Archive for William Wyler

Shorthand

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by dcairns

Got two preview discs from Masters of Cinema’s first EARLY UNIVERSAL set — possibly a must! William Wyler’s THE SHAKEDOWN (1929) was the only film known to me, and certainly he’s the best-known director of the bunch. I reviewed the movie a decade or so ago when I had a bootleg with attractive Italian intertitles. Now the film, which is excellent, looks MUCH nicer.

But I want to talk a bit about SHIELD OF HONOR (1927), also in the set, the first film I’ve seen directed by Emory Johnson, and a very fine job. I’ll have to see what else I can locate by this guy. The main cast was largely unknown to me but key supporting floozy Thelma Todd is introduced with a rushing track-in and a suggestive intertitle.

Now, I ask you, was it REALLY necessary to split the word “dictation” so the first syllable stands alone?

The movie begins with a gushing tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of the police force, which I’m afraid I wasn’t ideally conditioned to appreciate as I’ve been listening avidly to Five to Four, “a podcast about how much the Supreme Court sucks,” which includes numerous accounts of truly egregious police misconduct. And, to be honest, this is a fairly routine cop show in essence. But delivered with a lot of panache and groovy 1927 production values including great miniature shots. The hero is a FLYING COP (in an aeroplane), giving the FX department a work-out — I think there are more special effects shots than actual flying ones by a factor of ten to one.

Spielbergian!

Johnson’s last film as director (he had an acting career that continued in small roles until the forties) is on YouTube but I haven’t checked it out yet. The title, THE PHANTOM EXPRESS, is enticing.

Our Secret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by dcairns

I promised to update you on Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson. Reader, I finished it. It’s a really great behind-the-scenes book, and it doesn’t matter that the film it deals with is fairly obscure. Anderson is a genial host — which isn’t like him, I know — taking us through the development, pre-production and filming of Thorold Dickinson’s film, but isn’t able to cover all the postproduction. This means he misses Dickinson filming Audrey Hepburn’s audition for ROMAN HOLIDAY, the movie which turned her into a star. Dickinson, at RH director William Wyler’s suggestion, interviewed Audrey after she’d finished the acting part, and it was her natural charm when chatting to her former director that got her the big break.

But Anderson DOES cover her audition for SECRET PEOPLE, in which she has a much smaller role, playing Valentina Cortese’s sister, Nora…

February 23rd. Audrey Hepburn’s test. After the first run-through people start eyeing each other meaningfully: she has the quality all right. After another rehearsal it almost seems a waste of time to shoot the test.

February 26th. Audrey Hepburn is Nora.

Here’s the extant bit of the later ROMAN HOLIDAY test:

One thing I was hoping to find out was the story behind the film’s most striking moment, imho. It’s the main thing I wrote about here when I first watched the film. A key event in the film is skipped over in its chronology, and then covered in a flashback. Dickinson does something really extraordinary here: he starts behind Cortese, then pans with her as she crosses the small room she’s in, describing the incident we missed. But as she passes the camera, she steps INTO the events she’s describing. Her back is now to us again, and her voices continues as she moves into the flashback, now part of the scene, her dialogue now a voice-over.

This is so far outside the Overton window of what was stylistically acceptable in a fifties film, in conservative Britain of all places, that it’s amazing Dickinson could get away with such an avant-garde move at Ealing. Admittedly, there are earlier examples of filmmakers traveling into flashback without the aid of a cut or dissolve. In CARAVAN, Erik Charrell, a king of the long take, pans in and out of a short flashback scene. I imagine Max Ophuls may have noticed this, because much later he pulled similar stunts in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D… and LA RONDE, which may be what gave Dickinson the idea. But then there IS a British example, though not as recent: Michael Powell cranes into the past, traveling forty years in a single, somewhat unsteady glide over a swimbath in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Unfortunately, Anderson is silent on the development of Dickinson’s version of this idea — perhaps Dickinson protected his experiment by talking about it as little as possible. Once it turned up in the rushes, undoing it would be expensive.

However, there is a clue in Anderson’s book. Modestly budgeted, SECRET PEOPLE was forced to compromise several times on its use of locations. At the start of prep, shooting was planned for Paris and Dublin, and this got scaled back progressively for financial reasons until it no longer made sense to travel outside London at all. And the garden party that Cortese walks into was originally supposed to be a park location. This meant being weather-dependent and for various reasons pressure was brought to bear to shoot it in the studio. When Dickinson finally relented, he realised a short while later that a park was unlikely to look convincing and a garden party at some upscale residence would be much more containable, you could have walls on two sides, and you could save money AND get a result with more veracity.

I think Dickinson was probably, at first, disappointed at losing a location shoot, and then tried to find a way to make the studio set cinematically better and more exciting than the original plan, to get over his disappointment. Obviously, panning from a character’s flat into a geographically unconnected garden party in an unbroken take was the sort of trick that wouldn’t have been possible if filming in a park. What I’d love to know is what the joiners thought of the demand to create a composite set. I bet they were super into it, though.

Recalliery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2021 by dcairns

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.