BEHIND BARS: THE BIG HOUSE (1930)

May 13, 2014

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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Prison riots were a major story in 1929, with huge uprisings occurring across the country, from Colorado to New York. President Hoover launched an investigation into its causes. George Hill believed a major problem was mixing hardened criminals with first-time offenders, and wrote a 27-page story treatment called The Reign of Terror: A Story of Crime and Punishment. Irving Thalberg liked the idea, and assigned Hill’s friend Frances Marion to help him work out an outline for a script (they enjoyed their work together and married soon after production in 1930). The potentially controversial subject was cleared with the Hays Office, who provided Marion and Hill with an “expert”, one P.W. Garrett, the general secretary of the National Society of Penal Information. Marion wanted more than second-hand information, however, and arranged to receive a tour of San Quentin. In her biography of Marion, Cari Beauchamp quotes her as feeling she was an object of “repressed ridicule” in the male-dominated institution. She trudged ahead anyway, and was inspired to cast the comedian Roscoe Ates when she met a stuttering inmate in the prison garden.

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Hill was personally invested in the material, and was intent on presenting a starkly realistic portrait of prison life. It is strongest in its earlier stages, when its emphasis is on the procedural day-to-day of the jail. The movie begins with the processing of Kent, the wilted playboy convicted for a ten-year stretch for a New Year’s Eve hit and run. In head-on, planimetric compositions, Kent is poked and prodded and set on the assembly line from man to number. He gets his mug shot, is measured for clothes, and is spit out as another faceless inmate, just another pair of gray pants and plodding shoes trudging in circles, which is the image that runs underneath the title. Kent’s final initiation is a walk up a spiral staircase to his room, which the camera follows in an rising crane shot. It’s one that Fejos would probably scoff at, after the 50ft camera crane he constructed for Broadway (’29), but Hill’s is effective in its own modest way, Kent’s rise up the stairs sealing his fall from grace.

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The strongest impact in The Big House is felt through the sound, whether its Wallace Beery thundering against the “swill” he’s forced to eat at meal times (a scene memorably parodied in Naked Gun 33 1/3), or the metronome of marching feet that morphs into that of machine guns at the film’s close. The most experimental use of sound occurs in solitary, or the “dungeon”, as its called in the movie. After Morgan is denied parole for a crime he didn’t commit, he is shoved into a cell, right next door to Butch. After the door seals him in, the camera does not cut to the interior. Instead it stays on the darkened hallway with no human activity. No words are spoken for fifteen seconds, the image a silent tomb. Then Butch bellows “Hello!”, and begins a bull session with Morgan, the camera remaining in the static hallway. For two minutes the camera doesn’t move, nor is an actor shown. All of the action is off-screen and in the viewer’s head. It’s a challenging gesture, and one only possible in the early days of sound, when the status quo had yet to be defined.

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The Paul Fejos version is exactly the same in almost every particular. The only freedom Fejos seems to have been given is the ability to position actors in the frame, as even the camera positions are nearly identical. Fejos recalled little of the project: “Possibly the only interesting thing in it was that I imported for Big House an actor who afterwards became quite a potentate in Hollywood – Charles Boyer.” Boyer gives a more dashing rendition of Morgan, more of a witty Lubitsch thief than the working class thug that Hill elicited from Morris. Morris recalled Hill’s requests for unadorned performance:  “If someone overacted, he had the scene done over, scoffing, ‘You did that like a New York actor.’ His technique was like Spencer Tracy’s – underacting.”

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Both Fejos and Hill were not long for Hollywood. After Fejos was denied the directing job on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, directed by Lewis Milestone), he lost interest in dealing with the studio machine, and his fortunes dwindled respectively. His unfond memories: “I found Hollywood phony. I found everything artificial. I found the people impossible . . . writers—so-called writers—utterly unintelligent, utterly uneducated, stupid hacks.” He wanted to return closer to the world, without interference, and he did so in his few films abroad, including the Austrian production Ray of Sunshine (1933). He eventually ditched artifice altogether to study anthropology. He stopped making films in 1941 to study his new obsession, which he later taught at Yale, Stanford and Columbia, and became the president of the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. George W. Hill had no such second life. His alcoholism busted up the marriage to Frances Marion, and sabotaged his work. After he suffered a concussion and cracked ribs in a car accident, he sunk into a depression. He died at the age of 39 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

ROMA MUSICAL: CARAVAN (1934)

