Archive for Spencer Tracy

Christ Decrucified

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by dcairns

THE SEVENTH CROSS was Zinnemann’s first major studio picture, after umpteen short subjects and two B pictures, and by his own account he lucked into it. He’d encountered the novel, and thought it would make a great film, and then was sent the script as a subject by pure coincidence. He liked Helen Deutsch’s treatment of the story, although he felt it added sentiment and commercial elements he’d have preferred to do without, but as this was his first major production, there was a lot of studio supervision and changing anything about the screenplay was not an option.

He was also extremely pleased to get Spencer Tracy as star, and writes enthusiastically in his autobiography about Tracy’s masterful subtlety. I sometimes find Tracy’s minimalism to be a kind of maximalist minimalism, everything reduced to simple form but writ large, but here he’s genuinely low-key, aided by a script that keeps him speechless for the first half hour, before allowing a few whispers and then more sustained speech as the character rediscovers his humanity after years of brutalization in a concentration camp. The same arc, kind of, gets a more realistic treatment later in Zinnemann’s haunting THE SEARCH.

THE SEVENTH CROSS neatly does two things. (1) it tells the story of seven escapees from a German camp. The commandant (Yay! George Zucco!) swears he’ll find them all and display them on crosses nailed to trees, and one by one, he does. But the last cross remains empty, as Tracy weaves his way across country and finds help to escape. (2) it tells the story of Tracy’s slow reawakening, his recovery of the humanity stolen from him, which is slowly developed by the small acts of kindness he receives from friends and strangers who help him.

The movie uses Christian imagery throughout, although at least the persecution of the Jews gets a couple of  mentions. I think Louis B Mayer and his colleagues felt that the war effort could best be served by stressing the universal nature of Nazi evil rather than focussing on anti-semitism, which maybe some American audiences might dismiss as someone else’s problem. So the issue is Christianized — there is the title cross, but also a lot of other imagery, such as the hero’s hands, injured while scaling a wall early on, so that he is marked out from his fellow men by stigmata. Requiring a pseudonym, he calls himself Krauss (Cross/Christ). This appeal to the common man is arguably a little dishonest, but it’s propaganda with justification.

An early encounter with an innocent child seems like a deliberate reference to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN — Tracy is mute, large and animalistic, a possible threat to the innocent. But she’s also a threat to him. Maybe somebody recalled the Christ imagery Whale had applied to his monster?

Handshakes are also a motif in this film — see how many of them you can spot.

I would fight any man who tried to call the above a video essay, but I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a highlights clip reel, emphasizing a couple of motifs. I’m hoping to re-hone my editing skills…

What a good movie — it has a big heart and combines modesty of scale with huge ambition for emotion and a little politics. “You need to know a lot to do the right thing these days,” muses former Nazi Hume Cronyn to his wife, Jessica Tandy (in her first movie — another great actor introduced to the screen by F.Z.). Also enjoy Steve Geray, Felix Bressart (above), Eily Malyon and George MacReady —

Ah, George! Hume Cronyn (the real heart of the film) visits George to get help for his friend Spencer. All we know about the man he’s seeing is he’s a successful architect who once swore he’d do something for the cause. Hume, a naive factory worker, stares at the decadent cubistic art on the wall and nearly goes crosseyed. This art marks George as a non-Nazi, but also, in Hollywood code, as genuinely decadent — MGM are no more forgiving of modern art than Hitler. Summoned into the architect’s bathroom, Hume finds him shaving, and we go “Oh fuck, it’s George MacReady, you’re screwed, Hume.” And sure enough, George is a vacillating aesthete with no moral backbone, which is good news in a way, because the only other role he’d be likely to get would be sadistic Nazi fiend.

Already thrown off-balance by the weird painting, Hume is utterly disoriented by George’s attitude, AND his bathroom, which breaks up space using mirrors in a way that echoes the multi-viewpoint art on his wall. Hume struggles to find his way out the door, nearly colliding with his own reflection. Left is right, up is down.

