Archive for The Power and the Glory

William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

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12 Angry Films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2008 by dcairns

There’s a mutating meme coursing across the interweb — bloggers challenging each other to name twelve films they haven’t seen. The task varies from blog to blog, sometimes amounting to a confession of what well-known or important movies the author hasn’t caught up with, sometimes tending towards a list of extreme rarities that nobody can find.

I think both lists have value. Maybe somebody out there will be able to help me out with the films I want to get my mitts on. And maybe naming the films I haven’t seen will shame me into watching them. I also like the Self-Styled Siren’s approach, which involves listing twelve films in her collection which she hasn’t gotten around to running yet (including LA FIN DU JOUR!).

So my first list will be twelve rare films that I went to considerable effort to get, then didn’t watch.

1. THE POWER AND THE GLORY. An early Preston Sturges screenplay. Looked for this for AGES, finally got it a couple months ago. Haven’t even peeked at it. What a maroon!

2. Early Hitchcock. I’ve seen most of the thrillers, but odd things like RICH AND STRANGE are sitting neglected. Nice quality, from the recent box set of early Hitch… I’m contemplating spending a whole week running all the Hitch I haven’t seen. Yep, I’m CONTEMPLATING it…

3. Murnau’s TARTUFFE. Bought the Kino edition from America. I keep putting it on, then getting distracted. It may not be major Murnau, but it certainly has inspired bits (I love the style of the modern framing story more than the actual Moliere adaptation), and if I watched it properly who knows what I’d get out of it?

4. Michael Powell’s quota quickies. A fascinating glimpse into the creative process: watch Powell slowly spread his wings and try things out and gain confidence, on threadbare budgets and schedules so brief the Kleig lights barely have time to warm up. I have a number of these, all more or less unwatched. Let CROWN VS STEVENS stand for them all.

5. UN REVENANT. A fog-bound Parisian gangster film in the poetic realist vein, directed by Christian-Jaque and starring the mighty Louis Jouvet. I paid good money for a fine copy of this. So why haven’t I watched it, two years later? BECAUSE I AM AN ARSE.

6. Resnais’s MURIEL. Got very excited about seeing this, bought it, watched ten minutes, was intrigued, got interrupted, never went back. I’m dreadful. A failure as a man, and as an assemblage of molecules.

7. LES ORGEILLEUX. Gerard Philipe gives an astonishing performance (I peeked) in Yves Allegret and Rafael E Portas’ sensational drama. An unusually articulate IMDb reviewer calls it “one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen”. It may be one of the greatest films I haven’t seen. How would I know?

8. THE HUMAN CONDITION. Masaki Kobayashi’s nine-hour three-film extravaganza, released by Criterion but now out of print. Miraculously got a copy via Mark Cousins, then failed to watch it. Kobayashi is one Fiona’s very favourite filmmakers, but I think the phrase “nine hours” is putting her off.

9. MARILYN. Wolf Rilla (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) directs this British B-movie answer to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Got a surprise TV airing this year, I recorded it. Then kind of set it to one side. We met Wolf Rilla’s son once, Nico Rilla. He recommended a Rilla movie with a terrific title: THE WORLD TEN TIMES OVER.

10. THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Perfectly nice pre-record boxed DVD of this lying on the living room floor amid a heap. And yes, I know Scorsese directed part of it, I know the story behind his firing, and I was able to use that information to work out which bits he directed. And I’ve watched those bits. But I need to watch the whole thing!

11. LE TROU. I have this Jacques Becker crime yarn in a beautiful Criterion Collection edition, (and TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI too). I loan it to people. They watch it. I don’t. And yet I liked CASQUE D’OR quite a bit.

12. UNDERWORLD BEAUTY. I do like a Seijun Suzuki yakuza flick. I’ve watched BRANDED TO KILL numerous times (I still get utterly confused). And yet this one remains unwatched. I am an idiot!

Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface…

Four skulls without a single thought

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2008 by dcairns

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE got bumped to the top of the Watch Pile, ahead of far worthier items like Rivette’s HURLEVENT and the Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY, simply because Fiona and I both grew up (if, in fact, we ever grew up) with Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies as our bible. And so a sort of mission has formed in our heads, to see every single film pictured in that quaint and curious volume.

Gifford, an appealing fan-boy writer whose works also covered British comic books and comedians, set us a formidable task by including many rare and hard-to-see movies, some of which have no historic value whatever, but had the advantage of yielding at least one eye-popping image, captured in a production still and lovingly reproduced within APHOHM‘s green-tinged dust-jacket. The idea of seeing them all was probably planted when I showed Fiona a manky tape of Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY, KILL! and she recognised the image of the little girl at the window as one she had painted in art skool. Since that initial damp glimmer, the idea of “Doing the Complete Gifford” has grown into not quite an obsession — our brains are too full of obsessions to accommodate another, unless we invest in a memory stick — but certainly something it would be fun to pursue.

I will, at some future date, append a complete list of the films we need to see. Maybe some of you Shadowplayers, all you wonderful people out there in the dark, can help source them.

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE moves with slug-like speed through a slender narrative that might furnish an entertaining half-hour, but is overstretched by the film’s rather paltry 70 mins. Perhaps the slowness is effected by the age of the cast, most of whom seem to be in the twilight of their lives and “careers”, but that aspect of the film is actually novel and welcome, especially as it gives us the great Henry Daniell, a villain’s villain if ever there was one, as the oleaginous Dr. Zurich, of Switzerland. The aged and baggy-eyed Daniell, whose face seems more than ever to be adorned with a Lone Ranger mask fashioned from his own skin, is nevertheless on chipper form as the baddie, a man with a strange and horrible secret.

Movie begins in fun fashion as Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) meditates upon a shrunken head, and is then persecuted by a vision of three hovering skulls. I call that a fine start. Sadly we then become mired in “plot”, although the graphic and detailed visual account of how to shrink a man’s head is both entertaining and informative. In addition, we have Zurich’s South American Indian henchman, Zutai (Paul Wexler), a man equipped with a string moustache, as if somebody had tried to make a shrunken head of him, sewing up his lips, but had given it up as a lost cause.

“Who am I kidding? I can’t shrink heads!” cried the student of cephalominimalism, kicking over his cauldron and discarding Zutai’s cranium without even having severed it.

Zutai’s handsome countenance was the image Gifford chose to immortalise, and along with the floating skulls, shrunken heads and moments of gore and unpleasantness (the needle that injects a paralysing fluid that simulates death!), definitely forms a highlight. Some talkie back-story establishes how Zutai became impervious to bullets, but an even more radical reveal gives us the secret of Zurich’s immortality — his head has been attached to an Indian’s body. Somehow, as a result, he is immune to the effects of old age (even though he’s clearly suffering them RIGHT NOW) and is actually 200 yrs old. This surgical miscegenation is visualised by a shot of poor old Henry with shirt open, stitching around neck and shoe-blacked torso testifying to his offense against nature. I shouldn’t be glad I saw that, but I kind of am.

Having finally captured the ageless-yet-withered Zurich, Drake procedes to murder the helpless felon by severing his head, with the full cooperation of the local police (!) and then we get a quick disintegration, leaving only —

“The fourth skull!” affirms Drake, grimly.

“Yes! It was me all along! Mwahahahahaha!”