Archive for West of Zanzibar

The Sunday Intertitle: Lust in the Dust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by dcairns

One of Bologna’s discoveries this year was Mary Nolan, who loped limply through two rather stiff early talkies, Tod “the plod” Browning’s OUTSIDE THE LAW and YOUNG DESIRE. While everybody in those films apart from snarling Eddie Robinson essays the sluggish performance style of the period, all tipsy enunciation and medicated pauses, Nolan MAKES THIS WORK. I had to see more.

I’d seen more already — Nolan is excellent in WEST OF ZANZIBAR, in which Tod does not plod, but that film is so crowded with eye-popping incident and performance that she can’t emerge pre-eminent. DESERT NIGHTS, on the other hand, is just an hour of Nolan, John Gilbert and Ernest Torrence looking at each other, surrounded by miles of nothingness. Fortunately for us, all three performers are at the top of their game, and the chemistry between them is sulphurous and sizzling.

It’s a tale of suspense and survival: diamond thieves Torrence and Nolan abduct Gilbert along with a flask of gems, and then get stranded in the Kalahari. From that point on, talented journeyman director William Nigh lets intense close-ups dominate, until you can practically feel the stubble sprouting from the men’s chins. Nolan is excused stubble, but boldly allows herself to become shiny, bedraggled and desperate. Her usual louche and limpid demeanor alternates with bursts of rather shocking savagery, and the romance with Gilbert blossoms while he’s languishing in fly-blown bondage.

The plot really isn’t much — to let romance bloom, Nolan’s bad girl is allowed an unearned redemption. Masquerading as “Lady Diana Stonehill” when we first meet her, she’s never even supplied with a true name, just “Baby.” The team of writers employed to cobble this together were being kind of lazy. But the film blazes, thanks to Gilbert’s crisp toughness (“You know me, anything in a pith helmet,” ~ THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO), Nolan’s sultry, hopeless beauty (read her bio if you want to have a cry) and the unusual sight of Torrence underplaying (he’s still massive).

Film researcher/detective Lenny does an excellent Torrence impersonation. It’ll startle you!

Advertisements

The Monday Intertitle: Low Amperage Rampage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 30, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h56m25s142

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h58m12s178

WHERE EAST IS EAST — well, isn’t that everywhere? Despite its mystifying title, this is less perplexing than many Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations, being a fairly conventional melodrama in which Chaney, as scar-faced big-game hunter “Tiger” Haynes, tries to protect his beloved daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez) from her debauched mother Estelle Taylor.

At the climax, a gorilla runs amok, as it so often does in Browning pictures (see also THE UNHOLY THREE) — this one being set in Malaysia, the presence of the great ape is particularly unmotivated, though it should be noted that the excuse used in the earlier film is that Chaney is running a pet shop. And pet shops always have a gorilla or two on hand, don’t they? Yes they do. They keep them round the back so they don’t scare the budgies.

The movie is a soundie, so we get a few gimmicky bits of crowd noise, but this is a weak sister to WEST OF ZANZIBAR, which is grittier, darker and dirtier in every way. It feels like the censor has intervened to prevent the gorilla action getting too intense, which means the whole climax is offscreen, a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. This only really feels like a Browning picture in the queasy intimations of incest and perversity, which are kept low-key.

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h56m11s250

Also — rare use of early zoom lens — untranslated intertitles (anyone here read Malay? Or Chinese, possibly? Or maybe it’s just made-up squiggles from the MGM titles department?) — and the classic Browning device (featured in half his oeuvre, it seems) of an exotic animal appearing somewhere it clearly doesn’t belong. I love the opossum and armadillos of DRACULA, and here we have an extremely rare Malayan gorilla.

This vengeful female ape, Rangha, is played by one Richard Neill, in drag I guess you could call it, and is the most nearly spherical fake ape I’ve ever seen, Neill seems to have been playing leading roles circa 1910 (Hefty in THE ROMANCE OF HEFTY BURKE) and only declined to simian roles in the twenties, but was able to maintain some kind of fringe relationship to showbiz up until 1959, mainly playing humans. He died in 1971. “And leave showbiz?”

vlcsnap-2013-09-29-18h57m07s48

Laughing on the Outside

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2010 by dcairns

The late Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre, science fiction author and human enigma, died by his own hand last month. To give you an idea of his mysterious character, I should mention that nobody seems to know his real name (he took the name Gwynplaine from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, or from Paul Leni’s film) or biographical details. The story he gives below, sometimes augmented with a claim to have webbed fingers and three ex-wives, gives you some idea of the doubt his life story encourages. All that’s known for certain is that his overstuffed Brooklyn apartment was set fire to, apparently by the man himself, and his body lies unclaimed.

