Archive for Seven Sinners

Breakaway Props

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2019 by dcairns

Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne make a surprising duo, yet they made three films together (and didn’t really get on — Marlene seems to have been the difficult one).

The films have a lot of brawling in them. SEVEN SINNERS is my favourite, although Wayne’s character is kind of a self-destructive dope. Strong support from Mischa Auer, Marlene’s DESTRY co-star, a comparatively slim Broderick Crawford (pictured) and a villainous Oscar Homolka.

THE SPOILERS casts Randolph Scott against type as a louse, which like Wayne as a dope is unconventional but not particularly pleasing. I guess I’m like a 1940s audience member, unwilling to accept my stars out of type-casting.

Mind you, what it does to Wayne’s persona is positively dizzying, and I didn’t mind that so much. Even the blackface gag seemed… not as offensive as it should be. Marietta Canty’s sensitive playing keeps the humour just the right side of awful.

PITTSBURGH — and how weird is it that Universal made a film called PITTSBURGH and expected people to like it? — is my least favourite. Wayne plays an absolute louse, the worst character he ever played. He’s like Charles Foster Kane with anthracite. And I’m reminded of what Billy Wilder said about coal mining films — “I don’t leave the theater… elated.”

Also there’s not enough brawling. Does Pennsylvania lack conducive saloons?

A friend told me a story that’s movie punch-up related. His dad was a merchant seaman or something like that. First time at sea. They stopped in an exotic port and hit some seedy dive on shore leave. Somewhere like the Seven Sinners. A fight broke out.

The young not-yet dad immediately knew what to do — he’d seen the right movies. He grabbed a chair and swung it down on somebody’s back. There was a snapping sound, the guy fell to the floor — but the chair remained in his hands, unbroken.

He ran back to the ship and didn’t leave it for the rest of his leave.

The respective directors of these epics are Tay Garnett (kind of replaying HER MAN), Ray Enright, Lewis Seiler.

SEVEN SINNERS stars Lola Lola; the Ringo Kid; Dr. Cyclops; Harry Brock; Bronwyn; Prince Nikita Starloff; Professor Von Schwartzenhoffen; Col. Stok; Commodore Schmidlapp; Charleston; Blake of Scotland Yard; and Jabez Stone.

THE SPOILERS stars Lola Lola; Gil Westrum; the Ringo Kid; Millie Ray; Trader Horn; Bat MacPherson; Pa Bailey; Pa Joad; Tubal; James R. Smoke; Dobosh; and the Frankenstein Monster.

PITTSBURGH stars Lola Lola; Gil Westrum; the Ringo Kid; Doctor Harry Brewster; Prof. Shemp Howard; Captain Edward Teach aka Blackbeard; Pop Gehrig; Pa Bailey; Mr. Manleigh; and Mrs. Laurel.

Advertisements

Silent Comedian, Talking Picture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-06-04-11h25m51s81

So: Chaplin resisted talking, and even as late as THE GREAT DICTATOR (1939) was carving out sections of his films which could work as pantomime. (But people don’t acknowledge the extent to which Chaplin embraced and experimented with sound — just not dialogue). Keaton lost control of his career when sound came in, due to the tyranny of the screenplay, Louis B. Mayer, and the bottle. Harold Lloyd was the happiest case, remaining fairly productive until 1937, making some good talkies, maintaining the visual gags he was known for an augmenting them with verbals. The only thing lost is the ability to undercrank, which robs the action of that lighter-than-air, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quality it can have in silents.

I really like Leo McCarey’s THE MILKY WAY, especially the scene where Harold has to transport a small horse (as I recall) in a taxi cab without the cabbie realising. Harold alibis the occasional whinnying sounds by grinning maniacally, doing his best to look like the kind of man who WOULD whinny in the back of a taxi.

vlcsnap-2015-06-04-11h30m37s97

We ran MOVIE CRAZY (1932) after a hot tip that if we enjoyed Constance Cummings in SEVEN SINNERS, which we did, we should see this one. And how!

Half of the plot is a straight reprise of MERTON OF THE MOVIES, filmed by the same studio the same year under the title MAKE ME A STAR. Deja vu must’ve been a common sensation in those days. Both version suffer from the same problem, the hero being a delusional hopeful who wants to be a movie star. Rooting for his aspirations when he clearly has no talent is tough, and in both cases the filmmakers try to enlist our sympathy by pouring troubles on the hero’s head — Harold’s character even acquires the nickname “Trouble.” Harold wasn’t inherently a lachrymose type, and most of his stories are American success stories about conquering adversity — not too much time for pathos. His best protagonists gain sympathy while keeping busy. So that aspect of the film isn’t too great.

vlcsnap-2015-06-04-11h36m18s212

vlcsnap-2015-06-04-11h25m23s80

The other half of the film, loosely connected to it, is the romantic triangle between Harold, Constance Cummings, and Constance Cummings. Harold meets CC twice, once in black wig and costume as a vampish senorita, once in civvies. He doesn’t realise it’s the same dame. Confused by a cunningly contrived chain of circumstance, he comes to believe the dusky damsel fancies him, whereas he does actually stand a chance with the blonde version — but keeps ruining his chances by flirting with her alter ego, thinking she’ll never know.

