Archive for The Bowery

For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by dcairns

THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI is a very odd affair. It’s a Gregory La Cava pre-code, or thereabouts (1934, so on the cusp). The opening titles give us the sense it’s going to be a rip-roaring historical melodrama, but it’s much stranger than that — it’s a broad farce whose main jokes are about torture, murder and mutilation or the threat thereof. It stars two actors who worked well for La Cava in more conducive material, arch-ditherer Frank Morgan (THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH) and Constance Bennett (BED OF ROSES) plus a third, Fredric March, who one doesn’t associate with this sort of material at all. Wait, WHAT sort of material? The murder, torture and mutilation farce genre?

It’s a Fox picture, under Zanuck, and it makes sense to consider it as a similar kind of thing to that indefensible, stomach-turning “romp” THE BOWERY, only projected further back into the past. Portraying terrible historical events “light-heartedly” — with no moral attitude whatsoever, no matter how ghastly things get. As when Morgan, wooing artist’s model Fay Wray, tells her not to worry about the servants overhearing as he’s had them all deafened so he can enjoy privacy and service at the same time.

La Cava certainly had a dark sense of humour and willingness to disquieten his audience — the horrible ending of THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH proves that (Lee Tracy slowly makes a fist at a terrified Lupe Velez as the Wedding March plays us out). But Zanuck may be more relevant here, his output at Warners having shown a similarly carnivalesque attitude to social horrors. We can attribute the rambunctious tone of THE BOWERY to director Raoul Walsh (“Walsh’s idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse”) but Zanuck oversaw that one too (and Fay Wray was in both, come to think of it).

Jessie Ralph (DOUBLE WEDDING) plays Wray’s mother, mocked for having whiskers. Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern looks suave and saturnine in whiskers of his own. The only sense of the Code coming into effect, amid all the talk of men having hot eggs placed in their armpits, is that nobody ever actually gets laid, not even during the darkened lull betwixt fade-out and fade-in: March and Morgan both chase Wray, Bennett chases March, nobody is sympathetic and there’s no reason to care. But Morgan gets laughs just by breaking off his sentences, and it’s amusing to see Fay play dumb (and brunette!).

Also: ugly at heart, it’s bee-yoo-tee-ful on the surface.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by dcairns

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Censored scene, via GoneMovie.com.

OLD SAN FRANCISCO is what I call an epic. Also, it’s a bit racist. Not as much as BIRTH OF A NATION, but every time you find some kind of excuse for it, it redoubles its efforts to freak you out. In the end, it’s too melodramatic and silly to offend seriously, but you do feel very glad it couldn’t have been made more recently. We’re not necessarily better people, but our sensibilities are more attuned to the symptoms of certain kinds of racism.

Screenplay is co-authored by Darryl Zanuck, whose sins against Chinese-Americans also include THE BOWERY.

And it’s a Vitaphone soundie! The odd pistol shot, and a really nice music score by Hugo Riesenfeld (SUNRISE).

The movie begins with a prologue, which seems pointless but isn’t really. We see the settling of San Francisco, and how an important rancho is threatened by the gold rush. We meet the rancher’s brother, and see his gallant (and somewhat murderous) old-world Spanish nobility in action. But now we forget about most of this, because we’re flashing forward to 1906! Does that date mean anything to you? It ought to…

A title reading “The Story” appears, to cries of “About time!” from me and Fiona.

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The rancho is now fallen on hard times. Josef Swickard, playing Don Hernandez de Vasquez, sits brooding, as spectral figures from the past whirl about him in a gay dance. It takes me a minute to notice that they’re see-through products of double exposure.

“He’s remembering the good old days,” I say.

“- when people were translucent,” finishes Fiona.

The intertitles in this movie are pretty spectacular, and so is the photography (and later, the special effects).

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Hernandez has a pretty daughter, Dolores, played by Dolores Costello, of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and marrying John Barrymore fame. She’s rather anodyne here. An Irish businessman wants to buy the rancho but Don Hernandez won’t sell. The Irishman has a son (Charles Emmett Mack), leading to romance angle. He also has an evil associate, played by Warner Oland. Perplexingly, at first, Oland doesn’t seem to be playing Chinese. But he always played Chinese! And we’ve been promised hot Chinatown action!

In addition to apparently not being Chinese, the Swedish actor is playing a man with the uninspiring name of Chris Buckland. It’s a name which fails to conjure images of swaggering oriental villainy. To me it suggests a man with a beer gut in a rugby shirt holding a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Fiona suggests he might run a corner shop with a name like that.

