Archive for Theodor Sparkuhl

Occupational Hazards

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2012 by dcairns

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Frank Borzage’s TILL WE MEET AGAIN is one of his many good ones — it’s a bit undercast, though, with Ray Milland compelled to suppress his naughtiness and Barbara Britton as a novice nun showing no hint of any naughtiness at all (but when you see her in I SHOT JESSE JAMES you see she had considerable reserves of that desirable quality).

Milland plays an American airman (with very occasional nods to a vaguely stateside accent) shot down, rescued by the resistance, and entrusted with secret intelligence gathered by the underground. After a last-minute disruption in their plans, Britton finds herself entrusted with escorting Milland to safety. The movie could have been a forerunner of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR ALLISON, except that somebody obviously felt that any hint of desire between (married) man and (married to Christ) nun would be unacceptable. The most the movie can admit to is that Milland’s reminiscences about his home life open Britton’s eyes to an understanding of male-female relations that had been denied to her. Under the surface, of course, Borzage hints at simmering romantic longing, never stated, and that gives the film its edge.

Scripted by Lenore Coffee, the movie generates just enough suspense in its cross-country situations, and just enough unresolved sexual tension, to maintain interest, but the real attraction is the wondrously unreal studio landscapes and the lighting and camera movies Borzage presides over with ace DoP Theodor Sparkuhl (AKA “Mr. Sparkle”).

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It’s wartime propaganda, of course — Konstantin Shayne is a witty Nazi villain, and Walter Slezak plays a craven French mayor acting as his accomplice, who must of course reveal a scrap of decency lurking somewhere about his corpulent form. Like most Borzage, it’s also informed by religious feeling, but this side of it isn’t propagandistic — rather, it’s felt by the filmmaker and expressed honestly. Sexuality was always a part of Borzage’s religious feelings, and he allows himself the tiniest hint that perhaps Britton’s character would have liked to experience this, and would have actually grown closer to God by doing so — and that she has become more human and divine just from recognizing this. A key scene occurs when she nurses a delirious, injured Milland, who mistakes her for his wife. The scene fades to black discretely, the editor’s favourite mode of plausible deniability — we’re not told where she passes the night. But we could look at CHINA DOLL, a middling late Borzage which reprises many of his favourite tropes, and gain a more distinct idea of what MIGHT have happened…

Also —

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Britton is looking for Milland.

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A puff of cigarette smoke seems to betray his position.

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But — ack! — it’s not him.

Ants In Your Plants

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937 is one of those uneven-by-design revue movies — with minimal plot and mismatched stars — of which poor Mitchell Leisen handled several. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a kind of demented masterpiece, and there are definitely high spots amid the floating debris of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, including a touching rendition of “Thanks for the Memories,” (featuring Bob Hope, not usually Mr. Sentiment), a slapstick dance number by Martha Raye, and various comedic stylings by WC Fields, who plays pool and steps on a fellow human being’s head, but TBBO37 is lumbered by a script which unites disjointedness with witlessness, although there’s one good line: “Talking to her is like shaking hands with an empty glove.”

The empty glove is Gracie Allen, for whose comedy I’ve always had something of a blind spot. Her characterisation of kooky idiot-woman who gets everything wrong seems somehow… lacking in nuance. George Burns as a younger man just doesn’t make any sense to me. And he seems like a thug. Actually, all the men in this movie are louts, from venal agent Ray Milland (a Leisen favourite, which sometimes seems reasonable and sometimes, like here, inexplicable), snide radio producer Jack Benny, and egotistical singer Frank Forest.

Forest at least gets a good musical number, allowing Leisen to indulge his enthusiasm for mood lighting and all things South of the Border. He’s not the most coherent dance director, tending to pile together overlapping layers of dancers, all doing different things, the ones in the foreground too close to comfortably follow with the eye or the camera, but the designs and compositions here are sumptuous kitsch.

In fact, it’s best to ignore the slender plot and the weak comedy and savour the guest numbers — Benny Goodman and his band get a zippy number with animated wipes that dance to the music, while Leopold Stokowski and his band receive more solemn treatment, with Leisen lighting the conductor like Franchot Tone in PHANTOM LADY, all looming hands.

Leisen’s cameraman is Theodor “Mr Sparkle” Sparkuhl, and the two together create some marvelous effects, whenever there’s no plot or acting to get in the way. And Leisen contrives a walk-on, as Arkansan comedy turn Bob Burns hunts for Stokowski to demonstrate his musical bazooka (don’t ask). “Did you ever -” he begins to asks the brisk director. “Sure, lots of times,” snaps Leisen, and is off.

Here’s more musical malarkey to give you an idea of the skills Leisen brings to this somewhat unpromising material —