Archive for Victor Fleming

The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns


I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~




Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

The Sunday Intertitle: Three Doug Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2014 by dcairns


Watching three Douglas Fairbanks movies in fairly quick succession (though not, qua the title of this piece, in one night) they tend to blur together.

I just realized the problem — we actually watched four! So the title is even more inaccurate. Never mind. Moving on.

I want to dispose of REACHING FOR THE MOON quickly because it’s a really terrible film, actually causing Fiona to say “I’m getting sick of Doug’s boundless optimism.” He’s a dreamer who works in a button factory (pen-pushing, rather than more rewarding work like punching holes in the buttons: button-pressing?) who is obsessed with the power of VISUALISATION. He visualizes becoming the King of Vulgaria (first appearance of that pun? Certainly predates CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG by decades) and then we get a long dream sequence which does contain a few stunts but it’s already too late. The first half of the film is incredibly joyless, though New York street scenes of the teens do have a certain pleasure of their own.

We got into this marathon because of THE MATRIMANIAC which we watched ages ago, still perhaps my favourite. It’s short, has a good situation and daring stunts and very, very funny intertitles. Fiona loved it and so I thought it was time to try her on more. Of course THE BLACK PIRATE’s screening in Glasgow was catalyst.


The first one we ran was maybe the best — THE HABIT OF HAPPINESS is short and sweet, though a little politically confused. Doug is scion of a wealthy family who, with his typical enthusiasm, is trying to redeem tramps by inviting them into his home. We first meet him aslep between two of the fellows. There’s a scrambled plot about stock-exchange shenanigans and a terrific fight at the end. It’s pretty simple which may be why I can’t remember much of what goes on. Oh, I remember embarrassing scenes of Doug trying to make tramps laugh. Kinda patronizing. But then writers Allan Dwan (who also directed) and Shannon Fife come up with a really nice meta-intertitle as Doug tells a funny story ~


WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY is much more complicated and inventive but maybe a touch protracted. It’s front-loaded with insane genius. The mad scientist living next door to Doug has decided to drive him to insanity and suicide for experimental purposes. All for the betterment of humanity, I suppose. Various stooges assist him, including Doug’s manservant, who encourages him to eat badly before bed, giving him indigestion and nightmares. Cue shots of onion and pie, played by actors in costume, trampolining Satanically in a large, spongy set representing the Fairbanks gut. And then a nightmare sequence featuring slomo, a two-storey interior set built in a tumbrel so Doug can climb the walls, and various other ahead-of-their-time tricks, including Bull Montana as a Fusellian embodied nightmare.


This experimentalism ceases for the rest of the film, which devolves into a kind of disturbing sitcom as Doug’s job prospects and love life are thwarted by the wicked scientist. Then Doug finally has his brainstorm, and the movie visualizes Reason toppled from her throne by Despair and Worry and Jealousy. What follows looks suspiciously like some kind of neurological gang bang, until Sense of Humor reasserts himself and kicks the bad guys out. Very odd.


The movie should really end with Doug performing a few heroic feats, armed with his rekindled optimism, but Doug, along with director Victor Fleming and the scenarists, can’t resist staging an epic flood so Doug can rescue the heroine. It looks forward to STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, actually, even down to the minister floating by on his adrift church in time to marry the happy couple.

THE NUT gets a little overcomplicated too, but has some delightful stuff. A shame Doug’s pal Theodore Reed didn’t direct more. Doug is a mad inventor in this one — which I wrote about previously — though the film tends to forget this slightly as plot complications pile up. There’s a very funny bit where he tries to win back his sweetheart by letting her promote her socially improving schemes for redeeming slum children to a roomful of influential men, but because Doug is unable to round up any actual influential men, he mechanizes some waxwork dummies instead. Reminiscent of Sid Grauman’s practical jokes, actually.


The thing to do when exhaustion sets in with Doug’s modern-dress comedies is to switch to his period movies, so maybe I’ll finally get around to his THREE MUSKETEERS and IRON MASK?

Meanwhile: Blogneys!

Buy: Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (His Picture in the Papers / The Mystery of the Leaping Fish / Flirting With Fate / The Matrimaniac / Wild and Woolly / Reaching for the Moon / When the Clouds Roll By / The Mollycoddle / The Mark of Zorro / The Nut)

The Sunday Intertitle: If Chins Could Kill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by dcairns

The title card is from Victor Fleming’s HULA, a Hawaiian-set Clara Bow vehicle from 1927, and the chin referred to comprises a principle part of the facial apparatus of leading man Clive Brook. The card cracked me up because of the scene described by Maria Riva in her slyly vengeful biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich.

