Archive for Roscoe Karns

Hobo’ness

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by dcairns

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The first time Fiona and I saw William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE was on a VHS grey-market tape bought off eBay for something excessive like $9, with a wildly inappropriate drop-needle soundtrack and a picture quality equivalent to the viewpoint of a near-sighted mollusc in tears at the heat death of the universe.

The second time was at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema (1912-present) as part of the Festival of Silent Cinema (AKA HippFest) with a 35mm print from the George Eastman House — the best surviving materials anywhere — and Neil Brand playing at the piano with the Dodge Brothers (featuring critic Mark Kermode) collaborating on a skiffle/jug band/spasm music live score of surpassing loveliness, dynamism and romanticism. It makes a difference! I now suspect that old Wild Bill may have been right to rate this as his best movie (I think he went to his grave believing it lost). One weird effect of seeing it on the big screen is that details that registered on my mind’s eye as looming closeups turn out to be spacious medium shots when I looked at my video copy at home. I feel like a cine-illiterate child when I compare the large screen impression with the small-screen “reality.”

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Louise Brooks plays an orphan runaway who’s shot her would-be rapist and is now a fugitive. It’s the high point of her Hollywood career, though not one she enjoyed — Wellman was horrible to her, as was her co-star Richard Arlen, although at least he apologised decades later. Arlen is pretty good here, not too pretty (WINGS) nor too ugly (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) — he lost his looks FAST, that one, and his face just went kind of ugh. There’s a secene early on when, starving, he presses his nose against a screen door. That’s just what he would look like a few years later.

(You see what happens when you say Louise’s eyes are too close together, Arlen?)

Brooks is delightful, touching, intense, but the stand-out acting performance is from Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, he-man of Hobohemia, a rail-riding, hooch-swigging killer who slowly and, it has to be said, inexplicably, morphs into the film’s hero. It’s a showy role, yet Beery is surprisingly delicate in it, despite the fact that each of his facial features must be the weight of a seal cub  — it’s subtle work, by his standards. When he’s not exerting swaggering, pugilistic menace, he eschews his later MGM schtick — slobbering mawkishness — and manages a wistful, thoughtful, wonderful quality that seems to defy gravity. I think part of it stems from Wellman’s willingness to stay wide, but part is certainly a very well-judged bit of performance from Beery, a man who was certainly capable of stinking up even an extreme long-shot with his mugging and gurning.

The film has crazy moments. Brooks is identified as a girl when she bends over. I won’t show you what that looks like, but this is the reaction it gets.

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I have never seen a dragged-up girl rumbled by her ass before. I mean, a lot of movie stars have exposed their bottoms, but not many bottoms have exposed movie stars.

The same hobo prepares for a knock-down fight with Beery by deftly flipping his upper dentures from his mouth and pocketing them for safety.

The hobo gang at one point stage a kangaroo court, almost as surreal a mockery of justice as the one in King Lear or the one in Alice in Wonderland.

Roscoe Karns makes his trademark Roscoe Karns face. Blue Washington as Black Mose has a role that actually affords some character and some dignity, but is encouraged to tom it up with some uncomfortable “comedy negro” business.

And the locomotive stunts are reckless and scary. Beery apparently insisted on NOT doing all his own stunts — “Listen, all directors want to kill actors,” he told Brooks — but still hangs from moving rail cars. Apparently nobody considered that a stunt in those days. Brooks herself leaps on and off moving trains, and falls off one too. Those machines are dangerous! Apparently one wreck from this movie is still in place, at the bottom of a hill in Southern California, near the Mexican border. Another wreck from the movie, Wallace Beery, is still in place at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale.

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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.

Lithographs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2011 by dcairns

Fun revisiting TWENTIETH CENTURY, even though in certain respects the film is never quite as good as I want it to be. But even its weaknesses are interesting and revealing and sometimes enjoyable.

I’ve never seen the play but I’m guessing that Howard Hawks his screenwriters (Hecht & McArthur + Gene Fowler: Preston Sturges was fired after four days, but seems to have retained the idea of Edgar Kennedy as a private eye for UNFAITHFULLY YOURS) have both gutted and exploded it. The parts on the train are the play, truncated. So there’s an extensive series of preceding scenes, “opening out” the action and roughing in the prehistory of the characters before the central situ (broke theatre impresario woos the star he created on train bound for NYC). This effectively destroys the play’s taut structure, but Hawks never cared a lick for plot, and the additions are so entertaining it just about gets away with it.

The rewrite has the effect of turning the story into HIS GIRL FRIDAY avant la lettre, with the crazy boss trying to win back his star pupil — the comedy in both cases both depends upon and is endangered by the fact that Oscar Jaffe/Walter Burns (or John Barrymore/Cary Grant) is a deplorable megalomaniac and one should in no way root for his success. The anti-hero’s awfulness provides the laughs and undercuts the drama, but mustn’t be allowed to keep us from investing a little bit of interest — but it’s curiosity about what devilry he’ll attempt next, rather than any sense of “rooting for him.”

Barrymore, in the early scenes, gets to spoof himself pretty thoroughly, with Hawks throwing in a lot of the in-jokes he was intermittently addicted to: references to Svengali and whatnot. Most of Barrymore’s famous roles get lampooned, and the actor heroically throws in a lifetime’s worth of baroque stage business, pushing the dramaturgy just far enough to highlight its artifice and make it absurd. It’s a parody of hamminess that’s often very nuanced and always exquisitely controlled.

As his rival, Lombard is great in the early scenes where she has our sympathy, and perhaps a little too shrill once we get to the play and she has to transform into a diva. Some of the screaming and wailing gets a bit much, and her lightning shifts of phony emotion don’t have as clear a throughline as Barrymore’s. But her footwork is terrific here —

If the relationship prefigures HIS GIRL FRIDAY for Hawks, it rehearses TO BE OR NOT TO BE for Lombard, where she gets to play a drama queen who’s NOT a hysteric. Indeed, it’s hard to believe Lubitsch wasn’t in some way influenced by Hawks here — John Barrymore would have made a lot more obvious sense as a Shakespearean ham than Jack Benny, even if the initials are the same. Of course Lubitsch’s instincts were perfect: Barrymore is perfect casting as a director so he can mock actors, and Benny is superb because casting him as Poland’s leading tragedian is inherently funny.

If Barrymore and Lombard are not quite perfectly matched for ability at farce, her amazing beauty gives her an edge, and then there’s everybody else: Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly (his dyspepsia in scene one turning to acute angina by film’s end) and Charles Lane, back when he was Charles Levison, playing a character who’s changed from Max Mandelbaum to Max Jacobson “for some mysterious reason.” Barrymore’s character harps on the guy’s Jewish origins in a way no comedy character would be allowed to today, and it’s a little shocking but of course entirely in keeping for the monster that is Oscar Jaffe.

If all the front-loading of back-story in the form of prologue does any harm at all, apart from enforcing a certain shapelessness that’s  much to Hawks’ liking, it’s that it creates the necessity for a coda, just to frame the lengthy train sequence. And so we get a not-very-inspired “This is where we came in” type rehash of the opening rehearsal, which is brief, but not quite speedy or funny enough to get itself out of trouble. A movie which crams gigantic amounts of character development into it’s first half and then suggests its characters are fixed, unchanging and unreal “lithographs,” for the remaining running time, does leave a slight dissatisfaction, even though it’s all so brilliantly done and funny. Fortunately, we don’t require perfection.

Check out the Lombard blogathon here.