BUT the movie is even smarter than that, as George has a change of heart and attempts to man up and do the right thing — only he has no way of contacting Hume. Throughout the film, the struggle to create connections between different good guys, under the glare of their fascist overlords, is a major source of tension.

An underrated movie — shot by the great Karl Freund in true expressionist manner — which ought to be at least as celebrated as ACT OF VIOLENCE — not that that movie gets the credit it really deserves either.

This film also has the nerve to dissolve from George MacReady to a small child looking at a cake.

When Pre-codes go Bad #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 11, 2011 by dcairns

A brief series focussing on those moments in pre-code cinema when the pleasurable shiver of shock turns into the involuntary gag of outrage.

You don’t need me to tell you about the fun to be had in pre-1934 Hollywood cinema, where “slipping one past the goalie” was a popular sport practiced by all the best (and worst) filmmakers — and you have to picture the pre-code goalie as an obese, wheezing myopic wearing calipers and a sling, while the filmmakers are a supersonic first eleven. But there’s always that moment, isn’t there… a moment that may never arrive, but is always somehow there nevertheless… the frozen moment when the filmmakers take it a step too far and appall our modern sensibilities with a jape or image that may have been routine to them, but is beyond the pale for anybody not in the employ of Fox News.

Race, of course, provides the most obvious arena for contemporary discomfort. After all, even forties films, and even very good ones like THE PALM BEACH STORY, can provoke a twinge of unhappiness. And in the thirties, everything was so much more brazen…

Here, then, is a scene from MARIE GALANTE — apologies for the wildly out-of-sync sound, but trust me, it’s worth it. If you don’t watch it too closely, the fact that it’s a full sentence out of whack is less distracting… This is one of the few Fox precodes readily available (I think because it’s fallen through the cracks in the copyright system). It’s a so-so melo about a shanghaied French girl (the charming Ketti Gallian, who somehow never made it big) getting mixed up in a plot to blow up the Panama Canal.

The scene begins in fine form with Helen Morgan (from Mamoulian’s APPLAUSE — she plays another boozy chanteuse here), and some snazzy cutting, then plunges into the abyss of conflicted response with the shuffling appearance of Stepin Fetchit with his adorable “subnormal negro” routine. Just as the consensus on Fetchit was settling down to a general feeling that his schtick was, if you’ll excuse the expression, beyond the pale, a counter-movement has begun. First, it can be acknowledged that Fetchit, like Mantan Moreland and, to a lesser extent, Snowflake, was a skilled comedian whose performance can be admired, to some degree, in isolation from its intent. Secondly, it’s been pointed out that black audiences of the day enjoyed the comedy stylings of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, to give him his real name. This may not mean much — after all, many women enjoy America’s Next Top Model — but it may mean quite a bit. It’s said that black audiences enjoyed the parody of what white audiences believed black people to be. If so, there’s a strong element of irony, a subversive undercurrent, at play: when the white audience laughs at the black comic, the black audience laughs at them. Slipping one past the goalie — and even the directors who used Stepin Fetchit may have been unaware of this satirical side.

But the real reason for featuring this clip is the aftermath of SF’s appearance, where Spencer Tracy and the other fellow assess his skull measurements. NO! There’s a time and a place for phrenology, gentlemen, but Panama 1934 is not it — and Stepin Fetchit should not be the subject. The whole thing puts Fetchit’s “comedy retard” act on a disturbingly clinical footing, as well as conjuring up the shade of Nazi eugenics to come.

You may now retrieve your lower jaws from the floor, dust them off, and go on with your lives.

Biff!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 14, 2010 by dcairns

Spencer Tracy in QUICK MILLIONS doesn’t mess around with grapefruit, he just punches ‘em inna face.

The auteur responsible for this dreadfulness is the subject of this week’s The Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook. Rowland Brown, kind of the anti-Clarence Brown. It’s like they wouldn’t let him direct at Warner Brothers because he was too Warner Brothers for them.

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