Archive for Rudolph Valentino

“I Adore Arabs – I Mean the REAL Ones!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville, taking a break from Cine Dorado, his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama, casts an eye over the final film of Ireland’s greatest auteur, Rex Ingram.

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Rex Ingram and Baroud

Shot on location in Morocco in 1931, Baroud (1933) was the last film (and the only talkie) of legendary silent director Rex Ingram. Perhaps the defining Hollywood maestro of the 20s – with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and Mare Nostrum (1925) – Ingram was as vital and influential a figure as D W Griffith had been a decade before. Yet by the dawn of the 30s, Ingram – much like Griffith – was seen as an unemployed and unemployable has-been. An obsolete (and silent) dinosaur in the brave new world of sound.

It’s easy to blame his downfall on this rapid and sudden shift in the technology of movies. Ingram, after all, was a supremely visual artist in a medium given over – in the early 30s – to wisecracks, musical numbers and chat. Easy but, perhaps, untrue. The careers of both Ingram and Griffith went into free-fall some years before Al Jolson sang in The Jazz Singer (1927). In the case of Griffith, the problem is all too clear. His brand of neo-Victorian melodrama looked quaint and out-of-date in the Jazz Age; his heavy drinking only exacerbated his woes.

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For Ingram, whose style and sensibility were far more modern, the case is more complex. Born in Dublin in 1893, he studied sculpture at the Yale School of Fine Arts and entered movies during World War I. After his run of triumphs in the early 20s, he fell out with MGM over NOT being allowed to direct the 1926 super-production of Ben Hur. Taking off in high dudgeon to the French Riviera, he built his own film studios (Victorine, in Nice) and indulged in what was euphemistically called ‘independent production’. The films he made there – The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927) – were not successful enough to sustain him. A later film made in Britain, The Three Passions (1929), was an ignominious flop.

So it was clear by the 30s that Rex Ingram would never be a ‘company man’. More damaging, perhaps, was the gossip around his personal life. Although he was married to the dazzling blonde Alice Terry – the leading lady in virtually all his films – the couple lived in different homes for most of their marriage. Ingram’s true passion, it was said, was a string of dark, exotic and sculpturally handsome young actors who played his male leads. Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Ivan Petrovich were all ‘discovered’ by Ingram – and the Hollywood casting couch has never been just for young ladies. Tongues wagged that Ingram was “peculiar” with a weakness for “gentlemen of a sepia tint”.

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Pierre Batcheff, the dashing White Russian who stars in Baroud (his career ranged from Siren of the Tropics (1927) with Josephine Baker to Un Chien Andalou (1928) for Dalí and Buñuel) looks like an Ingram leading man in the classic mould. He even plays the Valentino-esque role of a lusty desert tribesman. (‘Baroud’, as the opening titles so helpfully tell us, is a North African word for a tribal war.) In one of the few amusing moments, an English lady traveller who wants to “engage” him crows with joy when she finds out he’s “a real sheikh” – not just some guide who’s been dolled up to lure horny tourists.

If Ingram had only allowed Batcheff to be the centre of the film, Baroud might at least make enjoyable eye candy. The script, alas places him on one side of a triangle involving his sister (Rosita Garcia) and his French comrade-in-arms, who’s played ill-advisedly by Ingram himself. (Was this, perhaps, a bid to save money?) It was often said, in his heyday, that Ingram was handsome enough to play the lead in his own films. What his admirers neglected to say was that he lacked the ability to act. In fact, the acting in Baroud is universally atrocious; only Batcheff gives something you might call a performance. So the love triangle – for all its incestuous and homoerotic overtones – can’t help but fall resoundingly flat.

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The more interesting scenes hint, nonetheless, at an ‘abnormal’ closeness between the two male leads. The first is a sleazy nightclub sequence – an Ingram staple since Valentino’s iconic tango in The Four Horsemen. Here, Ingram catches the eye of a platinum blonde chanteuse but passes her on smoothly to Batcheff. Their wink of lustful complicity suggests the two boys could have just as much fun without her. At a table nearby, a turbaned spahi puffs on a cigar and blows the smoke out through his ears; the singer repels an unwanted suitor by stubbing her cigarette out in his beer. So glamorously fetid is the ambience that one half expects Marlene Dietrich to stride in wearing a tuxedo. (Ingram’s co-writer, incidentally, was Benno Vigny – who also wrote Amy Jolly, the novel on which Morocco (1930) was based.)

A few scenes later, Batcheff has reason to suspect his sister has ‘dishonored’ herself with his infidel friend. A confrontation takes place at the barracks, in a cosy room shared by the two men. Batcheff pulls out an impressively phallic dagger and fondles it, menacingly, at crotch level. Ingram eyes him with some curiosity – until Batcheff flicks the blade out and lets him admire it. Tossing his weapon on the bed, he watches as Ingram picks it up and plays with it in turn. The camera fades on a loving close-up of the curved, gleaming knife. Perhaps the most flamboyantly queer sequence in Ingram’s output, the scene leaves little doubt that one man is ‘sticking’ something to his closest pal.

