Archive for William Dieterle

McHugh Two

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 13, 2021 by dcairns

Over at The Chiseler, an old piece on character actor Frank McHugh (lovingly illustrated by Tony Millionaire) has been promoted to the front page, so to celebrate I wrote another, inspired by a recent re-viewing of the Reinhardt-Dieterle MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

I’m always excited by quixotic attempts to reinvent the science of acting, which everyone in that film is involved in, but even more exciting is that McHugh invents a method of his own, distinct from the rest…

Here.

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

Forbidden Divas: Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

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

Yesterday’s piece from Chris Schneider malfunctioned slightly going into WordPress and lost a couple of paragraphs. They’re restored now. Today’s piece is also from a regular Guest Shadowplayer, David Melville Wingrove, who takes us through Loretta Young’s stations of the cross in William Dieterle’s THE ACCUSED.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

or

Confessions of a Psychothymiac Cutie

“You hit me right in my inferiority complex.”

  • Robert Cummings to Loretta Young, The Accused

When first we see Loretta Young in The Accused (1949) she looks as if she’s impersonating Humphrey Bogart. A huge slouching fedora hat hangs low over her beautiful face; a vast baggy trench-coat envelops her dainty ballerina’s physique. She is staggering away slowly, haltingly, from the scene of a killing. It is a crime where she was both perpetrator and victim. A cute but undeniably psychotic young man has tried to rape her in his car. Her instinctive and natural response was to grab a handy metal object and bludgeon him to death. Then she got a bucket, filled his lungs with water and sent his corpse hurtling over a cliff and down to the sea and rocks below.

There is crime passionel and there is cool premeditated murder. This one is both. What makes it worse is the fact Loretta knows that. She is Doctor Wilma Tuttle, a rising professor of psychology at a small but prestigious California college. Not many Hollywood stars can play an academic convincingly and Loretta is one of those very few. (Just try to imagine Joan Crawford in the role. Or rather, do yourself a favour and don’t.) Her looks here are strictly Movie Star Frump. Stark and mannishly tailored suits, hair wound so tightly in a bun that it looks like an excrescence of her skull. But she still has those delicate cheekbones, those haunting and luminous eyes. When she takes a jittery puff on a cigarette or anxiously grasps the receiver of a telephone, we are riveted by her exquisitely long and sinuous fingers.

But then Loretta Young was always famed for her contradictions. Tales abounded of both her fierce Roman Catholic piety and her voracious appetite for sexual adventure. “Every time Loretta sins she builds a church,” went the joke. “That’s why there are so many churches in Hollywood.” In the 30s she gave birth in secret to an illegitimate child by her co-star Clark Gable and then made a public show of ‘adopting’ this poor motherless girl. When the child grew up to have freakishly large ears, she challenged her mother as to why she had never told her the truth. “How could I?” replied the star. “You are a walking mortal sin.” Both on and off screen, Loretta Young played the image of a perfect lady. But in her most effective movie roles, that image is seldom if ever the full story.

Like many academic high-flyers, Doctor Tuttle is somewhat less than sophisticated outside her chosen and desperately narrow field of expertise. Hailing originally from Kansas, she has a childlike fear of the ocean and has no idea what an abalone is until someone explains it to her. That someone just happens to be a handsome but unruly male student who flirts with her blatantly in class. The professor is in no way blind to his appeal. In fact, his appeal is spelled out hilariously by the fact that the actor who plays him is called Douglas Dick. Undeniably easy on the eye – and perhaps not wholly without talent – this actor was hampered by more than his impossible name. He seemed unable to appear in any movie without being murdered in the first act. His other role of note was as the victim of the gay killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

Once his professor has unwittingly killed him, her chief concern is how to cover up the crime. In a decision only a movie star would make, she goes out and buys a new and far more stylish wardrobe and lets her hair tumble loose about her shoulders in long and luxuriant curls. That is to make sure that no witnesses (if there were any) will ever to connect her with the killing but also to make sure that Loretta Young’s adoring fans get their money’s worth in terms of glamour. Her best or, at least, her most eye-catching outfit is a classic Edith Head atrocity. A sharply tailored black suit with white gloves, a white lace collar and twin sprays of white lilac on either side of her black hat. The psychology in The Accused is necessarily Freudian in tone. Hence it is imperative that our heroine be visibly torn between poles of Light and Dark.

Her incipient schizophrenia carries over into every aspect of the movie. Not one but two conflicting love interests seem to materialise out of nowhere. Robert Cummings is a dashing lawyer who was the dead boy’s legal guardian. Wendell Corey is a tenacious cop who investigates the case. The tailoring of their suits is alarmingly alike; the styling of their hair is all but identical. Of course, Cummings is handsome and Corey is not but apart from that they might be identical twins. They can be slotted neatly into the Freudian grooves of Eros and Thanatos. One has the power to seduce our sexually uptight heroine and, eventually, to screw her senseless. The other has the power to send her (however unwillingly) to the electric chair. In case you think this is an accident, please note the director is the veteran German Expressionist William Dieterle. Note also that Expressionism did not die. It just moved to California where the light was better.

It seems distinctly cruel when Cummings drags Loretta to her first boxing match. Predictably, the young man being pummelled into unconsciousness is a dead ringer for the boy she has but lately beaten to death. (Dieterle even superimposes one actor’s face over the other, just in case anyone in the audience has stepped out for popcorn and might otherwise miss the point.) This barbaric spectacle reduces her to an ever-so-ladylike fit of the vapours. We know it cannot be long until The Truth comes out. Her young victim describes his killer, oops, sorry, professor in his end of term exam as ‘a psychothymiac cutie.’ I confess I have no idea what a psychothymiac is but I do think Loretta plays one superbly. It is critical cliché that nobody can play a bad girl like a good girl and nobody can play a good girl like a bad one. Unless you are Loretta Young, in which case it is anybody’s guess.

David Melville