Archive for Wallace Beery

One-Way River

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2020 by dcairns

SHOW THEM NO MERCY! was originally going to be directed by Otto Preminger and star Wallace Beery, until Beery announced that he refused to be directed by anyone whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

RIVER OF NO RETURN was Preminger’s first Cinemascope film and a biggish hole in my Preminger viewing. Watching it on the Toshiba, I wished I’d been to see it restored in Bologna — the widescreen scenic images have a fantastic grandeur even on DVD, and on a big screen must be overwhelming.

Anyway, it’s a good film: Preminger’s long take sensibility is immediately a good match for ‘Scope, and he does a lot of impressive work with tricky elements like rafts, horses, etc. How many suitcases did they have to send downriver for this famous shot?

There’s a horrible scene, though, where Robert Mitchum’s character tries to straight-up rape Marilyn Monroe’s. He’s interrupted by a cougar attack, and then by two guys who show up and think about killing him, and what with one thing and another the incident is never referred to again. There are more moments when they seem on the verge of discussing it, but it turns out this was merely projection on our part.

As always with Otto-related questions, the answer is to be found in Chris Fujiwara’s critical study The World and Its Double. When Preminger finished shooting, Fox boss Darryl Zanuck was dissatisfied with the film, which he felt was unnecessarily cryptic about its characters’ goals, relationships, motives. He insisted on adding three scenes.

(His ally in the dumbing-down is the soundtrack, which helpfully embarks on Calhoun’s theme tune whenever anyone discusses him. Elsewhere it’s stirring and atmospheric, and Cyric Mockridge and an uncredited Leigh Harline are apparently responsible.)One was a conversation between Monroe and Rory Calhoun near the start, which explains why they’re together. Unfortunately, this information had already been covered extensively by later dialogue from Monroe to Mitchum, so screenwriter Frank Fenton (OUT OF THE PAST) ends up shoving paraphrases into the actors’ mouths, rendering the later scenes dangerously repetitive. (He gets away with it only because Monroe justifying her relationship in the words Calhoun has previously used is new material as far as her dealings with Mitchum is concerned.)

Another was a scene where Mitchum massages Monroe after a particularly exhausting stint on the rapids (the process photography on the raft is the film’s weakest point other than the following scene: the POV shots going downstream are terribly grainy and I’m guessing the background plates were shot “flat” in 1:1.33, because they’re grainy, everything seems too big, like our heroes have sailed into Land of the Giants, and there’s a lot of Anamorphic-mumpsy rubberwalling, as the scenery bends, as if trying to wrap itself around the leads (and who could blame it?).The third scene is Mitchum’s sudden, out-of-character attack on Monroe. These three bits were directed by Jean Negulescu. So, you see, Monroe and Mitchum couldn’t discuss the matter afterwards because the footage wasn’t shot.

Going by Zanuck’s comments, the massage and the attempted rape were both inserted to make the characters’ relationship clearer. But they don’t really do that, at least for a non-rapey modern audience. I suppose the massage scene could be there to suggest sexual attraction, but although it works as a sexy treat for the audience, it’s presented in the story as a practical answer to Monroe being freezing cold and exhausted.

And Mitchum pouncing on Monroe… this seems to be Zanuck’s idea of showing that he’s attracted to her. I suppose the character point is that he doesn’t respect her, regards her as a good-time girl who will submit to a rough embrace, and when she doesn’t, he just carries on because he can’t figure that out. But it’s rubbish. Mitchum isn’t dumb or brutish anywhere else in the movie. And they never mention it again.I don’t know of any evidence that the scene ignited any controversy at the time. For me, it hurts the movie’s ending quite a bit: Mitchum takes Monroe away from her saloon-singing life, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This is already a bit too caveman for us modern folks. But Monroe ditching her sparkly shoes shows that she is a fully consenting partner in this change of lifestyle. The filmmakers were balancing out the audience appeal of Mitchum’s he-man stuff with the requirement that the leading lady have a mind of her own.

Zanuck’s raunchy intrusion upsets that quite badly. Monroe is now being carried off by a man who previously tried to force her into sex (while his young son, and, as it turns out, a cougar, were mere yards away). We’ll probably make some allowance since after all it’s Mitchum (and he’s not in Max Cady mode… rivers seem to bring out the worst in him, though), but damage is certainly done.

(I would quite like to see a director’s cut of this offered, perhaps as a bonus on a Blu-ray. (I think you always need to keep the original around to illustrate the historical record: THIS is what audiences saw upon release…)

 

Hobo’ness

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by dcairns

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The first time Fiona and I saw William Wellman’s BEGGARS OF LIFE was on a VHS grey-market tape bought off eBay for something excessive like $9, with a wildly inappropriate drop-needle soundtrack and a picture quality equivalent to the viewpoint of a near-sighted mollusc in tears at the heat death of the universe.

