Archive for Rowland V Lee

Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot —

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Love is a Battlefield

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2011 by dcairns

Now honestly, is that a proper question to ask of Pola Negri?

The film is Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WINE —

Sorry, BARBED WIRE. We shall overlook the forgivable calligraphic entanglement. It’s not primarily about WWI trench warfare though, but about a POW camp set up at Pola’s farm, where she falls in love with prisoner Clive Brook. The movie, being silent, feels free to cast Polish Pola as a Frenchwoman, English chin Clive as a German, and Bavarian Gustav Von Seyffertitz as a Frenchman. Which isn’t any kind of problem here: what’s odd is that Hollywood continued with this kind of counter-intuitive national casting after sound came in, and still occasionally does it.

Big Head of Pola. This gorgeous moment may be the work of an uncredited Mauritz Stiller.

Despite the melodrama surrounding her, Pola is admirably restrained here — gone is the kohl-smeared vamp of yore, performing via an admixture of violent semaphore and demented facial calisthenics. Her solemn, muted work in this movie is a revelation. Brook, the chin of England, comes pre-muted, but apart from a weeping scene which initiates some ghastly mugging, he’s a good match for Pola’s dignified turn. Her teary moments show her abandoning glamour altogether and becoming convincingly distraught, which is to say unattractive. This was, and still is, unusual. As Juliette Lewis once complained, “There are some actresses who do crying scenes and they still look pretty. Like, you could have sex with them while they’re crying!”

Christmas behind barbed wire — the tinsel on the tree is easily explained (you simply shred several spent cartridges with a potato peeler and voila!) but where they got the false head for the contortionist Santa Claus is a mystery with deeply sinister undertones. I kept anxiously checking out the prison guards to see if any of them had got suddenly shorter. So disturbing is the satanic Santa that he fully earns the German name for Father Christmas, Weihnachtsmann, which sounds like some kind of boogieman, as likely to steal your child’s eyeballs as to stuff his stocking.

Credited director Rowland V Lee is a curious case. His SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is arguably as camp and hysterical as James Whale’s BRIDE, and there’s a striking moment when Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi enter a room, talk for a moment, then step forwards and Rathbone expresses surprise at the presence of the monster, comatose upon a table, revealed by a tracking back of the camera. Since the monster must have been plainly visible to Rathbone since the moment he came in the door, this is a vivid and surreal illustration of the principle that things which are offscreen exist only provisionally in films, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. But in BARBED WIRE his filming is eloquent and expressive, the only really goofy moment being a flashback to something we just saw five minutes earlier, but even that is explained by the filmmaker’s understandable desire to show the audience what a character is talking about. But the really sublime stuff is probably Mauritz Stiller’s — I don’t know the story behind his partial involvement, but I guess it’s a typical example of the shabby way he was treated in Hollywood.

In Micheal MacLiammoir’s memoir Put Money in thy Purse, he reports Orson Welles adopting some Mitteleuropean director’s name for the close-up: “Big Head of Pola.” Since Hitchcock also used the term Big Head for the same reason, I vote this excellent expression be revived and given pride of place in dictionaries of film terminology. After all, “close-up of Pola” is clearly a vague and ambiguous expression, since it doesn’t specify which portion of her the camera should focus on. I mean, there’s a dazzling choice.

In a stirring (silent) speech, Mona’s brother evokes a great march of the war’s fallen. His assertion that post-war bitterness, if not replaced by love, could result in another war to end all wars is horribly prophetic for 1927…