Archive for Sidney Blackmer

These bloody women they will not stop bothering you

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Irene prepares to get things Dunne.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all misogynist on you. Just quoting Pete & Dud, while also gearing up to take a look at some of John Cromwell’s monster women.

Bette Davis (see yesterday) is probably the most awful, but she has some stiff competition. Hope Emerson in CAGED is practically a literal she-monster, and Cromwell’s noir outings featured the occasional femme fatale. But the trio of Laura Hope Crews (mother), Constance Cummings (lover) and Kay Francis (wife) have an unexpected amount in common.

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THE SILVER CORD (1933) seems to be the first Hollywood film to aim at that great American holy cow, motherhood, with Laura Hope Crews shrill and fluttering as the controlling, near-incestuous mother of Joel McCrea and Eric Linden. McCrea’s role is almost unplayable, since he has to appear blind to what kind of a family set-up he’s from, while retaining some measure of the audience’s respect — he gives it the old college try, though, and comes out better than he does in BANJO ON MY KNEE. Eric Linden was probably pre-code cinema’s pre-eminent pisspants, and is made to measure as the (even) more spineless son, easily manipulated into giving up the adorable and beauteous Frances Dee because she doesn’t live up to mama’s standards.

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A pensive, festive Linden.

It takes Irene Dunne (in one of several lead roles for Cromwell) to unmask mother, taking her down with surgical precision (Dunne is a biologist — she’s told in Scene One that she’s one of those women who CAN have a career and family, and this news is delivered by Gustav von Seyffertitz, so it is AUTHORITATIVE). McCrea STILL can’t see what’s staring him in the face until Mummy Pittypat flat-out confesses that she’s put all her romantic yearnings into motherhood, and she’s PROUD of it, goddamn it.

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Upon that same rear projection screen, KONG would roar!

The thing is a giant creaking play (by Sidney Howard), but Cromwell, working as was often the case from a script by Jane Murfin, applies long, fluid traveling shots (gliding crabwise  through those weird doorways that seem to have only half a door frame, to admit the camera crew) and takes advantage of RKO’s early facility with rear-projection for a dramatic accident on the ice. It’s not actually a Christmas film, but it’s one of several Cromwell’s suited to this time of year, with its snowy backdrops (see also MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and especially SINCE YOU WENT AWAY).

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THIS MAN IS MINE stars Dunne again (who doesn’t get enough credit as a great pre-code dame along with Stanwyck, Bette & Joan &c), battling the deliciously wicked Constance Cummings (above) who wants to steal away her husband, Ralph Bellamy (but WHY, for pity’s sake? Because he’s there, I suppose). Dunne has her delicate, piano-playing, landscape-painting hands full with all these Constance Cummings and goings.

Amusingly, this also has Sidney Blackmer, making it a kind of ROSEMARY’S BABY pre-party for Dr. Sapirstein and Roman Castavet.

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ALL OF THEM WITCHES! Dunne & Bellamy/Sapirstein, Blackmer/Castavet and Cummings.

The low-key melodrama is leavened with considerable humour, most of it from the beastly Constance’s more sensible sister, Kay Johnson (Mrs. Cromwell at the time). Describing CC as “a sort of cross between a tidal wave and a smallpox epidemic,” she keeps the whole, dignified thing from getting too self-serious. Slightly surprising third-act violence when Bellamy slugs Constance unconscious with a sock in the eye, and Dunne brains him in turn with a picture frame. Well, civilisation must be preserved.

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As in THE SILVER CORD, the villainess condemns herself out of her own mouth, destroying the illusion she’s built up, and the exact same thing happens a third time in the later IN NAME ONLY (1939). Kay Francis, at the tail-end of her career as leading lady, is hanging on to Cary Grant in a loveless marriage, because she wants not only his money but his dad’s (Charles Coburn, by some genetic prodigy of mutation). Grant meets and falls for widow Carole Lombard, lighting a nice fire under the whole scenario.

