Archive for Thorold Dickinson

The Sunday Intertitle: Drinks on Pete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by dcairns

In THE GREAT LIE (1941) — it’s not that great — Bette Davis and George Brent demonstrate their domestic happiness by making a home movie starring their kid. This featurette is a big-budget Hollywood affair, featuring its own intertitles, illustrated in a Norman Z. McLeod manner (i.e. crappy stick-figures), presumably by one parent or the other. It also manages to act as a metanarrative on race in Hollywood, caricaturing Hattie McDaniel in broader terms than the surrounding film itself.

 

The filmmakers attempt to simulate a projector malfunction by having the film weave off its sprockets, and then mysteriously come back with the image reversed. It would take a pretty fancy projector to achieve that, but I suppose it’s possible that George spliced the baby close-up in upside down (the big dope) and it was his rotten splice that caused the sprocket problem.

Rather than superimposing the movie afterwards using splitscreen double exposure, director Edmund Goulding and his team have done things for real, or almost: I think the movie is being rear-projected on a translucent screen embedded in the set wall, while the projector operated by Brent is merely a prop, giving a much dimmer light. But having a real image allows Goulding to move the camera, have actors block off part of the screen, etc, so it’s much more convincingly part of the scene than the usual approach.

By coincidence, we also watched PERFECT UNDERSTANDING (1933), which has its own home movie sequence, a record of the honeymoon of Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier. — a surprise teaming which actually works well. Rather than Gloria doing her grande dame bit (which in fact emerges only occasionally in her silent career, in fleeting gestures like the arm flung over the face in distressed longshot), and Larry trying to keep up with arch tongue movements or putty noses, the two try to outdo each other in naturalism, and it’s a joy seeing them bounce off one another in a loose, casual manner.

Thorold Dickinson edited this, and the director was Cyril Gardiner, a former editor who had cut Gloria’s first talkie, 1929’s THE TRESPASSER (1929) — which, come to think of it, was directed by Edmund Goulding. The honeymoon sequence is full of undercranking, dutch tilts, handheld wobble, and other devices intended to suggest amateurism, a far cry from the lavish production values of George & Bette’s polished effort.

Upside-down again! But this is used as Olivier’s POV after the home movie shows him drinking a large glass of beer. Larry and Gloria, far more sophisticated characters than George and Bette, are creatively mucking about with the technical possibilities of their cine-camera and film language. Not content with a nostalgic recreation of silent movie-making, they eschew intertitles but go full Georges Melies.

The footage is incorporated into the action in a much less ambitious way — we simply see it embedded in a screen within the screen, or rather the mere OUTLINE of such a screen. But I like how the reverse angle is shooting straight into the projector beam, a perfect Ozu-like 180º cut.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Let Jesus Fuck You

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by dcairns

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I’m quoting Linda Blair, of course, so that’s alright then.

The profane headline is inspired by recent reading. In Dublin I acquired The Celluloid Mistress: or, The Custard Pie of Dr Caligari by English playwright Rodney Ackland. Ackland’s movie memoir details his involvement in the cinema on such projects as Powell & Pressburger’s 49TH PARALLEL, Brian “The Queen of Ireland” Desmond Hurst’s DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, and Thorold Dickinson’s QUEEN OF SPADES, which Ackland actually started directing until forced out by an unsympathetic producer. (Dickinson looked and the rushes and said, “You’d never think this was a British picture!” “Is there anything wrong in that?” asked Ackland. “No!” said Dickinson, genuinely impressed, and he finished the film in the same style.)

At one point, Ackland documents a meeting with Howard Gaye, who played Christ in Griffith’s INTOLERANCE. Gaye recollected ruefully that when the crew stopped for lunch, he was left crucified for an hour and a half. Griffith, when he returned from his loaves and fishes, was greeted with an outburst of decidedly unchristlike language from his Messiah.

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This brought to mind a long anecdote from the shooting of THE KING OF KINGS, detailed in Lenore Coffee’s Storyline. According to L.C., the crew of the flick set up camp on an island where they could be removed from all modern appurtenances except for those pieces of technical apparatus essential to the actual recording of film images. DeMille was therefore rather put out that his star, H.B. Warner, insisted on leaving the camp for a luxury yacht every evening, still in costume and makeup as the Lamb of God. The nightly appearance of the twentieth century vessel ruptured DeMille’s sense of period and spoiled his enjoyment of the year 33 Anno Domini.

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When Coffee and her husband realized that Warner was meeting a girlfriend aboard ship, they decided that DeMille must be protected from this knowledge, since anything that tainted the feeling of sanctity he had built up around the film would have rendered him unfit to continue. When they further realized that Warner had insisted on keeping on his God the Son attire because his girlfriend was fulfilling some kind of perverse Bride of Christ sexual fantasy, they became even more determined to keep the matter under their collective hat (all writing teams own a collective hat, which they put on when collaborating).

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“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

Pinky on Parade

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on September 17, 2011 by dcairns

Lionel “Pinky” Atwill displays his enantiodromic approach to acting.

Interest in Thorold Dickinson seems to be on a continual rise, which is a good thing in my book. Now we have his first feature as solo director available, THE HIGH COMMAND. Produced  by Fanfare Films, a fly-by-night outfit who ceased trading after their single movie, it’s a military mystery/courtroom drama starring Lionel “Pinky” Atwill as a general with a shady past, Lucie Mannheim (THE 39 STEPS) as the rich wife of pathologically jealous Steven Geray, and a young, skinny James Mason as a dashing officer who romances her. It all comes to a head when a sleazy British military doctor is murdered, and the events take place in a West African colony on the Gold Coast.

Despite a meagre budget, Dickinson insisted on grabbing some authentic location shots, and he folds them into the studio stuff with cunning, if transparent artifice. His background as an editor reveals itself with jokey use of sound and snazzy transitions, and if the plot is a somewhat contrived affair (last-minute re-writes were required to appease the censor, who objected to anything showing British officers in a bad light), it’s consistently entertaining.

Otto (PEEPING TOM) Heller’s cinematography produces some striking moments, and even the sequence where documentary shots of a firelit native ceremony is intercut with studio closeups of the Brit stars is reasonable effective. The trouble is, of course, that the location material has unavoidable rough edges, which nobody would dream of replicating in the studio material, so a certain clash of styles is inevitable. One appreciates the effort, though, and Dickinson’s foreign travel opened his eyes to the realities of colonial life, which fed into the film’s lightly satiric attitude.

In particular, Graham Greene’s review singled out a scene where a colossal gust of wind blasts through the colonial club while the national anthem is being played, and nobody can close a window or suppress a billowing tablecloth as everybody’s too bust standing to attention. My Dad reports than in the ‘forties, during his film-going youth, the national anthem was played at the end of every programme at the local Odeon, and there’d be a stampede by the audience to get out before it started, otherwise you’d be stuck standing to attention for the full six verses. It’s fascinating: everybody knew it would be disrespectful not to stand, but it was considered perfectly respectful to elbow your way out of the auditorium at high speed to avoid standing.

These Britons are crazy.

Buy THE HIGH COMMAND here: The High Command [DVD]