Archive for The Case of Lena Smith

4th of July

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2014 by dcairns

On the 4th of July I was in Bologna — this is what I saw.

For once I managed to struggle out of bed early enough to see the 9 am show, something I always INTENDED to do, and which I convinced myself I was achieving more often than not. It’s only looking back from this angle that I realise what a fantastic slugabed I really was. But on this occasion it meant I got in to see the gloriously restored FANTOMAS CONTRE FANTOMAS, featuring my fave of all the master-crim’s disguises —

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Wonderful. It makes you realise that, for all their national pride and aloofness, the French not-so-secretly still regard American is the mainspring of all modernity and the source of all coolness. The doubly-casual Tom Bob easily trumps our intrepid plodder Juve of the Sûreté, just by virtue of that insouciant prefix Americain. Juve is honest, fearless and dogged, but he is inescapably, gallic and therefor mundane. A fantastic inversion of the way we look towards France as a source of glamour and genius.

Neil Brand, who provided the piano accompaniment, confessed afterwards that he had initially regarded FANTOMAS and its serial kin as “meaningless running about,” which is indeed the trap a lot of serials fall into. Surrealism, elegance, and a blatant admiration for his evil characters helps Fieulliade escape this.

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I should have crossed to the next auditorium and seen the ten-minute fragment of Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH but I think I craved sunshine and coffee and conversation, so my next show was at 11.30, a discussion of Pathe’s restoration of WOODEN CROSSES, which I felt duty-bound to attend since I’d collaborated on a film about the movie’s producer, after all. It was interesting stuff, including as it did the revelation that the new version Pathe are releasing is mostly derived from a whole other negative, shot by a camera standing next to the one that filmed the previous release. It’s the same action and mostly the same takes, but technically speaking it’s a different film… Fans of the previous release need not worry, though, it carries the same authority and charge, as I confirmed later the same day.

After lunch, I enjoyed an episode of Riccardo Fellini’s STORIE SULLA SABBIA, already covered here. The real hot ticket was WHY BE GOOD?, a newly-restored Vitaphone soundie which I’m fairly sure I’ll get a chance to see again when Warners release it on DVD, but it would certainly have been fun to experience it on the big screen with such an audience as Bologna gathers…

Staying in my seat, I was blown away by WOODEN CROSSES all over again, which packs a severe wallop. The final barrages, and the protracted bleeding away of life at the end, left the audience drained, which is the only explanation I can think of for the fact that rather than staggering outside to inhale the evening air, I stayed where I was and saw MARRIAGE: ITALIAN STYLE, which was the perfect tonic. No falling asleep possible in this one (shouty Italians; genius choreography of actors and camera). Having revelled in De Sica’s acting the day before, I was favourably inclined to see more of his directing. That title had always put me off seeing the film before, which is silly — it’s perfect, and rather ironic. Maybe it’s the various movies that riffed on it that cheapened it. After all, GHOSTS, ITALIAN STYLE is a stupid name for a film.

Marriage Italian Style

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder at the opening out of the source play with extensive flashbacks, and you’ll marvel at how Marcello Mastroianni manages to make a character who does such loathsome things seem somehow attractive enough to spend time with and laugh at and even feel sorry for. Loren, of course, is magnificent, even in a series of sometimes unfortunate wigs. De Sica’s daughter introduced the movie, and she has her father’s smile.

“Marcello Mastroianni was a very handsome man, but he liked very much the vodka and the grappa, so that some mornings he would come in with his face looking like an unmade bed. My father’s main direction to him on such days was, ‘Marcello, tomorrow, try to be younger.'”

I think I must have had a really good dinner after than, because I don’t seem to have seen anything else that day. It would have been hard to top De Sica at the height of his international entertainer period anyhow. I do wince a little at what I missed, but realistically I wouldn’t have made it through CABIRIA, in the opera house with live score, which didn’t finish until nearly midnight. That was one of the extra shows you have to pay for outwith the price of a pass, but get this, it was five euros. Proving my contention that Bologna offers the best value film festival on the planet.

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The Sunday Intertitle: All the Fun of the Fair

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , on April 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Finally saw something I’d been longing for — the surviving fragment of Josef Von Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH.

I love fragments, me. I love fragments maybe even more than I love complete films. And I can think of all kinds of modern movies that would be better as fragments. You could probably find a three-minute clip from AUSTRALIA that would make people think “My, what was that? I wonder if that was ever any good?” The intact movie doesn’t make anybody think that.

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Critic Dwight MacDonald called THE CASE OF LENA SMITH as “the most completely satisfying American film I have seen,” which you couldn’t, alas, say about the clip. But I can and do say “Isn’t that an uncredited Sig Rumann as the magician?” If so, even Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta’s exhaustive volume on the lost film, Josef Von Sternberg: The Case of Lena Smith (Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen) doesn’t mention it. A Shadowplay first!

The sequence, set at Vienna’s famous Prater, scene of memorable events in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and THE THIRD MAN, is also fascinating as it recreates the setting of Sternberg’s own childhood, suggesting a more than usually personal production from this idiosyncratic and often autobiographical filmmaker. Here’s the relevant extract from his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, a sentence of John Collier-like length and ebullience.