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This is the most satisfying of the three, though they’re all worth seeing. It’s like Grant and Lombard are trying to be their own dazzling movie star selves, and every bastard around them is trying to drag them down to ordinary unhappiness with the rest of humanity. Oddly, Grant shines brightest when sparring with catty Helen Vinson (another survivor of the pre-code era, with her sharp little teeth) as a subsidiary bitch. Memorable action involves the worst hotel in the history of cinema, and Francis condemning herself out of her own mouth exactly like her predecessors. A door shuts on her with awesome finality.

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Also: Peggy Ann Garner, Grady Sutton. (“Do you drink? How do you stand it?”)

 

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Apres le Deluge

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2011 by dcairns

Just saw RKO’s other 1933 special-effextravaganza, DELUGE, and wanted to write about it — a pre-code sci-fi disaster movie! But also realized that possibly the terrible Earthquake in New Zealand makes this a sensitive time to be dealing with a very trivial manifestation of the subject of earthquakes. What I suggest is that you don’t read on if you’re not in the mood for a discussion of a 1930s end-of-the-world movie.

As insensitive as I am, seeing this movie in the wake of the TV images of real-life destruction made things slightly queasier than they would otherwise be. I can’t help but feel that, exactly as with any Roland Emmerich movie, the intended emotion as New York is swamped by tsunami is “Wow! Look at that!” And the special effects are both weird (the sheer unreality of the process shots has the power of nightmare) and staggering (those miniature skyscrapers must have been BIG, and there are so many, and how did they get them to collapse like that? And they must be filming in really slow motion. We all know that water never looks entirely convincing in miniature — there’s no special effect that can alter its surface tension, as Peter Jackson remarks on the commentary track of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS — but the waves here are as impressive as any I’ve ever seen. Certainly better than the sploshing in RAISE THE TITANIC, where one can’t help notice the slo-mo droplets flying from the White Star liner’s hull, each large enough for a small family to climb inside.

Apart from the awesome effects sequence, which comes about ten minutes in, what does DELUGE have to offer?

Oh, lots! First there’s the movie’s weird history. Despite the fortune spent on it, it went missing, probably because it couldn’t be re-released after the Production Code — more on its pre-code content in a mo. A print eventually turned up in Italy in the 80s, and of course the Italians had dubbed it. So here it is, an American film dubbed into Italian and subtitled in English. (Dubbing it back into English might make a fun project for somebody.)

I hadn’t realized director Felix E. Feist, who made a bunch of noirs later on(eg THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE), started so early. He pulls off a snappy shot at the start, weaving amid histrionic scientists reading data reporting the impending apocalypse, then settles down to B-movie stultitude, but what’s striking is the way this movie doesn’t obey the dictates of Hollywood structure. I strongly suspect some cuts have affected the story — we don’t seem to meet any of the heroes until things are well underway, apart from the champion swimmer played by Peggy Shannon.

Since the majority of the story takes place after the end of the world, recalling Sam Goldwyn’s line about wanting a story which starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax, we’re by definition in anti-climactic terrain. The majority of the plot concerns a family separated by the flood (in circumstances never made clear). The husband thinks the wife dead, and vice-versa, and both are tempted by newcomers. He, played by Sidney Blackmer (good old Roman Castevet, “Satan is his father!”) rescues the sexy swimmer from a fate worse than gang-death, while she is gently wooed by a nice chap in the township of survivors. Fans of pre-code incorrectness will be glad to know that among the survivors of the biblical catastrophe is at least one comedy negro. This fellow fails to buy the Venus de Milo for a quarter (“Her arms are broken”) and another bucolic sort makes off with her for two bits. “Winter’s coming. You ain’t got no imagination,” he states, to general laughter. Nobody in this post-apocalyptic landscape acts bereaved, except the heroes, who it turns out aren’t. And not even the Mona Lisa is safe from unwelcome attention — those tidal waves must’ve been pure testosterone, since the bulk of the plot now deals with the threat posed by violent male sexuality. What began as 2012, 1933-style, is now THE ROAD.