Cummings is just awfully good here. First she has to make us believe she’s taken a shine to Harold’s no-hoper. Suspending our disbelief requires Herculean efforts: in the end, we can say that she plays it magnificently, but the task is not really a possible one. It’s a bit like a CGI special effect, immaculately rendered with photorealist care, but inherently unbelievable, like all those bits in modern action movies where heroes survive colossal death plunges. Nobody could possibly do it better than Cummings, and the commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t quite result in a success. Harold is penniless, accident prone, talentless, and his self-belief comes across not as admirable but as unjustified arrogance tinged with insanity. But everything else Cummings is given to do, she does with equal commitment, and that stuff works great.

Apart from some very nice gags, scattered a little too far apart, the movie also maintains interest with an elaborate, spectacular shooting style. There are graceful, sweeping crane shots, particularly one which explores a movie set representing a ship at sea, where the camera swings from one position to another, guiding us through the geography of the scene about to unfold and building a fine anticipation. Occasionally, the visual ambition gets a bit carried away with itself, as in one of those “Santa POV” shots, filmed from inside the fireplace, but most of the elaborate moves and angles are more tasteful and effective, as well as being striking.

vlcsnap-2015-06-04-11h31m23s70

“Oh no, Dad’s on fire!”

That ship scene leads to an impressive knock-down fight between Harold and his nasty romantic rival. It’s quite funny, visually grand, and mainly it’s a tremendous release of energy as Harold stops being pathetic and takes care of business. I don’t really like the idea that our hero has to beat the living crap out of someone else to prove he’s a man, but if ever a plot needed a violent drubbing to shake it from the doldrums, this one did.

Come for Harold, stay for Constance, and then fall in love with Harold again, eventually.

Cummings and Goings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-23-11h34m14s199

SEVEN SINNERS is a title which kept getting trotted out — the one Lewis Milestone made in 1925, long thought lost, has just been rediscovered, which is cause for rejoicing. The unlikely pairing of John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich resulted in a delightful romp for Tay Garnett in 1940. But the version I looked at was from Britain in 1936, and it’s a fairly naked attempt at doing a THIN MAN knock off with American stars — Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings, who made England her home, it seems, and went on to triumph in BLITHE SPIRIT.

I don’t imagine any of those movies have a good reason to be called SEVEN SINNERS. This one doesn’t. It just sounds good.

vlcsnap-2015-05-23-11h34m26s63

Lowe, who has a lovely mellifluous voice, is a drunken detective a la Nick Charles, and Cummings plays an insurance investigator supposed to accompany him to Scotland to investigate missing jewels. Sadly, they never make it north of the border, but their adventure instead hinges upon murder and train-wrecking, and shunts them from Nice (at carnival time) to Paris and on to London and then the English countryside. All fun stuff.

The train angle stems from the involvement of author Arnold Ridley, who wrote THE GHOST TRAIN and THE WRECKER — the spectacular full-scale smash-up from that accomplished silent thriller is recycled here as stock footage. The whole film may well have been written around it. Elsewhere, director Albert de Courville (best known for: nothing at all) mocks up colossal derailings by spinning the camera and mixing together multiple images to suggest Lowe’s intoxicated experience of being thrown to the ceiling in a spinning corridor.

vlcsnap-2015-05-23-11h37m06s111

Messrs Launder & Gilliat are credited with the script, and do a fine job simulating the kind of patter stars like, say, Myrna Loy and William Powell would throw off in Hollywood productions. It should seem a poor cousin to those movies, but it actually manages to carve out its own little corner and curls up in it like a shaggy dog, looking vaguely pleased with itself but not smelling too bad. Each scene is based around an amusing bit of investigation, the logic connecting them is playful but solid enough, and the business transacted within them is frequently amusing too. Hitchcock would have asked for more real sense of jeopardy — British comedy-thrillers tended to fall heavily on the first quality and scrimp on the second — but it’s all perfect undemanding afternoon entertainment.

“A minute to strip. A minute to dress. I’ll be back in a minute,” says Lowe.

“Better make it two,” says Cummings.

As always with these things, you’re left wishing there was a whole series with these characters. Maybe they’d finally reach Scotland.