Archive for Thunderbolt

Fighter/Bomber

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 12, 2012 by dcairns

The above title could refer to William Wyler, but really it’s about the stars of his wartime “propaganda” film, THUNDERBOLT, which is available to view at this week’s edition of The Forgotten. It’s hardboiled stuff.

The Sunday Intertitle: It’s That Man Again

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to the good people at Grapevine Video for digging up YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a silent romp which stars Shadowplay favourite Raymond Griffith as comedy coroner in a vigorous deconstruction of the whodunnit genre. Jules Furthman, later collaborator with both Hawks and Sternberg (he and Ben Hecht account for the odd congruence between the two otherwise contrasting filmmakers), wrote the story, displaying the genre-busting contempt for formula and cheerfully black sense of humour later displayed in THUNDERBOLT’s death row skits. Intertitles are by Ralph Spence (“highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word”) and Robert Benchley.

Ray utilizes the famous EXTERMINATING ANGEL maneuver.

Weirdly, in a generally sympathetic section about Raymond Griffith in his The Great Movie Comedians, Leonard Maltin complains that the film’s titles aren’t funny enough. On the contrary, I find them hilarious, my only complaint being that they perhaps carry too much of the film’s humour, although as ever, Griffith’s reactions are hysterical.

Griffith plays the coroner, Mr Green, in a Tarantino-like colour-coded dramatis personae featuring Mr White, Mr Black, Inspector Brown — confirming his tendency to play cheerful ciphers in fine clothes. And he plays him like an easy-going, simple fellow who’s just been handed the job, for no reason, and is trying whatever he can think of to make a go of it.

“Which of you spoiled the gentleman’s evening?”

“Won’t he stay murdered until after the theatre?”

“Well, which of you murdered him first?”

A Columbo-like finish shows this to have been, perhaps, all an act, but I was reminded of Benchley’s essay about being suddenly saddled with the job of building the Hoover Dam. Only in a dream could such an ill-prepared character suddenly find himself in charge of a murder inquiry.

Picking up my battered copy of Benchley’s One Moment Please I found a couple of pieces under the heading Fascinating Crimes, continuing his oneiric approach to tales of detection. The Missing Floor begins with the immortal lines “It has often been pointed out that murderers are given to revisiting the scene of their crimes. The case of Edny Pastelle is the only one on record where the scene of the crime revisited the murderer.” The Strange Case of the Vermont Judiciary caused me to make startling and involuntary noises, with its deceptively gentle opening: “Residents of Water Street, Bellows Falls (Vt.), are not naturally sound sleepers, owing to the proximity of the Bellows Falls Light and Power Co. and its attendant thumpings, but fifteen years before the erection of the light-and-power plant there was nothing to disturb the slumbers of Water Streetites, with the possible exception of the bestial activities of Roscoe Erkle.”

I’ll leave you to rush out and buy a copy so you can find out what happens after those opening lines.

At any rate, I’d say Benchley’s surreal vein is much more congenial to me than his observational comedy, and this feeling of strangeness informs the action of YOU’D BE SURPRISED in a persistent way.

There’s only one Griffith in the movies, and his initials ain’t D.W.

UK: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection

US: The Benchley Roundup: A Selection by Nathaniel Benchley of his Favorites (See all Satire Books)

When pre-codes go Bad #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by dcairns

Number two in our short, possibly two-part, study of those unsettling moments when the edgy interplay of cute and spicy in pre-code Hollywood cinema of the ’30s takes a sharp downturn into moral horror.

The film is PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, a strangely shrill comedy with no likable characters. Ginger Rogers plays a radio star, frustrated by her own squeaky clean image and entourage of managers etc, all preventing her from having a good time in Harlem for fear of scandal. When she learns that marriage might allow her greater freedom, she accepts a stage-managed wedding to a country galoot who’s written her a touching love letter. He’s initially presented as an appealing innocent caught up in the schemes of these big-city sophisticates (Frank McHugh, Franklin Pangborn — devilish conspirators to a man), then this scene comes along and pretty well wrecks any chance he has of hoovering up our free-floating sympathies ~

OK, so the sight of Ginger in her scanties is… not displeasing. Taunting her new hubby with her unabashed semi-nudity… I can get behind that. The spanking… well, it was a different era… this is really just softcore porn, isn’t it, though? … kinda hard to defend because it’s a co-mingling of porn and domestic violence… not light s&m play, she’s definitely not a consenting party… still… HEY!

He shouldn’t ought to have done that.

Granted, NOTHING SACRED has a moment where Frederic March socks Carole Lombard into slumberland — but that scene’s playing on our shock, his character is something of a sonofabitch already, and she does get to slug him back soon after, with equally devastating effect.

Further developments in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART — after this rocky start, Ginger and her hubbie settle down in connubial bliss in her cabin, and in desperation, the A&R guys hire her maid, Theresa Harris, to replace her. The black girl’s sultry, hoochy-coochy delivery affects hubbie strangely. As he sways his body dreamily to the radio’s rhythms, he momentarily snaps to full consciousness: “Say, they oughtn’t allow that on the radio!”

The spectacle of a black woman arousing a white man, even by voice alone, is a startling one. Ginger, smitten with jealousy, returns to her old career, and Theresa Harris, the most enjoyable performer in the film, disappears from the movie — flung back into obscurity and domestic service, presumably.

A couple things of further note —

(1) The screenplay is by newspaperwoman Maurine Dallas Howard Watkins, who originated Chicago. In that thrice-filmed hit play, MDH’s savage portrayal of her female characters feels like a satirical critique. Here, it nudges over into misogyny. The director’s fault, or uncredited rewriting, or Howard’s own sensibility?

(2) Theresa Harris is uncredited, despite having more lines and a more significant role than, say, Pangborn. She had a thirty-year acting career, making 78 movies in which she received screen credit thirteen times. Her debut is as the Black Cat Nightclub’s singer in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT, and you can also see her in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and OUT OF THE PAST. She’s always a full-on, radiant presence, grabbing whatever moments of immortality she can. Even if nobody learned her name, there was a chance they’d remember her smile.