Rapiest of the nasty survivors is the tousle-haired Jepson, played by a Sternberg favourite, Fred Kohler, bad guy in UNDERWORLD and two lost JVS classics, THE DRAGNET and THE CASE OF LENA SMITH (wonder if he’s glimpsed in the surviving fragment? And why isn’t it on YouTube?). If the sight of Peggy Shannon washed ashore in her undies isn’t startling enough, Kohler’s censorable pawing of her upper regions will pop open the most jaded of eyes. And his eventual demise at her hands, walloped by a two-by-four sprouting a huge masonry nail, is likewise extraordinary. As Shannon steps back in horror, the handle-end of the stick remains hovering in mid-air, leading us to infer that the other end is embedded in Kohler’s skull. Ouchy.

The love quadrangle is settled by reaffirming the importance of marriage in a post-apocalypse world, and poor Peggy ends by swimming off towards a matte-painted horizon, an act which certainly feels like suicide, and a slap in the face to liberated, independent woman swimmers everywhere.

Still, her earlier eagerness to “see what’s out there” holds alive the hope that she might make landfall in some more conducive environment. Let’s see, it’s 1933 — somewhere, a tribe of Broadway gold-diggers have established their own primitive society on a nub of land that once held Sardi’s Restaurant. With an economy based on large, wearable coins, pig latin as their official language, and a tradition of human sacrifice to the mighty goddess Djinn-Jah Raw-Jazz, they will welcome her into their satin-draped bosom.

Caveat Lector

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2009 by dcairns

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QUIET PLEASE, MURDER! is a really nice, modest little wartime noir written and directed by a fellow who doesn’t seem to have gotten the breaks he deserved, John Larkin.

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Excitingly, as the film begins, there seem to be no good guys. George Sanders is Harry Fleg (a Scots word for fright), a murderous book thief who decides to forge copies of his ill-gotten Burbage manuscript rather than part with the original. He’s constantly espousing his cheesy psychoanalytic theories about guilty bad guys needing to punish themselves, and this is no doubt his own way of bringing down vengeance upon his head. It’s a glorious role for Sanders, who gets to say ~

“How many butterflies did you torture since lunch, hoping one would turn on you?”

The line he was born to say! Although, in fairness, George makes nearly every line sound like he was born to say it.

He says this one to his equally devious and neurotic partner, the silky Gail Patrick, whose job is to certify the fake books as genuine and help their sale. But she goes against his explicit instructions and sells a bogus folio to Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer, whom I will always associate with the role of Roman Castavet in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Blackmer is buying treasures for the Nazis to fund their inevitable post-defeat retirement, and resolves to punish Fleg when he realises he’s been had.

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Enter the hero, Richard Jennings. I came to have a pretty complicated relationship with this fellow. He enters the story as a private eye, but soon makes a shady deal with Patrick, and I had him pegged as a villain. Once I realised he was meant to be the hero, I liked him a lot less. The actor didn’t seem appealing enough, and there was little reason to like the character. But then I warmed to the chap. True, his hair, seemingly close-cropped, exploded in flailing fronds like some hideous scalp-squid when he got punched. But the character is written with a nice semi-redemption, and is so resourceful I couldn’t withhold respect. Plus Jennings has interesting qualities. His voice has a nice, unusual timbre, like Kirk Douglas when he’s occasionally miscast as an intellectual.

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Jennings’ hair escapes, everywhere.

Most of the movie takes place in a library during a blackout, and the locked-in quality gives it a slight air of DIE HARD, only less frenetic (That first DIE HARD — that’s quite some movie! Try it if you don’t believe me). It’s nice that we have about five separate factions in the movie, all out to double-cross each other, and all behaving with as much intelligence as the plot will allow. The rogue’s gallery is a delight, and the MALTESE FALCON-y ambivalent hero is enjoyably rendered. Joseph MacDonald shoots it in lustrous monochrome. A good evening in!

I got a tape of it from Napier University library, and recommended it to the librarians there. Librarians are underrepresented in cinema, having had to make do with Rachel Weisz in THE MUMMY remake and sequels*, where she doesn’t actually get to grips with the Decimal Dewey system nearly enough. Whereas the plot of this one actually turns upon the act of filing.

*Jacques Rivette, however, has given due respect to the book people.