Archive for Roy William Neill

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.

Glorious Troglodytes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2021 by dcairns

Crosses are important in this film — see how many of them YOU can spot!

Roy William Neill is vaguely famous for his forties Sherlock Holmes films, horrors and noirs, while his thirties work is fairly obscure and most of his silents a lost continent. His directing career actually began in 1917 and he made several WWI pics. VIVE LA FRANCE! (1918) is such a one.

Neill has a wealth of actuality footage to work with, so much so that the slender plot is often overwhelmed. The leads, Dorothy Dalton and especially Edmund Lowe disappear for lengthy stretches while we look at troops, planes, big guns. A lot of the apparently documentary war stuff is impressive in itself. And there seems to have been a decent budget for staging action too — the close-quarters trench fighting footage CAN’T be real. It’s genuinely hard to be sure where fact and fiction leave off.

... the men, glorious troglodytes…

Strangely, the two main characters seem to be movie stars. But they’re of French origins so they get into the war quick.

DD becomes a nurse, falls into the hands of the filthy hun who killed her parents, is branded on the bosom with the cross of shame. EL is injured, loses his memory, is saved by DD, gets his memory back. So when the film isn’t wowing us with artillery, it’s trying to horrify us with sadism. Fred Starr is the villain — no Stroheim, he. The man I DON’T love to hate. I don’t even like disliking him.

Also in the cast, Bert Sprotte. I like Bert Sprotte because his name is Bert Sprotte.

The intertitles of the print I saw are in French, and I have my doubts if they were translated faithfully. I can certainly guarantee you that my retranslation of them back to English, using my O-Grade French brain, was less than accurate. But the title cards give out for long stretches, leaving us to our own devices anyway. The film and I could generally come to an agreement about what was going on.

Neill seems not very keen on the hun-baiting stuff, but there’s some intense melodrama elsewhere, and the ruined castle set (complete with thunderstorm! or maybe it’s the flash of battle?) allows for some foreshadowing of his later gothic entertainments.

Dalton, whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, is one of those silent actors who rather lives up to the stereotype. The rhetorical style is not necessarily inappropriate to this sort of tosh, but Lillian Gish would have made it credible as well as barnstormy. The unfortunate climax has Edmund Lowe’s memory restored to him by the sight of the brand of shame seared into his sweetheart’s body by the beastly boche. Since this requires DD to flash her DDs at him in a melodramatic fashion, and Lowe to react in kind, it’s a bit of an effort not to laugh, even though one mustn’t.

Lowe, a velvet-smooth lead in thirties films, isn’t as massive a hambone as Dalton, but he still widens his eyes and mouth, steps back in amazement, leans against the defunct fountain behind him, and raises one knee decorously, like the pre-code Columbia lady.

Lone Wolf and Blore

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2020 by dcairns

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A classic Langian image — the phantom technological interrogator!

Since our friend Marvelous Mary is perhaps the western world’s most passionate fan of Eric Blore, but depends for her supply entirely upon us, I thought it was time we all tried the LONE WOLF series, in which EB co-stars as Jamison, faithful valet to the Lone Wolf himself, Michael Lanyard, played by Warren William and later Gerald Mohr.

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Naturally, we started not at the beginning, with THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT (though WW’s first Wolf movie is rumoured to be the best, Blore does not appear, so it CAN’T BE) but with sort-of the end, WW’s final entry, PASSPORT TO SUEZ. Apart from the two movies directed by Edward Dmytryk, which we’ll definitely watch out for, it’s the only entry in the series with a top-notch (or second-from-top-notch) director (OK, the very first film treatment of Louis Joseph Vance’s detective hero, in 1917, was directed by Herbert Brenon, kind of a major figure, and Roy William Neill, before he tackled Sherlock Holmes, directed THE LONE WOLF RETURNS in 1935 with Melvyn Douglas, who did not return). But this one is the work of that cyclopean pirate, Andre de Toth.

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Mr. Veronica Lake the bullet-headed Hungarian directs nimbly, and the breathless comings and goings of the plot — a new eccentric character actor introduced and despatched every ten minutes — kept our attention glued. Warren William, always more a Starving Lion than a Lone Wolf, is suitably suave and unflappable. And, best of all, flapping enough for two, there’s abundant Blore, as Lanyard’s timorous, ovine accomplice, continually abducted and trussed up, delivering himself of several of the lines he was born to say:

“I hope you don’t think this is my favourite form of recreation, sir.”

“This is the very rope he tied me up with. Lovely lovely! There are moments when a man’s felicity reaches its zenith.”

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The script throws in characters called Rembrandt, Cezanne and Whistler, just for a laugh, waiting for somebody to notice.

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Memorable scene where a grinning man comes out of a wall. He continues to grin until shot, a couple of scenes later, and he’s very arresting, but I didn’t recognise him as Jay Novello, so good as the drunken mayor in WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?

The support includes Ann Savage, Lloyd Bridges (as a Nazi called Fritz!) and Sig Arno. Or, put another way…

PASSPORT TO SUEZ stars Perry Mason; Mother; Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith; J. Edgar Hoover; Steve McCroskey; Phillip Musgrave; Geoffrey Musgrave; Jake Bjornsen; Mayor Romano; Smoke; Frances Chan; Carrefour; and Toto.