Archive for William Powell

The Sunday Intertitle: Various Kinds of Eggs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by dcairns


Lots of entertaining intertitles in SPECIAL DELIVERY, but this was my favourite. Madge is played by the unfortunately-named Jobyna Ralston, who keeps showing up at Shadowplay, like some kind of crazy stalker woman. The first egg we see her serving is Paramount contract player William Powell, back when he was playing villains. WP only really became a leading man when sound came in and his mellifluous voice revealed his latent charm — one forgets totally that he has a kind of weaselly face. So of course in silents he was typically cast as a weasel — Sternberg cast him as a Sternberg type film director, which is to say a weasel (THE LAST COMMAND), and Gregory La Cava slid him into the role of a villainous bootlegger (FEEL MY PULSE) — in that one he has a scene cussing out Bebe Daniels and just the way he uses his face makes it abundantly clear that he’s using the vilest terms, though if I were a better lipreader I’d probably discover he was really asking what Bebe fancies for lunch.


SPECIAL DELIVERY (1927) stars Eddie Cantor, better known for talkies where he could sing, and is directed by William B. Goodrich — Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle hiding out under an assumed name, officially banned from appearing onscreen himself. Maybe Arbuckle behind the camera explains why Cantor at times resembles Buster Keaton when he played an ape in THE PLAYHOUSE. He sure isn’t particularly winning — in talkies he stands a better chance just because he’s so bizarre, and because he can put over a song with that unlikely voice of his.

There are plenty of good gags, though, as when a lovesick Cantor absently tucks his pancake into his collar and carves up his napkin. He does need doubling whenever the roughhouse stuff gets going, which is a mark against him.


Eddie plays an operative for the post office secret service (no, me neither). Also appearing, briefly, is a minute person rejoicing in the name of Tiny Doll, who turns out to be a member of the celebrated showbiz Doll family, which is to say she’s the sister of Harry Earles from FREAKS. She plays an outsize baby. There is definitely a family resemblance, and it goes deeper than being around three foot high. They both could play slightly gigantic babies. Eddie Cantor couldn’t do that. In ROMAN SCANDALS, when he gets shrunk in a steambath, he has to be doubled by Billy Barty.

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns


Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.

The Sunday Intertitle: Pulse-Pounding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2012 by dcairns

While my closing night party hangover abates, I’ll fulfill my weekly intertitular obligations by reproducing what I wrote for the Film Festival’s Gregory La Cava retrospective screening of FEEL MY PULSE. It would be nice to think my blurb helped fill Cinema 3 for the screening of a rare private collector’s print with live piano accompaniment by Forrester Pike — but then I’d have to take responsibility for my blurb putting people off GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE —

Gregory La Cava’s background as a cartoonist was never more evident than in this riotous romantic comedy – not even in his broad WC Fields vehicles. The first image under the titles is an animation of a doctor applying the stethoscope to a disembodied, but vigorously beating heart, but some of the later live-action is even more cartoony.

Bebe Daniels, top comedienne of the twenties and thirties (and later a beloved radio and TV star in the UK) plays a dotty heiress raised by doctors in a sterile environment, becoming a complete hypochondriac. But when she accidentally takes a rest cure in a “sanatorium” that’s really a bootleggers’ den, the stage is set for slapstick, romance, danger, and a miracle cure.

Handsome Richard Arlen fulfils heart-throb duties, and William Powell, a few years before his fame as a suave comic lead in The Thin Man, is the leader of the bootleggers, in a sly and seedy comic performance of laid back stubbly malevolence that capitalizes on his underused rodental qualities.

In an age of daredevil stunts and vigorous knockabout, Daniels milks considerable comic value from a character for whom a short walk represents life-threatening exertion. That she actually enjoys robust good health is obvious to everyone except herself and her doctors.

A lot of the humour is carried by the witty intertitles, along with knowing performances by the stars and a rogue’s gallery of plug-uglies, but La Cava’s meticulous framing subtly enhances the humour of every moment. His deadpan compositions simply invite funny things to happen within them – except during a brief interlude of film noir, when the gloves come off, the lights go out, and the bad guys start acting genuinely bad…

The middle section, where the bootleggers pretend to be nervous wreck sanatorium inmates, is fine farce, but the chaotic finish, a full-scale gang war, is among the most frenetic action sequences in Hollywood comedy history. Daniels’ flailing, long-legged movement when she finally abandons her invalid lifestyle is all the more exhilarating and hilarious for having been suppressed so long, and inventive gags follow so fast upon each others’ heels as to leave the viewer gasping with laughter, astonishment and sheer breathlessness.

Quite a different kind of screen comedy than Chaplin or Keaton’s, Feel My Pulse exemplifies a tradition of slapstick that uses romantic leads rather than clowns, and which is all-too rarely revived or discussed today. The opportunity to enjoy it on the big screen with an audience should not be missed.