One account which has sprung up has FGM jogging naked around his block, swathed in nitrate stock (attempting to stop its decomposition with his body sweat), resulting in his spontaneous human combustion when he got home (meeting a homeless man in the street he is supposed to have said, “They’re weeping, just like me.”) I strongly suspect that this is a poetic addition to the MacIntyre legend, continuing his mythomaniac lifestyle choice into the beyond.

Among FGM’s fictional activities was a project to review nearly every lost film on the IMDb, using historical research and vague claims of mysterious contacts with hidden film archives to shore up credence. The author also saw many real, surviving rare films, and used reviews of these to add plausibility to his lost film reviews. Incidentally, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED is described in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies as a lost film — it turned up, fortunately, after the book was published. Reading of its missing status as a child gave me a chill, and prompted a lifelong fascinating with the rogue fragments of film history still lurking undiscovered or lost to time.

Anyway, here’s the first of FGM’s emails to me, written after I asked him about an obsure (but not lost) William Wyler movie.

Greetings to David Cairns from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, whom you contacted about William Wyler’s film ‘A House Divided’. When I saw the name ‘Cairns’ in my email box, I thought I was getting an email from someone in Queensland, Australia. I used to live in a Queensland town called Cairns, where the chief attraction is the Sexchange Hotel. This is an hotel in the Australian sense of the term — an outback pub/trading post/meeting place — that was originally cried the Exchange Hotel, only some clever-clot climbed onto the roof and added an ‘S’. This proved to be good for business, and the Sexchange Hotel has been open for business ever since.

‘A House Divided’ is a very impressive film: a fine example of Wyler’s direction as well as Walter Huston’s acting. The early scenes strongly reminded me of several Lon Chaney films — the sort of scenario in which Chaney usually appeared, not the very few freak-show stories for which he’s remembered — so when Huston’s character became crippled in exactly the same manner as Chaney’s character in ‘West of Zanzibar’, I was gobsmacked. As I mentioned in my review, Huston had played Chaney’s ‘West of Zanzibar’ role before and after Chaney did it. (In the stage play ‘Kongo’ and the sound-film remake.)

Since this conversation, I’ve obtained a copy of the film and even watched it this week. Everything FGM says is true, but he neglects to mention the film’s most striking quality: Douglass Montgomery and Helen Chandler as the world’s most perfectly matched screen couple.

I’ve seen ‘A House Divided’ only once: in 2002 (the centenary of Wyler’s birth), Film Forum in New York City scheduled a Wyler retrospective, at which ‘A House Divided’ was shown for one day only, in a double feature with ‘Tom Brown of Culver’. An acquaintance of mine, Bob Lipton, attended the same screening that I attended, and he reviewed this film for IMDb a month earlier than I did.

The programmer at Film Forum is named Bruce Goldstein. (We’ve chatted a few times, and he knows me by face, but he probably won’t remember my name so there’s no point your mentioning me.) I have no specific contact information for him. He probably obtained his print of ‘A House Divided’ from a film archive on a rental basis.

Another person whom you might contact is Arne Andersen, and in this case you are welcome to mention my name. Three people have reviewed ‘A House Divided’ for IMDb: myself and Bob Lipton after attending the same screening, and Arne Andersen. Arne and I correspond via email: he told me that he saw ‘A House Divided’ earlier this year — not at the Film Forum screening — so he would know a source that I do not. However, I can’t guarantee that his source will make prints available to individual viewers.

Good luck! William Wyler is a sorely underrated director, and ‘A House Divided’ deserves to be much better known!

Thank you, David, for reading my IMDb reviews. I am, of course, *not* an employee of IMDb, and they don’t pay me for my reviews. I’m a full-time journalist and novelist. If you log onto http://www.amazon.com and go to their Books section, then key a search for my by-line “F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre”, you’ll see the covers of two books that I wrote and illustrated. One of these is my Victorian horror/romance novel ‘The Woman Between the Worlds’, featuring Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, Arthur Machen, Sir William Crookes and several other eminent Victorians united to aid an invisible she-alien during an invasion of London by alien shape-changers. This novel got rave reviews from Harlan Ellison on his Stateside cable-tv show. I’m also the author and illustrator of a humour anthology which was praised by Ray Bradbury and other authors: ‘MacIntyre’s Improbable Bestiary’, likewise available on Amazon, which contains some original material about Lon Chaney and silent films.

To whet your appetite, here’s the cover (my artwork and typography) of my anthology:

Link.

Feel free to contact me on any subject that interests you, David.

Straight on till mourning,

Fergus (F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre)

In a somewhat whimsical mood, I emailed Mr MacIntyre last week, saying I hoped he wasn’t dead, but the email bounced back: account closed.