SHANGHAI EXPRESS is in prep. Von Sternberg has selected Brook, whom he knew well and had directed in UNDERWORLD, a major hit, as Frau Dietrich’s leading man. “What’s he like?” she asked.

“He’s a chin.” said Jo.

Brook, who comes across as something of a stick in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, is actually human and sympathetic in UNDERWORLD, which is rather hard to see nowadays (do I hear rumours of a Criterion DVD? Snap it up!) and his stiffness is used as an appealing quality in HULA, proving that he could be effective onscreen, or at least more so than he is opposite Dietrich.

Listen — some kind of strange dynamic is at work in the Sternberg choice of leading men: one time he’ll give her Gary Cooper — what Stanwyck would call a real yum-yum type — next, she gets Victor McLaglen. “Why is he grinning like that?” my students asked. “He’s Victor McLaglan — that’s what he does!” was all I could offer as explanation. Then wooden Clive and his balsa chin, then the pendulum swings back, offering not only Herbert Marshall but a side order of Cary Grant. Then John Lodge, about whom I can’t quite decide, then the astounding double feature of Lionel “Pinky” Atwill and Cesar “Butch” Romero. It’s like a succession of hot and cold baths.

In HULA, Brook’s pairing with Bow could have been disastrous, since she has the legendary “it” and all he has is “that” — humanity’s first fully opposable chin. But since she’s so young and vivacious and he’s so Clive Brook, actually what he gets out of the partnership is vulnerability. She can dance rings around him, and you feel for him as a result.

It was a good time to see the film, as Victor Fleming had been on my mind — Philip French wrote a good piece in The Observer recently (a relief: French is extraordinarily erudite, yet The Observer normally have him writing lists of “best hedgehog movies” or whatever), I caught a bit of THE WIZARD OF OZ again during it’s seasonal TV run, and I grabbed a copy of WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, recently acclaimed  on David Bordwell’s excellent site.

A bit of business borrowed by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

HULA isn’t any masterpiece, but we get primo cuteness from Bow, including a nude swim for starters (was any actress of the age so frequently unclad?) and plenty of local colour. The seeds are planted for the campy delirium tremens of CALL HER SAVAGE a few years later.

More interesting yet, and another good use of Brook, was THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY, directed by my old pal Berthold Viertel, whose work I’ve admired consistently. There’s always more imagination and emotional sensitivity in his work than you’re expecting. This one sees BV in Hollywood, where his son Peter would enjoy a longer career, directing a Paramount romantic tragedy where Brook plays a WWI soldier who marries Claudette Colbert during an air raid, impregnates her in the back of a cab in the Bois du Boulogne, and then gets gassed in the trenches. “Killing ‘im with stuff that smells like flowers,” muses a passing cockney stereotype.

But Brook is not dead, just reported as such. Colbert takes up with suave doctor Charles Boyer, but can’t quite bring herself to marry him. Good pre-code banter as she checks into a Swiss hotel with her lover. He asks for a double room, she gently corrects him, asking for two singles. “Adjoining,” he specifies, in that endearing Gallic way of his.

Brooks is resting up in this same hotel, his lungs still raddled. His best buddy Andy Devine has been caring for him. (Devine is great here, although he makes a very unlikely Brooklynite, to my ears.) Brooks doesn’t want to reveal himself to Colbert, but Boyer learns the truth and nobly absents himself from the picture. Now Colbert tries to make a home for Brooks with his son (a terrific, cute-as-a-button kid called Ronnie Cosby), but he is, as the title has told us… THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY.

Viertel had a gift for taking sentimental stuff like this, or LITTLE FRIEND, and giving it a bit of life, and he’s aided greatly by Karl Struss’s cinematography. The film doesn’t have LITTLE FRIEND’s fervent experimentalism nor the allegorical intensity of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, but the performances and story are well handled, the appeals to emotion are discrete, and there are strange and unsettling moments, as when Brook drunkenly hallucinates Colbert’s face on top of a floozy’s, and the voice of one issues from the lips of the other — and this ECU of a black singer’s mouth, which seems to have some odd significance as memento mori

Soon I want to talk about Viertel’s last film, RHODES OF AFRICA, a more problematic case but an interesting one…


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