Archive for Rockliffe Fellowes

Edward Brophy – yes or no?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2022 by dcairns

Prime Brophy

Edward Brophy — young! svelte! with hair! That’s the main attraction of YES AND NO? (1920), screened for unknown reasons at Le Giornate de Cinema Muto — Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. The story of Brophy’s rise — a rag’s-to-better-rags tale of being discovered as production manager on THE CAMERAMAN and given as small part as the irate swimpool customer Buster Keaton shares a changing room with — needs revising. Brophy’s early career as AD and location manager ran in parallel with his acting career, with the tubby supporting player changing hats and going where the work was.

In THE CAMERAMAN he’s fully himself, the scowling schlub familiar to us from THE THIN MAN, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN, the voice of Timothy Q. Mouse in DUMBO. Here, he’s momentarily unrecognizable. What we see is, at first, a reasonable facsimile of a human, until we notice the tiny ears, mere pasta shells, and the huge mouth. Edward Brophy’s mouth, somehow crammed into a vaguely normal, plus-sized head, and apparently trying to chew its way to freedom.

Even without words, Brophy’s sour aggressive manner comes seeping from the celluloid (or streaming pixels). Lowell Sherman, also appearing, seems to lose everything without his dulcet tones, though I’ve seen him in other silents where his suavity carried the day. The problem is, this Norma Talmadge vehicle (personally signed by the actor) is completely uninteresting on a dramatic level.

Norma plays two women, one rich, one poor. Both have hardworking husbands who neglect them. The rich wife says “yes” to an affair, and her life is destroyed. The poor wife says “no” to an affair (really, more like a rape attempt) and her husband invents the washing machine and they go to live in the Long Island suburbs. That’s it — the first movie based not on a scenario but a diagram. Of course, with any tale, what matters is the telling. The movie tells this tale at far greater length than I’ve just done.

Of the cast, only Brophy’s obnoxious brother-in-law and Natalie Talmadge (soon to marry Buster Keaton) as an acerbic, pre-code type sister, have any character. Nat is much cuter and spikier than in OUR HOSPITALITY, though the intertitles are doing a lot of the work for her. Beautiful titles, I wish I could framegrab them.

All the story’s discoveries and implications are predecided on obtuse moral lines, and intercutting two versions of the same story just makes everything take twice as long to happen. The variations are uninteresting (only Keaton’s extreme inventiveness and the greater variety of the settings allows him to pull off a comparable stunt in THE THREE AGES). There are some nice, if strange, gowns. At one point wealthy Talmadge wears paniers.

I kept thinking I knew Rockliffe Fellowes, the name and the face. He plays the inventor of the washing machine. And – of course! – the “good” bootlegger in the Marx Bros. MONKEY BUSINESS, where he’s pretty dreadful. And I saw him in last year’s Pordenone offering, PENROD AND SAM, where he was OK.

Tempting to blame Norma for this one. Certainly, someone who doesn’t know anything about stories was sold a pup — a high-concept, low-yield pictograph masquerading as a screenplay. “And you get to play two roles!”

As in THE GREAT DICTATOR, nobody notices that the unrelated Talmadges resemble one another. Nat, sister to one, maid to the other, is supposed to be smart, but she’s notably unobservant.

The director is Roy William Neill, who we like here at Shadowplay. The Sherlock Holmes series, BLACK ANGEL, etc. I’ve seen an earlier one of his, VIVE LA FRANCE! (1918), in which I felt his punchy compositional style was evident. This one looks just like any well-made Hollywood product of the period. I can’t blame him for feeling uninspired by the material, though.

As part of a Talmadge season, this would be somewhat useful, I suppose. Plucked from that context and fired at unsuspecting subscribers, it’s rather a waste of time, a narrative dead-end that wouldn’t be uselessly explored again until Fox made CRACK IN THE MIRROR in 1960. That Hollywood trap, the False Good Idea.

The Sunday Intertitles: Fight or Flight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2020 by dcairns

Pordenone Silent Film Festival is a joy. Unfortunately I’ve only been once, with NATAN, but this year the festival is online — not the same thing, I know, but the price is extraordinarily reasonable, less than 10 euros for the whole show, which runs until the 10th with two shows daily. Sign up!

Day one brought us travelogues of different places and times, fulfilling our thwarted desire to stretch our legs a bit during this here pandemic. There were scenes of Egypt (above), Krakow, New York, Paris, and a fantasy travelogue about a flying house, which would be the very thing right now.

Sadly the escapade ends with the house buffeted by a thunderstorm, then set ablaze by a volcano, then exploding and crashing, so I guess that’s why we haven’t heard more of the intrepid Vendebout and Courandair.

The evening show was PENROD AND SAM, a Booth Tarkington adaptation that eschewed plot for a series of expressive sketches, varying between comedy and tragedy, depicting the adventures of two boys, their dog, their gang, and various rivals.

