Archive for Warren William

From Hindquarters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by dcairns

A fingerprint besmirches the hindquarters of a deco figurine!

FROM HEADQUARTERS is one of William Dieterle’s best pre-codes, and I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. I think I watched it shortly before I started blogging so it got lost in the shuffle.

We screened it as one half of a double-feature in our latest Warren William Weekend, even though the film does not feature WW. By chance, the last time I watched FH, I also ran Dieterle’s THE SECRET BRIDE, which does feature WW and links up in an odd way: in both films, characters look into microscopes and see… the SAME BULLET. How did it get from one film to another and kill Kenneth Thomson in one film and Douglas Dumbrille in the other? It must be one of those magic bullets we’ve all heard so much about.

Warner Bros were into saving money in all kinds of odd ways. “Jack Warner has oilskin pockets so he can steal soup.”

Anyway, THE SECRET BRIDE ought to be exciting and emotional, with what James M. Cain called a “love rack” at its centre, the romance creating the suspense, but the concealed marriage of WW and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role never really feels in jeopardy. When Warners went middle-class, they often lost a lot of their oomph. Also, there can be a big difference between 1933 and 1934 Warners pictures — the Code has come in.

But FROM HQ is terrific stuff — part of Warners’ Great Project to document every facet of American society — here, it’s the life of the police station, so we’re in for a kind of CSI: Pre-Code — plus director Dieterle has suddenly gotten really into elaborate and dynamic blocking, with characters crossing frame at speed alla time, the camera relaying from one busy body to another, and Eugene Pallette jumping into shot like an over-inflated jack-in-the box, bellowing his swollen head off. His character is called Sgt. Boggs and that’s just right.

George Brent is the lead and his sleepy delivery turns out to be just what the film needs, since everyone else is so overwrought. Margaret Lindsay does a lot of elaborate hand-ringing. Hugh “Woo-woo” Herbert is an ambulance-chasing bail bondsman, offering rates “that’d almost surprise you.”

Dieterle also stages multiple flashbacks to the events around a killing, in long-take subjective camera shots, including one that goes from objective to subjective in a oner, his camera discretely tucking itself into a manservant’s head to look out through his eyes, giving us an actual “what the butler saw” or “first-person butler” sequence.

FOG OVER FRISCO has been described as one of the fastest movies ever made but this one could give it a run for its money. Asides from being a murder mystery, it fits snugly into Warners’ Grand Project to document every aspect of American life: this one stars the police station itself, and spends the first few minutes observing the processing of arrestees, before lingering over forensics, ballistics, interrogation, and even the filing system. Punch cards! High-tech stuff.

Dieterle reportedly hated the pace of Warners films and, left to his own devices, would happily crank out slowies like 6 HOURS TO LIVE, which is only 72 mins but feels like it’s in real time. The strange part is that when Jack Warner cracked the whip, Dieterle went just about faster than anyone else. The actors get splashed with his sweat. FROM HQ goes like a rocket, with the same amount of smoke, noise, sparks and sputtering.

Philo Facts

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by dcairns

Warren William only made two Philo Vance movies, and he made them six years apart, which is not as surprising as the fact that there are so damn many PV movies. He’s a pretty tedious character — Sherlock Holmes without the interesting qualities, and without a Watson to place his inhuman intellect in relief. Also he, in the words of Ogden Nash, “…needs a kick in the pance.”

But the WW duo are of some interest. Partnering him with Gracie Allen is certainly an unusual idea: S.S. Van Dyne was a fan of the comic, and wrote her into a book, and she then consented to play herself. WW’s reactions to Allen’s “pretzel logic” are marvelous. He doesn’t do a full double-take, just a sort of irritated hesitation of bafflement. He knows he’s Philo Vance. He knows this is a Philo Vance movie. So what is this idiot woman doing making absurd statements and calling him “Fido”? He’s finally found a mystery he can’t solve.

The earlier film, THE DRAGON MURDER CASE amused me because the story of a guy who dives into a swimming pool but doesn’t come back out is a good sort of inversion of a locked room mystery, and because the suggestion that a dragon might be responsible is a pretty delightful red herring to throw in Fido’s path.

