Archive for The Thief of Bagdad

The Monday Intertitle: Mrs O’Grady — Old Lady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-09-16-08h09m14s106

Two versions of THE UNHOLY THREE — I think I’d previously watched the talkie version, but zoned out a bit at the end — the key ideas had certainly lodged in my mind. And I’d convinced myself that I’d watched the silent but I hadn’t, else how could I have forgotten the giant chimp?

The original is a pretty perfect Tod Browning flick, with wild animal carnage, bizarre crime, ludicrous disguise and constant betrayal the order of the day. Plus an opening that serves up gat fat lady and Siamese twins in short order — plus this guy ~

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-21h21m30s79

The ready acceptance of this flick by contemporary audiences explains why Browning thought he could get away with FREAKS. After all, when midget Harry Earles kicks a child in the face in Scene One, you’re laying out your stall pretty fast. In addition to Harry’s Tweedledee there’s Victor McLaglan, oddly unrecognizable in silent movie pancake makeup and lipstick as the brutal strong man Hercules, and of course Lon Chaney as transvestite ventriloquist Mr Echo.

The talkie, directed by Jack RED HEADED WOMAN Conway, is very faithful, but replaced McLaglan with burly Latvian Ivan Linov, who seems engaged in a contest with Earles regarding who can garble their lines most incomprehensibly.

Oddly, the silent version begins with a slightly decomposed MGM lion, staring proudly yet mutely, whereas in the talkie he roars — but no sound comes out.

The big question about doing a silent movie about ventriloquism is not so much “Why?” — since silent movies were all they had, the question hardly arises — as “How?” The solution devised by Browning and his colleagues is perfectly in keeping with the film’s comic book tone –

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-21h25m50s144

Although an archetypal example of the Browning-Chaney-MGM school, the movie manages to prefigure Warner Bros pre-code crime flicks, the EC horror comic, and channel the pulp fiction weirdness of Cornell Woolrich. Without Chaney, this grotesque and carnivalesque approach to melodrama could not survive long at the studio — while Universal made out like bandits with horror movies in the ’30s, MGM made one attempt, FREAKS, and then ran scared. Their other weirdie, KONGO, was a remake of a Chaney picture. Had Chaney lived, the whole studio might have had a different personality.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h30m16s66

In the talkie, Charles Gemora rampages in his gorilla costume, as if to say “We had to end the thing SOMEHOW” — but the original’s solution is much stranger, deploying a chimpanzee in miniature sets, with Harry Earles doubling for Chaney (easily spotted by his bulbous baby head ballooning from under his hat like a Salvador Dali flesh-swelling). I haven’t seen many giant chimp effects — there’s the memorable fellow in the Fairbanks/Walsh THIEF OF BAGDAD, outfitted in black satin hot pants by Mitchell Leisen. And there’s the odd solution taken by MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which has Gemora costumed up in longshot but cuts to close-ups of an anonymous chimp (I like to think it’s Cheeta) to enhance/destroy the illusion. And in KONGA (not to be confused with KONGO) Michael Gough’s special mad science causes an ordinary household chimp to expand into a man in a gorilla suit. It’s as plausible as anything else in that film.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h28m32s55

McLaglan, Earles, Chaney.

The remake lacks some of the brutality (the child’s face doesn’t gush blood) but has good dialogue co-written by co-star Elliott Nugent (a decent pre-code director himself) –

Lady responds to talking parrot: “Isn’t that a biblical quotation?”

Chaney as Mrs O’Grady: “Yes. You see, this bird used to belong to Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Nugent: “It’s wonderful how your grandmother can make those birds talk.”

Lila Lee: “Aw, she could make Coolidge talk.”

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-20h27m42s92

We had fun suggesting stars for a remake, but few of our modern players can do surly/grotesque like Lon Snr. Maybe Pacino? But where would you find a dwarf small enough to star opposite him?

Buy it: The Unholy Three (1925)
Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection (He Who Gets Slapped / Mockery / The Monster / Mr. Wu / The Unholy Three / The Unholy 3)

The Sunday Intertitle: Primeval Genius

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2011 by dcairns

Howard Hawks was probably right to reckon that his movies came into their own when they started talking, but that doesn’t mean his silents are devoid of interest — they’re just damned hard to see. A GIRL IN EVERY PORT at least ought to be more widely available, but it was made at Fox and so has vanished into a black hole (not even light can escape, though the great Ford & Borzage box set did manage to make it out, a lone blip alas). And so to FIG LEAVES –

A nice dinosaur with long eyelashes.

We open in the Garden of Eden, envisaged as part of stone age times, so Darwin and Biblical Creation co-exist happily. The scene-setter is a cave-man getting walloped by a giant chimpanzee, leant height by forced perspective sets courtesy of William Cameron Menzies. In fact, that might be one of the giant chimps from the Menzies-designed THIEF OF BAGDAD, minus the fetching black satin shorts Mitchell Leisen provided. How many chimpanzees in Hollywood were there willing to be subjected to optical illusion growth?

