November 15, 2011

dieterle watch

The previously hazy career of William Dieterle is slowly being brought into focus, as the Warner Archive and repertory screenings grant incrementally wider access to this neglected German-American filmmaker. The Archive has just released Fashions of 1934 (’34) and Juarez (1939), while the 92Y Tribeca recently screened a gorgeous new print of Love Letters (1945, scheduled to air on Jan. 21st at 10PM on TCM). The Warner Archive discs display opposite poles of his career, the dynamic fantasist and the staid historical dramatist, while the hallucinatory Love Letters lies somewhere in between.

Fashions of 1934 reunites Dieterle with William Powell, whom he had worked with two years earlier on Jewel Robbery (which I wrote about earlier this year). Powell again plays a suave member of the criminal class, but instead of a dapper thief he’s con-man Sherwood Nash, dealing knock-off couture gowns to department stores around town. Along to help him are Bette Davis as the eager fashion designer Lynn and Frank McHugh as his trusty dissembler Snap. In order to keep ahead of the trends, they fly to Paris to spy on the elite fashion housesAs the cops and the real designers close in on them, it’s up to Sherwood to lie his way out once again. Like Jewel Robbery, Fashions is a fairy tale of criminality, only focused through a male POV this time. Both define thievery and pirating as a kind of harder working entrepreneurship that leads straight to our preferred dream life.

It seems like the entire budget was funneled into the Busby Berkeley-directed musical number towards the end of the feature, but Dieterle makes the most of the drab office sets at his disposal. He focuses on Powell’s posture, his leans over the desks and chairs indicating the relative state of his pocketbook and love life. The dialogue is rolled out in an unvaryingly speedy pace, with the only indication of an emotional shift present in Powell’s relationship to furniture. Even when urging Lynn to marry another man, his voice betrays nothing – it is his body that gives him away. In seduction mode, he tilts forwardas if heading into an oncoming wind, offering his body to his suitably awed targets. It works with the store owners who agree to stock his knock-offs, as well as the vamp who bamboozles a French designer. With Lynn though, he always stands ramrod straight, often in group shots with Snap. It is only when he kneels down at the end in supplication that he can win her hand.

Davis was not happy with the film, saying that she “was glamorized beyond recognition”, and she does seem uncomfortable, never quite locking in to the screwball tempo set by Powell. Despite her reservations, the film was fairly well received, with positive notices from influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (“very excellent”) and the New York Times: “The story is lively, the gowns are interesting and the Busby Berkeley spectacles with Hollywood dancing girls are impressive. ” The Berkeley musical, wrenched in as part of Sherwood’s plot to increase demand for ostrich feathers, is suitably insane, turning the female models into mutating patterns of harps, flowers and oarsmen. The harp-women are fun and disturbing, but it is Sherwood’s demonic energy in conjuring his dreams into reality that lingers.

Juarez (1939), a dramatization of the Mexican Revolution, lacks the speed and physical expressiveness of Fashions, collapsing under the weight of its ambition. This was a major project for Warner Brothers, and Dieterle assuredly didn’t have the freedom as on his previous quickies. The AFI Catalog lists the massive amounts of resources poured into the feature:

The picture represented Warner Bros. most ambitious project to date. According to the production files, every detail was exhaustively researched for historical accuracy. The files contained long lists of reference books in both English and Spanish. Press releases refer to the film’s extensive research. According to modern sources, the writers had a bibliography of 372 volumes, documents and period photographs. Art director Anton Grot drew 3,643 sketches from which engineers prepared 7,360 blueprints for the exteriors and interiors of the settings. A complete Mexican village was built on the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, CA.

Dieterle did not excel in the realist mode, with his light touch being weighed down with the anvil of historical “truth”, at least that according to studio researchers. It’s no surprise that the result is leaden and monotonously expository, which is not aided by Paul Muni’s grotesque makeup job as Benito Juarez, looking like he got a jumbo Botox injection. Every character states their motivation and provides historical context within the same sentence. The saving graces occur in the prissy arrogance of Claude Rains as Napoleon III, and the sensitive handling of Carlotta’s (Bette Davis) descent into madness, which rekindles for a moment Dieterle’s skill at eliciting hyper-real, dreamlike performances.

This skill is on full display in Love Letters (1945), a delirious romantic melodrama that Dieterle made when he was a freelancer, taking on short-term deals with studios. Producer Hal Wallis tapped him to direct the treatment, starting a professional relationship that would last until 1953. According to Bernard F. Dick’s biography of Wallis,  the producer purchased the rights to Chris Massie’s novel, Pity My Simplicity, in 1944, for $35,000, and was adapted for the screen by Ayn Rand (whose novel Fountainhead was released in ’43). It tells the story of Quinton (Joseph Cotten), an army man who ghost writes love letters for his friend while at the front. Although they have never met, Quinton falls in love with the woman he is writing them to, Victoria Morland (Jennifer Jones). After a tragic murder, Victoria is struck with amnesia, whereupon Quinton finally meets her, and falls desperately in love. But what will happen when she remembers her past?

Both Cotten and Jones were loaned out from David O. Selznick, with plenty of strings attached. Jones was negotiated to receive $100,000 for nine weeks of work, and Selznick had final approval over her hairstyle, makeup and wardrobe. He also stipulated that Lee Garmes be hired as director of photography, who had just shot Jones in Since You Went Away (1944). Within these restrictions Dieterle crafts an unsettling love story that equates the spiritual and the ghostly. It begins in the content of his letters, in which he writes he envisions “life as a dream of beauty”, and his friend tells him that Victoria is a “pin-up girl of the spirit”. For Quinton, Victoria is a disembodied vision of love, a Platonic ideal to strive toward.

Then this ideal comes jarringly to earth. After Quinton is wounded in war, framed against the gauzy curtains of the army hospital, he returns home. At a party, the blonde hostess (Ann Richards) tells him “I see things that may happen to you”, with both their faces in a close-up. The world is contracting and shuddering around him. He inherits his Aunt’s cottage, and when he arrives the table is mysteriously set. A ghost servant! No, it is only Mac, a gruff Scottish butler whom Quinton had forgotten, and who he calls “gargoyle”. The border between life and death, and past and present (as Quinton rummages through his childhood toys) seems awfully thin indeed. It is within this atmosphere that he meets Victoria, whose identity has been subsumed inside an amnesiac who calls herself “Singleton”. Singleton has no past or future, an unearthly presence to match the fantasy “spirit” of the letters. Quinton’s great fear is that Victoria will regain her body, and he will again have to re-enter the fraught thicket of memory and psychology that embodiment will bring. He envies her “contagious serenity”, and fervently believes that she has “lost a world, but gained a soul”. This use of Quinton’s fantasy to motor the plot is a similar device to Jewel Robbery, in which Kay Francis’ erotic desire seems to will William Powell’s thief into existence.

The pace is subdued compared to his 30s films, but the deliberation is appropriate to document the slow re-emergence of Victoria and the subtle fissures between worlds. Dieterle instead utilizes elaborate set design and tight compositions to convey the sense of the uncanny. The film is shot entirely on backlots, an artificial world for incomplete people, shot in dramatic chiaroscuro by Garmes. There are endless shots of lamps lit and extinguished, intermittently illuminating a red splotch on a white dress that will end Quinton’s dream and re-start Victoria’s reality.

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