGM from some previous, unimaginably huge form) and again we miss the chance to experience a Busby Berkeley number through the eyes of a dying audience member. But I will admit, Leonard pulls out all the stops for Lana’s eventual demise, a kind of glam La Boheme.

It made me a bit angry that Lana has to die — she’s already REFORMED at this point, ffs. What more do you want from the girl? I guess killing her off was an opportunity for more emotion, but of course you could theoretically kill any of the characters off and have that — for Lana to croak, there has to be an offensive underlying sense that this is natural justice or divine justice or something. Sex is as fatal under the Production Code as it is in a slasher movie.

But she does look awfully good expiring. I realize I haven’t seen many of her earlier films or if I have (e.g. THE GREAT GARRICK), I don’t recall paying any attention to her. Seeing her at this age is like seeing young Liz Taylor after being slightly puzzled by her in later films. Suddenly everything makes sense — my God, she IS beautiful. The implausibly large, narrowed eyes, the tiny, stoma-like mouth, with fleshy lips that make is almost as tall as it is wide, the adorable snub nose. All so white — perfect for the whiteness of MGM and Cedric Gibbons sets. A deco cherub. The girl with the ice-cream face.