Archive for Zasu Pitts

Monkey with a Movie Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by dcairns

I’m not used to days that have CLIMAXES — Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN in the Piazza Maggiore with a full orchestral accompaniment was certainly one.

Mind you, the day began with OVER THE HILL, a simply brilliant Henry King drama from 1931 which showcases Fox’s mobile camera style and James Dunn’s performing. It’s a bit like MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW only with the worst son receiving a punitive ass-kicking at the end.

Dunn turned up again in HELLO, SISTER! a weird Fox romance, begun by Von Stroheim (Zasu Pitts co-stars) but finished by Edwin Burke and maybe Alan Crosland, Raoul Walsh and Alfred “I’ll finish it” Werker. The tonal shifts, which could induce whiplash in a less hardy reviewer, may be the result of surviving Stroheim footage. Romcom, slapstick, rape and an exploding tenement — half the plot and cast seem to be recycled from Borzage’s BAD GIRL. Enjoyed the mess thoroughly.

SURRENDER! was more coherent but duller. William K. Howard’s long tracking shots are among the best Fox ever had, but this was a boring story with a snoozy cast. Warner Baxter, Leila Hyams. Ralph Bellamy is somewhat amusing as a disfigured war veteran, half his face concealed beneath a black mask.

I’d been missing the Eduardo de Filippo season so was glad to catch FILUMENA MARTURANO, the 1951 original of MARRIAGE – ITALIAN STYLE. Slightly less funny than the celebrated remake, but even more emotional, thanks to Filippo and his co-star Titina de Filippo. Talented family. Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

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William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

Bad Cinephile

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by dcairns

I did get a lot watched on Monday at Il Cinema Ritrovato.

On Sunday there had been a discussion about whether to try the 1917 CALIGULA, since it partially overlapped a later screening I wanted to see, and a friend who shall remain nameless suggested just watching a bit. “You don’t need to see how it turns out,” he suggested. To another friend who had an overlap at the opposite end, he suggested, “You don’t need to see the beginning. What are you going to miss? The horse? You won’t miss the horse.” “Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that we treat CALIGULA like an installation?” But that is sort of what Monday felt like.

(In the event, CALIGULA was sold out to enthusiastic orgiasts before we got back from lunch.)

The day began with two by William K. Howard and one by Tod Browning, at the Cinema Jolly, which meant I could just take my seat and soak up three pre-code super-productions in as many hours. THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE was zippy (Lilian Bond, in her plummiest accent: “I’m going to show him how a warm momma gets hot!” Zasu Pitts: “I like horses, in a nice way of course.”), with rapid-fire patter and frequent whip pans, used to transport us across town, across a room, of back into flashback and out again. TRANSATLANTIC combined swank melodrama and crime with spectacular sets and camera moves. OUTSIDE THE LAW, the second film Tod Browning made under that title, had a strong story but, being a 1930 Browning, lacked pace. “Tod the Plod,” Andrew Moor Charlie Cockey called him. But it did have the bottomless man illusion, and a guest freak in the form of John George from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS, in the role of Humpy the hunchback. I’m a John George completist so this made me happy. This is likely also the first film in which Edward G. Robinson says “See?” a lot, as a threat.

Then I went to THE TECHNICAL REFERENCE COLLECTION SHOW after lunch — we saw Technicolor reels from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY… quite a range. HERCULES AND THE SLAVE GIRLS featured the line “This day is dedicated to Uranus.” Reg Park didn’t look as pleased as you might hope. Each reel ended JUST as we were getting snared by the narrative, so it was a frustrating as well as beautiful experience.

But these extracts set me off on a regrettable pattern of incompletion. I went to a programme of Russian fragments and saw the surviving reel of KULISY EKRANI (BEHIND THE SCREEN) from 1917, which stars Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star, in the challenging role of Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star. But the fictional version has lost an arm. It was good to see a younger Ivan, though he looked older than in KEAN. Other than that, I couldn’t tell much.

I’ve been seeing the Helmut Kautner films religiously because Olaf Moller told me to, and he’s bigger than me. But the Mosjoukine fragment made me late for EPILOG – DAS GEHEIMNIS DER ORPLID and it was standing room only at the back. I stayed through the early subjective camera stuff, then the soft-titles disappeared just as Fritz Kortner showed up. I slipped away quietly —

— and into KEAN, where I wanted to see the new restorations tinting and toning, which was indeed lovely. But three hours of Mosjoukine seemed rather ambitious after five and a half hours in the dark, so I slipped silently off to TWO MONKS, the biggest challenge to wakefulness yet.

This early thirties Mexican melodrama has stunning sets, interesting camera moves and cutting, beautiful lighting and some Gothic horror hallucinations which are very striking, but it’s also slow to develop and tells a slightly dull story TWICE. So I did nod off a bit and found myself dreaming more exciting plot developments, which sadly were knocked out of my head by the real story when I awoke.

Then I dined with Neil McGlone and his lovely wife Justine, and hit the Piazza Maggiore, which proved to be ram-packed — no seats, so I sat on the warm stone and saw the prelude to Gance’s LA ROUE with Arthur Honegger’s newly discovered orchestral score played live for the first time in, what, ninety years? That was something. But it was another fragment. And I was too tired to watch more than ten mins of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN afterwards.

A day in pieces. Leaving me feeling the same way, but happy.