Archive for Sunnyside

The Sunday Intertitle: Dogs of War

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 1, 2010 by dcairns

TRACKED BY THE POLICE, directed by enthusiastic 30s Warners hack Ray Enright in his early days, stars Jason Robards Snr (looking just like Jnr) and, much more importantly, Rin Tin Tin, the world’s best dog, in the role of Satan. (Don’t worry, that’s just his name.) The drama revolves around the building of a massive damn, the sort of engineering project for which you might normally think German shepherds aren’t particularly well equipped, but how wrong you would be.

Jason and Rinty. Trust me, Snr really does look just like his son. So does Rinty!

We also get a flashback to Rinty’s days as a Red Cross Dog in the trenches of WWI (waitaminute — Red Cross Dog?), which seems like a deliberate echo of the showbiz hound’s true-life story (read Sunnyside for an imaginative retelling by Glen David Gold) —  Robards gets shot, and then Rin Tin Tin cralws on his belly through No Dog’s Land, finds the wounded soldier, and applies pressure. Throughout the movie, we have to accept that RTT is a dog of human intelligence and supercanine ability. His love interest, Nanette, being just a regular dog, must be pretty hard for him to put up with.

My copy stems from an old Grapevine Video release, which means it looks like it was telecined off somebody’s kitchen door during a thunderstorm, but even through eighty years of accumulated print damage and technological incompetence, Rinty’s star charisma shines through.

The pooch and the pendulum.

At the film’s climax, our heroic mutt, already wounded in the paw, must choose between love and duty — to rescue Nanette, who has been wrapped in chains and thrown in the river by BAD MEN, or to rescue the leading lady Virginia Brown Faire, whose been blinded with pepper and is dangling from a rope. After already subjecting my strained emotions to TOY STORY 3, I was far from sure of being able to bear the tension.

I told Fiona about it afterwards. “And did he choose duty?” she asked. “Yes.” “And did he get love anyway?” “Yes.” And she nodded, like she knew all along.

Rin Tin Tin — friend of children…

Protector of women…

MORTAL ENEMY of the disabled!

Sunnyside (Vintage)

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The Sunday Intertitle: America’s Sweetheart

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by dcairns

Mary Pickford is another of those massive stars, like Tom Mix, that I knew of but hadn’t really gotten to grips with. So I ran AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY, directed ably by Marshall Neilan, and written by Frances Marion with an eye to every stereotype of Irish-American life that can be fitted into a film intended for family viewing (and a few that might raise eyebrows today).

Marion was possibly the top writer in Hollywood in the teens and ’20s (and I enjoyed reading about her fictional adventures in Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside) and her work on this romcom had me pondering if there’s a difference between male and female ideas of comedy. Maybe so, but only in general, i.e. rather useless, terms.

What I suspect is that male comedy, if boiled down to its essence, filtering out all subtleties and nuance, would come out all knockabout violence and bodily functions — in somewhat the way that autism is regarded as an exaggerated form of a certain male tendency, pee and poo and thump-on-the-head comedy is the masculine expression of that. There are plenty of men who enjoy this kind of basic apeman stuff, but many prefer it mingled with its counterpart —

Female comedy, boiled down to its essence, discarding all the nuance that is generally there, is concerned with emotions and stuff. Often the laughter comes from situations of social embarrassment. There’s likely to be less conflict, and often less surprise. Modern romantic comedies of the kind I can’t stand seem to hinge more on accepting a shared understanding of what’s supposed to be amusing, rather than actually being hit with anything startlingly funny. The laughter of agreement.

(Although Damon Wayans is male, and Nora Ephron is female, and although male and female audiences flock to these respective genres, I’d like to think that the division is largely a creation of the market. Just as I find stereotypically uber-macho and hyper-girly types boring, I find these films unappealing, but clearly the majority of people of both sexes fall somewhere in between. Psychologically, as far as anyone can tell, we all inhabit a spectrum between Mars and Venus.)

Both these extremes, like the extremes of social realism on one hand and George Lucas fantasy on the other, are pretty sterile on their own. What we seem to find with someone like Chaplin, as Sunnyside suggests, is somebody consciously blending the two, competing with Mary Pickford’s cuteness and emotional appeal, and adding in some kick-in-the-pants vulgarity. (Although there’s obviously a lot more to Chaplin than the novel combining of two stale flavours.)  It takes us out of the deadening zaniness of Keystone, and the deadening precitability of… well, AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY.