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“Hundreds of shooting galleries, Punch and Judy and the inevitable Satan puppet, chalk-faced clowns in their dominoes, boats sliding from a high point down into water with a great splash, leather-faced dummies that groaned when slapped, pirouetting fleas, sword swallowers, tumbling midgets and men with skirts flaring from them, proving that not all females had lost their undergarments, a forest of balloons, tattooed athletes, muscle-bulging weightlifters, women who were sawed in half and apparently spent the rest of their lives truncated, trained dogs and elephants, tightropes that provided footing for a gourmet who feasted on a basketful of the local sausages with horse-radish that made my mouth water, graceful ballerinas, grunting knife-throwers with screaming targets whose hair flowed down to the hems of their nightgowns, hatchet-throwing Indians and phlegmatic squaws, double-headed calves, members of the fair sex, fat and bearded, with thighs that could pillow an army, magicians who poured jugs of flaming liquid down their throats, drum-thumping cannibals and their wiggling harems, a glass maze from which the delighted customers stumbled with black eyes and gashed heads, hypnotists who practiced levitation and passed hoops around the dormant females swaying five feet from where they ought to have been, and the central figure of a huge Chinese mandarin with drooping mustaches longer than the tail of a horse revolving on a merry-go-round to the tune of Ivanovici’s Donauwellen — what more could I have asked?”

Alas I’ve been forbidden from uploading the clip, which Waseda University seem to be anxious to keep as their own personal stuff (Bastards! Bastards!) and some of the nicest bits are distorting reflections of crowds, a la CABARET, which can’t really be reproduced here as still images since they just kind of melt into blurry inkwash smudges. They’re gorgeous in motion, take my word for it. Or better still, ram-raid Waseda University and steal the clip and put it up on the internet.*

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The female Johnny Eck! The heroine’s naughty blonde friend whispers a remark about her into the heroine’s ear — she looks scandalized at the suggestion. Of course — dramatic irony — it’s the virtuous heroine (goody-goody Esther Ralston) who will be seduced by the handsome soldier…

*It wouldn’t actually be cool to do the first part of this.

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Underworld / Last Command / Docks of New York) (The Criterion Collection)

The Sunday Intertitle: Blackfeet, red face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by dcairns

Heap big thanks to Ihsan Amanatullah and the National Film Preservation Foundation for Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, a typically smashing box-set trove of films, fragments and ephemera. These collections are among my very favourite things.

One item of particular interest is Gregory La Cava’s third feature as director, and his first for Paramount. WOMANHANDLED is a romantic comedy from 1925 that pokes good-natured fun at the myth of the west, in much the same way as Doug Fairbanks did in WILD AND WOOLLY (reviewed here). The film is incomplete, but Treasures gathers enough scenes to form a reasonably coherent narrative.

In both films, a western community transforms itself into a fantasy vision of the past to fool a romantic visitor: in this case, it’s heroine Esther Ralston who has the hots for cowboys, and her beau, Richard Dix who sets out to live up to her fantasy.

Only the jaunty front wheels defy the frame’s robust squareness.

The whole film’s very pretty, with some flat-on establishing shots that are actually breathtaking in their graphic simplicity. It’s not especially hilarious: as other commenters have noted, neither of the stars is a particularly gifted comedian. Ralston is simply decorous, whereas Dix does try to get into the spirit of things, hamming it up a little at times. He’s a very sweet hero, though, smiling earnestly at Ralston even as her horrendous little cousin (and ancestor of the pint-sized monsters who would plague W.C. Fields, sometimes in La Cava films) sets about his achilles tendon with a tomahawk. You can’t associate him easily with the captain of THE GHOST SHIP, coldly threatening to shoot the hero “in the abdomen.”

Funniest moments are those that puncture the air of charming whimsy with some bracing nastiness, as above. When Dix orders some horses, the nags that turn up are virtual walking skeletons. Casually, without even seeming to think, Dix hangs his straw boater from the protruding pelvis of one shriveled mare.

Worse (and better) yet, Dix induces the “colored help” to don redface and impersonate Indians.

When Ralston naively asks what tribe this family is from, Dix improvises —

The friend I tried this line on went into a sort of strange loop of conflicted response — “That’s funny — but terrible — but funny — but terrible…” Join him in his world of pained amusement! As IMDb reviewer and legend F. Gwynplaine MacIntryre puts it, “At this point “Womanhandled” enters the delirious realm of double-decker racial stereotypes.”

This disc comes with copious notes and commentary tracks —  apparently, 1925 was the Year of the Western, with a third of all American movies going west. Esther Ralston’s career, it’s noted, is hard to assess since so many of her films are lost, including THE AMERICAN VENUS, whose trailer features in an earlier Treasures, and Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH. I know her mainly from a late-life interview in the documentary THE SILENT FEMINISTS: AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN DIRECTORS, where she’s asked about Dorothy Arzner and goes into a protracted, unstoppable and very funny rant about how Arzner kept trying to get her to do sexy scenes until she complained to the studio boss. I get the impression this wasn’t the kind of insight the earnest documentarists behind the camera were after, but they cheefrully included it anyway, for which we can be grateful.

Buy: Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938