Archive for Roy del Ruth

Cuckoo Croak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2021 by dcairns

THE CUCKOO MURDER CASE: an Ub Iwerks short starring Flip the Frog. Great spooky house atmos and I love the picture of the dopey cat on the wall. Lots of cute anthropomorphic gags. EVERYTHING is alive here: the murder victim is the cuckoo from a cuckoo clock, who gets perforated by a gunshot. The entry and exit wounds are circular holes running right through the bird, making him seem wooden, which he is. But still alive, and then dead.

He has a washing line and a plant pot on the side of his clock.

The clock has a literal face which reacts to events. The hands prod the cuckoo to make him perform (before he’s shot) and then call the cops using a phone which is also alive and sentient.

The clock “dials” 2479 by peeling the numbers off his face and dropping them into the receiver. I wonder when the emergency number in the US changed to 911? 2479 is a terrible choice.

Interestingly, the clock can’t speak, but makes various clock noises while moving his lips.

Flip is another vaguely minstrel-like character with black head and white mouth area — but these features, common to Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Rabbit, Bimbo the Dog, are arguably just a way to make a figure read well in simple b&w drawn form. Only Bosko was openly intended as a racial caricature.

Flip is a detective in this one. His cop car lives in a kennel and its bark is a car horn honk. It’s not exactly logical, but once it’s established, Iwerks can carry on just as if it were. When he stretches the car/dog’s tongue out and twists it, using it as a crank to start the motor, that’s kind of strange. But we are riffing on connections between canine and auto anatomy, so it holds up, just about. Though I don’t think it’s an accepted way of starting your dog.

By some similar reasoning, the squad car’s siren is a cat, activated by turning its tail like a handle to make it caterwaul. When the car passes through a puddle, the cat becomes clogged, so the tail now becomes a pump which can blast the water out of its mouth. It would be handy if we could do that to Momo when he wants to throw up, so we could make it happen in the right place. He always goes looking for the most expensive and soilable item in the floordrobe to spill his catguts into.

Iwerks is having so much fun with the notion of characters motoring through a storm that he pretty much forgets about his plot. The journey is a good place for repeating action on loops, a favourite technique of the 30s (see also Fleischer toons) because it allows for recycling of cels. Plus a lot of the comedy comes from creating a musical tempo, plus you can build laughter by doing the same gag a few times. If it’s funny once, maybe it’ll be funny again.

When the rain gets too heavy, Flip detaches the mouse figurine hood ornament, which didn’t exist in any previous shot, and attaches it to his windscreen. Since the mouse is an actual live mouse, it now works as a windshield wiper. Actually, I’m kind of embarrassed about the amount of work the word “since” is doing in that sentence. In an Iwerks cartoon, there isn’t really any since.

Even the house is alive, flashing its windows at Flip like the Palmer house at the end of Twin Peaks season 3. The illuminated eyes and mouth scare Flip away — the hero’s quest refused — but the wind keeps blowing him back.

Like Gary Oldman’s shadow in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, or Peter Pan’s, Flip’s shadow starts getting ahead of him — and there’s that dopey cat again. Or maybe an ancestor of the previous dopey cat. When the cuckoo clock’s pendulum strikes him (why? the clock invited him here) like the hazardous wall clock in Chaplin’s ONE A.M., Flip trashes a suit of armour in retaliation and reveals a third, identical portrait. This is like Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER.

Not unlike other spooky house thrillers of the time, e.g. Benjamin Christensen’s amazing, hallucinatory SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, the exploration of the haunted house is just one damn thing after another: rather than building up a coherent mystery with puzzles to solve, suspects advancing and retreating, it’s just a whole morass of crazy occurrences. In the BC film — and in Gance’s amazing AU SECOURS! with Max Linder, and probably in Benjamin Christensen’s other spooky house films, now lost save for their Vitaphone soundtracks — we just accumulate madness until a single global explanation accounts for all of it in one swell foop.

The title suggests the Philo Vance films William Powell was doing at the time, but the sensation-film angle is much closer to Leni-Christensen.

With the eerie hooded figure, seen from behind, this may have been inspired by another of those old shockers, Roy Del Ruth’s THE TERROR, now missing presumed lost. In which case, this is the closest thing to seeing it, apart from the few stills in circulation and the contemporary reviews, which suggest it was really something.

Even by cartoon standards, the ending of this one is unsatisfactory. But interesting. Flip flees the hooded killer, who is apparently Death Himself — shades of Argento’s INFERNO — running down a corridor with the camera rushing after him, and dives into a dark void — and that’s it. As if we ran out of background and foreground at the same time.

The Manipulator

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2020 by dcairns

A really good double feature — THE MIND READER and THE DARK HORSE.

The former has Warren William as mentalist, starting as a failed sideshow hustler and discovering the psychic gag as a way to hustle at a higher level. Very snazzy direction from Roy Del Ruth with a lot of Dutch tilts and some sweeping crane shots. William as maybe the worst scoundrel of his professional career, since his act actually ruins lives and kills people, and he reforms once then shamelessly backslides. Put it this way, he’s so bad, the movie can’t exonerate him at the end, and he has to go to prison.

Allen Jenkins’ last line is wonderfully bathetic: “Gee, boss, it seems a shame you’re going away just when beer’s coming back.”

Good little role for Clarence Muse: as always, he deserves more. Unrewarding sappy gf part for Constance Cummings, a brief sighting of the bewitching Ruthelma Stevens, wheeled on to glower accusingly before the elevator shaft beckons.

THE DARK HORSE (dir: Alfred E Green) is a key work in the Warner precode mission to FULLY DOCUMENT AMERICA: it’s about the biggest racket of them all, politics, and shows how a brainless candidate (Guy Kibbee in his apotheosis, above) gets more or less accidentally nominated and how the machine gets behind him to transform a rustic chump into something the electorate can be fooled into voting for. In charge of that transformation: Warren William, of course.

Arguably there’s too much about WW’s love life, which is of course amusing but not 100% central to the political issues. Actually, issues are not discussed (the candidate has no platform), but the one big issue — the failure of American politics to produce worthy politicians, the packaging, instead, of chumps — kind of fades in the second half. Bette Davis is the romantic interest but she must have had an envious eye on the bad girl part, which Vivienne Osborne triumphs in. I don’t know why she wasn’t bigger.

No Jenkins in this one, but it has Frank McHugh so that’s fine: the schmoe quotient is filled.

Asides from WW, the hidden connection seems to be screenwriter Wilson Mizner, who was working himself to death at Warners from 32-33. His name is wonderfully seedy: I somehow picture him typing in fingerless gloves and a raincoat.

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?