Archive for The Big Trail

Moral Quandary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2010 by dcairns

One of those eternal hypothetical dilemmas — if you could travel back in time to the 1930s, would you kill El Brendel? Think of the torment the world could be spared!

Comedy’s answer to gastric reflux — a tight-lipped, mirthlessly grinning faux-nitwit with a phony Swedish (I think) accent, the artist formerly known as Elmer Brendle dragged his evanescent non-talent across a succession of seventy-four otherwise blameless movies. He was even in silents! A dialect comedian in silents? That’s like a ventriloquist on the radio! Oh, wait.

THE SPIDER, a 1931 theatre-set murder mystery with a magician as sleuth, is static and stiff, but crackles with compositional power thanks to co-director William Cameron Menzies, one of my current obsessions.

The dialect comedian is a nightmare from which America finally awakened. At this historical distance, it’s easy to forget that Chico Marx was not an isolated case, although he was perhaps unique in actually being funny. One could in theory spend a lifetime in Hollywood movies without meeting El Brendel, and not miss much, but Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is a significant movie, both for it’s early starring role for a gawky John Wayne, and the pioneering use of widescreen. Unfortunately, Walsh’s first ‘scope film (that’s Magniscope, in this case, an early 70mm system) is as static and slow as most of his later ones, made in old age when much of his cinematic vigour had burned out. The great Walsh movies are all square-ish, as far as I can see. It’s weird to see him holding a flat, wide shot, yawning with emptiness, for minutes on end, as El Brendel burbles away and Wayne drawls back, both filmed practically head-to-toe, and just when an edit becomes a matter of essential resuscitation, Walsh finally cuts — to an even wider shot.

Preston Sturges loved to employ comedy old-timers, and in 1949 he brought El back from four years of filmic unemployment, for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND. I can’t actually recall his turn in the film, but Hugh “Woo Woo” Herbert’s scene is etched on my brain in the spot where I store childhood traumas and intimations of mortality. That said, I quite like the film, and having gotten to know E.B. I’ll be watching out for him next time I run it. And I will be armed.

Support Shadowplay — The Big Trail (Two-Disc Special Edition)

The Flamin’ Mamies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature


I watched THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER recently and didn’t get a lot out of it, despite the gorgeous lifelike colour by Deluxe. I have a suspicion that Raoul Walsh just doesn’t work in widescreen. He was one of the first directors to get a crack at it, directing THE BIG TRAIL in a prototypical ‘scope format back in 1930. That’s a film that seemed to me to suffer from an excess of DISTANCE. We watch the characters interact in scenic longshot for a rather long time then, when Walsh senses that a change is due, he cuts to an even WIDER shot. We never get close to John Wayne or El Brendel (do we even WANT to?) — and Walsh is a director who can get a great deal out of his closeups, as anyone who’s observed the rhythmic cutting together of tense faces in OBJECTIVE, BURMA! will have seen. I know this is an early talkie and I’m asking a lot of Walsh at this stage in the development of cinema, but if you check out THE BAT WHISPERS made in widescreen around the same time by a lesser director, Roland West, you can see the format being used in a manner that’s both dramatically effective and formally very pleasing. So I think the widescreen maybe just gets in Walsh’s way.

Jane Russell dyes her hair red and is mean moody and magnificent underneath it as Flamin’ Mamie Stover, Honolulu hooker, but nothing else catches fire dramatically. “It’s not good enough to watch,” I protested, but Fiona gamely carried through to the end and was bitterly disappointed. “Why’d she give all her money away? Aren’t women ALLOWED to have money?”

Flames of Passion

I thought of Jane’s flaming tresses as I watched FOREVER AMBER, a 20th Century Fox super-colossus that pits Linda Darnell, her tresses likewise painted strawberry blonde (director Otto Preminger really wanted Lana Turner), against the plague, the Great Fire of London, King Charles II (a rather muted George Sanders), her puritan family, and the Catholic Legion of Decency, who tried to ban the film.

Reading Otto’s memoirs, I started to suspect him of confabulating, and this was confirmed by his bloated period romp, which he claims had all the snogging cut out at the CLoD’s behest, and a nonsensical prologue added to add much-needed moral guidance. Not true — the prologue gives historical context only, and there’s plenty of lip-locking from Linda and the various men in her life.

This was Zanuck’s baby, and Preminger was forced into making it, despite hating the book. Otto did manage to get the script rewritten, and brought along cameraman Leon Shamroy, who proves himself just as seductive in Technicolor as he would be later with gorgeous lifelike color by Deluxe.

Sign of the Cross

The thing is dramatically broken-backed — Darnell plays a Bad Girl, but she’s never scandalously wicked, just pragmatic. She’s also resilient to the point of being dull: seconds after escaping rape in Newgate Prison (here pronounced “Nougat”) she’s flirting with a Highwayman as if nothing had happened.

Faced with a story and leading lady not of his choosing (though he got magnificent work from her in FALLEN ANGEL), Otto compensates by making the whole thing a visual feast. At 138 minutes its rather a LONG feast, but the design and photography, and Preminger’s masterful blocking, at least mean it’s never short on sensual pleasures.

Leon Shamroy is like a Mario Bava avant la lettre, painting the scenes with coloured light that may not have any practical source, but which creates mood and renders emotion visible and is a delight in purely pictorial terms too. Think of his intense orange-and-blue night scenes in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and his juke-box hues in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. Despite its period setting, this has a similar hallucinatory saturation. Shamroy depicts the prison scenes bathed in green and orange light, and there’s no possible naturalistic reason for it.

Jailhouse Rock 

The more muted style of the foggy duel scene almost made me wonder if he’d managed to screen LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS:


The Fog

The Duellists

According to your taste it’s either an illustration of how much a director and his team can add to an unsatisfactory project, or how little.

All the Colors of the Dark

“Unhand me, you rapscallion!”