LOST AND FOUND: THE MAN AND THE MOMENT (1929)

May 3, 2016

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The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.

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Adapted from an Elinor Glyn best-seller, The Man and the Moment finds Jane (Billie Love) and Michael (La Rocque) at a personal impasse. Jane has a passion for flying, but her strict guardian forbids her to continue her training in the air. Michael, a rich bachelor, is being blackmailed into marriage by the slinky Viola (Gwen Lee). They meet when Jane crash lands her plane into one of Michael’s “Polo Boats” (he plays polo with sea crafts rather than horses – as he is super rich and super bored). They realize that they can solve both of their problems with a quickie marriage. Jane will gain independence from her guardian and Michael can undermine Viola’s scheme. So together they agree to wed, with the understanding it is purely a business arrangement, and that they will divorce soon after. Nothing goes as planned, of course, as Michael instantly falls in love with Jane, and Jane skedaddles, sick of his advances. Jane ends up at Viola’s house, where the various strands of the plot converge and tangle in a wildly convoluted finale.

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Variety wrote that director George Fitzmaurice, “has diluted the Glyn molasses so that the screen version avoids most of the love licorice and dwells on the comedy situations.” Agnes Christine Johnston adapted the story into a script, while the spoken dialogue is credited to Paul Perez. The inter-titles set the tone of the decadent milieu, one reads that Michael’s yacht was “lit by electricity – the guests by noon.” Michael is introduced playing “boat polo”, driving a motorboat with a woman on the stern trying to hit a beach ball towards a goal. It looks insanely dangerous, and Fitzmaurice anchors a camera to the back of a speeding polo boat to emphasize the needless danger of the enterprise. The opening inter-title of the film states: “No person ever dashed their brains out playing Polo Boat – because no person with brains every played polo boat.” Michael is thus introduced as a self-destructive decadent frittering away his wealth on near-death experiences.

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Jane is something more of a mystery. Johnston’s script cuts out any explanatory backstory, so what we are left with is a stuffy guardian (the status of her parents is unknown) and her love of flight. Despite this lack of characterization Billie Dove invests Jane with a winsome ebullience. She is fearsomely independent and lonesome because of it. Most of her identity is wrapped up in her plane. In one telling sequence she blows off Michael by manipulating elements of her plane, knocking him down with wing flaps and blowing him into the water with the engine. She feels strongest when in control of the machine. She loses control of herself when she is accepted into Viola’s circle, and is invited to an “Under the Sea”-themed party (from “8pm – Blotto”, per the invite), complete with giant human aquarium. There she tests out her flirtation skills against Viola’s (impossible, for Gwen Lee is a superb vamp, a sinuous haughty cigarette smoking machine aimed at rich bachelors), and ends up in the tank with a fellow inebriate. Michael can only get her out by smashing the whole thing to smithereens, depicted through the use of endearingly fake miniatures.

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Michael and Jane’s jealousy is now destroying private property, and they need to work things out on their own. Unfortunately this means more dialogue, which Fitzmaurice and his team are ill-equipped to handle. The film’s audio was shot on Vitagraph disc, providing sound effects for the entire feature, and dialogue for a select few. The surviving source was re-cut for silent exhibition, and, as the stated before the feature, “some of the dialogue sequences were truncated. Inter-title cards in place of the missing footage have been inserted into the feature.”  This means the inter-titles appear during the dialogue sequences, a disorienting necessity to maintain synchronization. Regardless, La Rocque is audibly uncomfortable with the dialogue, speaking in monotone as if reading the phone book. Fitzmaurice keeps the dialogue scenes almost exclusively in long, static two-shots, with no sound editing to massage the rhythm. I’ve always found the “static” early sound film to be a canard, as there was intense experimentation going on with the new sound technology at the time, audible in how Von Sternberg uses off-screen space in his contemporaneous film Thunderbolt (1929). But The Man and the Moment is just trying to get the sound-on-disc and move on as quickly as possible. Billie Dove comes off the best in the dialogue sequences, as she has an inviting, conversational tone. Though working with flimsy material, Dove conveys an appealingly clumsy flirtatiousness while La Rocque barely sounds present.

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But even with the technical drawbacks, The Man in the Moment provides a diverting evening at the movies, mainly due to Billie Dove and some outrageous set-pieces. How much you enjoy it may depend on your enjoyment of late ’20s/early ’30s fantasies of wealth (I have a high tolerance). The New York Times reviewed it and wrote: “The Man and the Moment seems designed for those who do not think Mrs. Glyn’s plots fatuous; who like love in airplanes, in yachts and among the members of high society; who would prefer thinking themselves on the beach at Monte Carlo, and who believe that the Four Hundred go to cocktail parties in silk pajamas.” If you check off all those boxes like I do, do give The Man and the Moment a spin.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS: PARIS BELONGS TO US (1962)

April 5, 2016

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“The release of Paris Belongs to Us is a score for every member of the [Cahiers du Cinéma] team – or of our Mafia, if you prefer…For Rivette is the source of many things. The example of Le Coup de Berger, his short film of 1956, made me decide to shoot Les Mistons, and Claude Chabrol to be adventuresome enough to make a full-length film from Le Beau Serge; and at the same time it moved the most prestigious short-subject filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, to try their first full-length films. It had begun. And it had begun thanks to Jacques Rivette. Of all of us he was the most fiercely determined to move.” – François Truffaut

Paris Belongs to Us presents the city as a labyrinthine stage which invites its residents/performers to invent and inhabit vast conspiracies. Mysteries lie behind every open door, if only an intrepid investigator would crack it open and peer behind. It is a paranoid Alice in Wonderland in which its Alice, here called Anne, goes down the rabbit hole with a group of poor actor-artists staging Shakespeare’s Pericles. Every door Anne walks through expands her vision of the world as she is drawn into the macabre fantasy life of artists with too much time on their hands. The film lays out ideas that Rivette would explore the rest of his career, from the nature of performance to the city as game board. Jacques Rivette began shooting Paris Belongs to Us  in 1958, though it would take two years for it to be completed and released in 1961. The 400 Blows and Breathless both made it to cinemas first, and their phenomenal success relegated Paris to the background. The film, like many of Rivette’s features, would become cult cinephile objects, beloved because of their rarity. But that is slowly being rectified, as the legendary 13-hour Out 1 is now streaming on Netflix, while the Criterion Collection has released Paris Belongs to Us on beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.

