Archive for Travis Banton

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.

 

This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?

 

And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.

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As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.