Archive for Walter Huston

All of the Cromwells

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by dcairns

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John Cromwell cameos in ANN BICKERS as “sad-faced doughboy.”

I tweeted James Cromwell, actor and son of John Cromwell, to tell him about John Cromwell week, and he was nice enough to retweet me. And then kind enough to comment on my review of THE GODDESS.

Here is his Dad, in Anne Vickers, as “the lonesome soldier,” a memorable bit. Cromwell made almost as many walk-ons as Hitchcock. Lots to enjoy in this pre-code social drama on penal reform and women in the workplace. I never realised Sinclair Lewis, the original author, went in for ridicuous names — Walter Huston plays Barney Dolphin (his wife is Mona — but then, what goes well with Dolphin>), Edna Mae Oliver is Malvina Wormser, Sam Hardy is Russell Spaulding (not an African explorer), Murray Kinnell is Dr. Slenk and Mitchell Lewis rejoices in the name of Captain Waldo.

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Great montage of prison abuses, all filmed from Godlike high angle, presided over by a big floating head of Irene Dunne, regretful but powerless to intervene as she is just a big translucent head.

Apparently this movie, and SIGN OF THE CROSS, led directly to the forming of the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD for short). I guess La Dunne does have extramarital affairs and pregnancies and DOESN’T DIE, which is of course the most immoral thing of all.

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BLIND PIANISTS

Sightless ivory-ticklers abound. In THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE, Herbert Marshall’s sonata serves as a kind of musical narrator for the story of Robert Young (disfigured pilot) and Dorothy McGuire (plain spinster) who discover their inner beauty under the influence of the titular love nest, which serves as a kind of stone tape, imbued with the happy memories of honeymooning couples. Sophisticated schmaltz of a higher order — each moment of crass tearjerking is balanced by sequences of surprising delicacy and intelligence, Young liked it so much he retired to a little home he named after the movie.

It’s moving and strange, which is what it ought to be. As is the Hollywood way, McGuire’s supposed homeliness is limited to a wig and unsympathetic lighting but Young’s war scars, though subtle, are actually kind of upsetting. The story has an awkward circle to square, asserting the importance of inner beauty while transforming its attractive stars back and forth between dowdied-down versions and glitzy showbiz icons. Val Lewton scribe DeWitt Bodeen contributed to the script, and it has a bit of the Lewton sense of the uncanny about it.

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In NIGHT SONG, Dana Andrews is a (convincing) pianist, embittered by his loss of sight. Merle Oberon seeks to overcome his trust issues by feigning blindness herself. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that bright idea? An impossible story premise enlivened by Hoagy Carmichael who redefines laconic minimalism, and Edith Barrymore, who acts for two.

This one is so set on being high-class and tony that it comes off a little dull, which I call The Merle Oberon Effect, but it’s beautifully made. David Wingrove says, “They show it all the time on Movies4Men. I’m not sure what kind of men they’re targeting.” Whenever I switch to that channel I get Cliff Robertson in a submarine.

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REVENGER’S TRAVESTY

In SON OF FURY, Roddy McDowell grows up to be Tyrone Power (well, there’s a KIND of continuity in that) driven by the ambition to punch George Sanders in his gloating, spud-like face. Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney provide distractions. Cromwell worked hard with Gene to scale down her thespic efforts, resulting in a simplicity that redeemed her earlier hysterical excess in BELLE STARR and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: from here on in, she knew what she was doing. Lovely Hawaian love song scenes, and Sanders gets duly walloped. But he won the next round: to Sanders’ horror, Power died of a heart attack while filming their duel in SOLOMON AND SHEBA.

Also: Elsa Lanchester runs a grog shop. I’ve never consumed grog but I would force myself to acquire the taste.

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JC did a bit of filling-in on John Brahm’s entertainingly loopy GUEST IN THE HOUSE, previously addressed here. I think the really extreme shots evince Brahm’s expressionist bent, but who knows: Cromwell was no slouch, compositionally.

Except early on: DANCE OF LIFE is one of those early talkies where we’re always observing from the wrong distance and angle, a result of all those sound proof booths crowding round the cast like Daleks. A whey-faced youth called Oscar Levant can be glimpsed through the print scratches. At last, a pianist who can see, but wisely chooses not to.

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CRIME DOES NOT

THE RACKET should be fiery and terrific, but the original play has been laden with so many unnecessary scenes, mostly expositional and undramatic, it never seems to start. Blame Howard Hughes — Cromwell did a good job of escaping directorial duties on I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, a project every director in Hollywood seems to have been threatened with at one time or another. Cromwell said yes to all demands but stalled until his contract ran out, a wise course.

At least with Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, THE RACKET gives Cromwell great shoulders to frame his shots over.