October 22, 2013

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Poaching European talent has always been a popular Hollywood pastime, from Murnau to Lubitsch to Lang. Not every import had such an impact however, as proven by the reception of Caravana lavish 1934 roma musical directed by one Erik Charell.  Charell and his leading lady Lilian Harvey had become a hot commodity after the international success of their German film operetta The Congress Dances (1932). Fox decided to make Caravan a “super-special” with a budget over a million dollars, importing French heartthrob Charles Boyer as the male lead. It was a financial and critical disaster, with the NY Times moaning that it was  “an exceptionally tedious enterprise”.  Charell’s professional career was over – but what a way to go out (Harvey also flamed out in Hollywood after four films). Fully utilizing the emerging mobile camera technology, Caravan is a perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the romani like a fellow reveler. The average shot is thirty seven seconds long, so even expository conversations become epic journeys through the cavernous sets – providing an anarchic sense of freedom. Screening as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series of film preservation, Caravan is a major re-discovery.

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Caravan was based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel, a Hungarian writer who later wrote the scenarios for Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be. Clearly hoping to generate some of that Lubitsch magic, Fox packed the creative team with Europeans, from Charell and Lengyel to art director Ernst Stern and composer Werner Richard Heymann. The story is a mistaken identity farce, with shades of Ninotchka, as Countess Wilma (Loretta Young) will inherit her family’s vineyard on her twenty-first birthday – as long as she is married. She has been promised to a dashing young Lieutenant (Phillips Holmes), but instead she grabs fiddling roma Lazi (Boyer) and gets him to sign on the dotted line. After Wilma takes on Roma garb, the Lieutenant falls for her, not realizing it is the Countess.The social structure is set on its head when the Countess marries Lazi, and then invites his whole clan to stay in the mansion. Through an increasingly manic series of reversals, soon the roma people occupy the mansion while the upper crust are out on the street (getting the cops, but still).

In a scene as subversive as The Last Supper sequence in Viridiana, the romani traipse into the marble be-decked mansion and proceed to turn it into their personal nightclub, shocking the waitstaff and sending the Countess’ wedding party guests home in a huff. With respectable civilization ousted, the libidos come unsheathed, hilariously so in the case of the Countess’ beloved governess (Louise Fazenda, a slapstick veteran and a thorough delight here) who makes eyes with a strapping, bare chested lothario. The cast is filled with brilliant character actors, including Fazenda, Eugene Pallette, C. Aubrey Smith, Charley Grapewin and Noah Beery. Pallette’s turn as a bewigged, nigh-criminal roma pops off the screen with its brazen idiosyncracy.

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Charell uses a combination of crane and tracking shots to wend his way through this chaos. In a dream of revolution, armed guards arrive to roust them out, but they too get caught up in the music, and the rousing dance begins again.  Historian Tino Balio supposed he used the proto-Steadicam “Velocilator”, a Fox studio update of the Bell & Howell Rotambulator. The Rotambulator used a central column on a turntable, which could set the camera at any height between eighteen inches and seven feet. The camera could raise on the column for crane-like shots, and hydraulics could be used to control panning and tilting. The Velocilator reduced the weight of the machine, and replaced the column with an angled boom arm that could raise or lower the camera. No Hollywood feature fully explored the capabilities of the moving camera since Paul Fejos’ Lonesome , another European director whose experimentation shortened his career.

Charell was experimenting not just with camera movement though, but with editing in the midst of movement. In elegant flashback sequences, he cuts seamlessly from the present-day Countess and governess’ POV of her master bedroom to the entrance of a little girl – the Countess as a toddler behaving badly. When the camera swings back to the governess, there are tears in her eyes, remembering the days of youth. All this is accomplished without gauzy dissolves or other obvious markers of shifting time. It takes only a few seconds of screen time, but establishes the deep emotional bond between Loretta Young and Fazenda. It’s this offhand mastery that is so striking about the movie – every detail has been thought through to achieve maximum expressiveness.

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Caravan was presented in a print restored by MoMA, but I only saw it because Dave Kehr recommended it at the end of his preview piece on the “To Save and Project” festival. In a bit of serendipity, Mr. Kehr has been hired as the new Adjunct Curator in MoMA’s film department. He told Scott Foundas at Variety that:

“My real concern in the last 10 years has been that, as much as we’ve made progress on the preservation and restoration of films, access to those films has really been slipping away,” Kehr said by phone Monday afternoon. “I hope one of the things I’ll be able to accomplish is to work on that idea, both at the Museum and elsewhere, and explore other ways of getting those films to the public, other kinds of distribution that don’t involve going to a nice auditorium on 53rd Street.”

