Archive for William Cameron Menzies

Sparring Filchers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2021 by dcairns

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG is only just a pre-code, but it’s a pre-code to the core, dealing as it does with a couple of competing jewel thieves. The title character is played by Gertrude Michael with a good deal of skill and charisma — the plot requires her to assume fake identities and GM is fully up to the task of putting on a Garbo voice and so on. Her romantic partner / competitor, Paul Cavanagh, is blander, but still capable. Best of all, Sophie has a long-suffering sidekick played by Alison Skipworth, who is always good value.

Co-directed by Ralph Murphy and William Cameron Menzies under what circumstances I know not — need to get the Menzies bio! — this looks cheap but is crammed with improbable twists and moves at a good lick. When circumstances force our heroine to flee across rooftops in just her undies, she drops through a skylight and lands in the dressing room of a fashion show, surrounded by other women in their undies. The coincidence is ridiculous but the movie wins points for coming up with some kind of a solution, and for showing us lots of women in their undies (apparently Ann Sheridan is in there somewhere, paying the bills while losing her Texas accent).

We don’t get any of Menzies’ more vertiginous compositions: the main stylistic device is a quick pan in wide shot from one half of the set to the other, a way of adding verve while saving time.

I realise I’ve seen the star in multiple films but she was always in the background of someone like Mae West, whom you can’t look away from and who didn’t give anyone else good lines. Away from that kind of gravitational pull, she’s zesty and appealing.

There was an attempt to spin Sophie into a series, but the code had kicked in so she couldn’t steal any jewels, which must have taken some of the fun out. Also, they couldn’t tempt Skipworth back.

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG stars Calpurnia; Lord Penrose; Sir Joseph Whemple; Miss Mabel Jellyman; Lord Basil Epping; Apartment Thug (uncredited); Mr. Throstle; Prof. Summerlee; and Randy Monaghan.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.


This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?


And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.

Film Artist

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , on August 30, 2018 by dcairns

William Cameron Menzies sketch for GONE WITH THE WIND.

Since The Believer has put its back issues online, you can read my big piece on Menzies HERE.

I’m baffled by the title, but as I recall, I failed to think up anything better so I can’t complain.