The natural pool is called “the dragon pool” after a Native American tradition, and one character has a bunch of books and articles about sea monsters, including “Nessie” — now, KING KONG had just been released and interest in the Loch Ness monster flared up at this time — cynics might say Willis O’Brien’s man-eating lake dinosaur was more of an influence on the reported sighting than any actual Scottish plesiosaurus.

Of course the dragon footprints found in the mud when they drain the pool are in fact — SPOILER ALERT —

— something else entirely.

Which led me to an odd connection. Yves Le Prieur was a prolific French inventor — among other things, he was the first person to take off in a glider from Japanese soil (a fairly niche record to hold) and he invented a plane-mounted rocket launcher for taking down German observation balloons in WWII. Remarkable guy.

Two of his big deals were scuba diving — he’s the one who got the idea to connect the re-breather mask to oxygen tanks worn on the back, rather than to a surface air pump — and the translux screen, which greatly improved the brightness of image possible in rear projection. He gave that invention to the world for free.

In the early thirties he accompanied producer Bernard Natan on his tour of American film production centres, and around this time rear projection became much more common. So maybe his trip made KING KONG possible.

And so THE DRAGON MURDER CASE could be said to be inspired by KING KONG which is inspired by Yves Le Prieur’s working holiday. If the “dragon” were actually a scuba diver, the poetic connection would be really satisfying, but sadly this is not the case. He wears a “shallow-water diving suit–the kind largely used in pearl fishing” says the source novel. This is regrettable, but it leads to a lovely image when the suit is discovered hidden in the family crypt ~

Is the lovely image worth the loss of the lovely scuba-Kong connection? Oh, I suppose maybe it is.

The other point I’d make is that Vance is so boring, the decision to turn the Perry Mason adaptations into WACKY COMEDIES, playing to WW’s sense of fun, is probably a direct result of DRAGON. And, more regrettably, the egregious SATAN MET A LADY is also a consequence.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Hazard Lights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2020 by dcairns

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Youtube. I was looking for one thing and found another. You know how it is.

Having enjoyed a stimulating Warren William Weekened double feature with the Starving Lion as Philo Vance in THE DRAGON MURDER CASE and THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (no, really) I was searching for glimpses of either of WW’s silent movie appearances, in which he played as Warren Krech, an impossible name for a leading man, you would have thought.

pearl

It turned out that the second of these, PLUNDER (1923) was Pearl White’s last adventure serial. I did manage to track down an extract, but White was such an independent heroine that long stretches are Krechless.

That led me on to my longstanding search for THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, which appears in Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies and therefore must be viewed. I found a few clips but not what I was looking for. But then ~

At 6.30 we can see something often described as a myth: a serious melodrama featuring a woman tied up on a railway track. Since the earlier myth was that silent films were full of such contrived scenarios, it was a relief to be able to say that the only actual example was Gloria Swanson and the Sennett team spoofing the practice in TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE.

teddy

But then, what were they spoofing? It didn’t seem an obvious activity to have presented on the stage. You could tie someone to some fake tracks, but the impossibility of a locomotive actual trundling onstage to kill the captive would surely diminish the suspense.

helen

Helen Holmes, railway adventure-girl, in THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, seems to provide the spark, though it’s notable that she’s tied up on the tracks rather than tied TO the tracks as later cliché would have it, and she rescues herself. The world’s collective faulty memory portrays the serial heroines as in constant need of salvation by brawny he-man types, and so we get the Penelope Pittstop of cartoon infamy, but in fact the followers of Pearl White were as self-sufficient as any Flash Rogers or Buck Gordon.

As for my original Starving Lion hunt, the only image I turned up of a silent WW is a poster for THE TOWN THAT FORGOT GOD, a William Fox production in which the young Krech can be seen on the upper left, a ghastly apparition, with his hair mussed in a way which vividly recalls his appearance in, of all things, THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (Gracie has just thrown a handbag at his head).

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