So while it is difficult to see Caravan today, it sounds like Kehr is eager to get these titles back out into circulation through digital channels, or otherwise. While I will miss my weekly routine of reading his Sunday NY Times DVD column, it sounds like Kehr will be doing even more valuable work at his new position at MoMA.

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THE NEAREST THING TO HEAVEN: LOVE AFFAIR (1939)

March 22, 2011

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When two deeply affecting films are viewed in quick succession, they start to speak to each other. This weekend I watched Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Love Affair (1939), both for the second time. They have a radically contrasting approach to narrative, but both use visual patterning to pursue a kind of naturalized transcendence. In both, an idealized vision or emotion is brought down to earth, made approachable and concrete. Love Affair takes the melodramatic conceit of romantic love, based on separation and a purely spiritual longing, and places it in reluctant bodies, who squirm and flirt and have to work for a living.  Boonmee flattens the space between life and death, man and animal, ancient and modern. Ghosts are as natural as the oxen in the woods, and its characters react accordingly, with benign acceptance. In their own way, both films convey what my late, great undergraduate Philosophy professor, M.C. Dillon, wrote in Beyond Romance:

We are our bodies. Including the traces that other bodies have visited upon ours and the traces our bodies deposit in the world as marks of its passage. It is as bodies that we are and are known. In that broad sense, all our knowledge of each other is carnal knowledge.

Boonmee takes the supernatural and makes it tactile, while Love Affair brings romaticism into the intricate choreography of actors’ hands. I previously wrote about Boonmee here, so the following incoherent ramblings will focus on Love Affair.

The plot of Love Affair uses the classic scenario of romantic love, as laid down in the songs of the twelfth-century troubadors in the South of France. They sang of unrequited attractions, impossible to act on because of the custom, as Dillon writes, of using marriage as a means of consolidating family wealth. Dillon goes on to quote the Countess of Champagne, delivering a judgment in a court of love convened in 1174:

We say and affirm…that love may not extend its rights over two married persons. For lovers grant each other all things mutually and freely without constraint of any motive of necessity, whereas the married are in duty bound reciprocally to submit to the will of the other, and to refuse each other nothing.

Love and marriage are mutually exclusive, and this in turn fueled the thwarted erotic imaginations of the eras poets. All of the great romantic stories, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, are premised on separating the lovers. Dillon: “The point is that the intense experience of love they sought could not survive without the barriers that kept their fantasies alive by preventing them from knowing one another.” (Manoel de Oliveria’s masterful duo of Doomed Love and Francisca lays bare the masochistic tendencies of this mode). The ensuing centuries have done little to alter this pattern, aside from changing the tragic ending into one of happy heterosexual couple-dom. The barrier between couples remains, cycled through endless cliches, usually divisions in class or temperament. These tales typically end when the lovers first get to know each other.

Love Affair subtly tweaks this pattern, with director Leo McCarey introducing visual motifs to bring this love for all time into a love for right now. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne gain a carnal knowledge of each other, in Dillon’s sense, in their first moments together, revealing themselves through their relation to space and their musical gestures. Their first meeting is through a porthole window on board a cruise ship, a tiny opening that halos faces, a partial, idealized view. It is a typically romantic image, Dunne’s face framed like a cameo necklace, and separated from Boyer by a thick wooden wall. In a usual romance, this first meet-cute would presage a long interval of Boyer searching for this mystery woman. Instead, Dunne walks around the corner, in an imposingly squared off fur coat, and continues her sarcastic banter. She goes from a beatific face to a fully embodied woman, and Boyer is immediately taken, grabbing her arm and urging her to listen to his own romantic woes.

It is from this moment that McCarey orchestrates a symphony of hand gestures to indicate their growing bond. In their first meeting, Dunne playfully taps her fingers on her purse, one of her strong moves of studied indifference. Later, the conversation turns to their respective fiancees, and Dunne lifts her pearl necklace to her mouth, a nervous, childish tic, revealing a bubbling insecurity. The flirtatious game they are playing against each other soon turns in to an effortless vaudeville act – their bodies simply work well together. After their initial dinner date, a photographer snaps an embarrassing candid, and with a choreographed bit of sleight of hand, Boyer hands the film to Dunne, who drops it in the ocean while pretending to straighten her hair. In this wave of hand motions, they have gone from antagonists to physical intimates, without a romantic word seeping from their lips, their dialogue being a thick flurry of quips and put-downs.