Too bad if such scene-specific readings make Baroud sound more interesting (or, at any rate, more fun) than it really is. Much of the film is taken up by interminable location footage, in which pro-French spahis and rebel tribesmen march from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. In Ingram’s earlier films, his studio-built recreations of Buenos Aires and Ruritania and Revolutionary France compel us with their dazzling detail. The Satanic orgy in The Magician makes even Hell look like a real place. But the dusty location shots in Baroud turn real-life Morocco into a succession of bad sets. Ingram, like most great film-makers, was an illusionist and not a realist. Did he realise this, perhaps, when it was already too late?

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So Baroud is a catastrophically bad film, but one that only a gifted artist could have made. It shows us Ingram poised – with excruciating awkwardness – between melodrama and realism, exoticism and reportage, homosexual and heterosexual love. A cinematic ‘dead zone’ from which no film-maker (except for Pasolini, perhaps) could ever have escaped. Returning to Hollywood, where he died in 1950, Ingram worked on as a painter, sculptor and novelist – but never again in films. Baroud has scarcely been seen, either in the 30s or since, but is well worth seeking out. As long as you don’t expect to enjoy it.

David Melville

December 2013

Hollywood Forever

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2011 by dcairns

My LA jaunt wasn’t a sight-seeing tour, nor a social visit (managed to meet Glenn Erickson because he popped by, but only achieved a phone call with David E — both encounters I wished could have lasted much longer) but I did manage to see a couple of things…

This used to be Lana Turner’s house. And what’s this we can see lurking at the threshold – ?

THE GHOST OF JOHNNY STOMPANATO!

Knifed to death in the kitchen by Lana’s daughter Cheryl. By all accounts she was defending her mother from her abusive partner, a known gangster. Lana got Cheryl off by giving an award-worthy performance at the inquest — visible at 4.55 in this clip.

“Oh mother, stop acting!” Actually, I’m sure the emotion is sincere, but it uncannily resembles any of a dozen Lana Turner movie performances. Poor Lana had pretty bad taste in men: apart from Fernando Lamas (for God’s sake), she had relationships with Tarzan Lex Barker who sexually abused Cheryl, and Stompanato, who physically abused Lana.

This bijou bungalow belonged to Clara Bow, and is the site where she supposedly ravished the entire USC football team, including at the time a young John Wayne. I don’t believe this story though — the house looks too small to cram all those guys in, at least not without them removing their padding, which I think rather spoils the mental image. I totally believe the one about Tallulah Bankhead and the boy scouts though.

The DeMilles! I prevailed upon my generous hosts to give me a whistle-stop tour of Hollywood Forever, graveyard of the stars. I missed out on John Huston’s grave, which I imagine as the statue from the end of BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (hey, who wouldn’t want a weeping orangutan grave marker?) but caught DeMille’s, Hitchcock’s and Toto’s.

This was my day for recovering from jet-lag, and it was a suitably restful outing. Stayed so long it was too late to go on the Universal Studios tour, but I can’t imagine that being any better than this.

This is the last resting place of Doug Fairbanks Snr and Jnr. The inscription reads “Goodnight, sweet princes, and flights of angels sing the to thy rest. Adapted from Shakespeare.” Yeah. “It’s what you call a paraphrase.”

Still, you feel rather sorry for the Fairbankses when you see what they’ve got to face for all eternity… no, not a weeping orangutan (because that would be grand), but Joey Ramone.

Kind of tacky, no? I find it hard to conceive of a statue with an electric guitar in hand achieving the level of dignity suitable for a memorial, but perhaps this is mere snobbery. Anyway, this is what we came to see –

Valentino’s shrine. Fresh flowers, too — good to know the woman in black is still out and about. Given the historical duration involved, one has to suspect a dynasty of women is in operation, passing the flowers from mother to daughter like a relay-runner’s baton.

Interesting to find Rudy hemmed in by June Mathis and Peter Finch. Death makes for strange bedfellows.

And then my host dropped a six-pound award on his foot –

The disc of Melies’ moon made earthfall first, chipping the cement, then the award snapped in two and the heavy base landed on his toe. Suspected fracture. This necessitated a trip to another place of great interest –

“There’s Mr Skirball’s name again.” This is part of the motion picture retirement home, and thus of enduring fascination, especially to a fan of LA FIN DU JOUR, which is set in a retirement home for actors. I didn’t feel right buttonholing the resident crusties and demanding their life stories, however, so I contented myself with photographing the exhibits until politely ordered to stop.