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THE SCAVENGERS has sort-of interesting B-list talent (Vince Edwards, Carol Ohmart) but this Philipines thriller, from the tail end of Cromwell’s directorial career, suffers from a fairly hackneyed script and a music track that’s on random, behaving like a player piano that got hit during a saloon brawl. The dramatic cues always seem to come on seconds too late, or too early. The movie LOOKS pretty good, though, and gathers some conviction as it goes: Ohmart’s last scene has thrilling echoes of DEAD RECKONING.

AND THEN

There’s more, much more, to be enjoyed, often in convenient pairings: LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and TOM SAWYER would make a fine double-feature, as might THE FOUNTAIN (Ann Harding) and UNFAITHFUL (Ruth Chatterton), while Canadian backwoods drama JALNA could pair up with the misbegotten SPITFIRE, in which Katharine Hepburn boggles every instinct known to man by playing a hillbilly (Appalachia by way of Bryn Mawr). Tex Avery did a pretty good Hepburn caricature, so I’m imagining this crossed with his LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, La Hepburn opening doors with her prehensile toes, etc… Cromwell, of course, was well aware this casting was insane, but he was at RKO, so what could you do? Campaign for Ginger Rogers?

THE WORLD AND THE FLESH still seems to mark the moment when Cromwell really engaged with cinema, and it may have been motivated by his absolute contempt for the script, a farrago of Russian Revolution clichés and fantasies he knew to be utter bilge. Desperation breeds inspiration, and like Sidney Furie stamping on the script of THE IPCRESS FILE before making a masterpiece out of it, Cromwell energized his dormant stylistic powers, and increased in stature forthwith.

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Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too —

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.

Sexy Sadie

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2014 by dcairns

Joan Crawford joins a long list of Hollywood divas who underestimated their iconic roles. Joan thought Lewis Milestone’s direction was insipid and so she gave the performance she thought right and later regretted it.

But what I want to talk about is technique. At 01.24, Milestone begins the movie proper with billowing clouds and a rainstorm beginning with single drops in closeup detail. Kind of reminds me of Antonioni’s scene without people in L’ECLISSE. Sequences like this recur in the movie, the music warning us to expect a real typhoon, either meteorological or  emotional.

At 8.32 there’s a long tracking shot — one of many — which leads us to meet Joan Crawford, the last major character to be introduced. But the point of the shot is not the long, fluid movement — a strain to achieve in early sound days — but the way it contrasts with her entrance, which is another series of details.

First, her appearance is heralded by a hurled bottle and a reject male being violently ejected from a doorway. Both have presumably been drained by Joan so she has no further use for them.

Then we get a series of delighted male faces feasting their boggling eyes on the awesome spectacle of Joan in all her glory — still unseen by us. This builds anticipation and creates a new, staccato visual rhythm. The bulbous mugs of Guy Kibbee, William Gargan &c also prepare us for something more aesthetically pleasing.

Then, rather extraordinarily, Milestone shows us a hand gripping the doorframe, another hand gripping the other side, a white heel perching on the threshold, another be-ribboned shoe positioning itself on the other side, then joined by its partner, and then —

Joan’s face slides into shot, practically Leone-close, cigarette semi-erect, lips irresistably recalling Tony Curtis in SOME LIKE IT HOT, who copied them, eyes baleful and hooded like a cobra as she leans against the doorjamb as louche as you like.

I think this is a really amazing bit of visual drama, as bold and startling in its way as Boris Karloff’s backwards shamble into view in FRANKENSTEIN the previous year. Did women scream and strong men faint at the sight of Joan’s erotic glower? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Afterwards, Milestone reluctantly allows the ecstatic fragments he’s assembled to join up and create a more cohesive space, where we can actually see where everyone is rather than just inferring it — the camera’s slight pull back relaxes the tension as Joan starts bantering with the boys.

Like the rain montage, this sequence of shots will be repeated later too, to stunning impact.

16:07 — someone puts a record on, and Milestone starts dancing the camera around the actors and the phonograph as if tied to the rotating disc by invisible wires. Long tracking shots are one thing, but this kind of move, rare right up until the invention and adoption of the steadicam, was unheard of. Probably there’s some earlier example, but I haven’t encountered it. I’m not even 100% sure HOW Milestone and cameraman Oliver T. Marsh (who already lensed this story once before for Walsh) are moving their great clunky sound camera — on tracks or on a crane or ceiling tracks maybe? The latter, which you don’t ever hear of anymore, might be it. You’ve then got the problem of concealing the crew, particularly the microphone, since the roving lens is going to take in 360º of the room.

Not that filmmakers should be applauded just for doing something difficult. What I like is that the effort is worthwhile, as it gives us initially a sense of free, gliding exuberance, literally lifting us off our feet with the music — and then when the camera stops as Mrs Mellow-Harsher starts sniping away about it being Sunday, after all, our mood turns earthbound again. Tip-top filmmaking.

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By the way, the whole thing is about sex,as embodied and conjured up by Joan’s drag-queen sensuality. You should watch it, if you haven’t already. A year of film school in under 1hr 34.