The first half hour of this film, to give you an example of its gentle pace, shows in parallel the lives of Amarilly, a dirt-poor Irish lass in an American slum, and Gordon (Norman Kerry, who was Phoebus in the Chaney HUNCHBACK), a rich and feckless sculptor. A collision is inevitable, but we wait for it quite some time. And no story is unfolding meanwhile to occupy our attention, and it becomes apparent that nothing can happen until the two meet. But still we wait.

A Chaplin moment of pathos from Mary — before she gives a little kick and prances off…

By way of complication, both parties have prospective lovers in their own social class, so once things do get moving there are lovers’ quarrels and some blustering from the rich nobs about their boy carrying on with a cleaning woman. And here we finally arrive at an unpredictable stage, where it seems like the swiftest path to a happy ending would be to reunite Amarilly with her Irish beau, and let Gordon wed the society lass, yet this seems unsatisfactory, as it confirms the rigidity of the class system in a positively unAmerican manner. We’ve seen PRETTY IN PINK, there has to be more to it than this.

But there really isn’t — the film’s solution is to have the working class boy shot by accident, collapsing on Amarilly’s floor as she serves him a brimming plateful of Irish stew (and here I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling, since Pickford plays her failure to understand that the guy’s seriously injured, not just drunk, in the same breezy, pleasantly comedic manner she uses for everything else). He’s nursed back to health, we forget all about the film’s, you know, narrative, and then it’s six years later and they’ve got a couple of kids, The End.

“You can say anything you like about me. Just don’t say I love my work, that makes me sound like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch!” ~ Mabel Normand.

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley

The Valentine’s Day Intertitle

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2010 by dcairns

“Art titles by Victor Vance.”

Half dog! Half wolf! All man!

From CLASH OF THE WOLVES, a 1925 Rin-Tin-Tin feature generously included on the disc MORE TREASURES FROM AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES 1894-1931. Nestled alongside eye-popping curios like GUS VISSER AND HIS SINGING DUCK (a movie which really lives up to its title) and the beauty of THE FLUTE OF KRISHNA, in which Martha Graham conducts her students in a faux-Indian ballet in glorious two-strip Kodachrome, the dog movie struck me as a particularly attractive item. I shall explain.

I knew little of cinema’s most famous Alsatian (apart from possibly William Wyler) Rin-Tin-Tin — besides that famous and possibly apocryphal story about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, in a moment of drunken nihilism, deliberately getting himself fired by writing a scene in which Rin-Tin-Tin carries a baby INTO a burning building — until I read Sunnyside by Glen David Gold, which contains a sort of potted history of the Hollywood dog-flick. Gold’s evocation of RTT’s unparalleled gifts as a canine thespian had me positively ulcerating to see the hound in action.

The description in Sunnyside made me imagine a kind of Alsatian Monty Clift, soulful and sensitive, with large, expressive eyes. But the star Rin (his friends call him Rin) most resembles, I find, is Burt Lancaster. An athletic, vigorous performer (he runs up trees, leaps ravines, in locations pre-arranged to show off his precise physical reach, just as Doug Fairbanks had sets built to order measured around his leaping ability), Rin tends to rely on his charismatic grin to convey any and every emotion. He also pants a lot, something I can’t think of any other male star exploiting to this extent, apart from the young Woody Allen.

The many faces of Rin-Tin-Tin:

“I am not an animal!”

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“Elaaaaaaaaaaaaine!”

Rin’s human co-star is Charles Farrell (a very remarkable fellow!), or Charlie Farlie, as Fiona calls him. The notably young and slender Chas, as young as the century itself, has one of his very first leading roles here (he played an uncredited bit part in Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN earlier in ’25), and would make the big time with SEVENTH HEAVEN in just a couple of years.

Director Noel Mason Smith, whatever the talents of his furry protagonist, is compelled to make sophisticated use of the Kuleshov Effect to bring us into the action: he shows Rin, he shows the posse on his trail, and then he shows Rin react, thus giving us unlimited access to the dog’s thought processes. Expanding on this, Smith does some decent work with his human players, using a series of ever-closer close shots on the bad guy when he first espies the dainty heroine, ending on a Leone-esque ECU of the swine’s rheumy eyes, no doubt brimming with lust and villainy. A shame this guy never made it out of B pictures, this is a rather classy, genuinely exciting, sometimes silly but always generous and good-hearted example of the breed.

What a great dog movie! Although I worry slightly about Rin’s stunt doubles, who leap or fall off cliffs and rooftops, are slung out of shot, and scamper about amid the hooves of rampaging horses. Are the Nevada deserts dotted with the unmarked graves of ersatz Rin-Tin-Tins? Something to keep the gangsters company, I guess.

This is my first entry in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. Fellow bloggers, join in! Give generously here — this is a fund-raiser. And follow the action here and here.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931