Archive for Sam Taylor

The Sunday Intertitle: Harold Lloyd be thy name

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2017 by dcairns

I read about FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, a Harold Lloyd vehicle directed by the skilled Sam Taylor (EXIT SMILING) over at Observations of Film Art, where my all-time favourite annual event takes place — Kristin Thompson’s annual look back at the cinema of ninety years ago (with a modest assist from David Bordwell).

FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, plotwise, is a nothing, predicated on a premise that doesn’t seem to have anything to it. Harold Manners, millionaire, funds a mission in the slums by mistake, but then falls in love with the daughter of the founder. He has some misadventures helping with the mission, then his rich buddies kidnap him to stop him marrying the poor girl, there’s a chase and a happy ending. Pretty flimsy stuff — but sufficiently solid to attach Lloyd’s “islands” — his comic set-pieces. (Kubrick spoke of “non-submersible units” by which I take him to mean something similar, but with fewer pratfalls. Military enthusiast that he was, Kubrick used the pontoon bridge as his metaphor.)

The pun in this intertitle is so good, the whole movie may have been built around it. Which would account for the gossamer-thin plot. But that doesn’t matter, as the set-pieces are SO good.

Harold’s character is interesting — rather than being a boy next door, he’s a touch feckless and over-privileged, but this doesn’t make him unsympathetic. It makes him superhuman. Most Lloyd movies show him struggling to gain mastery over some hazardous situation, with our hero being handicapped by shyness or gentility which he has to overcome. Here, Lloyd’s victories are mainly effortless until the last act, when he gets a good work-out.

To round up a congregation for the new mission, Harold provokes fights with all the neighbourhood roughnecks so they’ll chase him into the building. The action is fast, furious, inventive and hilarious, and all the time we’re wondering what he’ll do with them when he gets them indoors. It turns out that he has no plan at all, and is rescued by the timely arrival of the police, which is a little disappointing but leads us into the next amusing situation.

(The lead yegg is Noah Young, whose praises I’ve been singing lately. A peerless plug-ugly.)

The climactic rescue is in itself easy enough, but Harold’s rescuers — Young and his gang, now allies — are all smashed out of their faces, and Harold’s new task is to get them to the church on time without them getting lost, arrested or killed. The sozzled bozos are incapable of sitting still, and rounding them up becomes an extended piece of Sisyphean slapstick eventually accelerating into a hair-raising sequence on a runaway bus.

Walter Kerr observes that, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd had no shadow about him, he seems always equipped for happiness should it come along — so to be interesting, he has to stack the deck against himself and pile on colossal odds against his victory. This pleasing, laid-back romp mainly eschews this until the end, letting us simply watch a guy lead a charmed life, much of the comedy coming from his blithe unawareness of how damned lucky he is.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Tempest in a Teacup

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2010 by dcairns

TEMPEST, a late-silent John Barrymore pic, is a fine reminder of how handsome, dashing and dumb Hollywood pics could be. Without a brain in its head, but with a simply incredible eye, the movie benefits from the double-whammy of James Wong Howe on camera and William Cameron Menzies on production design. Given Menzies’ maximilist interpretation of the designer’s job, it’s likely he sketched out every camera position for director Sam Taylor, a frequent collaborator and good director with no obvious style of his own. In fact, the IMDb lists two additional, uncredited directors, Lewis Milestone, an arch-stylist if ever there was one, and Viktor Tourjansky, another filmmaker of visual genius. It may be that Menzies’s role involved uniting the various approaches under one stylistic banner, as he did with the patchwork of GONE WITH THE WIND.

Boris has the sort of face that appears at windows.

Barrymore plays a dragoon officer, promoted through hard work, but cashiered and imprisoned after falling for a princess (Camilla Horn, from Murnau’s FAUST). An evil toff in a monocle torments Barrymore on one side, while a red revolutionary (the striking Boris de Fast) tempts him from the other. What with the grinning skull-faced commie, and Louis Wolheim’s Sgt Bulba, with his flattened fizzog (like he’s wearing a tight, invisible stocking on his head), it’s a movie of striking physiognomies, crowned by the Great Profile himself.

Among the film’s visual treats, we get a glimpse of the world as it appears to Barrymore.

The movie condemns the hide-bound class system of Tsarist Russia, while deploring the Revolution also, winding up as a piece of propaganda for the American way despite having no American scenes or characters. It’s not subtle, but Barrymore frequently is, avoiding the ham he was sometimes associated with — although he has some fun with his drinking scenes. A recurring tactic has him make some humorous expression in response to an upcoming situation, then play the situation itself quite straight.

Barrymore’s work towards the end of the film is among his best ever, as he has the opportunity to avenge himself upon the woman who ruined him, but finds he still loves her — and that she loves him. On the one hand, the great actor clearly knew this wasn’t Shakespeare, but he invests totally in it: without losing his distinctive wildness, he manages incredible gradations of emotions, and holds sustained closeups which are simply electrifying. Camilla Horn doesn’t match him for nuance, but still makes an effective foil, dialing the histrionics right down and acting as a kind of mirror for Barrymore.

One sequence, where a distraught and imprisoned JB hallucinates images of the war he’s missing (here, I found sympathy a slight strain) and his lady-love/hate — the visions appear as if projected on the prison wall, like the visions in SUNRISE which are seemingly projected on the sky itself — is both pictorially remarkable and rather frightening: Barrymore’s rather convincing incredulous reactions strongly suggest he’s had pertinent experience of hallucinatory torment.

Thumbprint!

The movie ends up a lot like Benjamin Christensen’s MOCKERY, but Barrymore instead of Lon Chaney makes a considerable difference, as does the incredible talent assembled behind the camera: instead of MOCKERY’s smooth MGM professionalism, we get fireworks of sputtering genius.

The whole movie takes place behind a blizzard of fine white scratches, especially at reel changes, and the climax shows obvious signs of missing footage — it plays like a random sampling of final moments, but fortunately we can follow the course of the action OK. It’s frustrating, but not too destructive. The movie is available here ~

Tempest