The second time was at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema (1912-present) as part of the Festival of Silent Cinema (AKA HippFest) with a 35mm print from the George Eastman House — the best surviving materials anywhere — and Neil Brand playing at the piano with the Dodge Brothers (featuring critic Mark Kermode) collaborating on a skiffle/jug band/spasm music live score of surpassing loveliness, dynamism and romanticism. It makes a difference! I now suspect that old Wild Bill may have been right to rate this as his best movie (I think he went to his grave believing it lost). One weird effect of seeing it on the big screen is that details that registered on my mind’s eye as looming closeups turn out to be spacious medium shots when I looked at my video copy at home. I feel like a cine-illiterate child when I compare the large screen impression with the small-screen “reality.”

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Louise Brooks plays an orphan runaway who’s shot her would-be rapist and is now a fugitive. It’s the high point of her Hollywood career, though not one she enjoyed — Wellman was horrible to her, as was her co-star Richard Arlen, although at least he apologised decades later. Arlen is pretty good here, not too pretty (WINGS) nor too ugly (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) — he lost his looks FAST, that one, and his face just went kind of ugh. There’s a secene early on when, starving, he presses his nose against a screen door. That’s just what he would look like a few years later.

(You see what happens when you say Louise’s eyes are too close together, Arlen?)

Brooks is delightful, touching, intense, but the stand-out acting performance is from Wallace Beery as Oklahoma Red, he-man of Hobohemia, a rail-riding, hooch-swigging killer who slowly and, it has to be said, inexplicably, morphs into the film’s hero. It’s a showy role, yet Beery is surprisingly delicate in it, despite the fact that each of his facial features must be the weight of a seal cub  — it’s subtle work, by his standards. When he’s not exerting swaggering, pugilistic menace, he eschews his later MGM schtick — slobbering mawkishness — and manages a wistful, thoughtful, wonderful quality that seems to defy gravity. I think part of it stems from Wellman’s willingness to stay wide, but part is certainly a very well-judged bit of performance from Beery, a man who was certainly capable of stinking up even an extreme long-shot with his mugging and gurning.

The film has crazy moments. Brooks is identified as a girl when she bends over. I won’t show you what that looks like, but this is the reaction it gets.

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I have never seen a dragged-up girl rumbled by her ass before. I mean, a lot of movie stars have exposed their bottoms, but not many bottoms have exposed movie stars.

The same hobo prepares for a knock-down fight with Beery by deftly flipping his upper dentures from his mouth and pocketing them for safety.

The hobo gang at one point stage a kangaroo court, almost as surreal a mockery of justice as the one in King Lear or the one in Alice in Wonderland.

Roscoe Karns makes his trademark Roscoe Karns face. Blue Washington as Black Mose has a role that actually affords some character and some dignity, but is encouraged to tom it up with some uncomfortable “comedy negro” business.

And the locomotive stunts are reckless and scary. Beery apparently insisted on NOT doing all his own stunts — “Listen, all directors want to kill actors,” he told Brooks — but still hangs from moving rail cars. Apparently nobody considered that a stunt in those days. Brooks herself leaps on and off moving trains, and falls off one too. Those machines are dangerous! Apparently one wreck from this movie is still in place, at the bottom of a hill in Southern California, near the Mexican border. Another wreck from the movie, Wallace Beery, is still in place at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER seemed quite a bit more old-fashioned than THE GOOSE WOMAN, but this was almost certainly because I saw the former at the plush Hippodrome in Bo’ness with a well-dressed audience and a spiffing live accompaniment, whereas I saw THE SIGNAL TOWER as a ratty print telecined to VHS, transferred to AVI and then to DVD and screened on a tiny television at our friend Marvelous Mary’s house. A television that may be older than Brown’s film. One is aware that the slightly antique feeling has nothing to do with the film-making itself, but one can’t help but be influenced.

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In the days before the World Wide Web, intertitles had to be transmitted by telegraphy.

It’s not fair to judge under such circumstances, but I suspect the movie is not quite as good as THE GOOSE WOMAN, which has an unconventional heroine, a twisty plot, and twisty storytelling including flashbacks, one of them false. THE SIGNAL TOWER tells a very simple story, with Wallace Beery an obvious heavy from the start (we all admired the wisdom of dressing him in a stripey shirt, thus making his evil manifest), but it builds to an extremely exciting climax whereby the railroad employee hero must struggle to derail a runaway freight car in a thunderstorm to prevent a catastrophic crash, while his wife repels Beery’s vile advances a short distance away. Will our hero rescue his wife at the expense of his official duty? Or what? As the movie has been content to show us one thing happening at a time, and quite slowly, this parallel montage suspense sequence feels all the more exhilarating.

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It’s beautifully shot too, with big blasts of movie lightning smacking the scenery, the eerie sputter of signal flares, and scary POV shots from the oncoming train, hurtling along the tracks. The movie shows us a large-scale collision earlier in the story, just as a sort of illustration of what could happen — it’s arguably even more impressive than the bridge collapse in THE GENERAL, though it’s insubstantial context (a flashback as dad (the inspiringly-named Rockliffe Fellowes) tells kid about what happens when signalmen blunder) means it doesn’t carry the same impact.

Following in the size twelve footsteps of door-smashing pugilist Donald Crisp in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, Beery smashes through not one but two doors in an attempt to satiate his vile lusts upon the person of Virginia Valli (from Hitchcock’s THE PLEASURE GARDEN, made the following year).

“Here’s Wally!”

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Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending this one.