The dog Duke was played with great skill and sensitivity by the dog Cameo, a movie veteran with, like director William Beaudine, Mary Pickford films in his CV. Although I think they missed a trick and his character should have been called Tooth Barkington.

All the kids are great. The adults or quasi-adults include Rockliffe Fellowes (charmless kindly bootlegger in the Marx Bros’ MONKEY BUSINESS) and Mary Philbin, but are fine. We weren’t as enamoured of these scamps as the film would like — they are bullies and cheats, and that’s just the good guys. And the adults sometimes behave implausibly to make stuff happen for the slender narrative, although that’s a sensation that feels kind of accurate to childhood experience.

The treatment of race, as the programme notes pointed out, is unusually lacking in horrible stereotyping. In a standard bit of business when someone is accidentally ensheeted and appears as a ghost, it’s one of the Black kids who CAUSES the fright, rather than being a wide-eyed victim. And the scenes of flirtation between a Black boy and girl are charming and really unusual. Generally speaking there’s humour without mockery. The Black kids are ragged and uneducated, it’s true, but they’re part of the gang, and though they’re not leaders, they appear equal with the rest.

The film’s attitude to perfect gentleman Georgie Bassett is much more troubling. He wears glasses and (horrors!) a wrist watch, so is not equipped for tumbling out of trees with the rest. He’s played by the skilful Master Newton Hall with much fey fussiness, and while the movie-makers probably don’t quite see him as an incipient pink menace, he’s clearly condemned as a sissy, someone too eager to be an adult, someone who will make everything less cool by his very presence.

The film is nevertheless charming until its abrupt conclusion: since the movie isn’t interested in reforming its enemy boys, no full resolution is possible, and ultimately there’s a sense that nothing is accomplished. But maybe that’s part of what the film is aiming for — with no narrative progression or character development, it can conjure the illusion of a golden boyhood that will go on forever.

Director William Beaudine very nearly did go on forever: his career began with some short screenplays in 1913, he started directing features in 1915. In 1943 he made THE APE MAN (his best-known title per the IMDb), so his career would seem to be in serious trouble… but he kept going, without anybody particularly appreciating him, until BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA in 1966 (last movie) and Lassie in ’69 (for TV). He died in 1970, but that didn’t stop him, as he had several posthumous releases including two features carved from episodes of The Green Hornet he had directed years previously and which had now acquired new value due to the demise of Bruce Lee. His career seems to attest to a Great Truth of Hollywood — if you just keep plugging away for fifty-six years… you might get a film festival screening of something you made during your first decade, fifty years after you’re dead.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER seemed quite a bit more old-fashioned than THE GOOSE WOMAN, but this was almost certainly because I saw the former at the plush Hippodrome in Bo’ness with a well-dressed audience and a spiffing live accompaniment, whereas I saw THE SIGNAL TOWER as a ratty print telecined to VHS, transferred to AVI and then to DVD and screened on a tiny television at our friend Marvelous Mary’s house. A television that may be older than Brown’s film. One is aware that the slightly antique feeling has nothing to do with the film-making itself, but one can’t help but be influenced.

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In the days before the World Wide Web, intertitles had to be transmitted by telegraphy.

It’s not fair to judge under such circumstances, but I suspect the movie is not quite as good as THE GOOSE WOMAN, which has an unconventional heroine, a twisty plot, and twisty storytelling including flashbacks, one of them false. THE SIGNAL TOWER tells a very simple story, with Wallace Beery an obvious heavy from the start (we all admired the wisdom of dressing him in a stripey shirt, thus making his evil manifest), but it builds to an extremely exciting climax whereby the railroad employee hero must struggle to derail a runaway freight car in a thunderstorm to prevent a catastrophic crash, while his wife repels Beery’s vile advances a short distance away. Will our hero rescue his wife at the expense of his official duty? Or what? As the movie has been content to show us one thing happening at a time, and quite slowly, this parallel montage suspense sequence feels all the more exhilarating.

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It’s beautifully shot too, with big blasts of movie lightning smacking the scenery, the eerie sputter of signal flares, and scary POV shots from the oncoming train, hurtling along the tracks. The movie shows us a large-scale collision earlier in the story, just as a sort of illustration of what could happen — it’s arguably even more impressive than the bridge collapse in THE GENERAL, though it’s insubstantial context (a flashback as dad (the inspiringly-named Rockliffe Fellowes) tells kid about what happens when signalmen blunder) means it doesn’t carry the same impact.

Following in the size twelve footsteps of door-smashing pugilist Donald Crisp in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, Beery smashes through not one but two doors in an attempt to satiate his vile lusts upon the person of Virginia Valli (from Hitchcock’s THE PLEASURE GARDEN, made the following year).

“Here’s Wally!”

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Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending this one.