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Fortunately, Oland is soon revealed to be Chinese after all. He’s a self-hating “mongol” who campaigns against his own kind. The land-grab plot and self-hating villain basically turn this into the original of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. (Incidentally, Richard Williams is coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — yay!)

This is all revealed when Oland descends to his secret cellar where he has a hidden Buddha shrine, a withered twin (tiny Angelo Rossitto, another Barrymore associate) in a cage (“This is basically BASKET CASE,” observes Fiona) and also Anna May Wong as a spy. The racial politics are screwy as heck here. Oland is an evil oriental whose “Mongol” side is exposed when he tries to ravish Costello. But Rossitto is an agreeable little guy, and Sojin turns up as a scary but honorable Chinatown businessman. I have mixed feelings about the Chinese villain who hates the Chinese trope. It seems rather like a way of being racist against the Chinese without coming out and saying it. We always project on to others the sins we fear we might be guilty of.

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The plot convolutes and inverts until we wind up with the following scenario: Oland has kidnapped Costello to the depths of Chinatown, where he and a gang of filthy yellow scum are about to add her to their harem of slaves. Rossitto is leading Mack to the rescue, but he can’t make it in time. Costello prays for deliverance. Is that a rumble of reply from the Divine Maker?

Earthquake!

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I’m sure the 3,000 victims of the earthquake and fire would be delighted to know that their painful and terrifying deaths had been worthwhile, saving as they did Dolores Costello’s pristine caucasian virginity. I mean, I did want her to be rescued, I just wonder if a truly benevolent God might have found a less destructive way to do it? Still, the effects, both full-scale and miniature, are truly impressive — they were subsequently reused as stock footage in THE SISTERS (1938).

Third Barrymore connection: JB is supposed to have drunkenly slept through the Great Earthquake, awakening the next day, stepping into the rubble, and presumably thinking “Man, I must have really tied one on last night.”

The Sunday Intertitle: A Wedding

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by dcairns

Our own upcoming royal wedding isn’t going to be this exciting, I can assure you.

The Raoul Walsh-directed Douglas Fairbanks yarn THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is quite a thing — it’s an early example of the principle of excess in Hollywood movie-making, a step beyond the gigantism of the earlier Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD. That movie proved that colossal sets could give Doug a stylish environment for his athleticism without upstaging him. In this one, the central idea is to surround him with massive and opulent settings at all times, a pageant of insane splendour that continually unfolds, not so much driven by plot requirements as pushing the plot along.

And so we get adventures in caverns, on the moon, under the sea, most of ’em pretty quick. Like ROBIN HOOD, it’s a slightly odd-shaped film, with the first half confined to Bagdad, a towering series of sets by William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot, and the second roving all over as Doug embarks on a quest for the ultimate treasure. One strange feature is the interiority of it — the sets are humongous, but all feel indoors, even the back-lot Bagdad, whose walls are so high they blot out everything else, so it always feels like we’re inside ’em.

The first leg of Doug’s odyssey is a mountain defile, which allows Menzies & Grot to simply fill the screen with a sheer rock face, a lone stone egg at its centre.

The undersea grotto meshes art deco and art nouveau as if they were the same thing, which to a fish they probably are.

Then there’s the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees, which takes the idea of exteriors inside to a ridiculous extreme — the name alone cracked me up — but proves to be one of the snazziest settings.

Somewhat reminiscent of Walsh’s dubious ethnic humour in THE BOWERY, this movie in which all the characters are non-caucasian, casts real non-caucasians only as slaves and villains. We should be grateful to it for giving teenage Anna May Wong her shot at stardom (as a slave AND a villain), and Sojin (full name: Sojin Kamiyama) is very effective as the Mongol emperor baddie. He and his adjutant wind up dangling by their pony-tails, which seemed rather unpleasant (although most Hollywood epics KILL their bad guys, so I suppose that’s something. Anna escapes unpunished, as far as I could see).

Doug is particularly flamboyant in this one, pantomimic in a way he isn’t usually. I guess it’s a stylised approach designed to blend with the mind-boggling sets and effects and Mitchell Leisen’s ostentatious, campy costumes. It’s initially quite odd, and then I just stopped noticing it. Doug always waves his arms and strikes poses, it’s his thing, it just seemed ramped up to some odd new height here.

I’m making a study of William Cameron Menzies’ work at the moment, so this was an important point — his first really huge job. His style blends with Grot’s perfectly. Both are extremists, as you can see in Grot’s later work at Warners, from LITTLE CAESAR with its slashing zig-zags, to the glossy stonework of Elizabethan England in THE SEA HAWK, and both favour a kind of design that takes the camera position into consideration, arranging everything to make a striking composition…