Archive for Strange Cargo

Horse Operetta

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2020 by dcairns
Chris Schneider’s back! With sort-of late Allan Dwan — Dwan’s career was so very long, he arguably has at least a decade of late work… DC
“Can’t you hear what the balalaikas are telling you?”
~ Ilona Massey in NORTHWEST OUTPOST.
“I didn’t think it polite to listen.”
~ voice from the audience
*
Operetta is difficult. Notably when, like the Allan Dwan-directed NORTHWEST OUTPOST (1947), it’s of the “Meet me by the stockade” variety.
NORTHWEST OUTPOST isn’t, y’see, the sort of Lubitsch-ian operetta concerned with mythical kingdoms and the lovelife of satirized monarchs (THE LOVE PARADE, THE MERRY WIDOW). Nor is it a Mamoulian-style tale (see. LOVE ME TONIGHT) of country-house assignations. No, it tells of a Russian settlement in 1830s California, a sheriff-like rep of the US government (Nelson Eddy as Capt. Jim Lawrence), and the arrival of a glamorous-yet-suspect Russian general’s daughter (Ilona Massey as Natalya Alanova) for reasons undeclared and suspicious.
In place of a ladies’ tailor we see forced laborers … and one can only raise an eyebrow at the implied *schadenfreude* of a romance precipitated by the sight of a convict being whipped. Or one where the first kiss comes after badinage about whether or not a plum has worms in it. “I deserved that” responds Massey, a tad fatalistically.
Perhaps this gamy, semi-rural atmosphere can be attributed to co-scenarist Richard Sale, author of the novel that became Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO. The prime mover, though, is probably the film’s composer, Rudolph Friml, whose ROSE MARIE had been a monster hit for MacDonald & Eddy some ten years earlier.
“I make a habit of scaring ladies’ horses” says Eddy at one point — though the line might apply to either OUTPOST or ROSE MARIE, what with the baritone-on-horse action.
What does director Dwan do with the singing objects that are Eddy and Massey — though Massey, to her credit, shows signs of dramatic involvement? Well, Dwan surrounds them with first-rate supporting players like, f’rinstance, Elsa Lanchester, who does heroic work as the governor’s wife both conveying plot points and getting her laughs while maintaining a Russian accent. Hugo Haas is no slouch, either, as her none-too-faithful husband. Or Joseph Schildkraut, who glowers as the prisoner Massey was forced to marry in order to save her father (blah blah blah). There’s even an appearance by Jay Silverheels, who is audibly referred to as “Silverheels.” A Brechtian alienation-effect? Not likely.
Dwan-the-director is felt mostly in an extended Orthodox Easter celebration, with tracking-shots, where Eddy is cantor. Also in a dialogue scene, with Lanchester and Eddy, where Lanchester is embroidering and it’s shot, Sternberg-style, through a huge lace screen.
The lyricist is Edward Heyman, who wrote “Blame It On My Youth” and “When I Fall In Love.” (The charitable will overlook THE KISSING BANDIT.) The number that comes off best is an extended duet called “Nearer, Dearer.” There’s also an over-the-top waltz called “Love Is The Time” which is reprised, at the end, by men on horseback who simultaneously guide their horses and balance a female singer on one knee.
One’s eye often rolls. When, that is, one is not cheering Elsa Lanchester.
The good end happily, the bad unhappily, and Yakima Canutt shoots the chase scenes. That is what Republic Pictures operetta means.
*
The players, as David Cairns might say, include: Sergeant Bruce; Elsa Frankenstein; Louise Patterson; Monsieur Walter; Judas Iscariot; Olympe the Courtesan; and Tonto.

The Look 2: Lukas Rejects

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , on July 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Reminder: I’ve embarked on an occasional series about moments when actors look at the camera.

A tricky one — I wasn’t sure if I was remembering this correctly.

But when I think of actors looking at the camera, I always think of Paul Lukas in STRANGE CARGO (1940), or STRANGE FILM as surely somebody else must have called it.

Frank Borzage’s films were often religious, or spiritual, or whatever you want to call it, but this one is a full-blown allegory, with Ian Hunter unusually effective as the Christ figure, who is part of an all-star group of escaped convicts including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Peter Lorre.

Lukas plays a serial killer of women — for profit. He leaves the group midway through the film to take up his profession again. Hunter has been on at him to repent of his sinful ways. Lukas leaves, but after doing so, when he is alone apart from US — he turns, glances about in the direction of the camera — eyes flickering wildly so that for a moment I was afraid my memory was playing me false and he wasn’t going to do it — and then he looks right down the barrel of the lens and says, very firmly —

“No.”

Borzage’s camera, which has been following Lukas, seems to have become briefly identified with the eye of God. This is Lukas’ final rejection of the grace of God. Delivered to us. As if we were all, collectively, the best stand-in for the deity that Borzage could think of.

So that’s nice of him.

From the Lighthouse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 8, 2016 by dcairns

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I love lighthouse movies in principle — it always feels like they’re going to be excellent, all fog and dark and isolation and tension. And then, if you’re lucky, you get THE PHANTOM LIGHT, or TOWER OF EVIL if you’re slightly less lucky.

But CAPE FORLORN, by E.A. Dupont, (previewed here two days ago) manages to combine the required suspense and close-quarters conflict with a real cinematic vision, inflected through the somewhat clunky technology of 1931 British filmmaking (Dupont managed a simultaneous French version, with Harry Baur, and a German, now lost, with Fritz Kortner and Conrad Veidt, apparently lost). The impressive opening long take is doubtless identical in all three cuts, since it doesn’t feature the main cast nor any dialogue.

Fay Compton exits the mildly sleazy night club environment of the opening, where she may be some kind of bar girl, to marry a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. Bored to tears on the wretched rock, she tarts herself up nice for hubby Frank Harvey (who wouldn’t have had a chance with her if he hadn’t already written the movie). Fiona was excited by the 30s makeup presented in loving product-shot close-up ~

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A bit of research gave her the history of Mouson’s Lilac Cream and even found the ad which Fay is trying to look like.

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“You looked better before, love,” was Fiona’s disappointed verdict on the made-over Compton. But when Harvey wipes the muck off her face and throws the kit out the window, Fiona was properly outraged. You can’t do that to a woman’s products! With Fiona cheering her one, Fay runs into the corky arms of Karloffian bit of rough Edmund Willard, but soon throws him over for a sexy stowaway. Well, Ian Hunter was always a bit fleshy for a sexpot, but he’s the best-looking thing with a Y chromosome on this ragged outpost, and a girl has to live. Maybe this film could play on a loop with Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO so that Hunter could get washed away and then washed up, repeatedly.

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Soon there’s a highly uncomfortable love quadrangle, with Fay as the centre of attention, and Hunter’s dark past clouding over the already-bleak horizon. Dupont directs the hell out of all this, his camera floating up and down the winding stairs, observing from a lofty, anxious height, while the soundtrack offers a constant throb of surf, or wind, or shrieking gulls. In the year or so since ATLANTIC, the sound crew have learned how to mix, so that now every scene is oppressively loaded with atmos, an approach which would be abandoned as soon as it was begun. So CAPE FORLORN is a mutant of the earl sound cinema, an experiment that “didn’t work” but which, seen with modern eyes, works beautifully, if strangely.

As the movie’s sex fulcrum, Fay Compton is an odd bit of casting, with her soulful yet ovine features, but she was always a sympathetic, sincere performer, and it’s a pleasure to see her in this early role.

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E.A. Dupont throws focus like a boss!

Network have released this offbeat masterpiece of DVD, and you should buy it if you like sexual tension and lighthouses and cinema.