Cooler even than Ann Miller’s Golden Boot Award (an item unlikely to inspire my host with warm feelings considering his recent experiences with golden awards and feet), cooler than Elsa Lanchester’s Dracula Society certificates, these caricatures by esteemed Hollywood-by-way-of-Romania director Jean Negulescu are lovely indeed. I can recognize everybody except the upper and lower central figures. What do you reckon?

And so, as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we say a fond goodbye to Los Angeles — I love this pic, taken from my host’s back yard. The flash illuminates the foreground while the distance sinks into silhouette, creating an unreal effect not unsuited to La La Land. Dumb luck.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Young Fellah

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2010 by dcairns

“Young Fellah” was Cecil B. DeMille’s pet name for his star, Gloria Swanson, whom I recently enjoyed and “got” for the first time in Raoul Walsh’s SADIE THOMPSON.

Here’s the thing — Swanson’s self-parody in SUNSET BLVD is so dead-on accurate and unsparing, it might seem to serve as a tombstone for her whole career. There was nothing left afterwards but self-parody, inadvertent this time. And everything before seems to be dismissed by the portrayal of Norma Desmond as a deluded egomaniac.

But I was judging way too soon when I thought along those lines. I’d only seen BEYOND THE ROCKS, a mediocre Sam Wood melodrama with a preposterous, meandering plot, in which Rudolph Valentino and Swanson strike no sparks, and almost seem to be trapped in different dimensions. SADIE THOMPSON is Swanson unleashed, and she has a leading man she relates to, in the unlikely form of the film’s director, Raoul Walsh himself.

I’m a huge, idolatrous fan of Lewis Milestone’s pre-code RAIN (1932), one of the most cinematically exciting films of its age, in which Walter Huston is impeccably awful as Davidson the reformer, playing without any of the usual disguise that actors use to say “Don’t worry, *I’m* not like this really!” Joan Crawford is incredible as Sadie, another performance slightly tainted by Billy Wilder — Tony Curtis’s lipstick in SOME LIKE IT HOT echoes Joan’s to an alarming degree. So the Walsh film had to really work to win me over. And despite the fact that the film’s last reel is lost, which ought to considerable blunt its power, I found it an incredible experience, probably on a par with its illustrious successor.

Lionel Barrymore makes a very sound Davidson, hinting at the man’s inner depravity far more than Huston does (maybe Barrymore just has that kind of face, but the script also foreshadows more heavily than the Milestone), but its Swanson who makes the difference. Boisterous, boyish and sometimes mannish, she explodes into the film with slapstick excess, showing that while she may not have enjoyed working for Mack Sennett, she still picked up invaluable lessons in knockabout. Swanson is blessed with perhaps the unloveliest smile ever to disfigure a leading lady, but it works beautifully here: Sadie’s glamour derives from being the youngest white woman on Pago Pago, and she’s a tramp. An excess of charm would be counterproductive. All Swanson’s potential defects work to her advantage here: dumpy build, sausage arms, thin lips, horsey face. There’s no attempt to conceal them, they’re all useful elements of Sadie’s lusty, unselfconscious appeal. It took nearly the whole movie to find Swanson in any way physically attractive, but she started to appeal as a personality immediately.

Swanson’s helped by Walsh, who’s wonderfully unaffected. His characterisation was probably the same as his direction: appreciating Gloria for everything she could do. She gets all the pyrotechnics, while Walsh appears laid-back, even when squaring for a fight. Sleepy-eyed, with an odd smile that appears crooked without being asymmetrical, and appears bashful without coyness.

My experience of early Walsh is limited, but there’s certainly a world of contrast between THIEF OF BAGDAD and this. I haven’t seen enough to know if this is a result of Walsh’s technique leaping forward in the intervening four years, as many filmmakers’ did, or if THIEF was deliberately retro in style (I suspect in part it was).

Designer William Cameron Menzies makes the usual atmospheric use of bead curtains and mosquito nets, but the big effect is the way Trader Horn’s whole establishment seems to sag under the continuous downpour. A subtler kind of expressionism than his big effects in BELOVED ROGUE or whatever, because you believe it on a naturalistic level. The turnstile made from a tree stump and a broken oar is a nice touch too, and in the scene where Barrymore makes Swanson kneel, the window behind him is a writhing morass of waving foliage and rain: looks like a Japanese tentacle monster attack, which is not inappropriate for the scene’s true meaning.

By the end, I was enjoying the film so much I was terrified that the truncated ending would ruin my pleasure, but the restoration, though it’s unable to do much about moments of severe nitrate decomposition along the way, cobbles together a satisfactory patchwork finish that at least wraps the story up in a way that’s as smooth as one could hope for, considering. So that the impression that remains is that of a mature film of the late silent era, showcasing a strange and dazzling performer.

Nitrate decomposition as poetic commentary: Sadie kneels to pray, and dissolves in a heavenward spray of beam-me-up-Scotty effulgence.

Americans, buy this sucker –

Sadie Thompson (Silent) [DVD] [1928] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] [2028]

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