From there we go to Adam’s love shack, where he (George SUNRISE O’Brien) and Eve (Olive “the Joy Girl” Borden) snooze in their twin beds, a trickling sand device eventually tipping a coconut onto George’s noggin to wake him. This delightful prelapsarian Flintstones fantasy world segues into a slightly less interesting contemporary section, essaying standard domestic comedy situations with a pronounced sexist slant surprising and disappointing in Hawks (and his male and female writing partners).

I kind of wish they’d kept it all stone age — the main advantage of the modern stuff is some snazzy fashion show bits of catwalk finery by Adrian. I guess cro-magnon times offered fewer opportunities for flapper garb, although I did admire George’s fur mankini.

Generally, Hawks romcoms can be divided into those which have goofy gimmicks, and those that have strong, interesting and convincing story worlds. This one is firmly in the same category as MONKEY BUSINESS, which — hey! — had a chimp in it too. And begins with Hawks’ offscreen voice directing Cary Grant. I like MONKEY BUSINESS. It’s not great or anything, but it’s fun. And so with FIG LEAVES.

The Whit Sunday Intertitle: The Russians are Coming!

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2011 by dcairns

THE RED DANCE is a Russian Revolutionary super-epic silent made by Raoul Walsh at Fox Pictures — visually it’s a stunner, while narratively it conforms to all the requirements of the Hollywood take on tsarism vs communism: we shake our heads sorrowfully at the abuse of power under the reign of Tsar Nicholas, then shake our heads sorrowfully at the naughty communists stirring the people up so as to exploit them. It’s not actually an unreasonable stance, given what was to come, although it conveniently ignores Kerensky and the fact that the original overthrow of the Tsar was not the work of Bolsheviks alone — the overall political purpose is similar to Charles Foster Kane’s: those with money and influence should look out a little for those without, for their own safety and security.

Also, like the later RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, it makes the bizarre and inaccurate inference that Rasputin was a revolutionary. I guess with two lots of evildoers on opposing sides, adding in a genuine wild card like Old Greg, who weakened the system from within without seeming to have intended it for any political purpose, would have been too damned complicated.

An absolutely ASTOUNDING image, no?

Walsh serves up spectacular set-piece scenes by the score, aided by gigantic sets and dramatically sweeping camera movements: was this his biggest film other than THIEF OF BAGDAD? It’s certainly more fluidly and dynamically handled. The leading man is Charles Farrell, looking chunkier than I’ve ever seen him, as a Russian commander torn between loyalty to the Tsar (that well-meaning fathead!) and love of a humble schoolteacher’s daughter, played by Dolores Del Rio, a quite passable Russian since she doesn’t have to speak. Although her rather flamboyant body language does suggest a Latin temperament rather than a Slavonic one.

Soviet showgirl Dolores.

Poor Dolores — while everyone else is in a Fox epic movie, she seems to spend the first hour trapped in a Lars Von Trier movie — her mother was shot dead before her eyes by Cossacks, her father dies in prison, and she’s mistreated by the book-burning, brutal farmers she lodges with, until hulking soldier Ivan Linow turns up and tries to rape her. The farmers respond by selling her to the guy, but in the meantime she meets Farrell, Linow sobers up, and turns out to be a typically Walshian hero-lout, a great good friend and a hard-drinking womanizer with a sentimental streak. Quite a turnaround.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can get some lovely farmers…

The thing that really ramps up the preposterosity in this thing, though, is the title cards. Written by Malcolm Stuart Boylan, whose credits stretch from 1920 to 1963 (this guy could be the model for Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby, such is the downward spiral of his career), they plumb the depths of silliness at every turn, and seem to specialize in flat-out absurdity and self-contradiction. Boylan obviously loves his dramatic paradoxes, but maybe he loves them too much?

The plot is arse-out daft to begin with — someone is sabotaging the Russian military effort in WWI, by issuing orders to retreat when they’re winning, subtle tricks like that. That someone is obviously a traitor, but somehow nobody knows who that someone is. Charles Farrell is tasked with finding out “who signs the orders” — a phrase that calls our attention to the fact, which could perhaps have been more carefully disguised, that it ought to be possible to get that answer by looking at the orders and reading the signature on them.

The solution turns out to be Rasputin, given the sinister treatment by Walsh, who nearly always shoots him with his back to the camera, so we can see his power reflected in the faces of those dealing with him. But this part of the plot is swiftly abandoned in favour of dopey romance with Charles and Dolores, in which the injustice of Russia’s feudal state is boiled down to a comparison of footwear.

If you’ve seen RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS or Barrymore’s earlier TEMPEST, or MOCKERY, you can probably predict the ending — disillusioned with both monarchy and communism, the couple flee into honorable exile, aided by a pal. I was slightly surprised to see them leave by an aeroplane, produced out of nowhere for the purpose, but why not? You’ve got to have some kind of novelty in an entertainment as by-the-numbers as this one. Still, the impressive spectacle and striking design compensate for the banality of the conception, and in Linow’s lovable brute you can see Walsh beginning to figure out what really interests him in movies.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers