Archive for Tod Browning

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.

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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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Monster-out-law

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2013 by dcairns

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A Lon Chaney double feature over at The Notebook, with OUTSIDE THE LAW (Tod Browning) and THE MONSTER (Roland West) paired up on a crazy whim. For all that it doesn’t have much story not nearly enough Chaney, the latter film clearly inspired the climax of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, where Fay Wray (above) is strapped to a slab, naked under a sheet, like Gertrude Olmstead before her. It’s a good way to end any movie — can there be any doubt that such a scene would much have improved any film in the career of Ken Loach? And most Mike Leigh joints too.

UK: Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection [DVD] [1930] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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

Meanwhile, at Apocalypse Now, the ’68 Comeback Special continues its journey through the Cannes Film Festival entries for that year looking at the largely forgotten Hungarian film THE UPTHROWN STONE — with no subtitles available, Scout Tafoya has had to assess Sandor Sara’s film using somewhat different criteria, but what he finds is fascinating.