Archive for Tod Browning

The Sunday Intertitle: Mystic Patsies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2014 by dcairns

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A surprisingly familiar character name appears in THE MYSTIC (1925) — at first I assumed it to be a coincidence, but since the director and co-writer is Tod Browning, future director of FREAKS and former circus somnambulist, it’s by no means unlikely that he was familiar with the case of John Merrick (in reality, Joseph), AKA The Elephant Man.

THE MYSTIC itself is relatively mild stuff, but it does deal with the circus, a fake medium, and con artistry, all things that Browning returned to obsessively throughout his career. The fake seances are put over with some panache, and it’s fun to see the trickery behind them, including a mild electrical current fed through the audience when they link hands, so that a signal can be given when the circuit is broken. A police inspector in the crowd circumvents this by getting his neighbours to link hands around him…

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Star Aileen Pringle was one of those on the yacht when Thomas Ince got shot, or did not get shot. Hearst doesn’t seem to have done her career iany particular favours. Edinburgh man David Torrence, brother of the more famous Ernest, brings his massive face to bear on the role of one of the supposed good guys, but respectable people in this movie can be as crooked as the gypsy confidence gang. Browning’s true sympathies are with the outsider-upstarts, which makes him an odd fit for MGM. His larcenous, grubby and nasty worldview might have been a better fit at Warners, and seems inimical to the oft-stated (family) values of Mayer’s empire, but it must be admitted that he succeeded anyway, bending the studio product all out of shape and taking the company to dark places it otherwise would have shunned. A bit like Tony Blair at Labour.

Gooble Gobble

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 8, 2014 by dcairns

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I’m sure others have pointed this congruence out before, but, well, here it is again.

Conscious influence seems possible, though one can’t imagine the puritanical Disney being a fan of Tod Browning’s FREAKS. I recall in the end of the Grimms fairytale, the wicked queen is made to put on red-hot iron shoes and dance herself to death, which is a little more in line with MGM’s disreputable horror. Throw in some feathers and you’ve got a deal!

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Disney keeps the thunderstorm (which may, we are told, be responsible for Cleopatra’s transformation to chicken lady. Ponder than one!) but sensibly reduces the cruelty. We are left to wonder what exactly the seven little miners would have done to that old woman if they’d caught her, and what The Sun headline would have been (does Doc’s name imply he has the surgical skills to forge some kind of woman-fowl graft, like Johnny Eck and Prince Randian and Schlitzie apparently did in FREAKS? What exactly ARE Koo Koo’s medical qualifications?) — instead, Disney has the witch-queen attempt to topple a boulder on her miniature lynch mob, and, in a bit of physics that’s unusually reasonable for a cartoon, she instead pries the cliff ledge loose beneath her feet, and plummets to her doom upon the jagged rocks below. Vultures swoop down, but for once are able to resist forming a barbershop quartet.

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It’s a good action sequence, not just because it has spectacle, but because it solves tricky plot problems (killing the villain without making the goodies murderers) in a credible and exciting way. I suspect a lot of people don’t realize that action sequences are written, and though often fight arrangers and second-unit directors play a major role, if the sequence doesn’t affect the direction of the story, it’s a narrative failure.

The Monday Intertitle: Aces Wild and Wicked

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2013 by dcairns

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THE ACE OF HEARTS (1921) is directed by Wallace HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Worsley and deals with a secret society of anarchists or communists or something (the film never specifies) who are plotting the assassination of a vicious capitalist, known only as The Man Who Had Lived Too Long. For ages the conspirators are the only characters we meet, and since they include hero John Bowers and heroine Leatrice Joy as well as uncertainly-positioned character player Lon Chaney we’re in the odd position of rooting for the Enemies of Society, or so it would seem. They draw cards to see who will do the honours and, lacking the advice of a South American death squad or Lemmy from Motorhead, they use the titular ace of hearts to signify the winning ticket. Bowers is delighted to get the role, Chaney is cast down at being passed over, and Leatrice is so thrilled for Bowers she marries him.

This is all played out very, very slowly, but compels just by the surreal inversion of conventional morality. Sadly, this is dissipated when the narrative, from a book by Gouverneur Morris (whose great-grandfather was the Founding Father of the same name) unveils its cunning ploy — after a night of marital bliss (while the lovelorn Chaney sits out on the stoop in the thrashing rain) the newlyweds suddenly lose their passion for homicide, and find themselves targeted by their former co-conspirators. Now the killers are the bad guys and Bowers and Joy are just wimpy love interest. Only Chaney retains interest, with his slouch hat and appalling Max Wall hairstyle.

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The print is thinly scratched in a million places, creating a sort of rain effect even when we’re not sitting with Lon in a downpour. By contrast, the earlier THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is spotted with blobs of nitrate decomposition specking the frame in a manner suggestive of a very rapid snowstorm. Neither rain nor wind nor hail nor snow / Only nitrate decomposition can stop the show.

This early Tod Browning stars Priscilla Dean, feisty thief from OUTSIDE THE LAW, as a pickpocket who works with Chaney (as Stoop Connors — one always hopes Chaney’s criminous characters will have great nicknames) but falls for a washed-up former swell (the magnificently named Wellington Playter). There are fights (complete with nose-gouging, see below), noble gestures, and some great grotesque underworld character touches. I was very taken with the hulking Kalla Pasha, apparently a popular Mack Sennett player, here making his debut. Another great name in a film of great names.

It’s minor Browning, without the truly perverse elements of the macabre maestro’s finest hours, but pretty entertaining, and Dean’s combination of fakey play-acting and occasional bursts of raw emotion makes for an amusing central perf.

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