Archive for William Powell

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.

Louise Brooks Plays with the Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2009 by dcairns


Louise Brooks pictures seem to be quite popular. Here’s one from

Hope to get my hands on THE CANARY MURDER CASE soon. A Paramount silent Philo Vance murder mystery with William Powell as the Great Detective, it was sonorized while Louise was off in Europe, I think. Anyhow, she refused to have anything to do with the sound version, so they used another actress’s voice. And this may have started the story that her voice was no good — that, and her absence in Europe for a year or two, basically killed her Hollywood career.

You can hear her talk in the B-western OVERLAND RAIDERS, with John Wayne, and in interviews conducted years later. Nothing wrong with her voice.

UPDATE: grabbed THE CANARY MURDER CASE, and a very odd bird it is. William Powell is Philo Vance, of course, the right man in the right role (although a bit too B-movie for Powell’s aspirations, it seems. There’s at least one Basil Rathbone Vance movie, which is going to seem odd: Rathbone playing a different detective

What’s peculiar about TCMC is the way they’ve “sonorized” it, preserving all the expensive wide shots from the silent shoot, even though they move at the wrong frame rate. If you’ve seen Howard Hughes’ HELL’S ANGELS you’ve already seen this kind of thing in action. As in HA, a bit of dubbing has also occurred, but it basically centres on Louise’s character, who speaks mainly with her back to the camera, or over other people’s closeups (a double was used, extremely effective, for many of the rear views). Then we cut to a beautiful closeup of her as soon as she’s finished speaking. It’s all done with the maximum of craftiness, making the best of a bad job, but it’s goofy and demented rather than convincing. The voice they’ve chosen is pretty horrible, but suits the trashy showgirl character, I guess. I haven’t seen this kind of counterintuitive cutting elsewhere save for a couple of the more tortuous moments in Welles’s OTHELLO (moments of weird cutting justified by the synchronisation problems, and rendered strangely more glaring in the restored, fully sunk-up version).

In short: I like it! This kind of B-thriller requires, in no particular order:

1) A charismatic leading player. Check.

2) Plot, and lots of it. Check.

3) Some kind of peculiar quirk, either intentional or accidental. (The PERRY MASON films have all kinds of these, from gaping plot holes to ill-advised tonal shifts to the way they keep shuffling the Warners players around: you get different actors playing the same role, and the same actors playing different roles. Even Perry himself changes, twice. Watch three back to back and it’s literally dreamlike.) And that’s where the panicked last-minute soundtracking really scores.


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