In the following sequence, Boyer tries to charm a little boy with a game of patty cake, but instead the kid dishes about the gossip surrounding Boyer’s amorous conquests. He feigns hitting the kid before walking away – here his hands fail him, able to work only with Dunne. This visual motif reaches its peak when they visit Boyer’s grandmother in Spain, who is played with quivering intensity by Maria Ouspenskaya. Dunne asks to see her chapel, and kneels in a gauzy, be-fogged light (Rudolph Mate was the D.P.). As she stares intensely at the statue of the Virgin Mary, beseeching silently for answers to her romantic plight, Boyer sits uncomfortably, peering at her. The telling moment occurs when Dunne concludes her prayer, and Boyer does the same, but nervously adjusts his tie as he finishes the sign of the cross. He is shaken out of his self-possession for the first time, just as Dunne was by grasping her pearls. Later, Boyer asks his grandmother to play the piano, and she responds, laughing, “look at my hands”, in apology for her coming performance.

But she continues with a lovely ballad which unites them all. McCarey begins with a close-up of Ouspenskaya’s wrinkled hands stringing out the notes and cuts to a single smiling shot of her, before framing a medium shot of all three, with Boyer and Dunne at opposite sides of the piano. As the music flows from her fingers, Dunne starts humming the tune, and so begins an exchange of glances in shot-countershot. First is Boyer’s adoring gaze on Dunne, followed by Ouspenskaya’s knowing grin towards him. They are all connected by their looks and by the grandmother’s expressive hands, which say more than either Boyer or Dunne have been able to in their circling flirtations. It is an expression of love flowed through Ouspenskaya’s fingers into Boyer’s gaze, and emerging from Dunne’s voice. This impossibly moving sequence is shattered by the brusque bellowing of the crusie ship’s horn, indicating the couple’s departure. The grandmother trails off from the melody, the spell broken, and breaks down in tears. Her grandson is leaving, and the piano’s flowing channel of emotion has been stopped up. From now on Boyer will have to express this bodily emotion on his own, and it’s unclear, after the scene in the chapel, whether he’s capable of it.

The expressive hands disappear once the couple departs the ship, but not before McCarey inserts one final image in this motif, of their clasped hands pulling apart. This begins the classically romantic section of separation, but in this case it is self-imposed. Both Boyer and Dunne realize that their union would mean the end of their comfortable lifestyles – they would lose their rich husband and family, respectively. So they pledge to learn how to make a living, and wed afterward. Dunne becomes a nightclub singer, Boyer a commercial (and later artistic) painter. One ingenious shot finds Boyer painting a Schlitz billboard when his agent yells up to him that he sold his first canvas. Their separation does not “prevent them from knowing one another”, in the usual romantic mode, but provides an opportunity to know themselves better.

In this section McCarey shifts to imagery of reflections in windows and mirrors, representing each character’s self-doubt about the solidity of their dreams. They pledge to meet at the Empire State Building in six months, after building a career. The melodrama’s machinations put more roadblocks in their path, but it ends in a joyful affirmation of embodied love. This final revelation begins in a revival of their first flirtatious meetings, when every word meant its inverse and meaning had to be read on their faces. But then in an extraordinary panning shot, Boyer sees the reflection of one of his own paintings, erasing the doubts represented in the earlier mirror shots, and proving the irreducible nature of their love. In the final image, they dry each other’s eyes with Ouspenskaya’s shawl, a talisman of their unspoken emotions, expressed previously only through gesture. Now they can cry freely.

For a film singing with images, I will end on dialogue, in which Dunne starts with the mystical and ends with a man, shuddering in her embrace:

“I was looking…up. To the 102nd floor. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.”

***

For M.C. Dillon (1938 – 2005), who taught me how to live and how to read Nietzsche, which are one and the same. When I told him I was going to Graduate School for Cinema Studies, he was befuddled – he implied that it was useless, and that I should pursue Philosophy – but then told me a story. He said when he was in the Navy, he had a stop-over in Monaco and attended a diplomatic party. There, he claimed, he danced the evening away with Grace Kelly.