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Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is a literature student preparing for her exams whose life is tipped off its axis when she is invited to a party by her brother Pierre (François Maistre). It is a gathering of  artists haunted by the death of Juan, a Spanish musician with links to everyone in the Paris avant-garde theater scene. He was preparing the score for a production of Pericles to be directed by Gerard Lenz (Giani Esposito) when he took his own life. The only recording of Juan’s Pericles compositions has gone missing. Juan had been dating Terry Yordan (François Prevost), a secretive American who is now seeing Gerard, and who may have been involved with the conspiratorially minded Philip, an American journalist exiled due to the McCarthyist blacklist. It is Philip who inducts Anne into this strange tribe, by implying that Juan’s death is not what it seemed, connecting it to a grand international conspiracy, like something out of the Illuminati. Anne is skeptical but curious, and is alarmed at Philip’s insistence that Gerard is in danger. She seeks Juan’s recording in the hopes it will contain some secret to it all, but it just leads her in circles, as well as landing her a role in Pericles. She keeps pushing until the whole edifice collapses upon itself.

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It was Rivette’s first feature, and though he would later rely on his actors to improvise and create his worlds on the fly, Paris Belongs to Us was a more traditionally constructed feature, hewing closely to Rivette and Jean Gruault’s script. Rivette was dissatisfied with the result:

When I began making films my point of view was that of a cinephile, so my ideas about what I wanted to do were abstract. Then, after the experience of my first two films, I realized I had taken the wrong direction as regards methods of shooting. The cinema of mise en scene, where everything is carefully preplanned and where you try to ensure that what is seen on the screen corresponds as closely as possible to your original plan, was not a method in which I felt at ease or worked well. What bothered me from the outset, after I had finally managed to finish Paris Nous Appartient with all its tribulations, was what the characters said, the words they used. I had written the dialogue beforehand with my co-writer Jean Gruault (though I was ninety per cent responsible) and then it was reworked and pruned during shooting, as the film otherwise would have run four-and-a-half hours. The actors sometimes changed a word here and there, as always happens in films, but basically the dialogue was what I had written — and I found it a source of intense embarrassment.

The performances are without filigree, and there can be a sameness of tone and delivery that makes all the characters blend together. Just compare the rehearsal scenes in Out 1 to those in Paris Belongs to Us to see how the shift in how much he put his faith in his performers. Paris Belongs to Us is more fascinating for its complicated blocking, in which characters re-orient themselves in the frame so the focal point keeps shifting. Shooting all over Paris from grotty apartments to abandoned factories, Rivette gets across the concept of Paris as a stage, and one in which his characters get lost inside. Reality is too banal for them, so they invent believable fictions and turn their lives into movies. It is a void from which they choose not to escape.

PRE-CODE COMEDIES: FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN, GOLD DUST GERTIE, AND HER MAJESTY, LOVE

February 2, 2016

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In 1931 the vaudeville circuit was dying out, and Hollywood was poaching its performers and routines. Needing content for the new sound technology, studios would string together comedies around a collection of old stage bits. Anarchic, chaotic, and scattershot, these films will do anything for a laugh, and they occasionally get them. The Warner Archive has just released three of these pre-code sketch films on DVD, all from 1931:  Gold Dust GertieHer Majesty Love, and Fifty Million Frenchmen. They feature actors who cut their teeth in vaudeville, including the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson, one-liner artist Winnie Lightner, and W.C. Fields, who made his sound film debut in Her Majesty Love.

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Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)is a showcase for the antics of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had been working as a duo since the late teens. Their act didn’t really have a straight man, with wiry neurotic Olsen facing off against the rotund giggling softie of Jonhson.They were known for their boundary dissolving stage shows which strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony to dry their wash, had cows falling from the ceiling, and dubbed Hitler into Yiddish. This kind of madcap deconstruction wouldn’t show up on film until Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but there some evidence of their insanity in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Originally intended to feature Cole Porter’s songs from the Broadway show, these were cut after the audience rebelled against the glut of musicals released after the coming of sound. Director Lloyd Bacon strings the gags along a slender thread of plot –  in a Paris bar Michael Cummings (John Halliday) bets Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he can’t win the love of blonde bombshell LuLu (Claudia Dell) without using any of his family’s money. Jack wins if he successfully woos LuLu only on what he can earn doing odd jobs. Cummings hires Olsen & Johnson to watch Forbes – to make sure he follows the rules of the bet.

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This is the excuse for a series of sketches: like when Johnson mixes a cocktail inside a passed out fat drunk’s mouth, or when both Olsen and Johnson model women’s underwear in the hopes of selling them to an American tourist. Forbes gets a job as a tour guide for English speakers, and one of the best recurring gags involves a woman (Helen Broderick) who hires his services, looking to be “shocked, you know, insulted.” She is nonplussed when he passes her a photo of a nearly-nude strongman, and when Forbes asks her where she’d like to start the tour she responds, “From the bottom, you’re only young twice.” There is also a Bela Lugosi sighting as a short-lived magic act whose routine is usurped and botched by the incompetent trio of Forbes, Olsen & Johnson, who cause a near riot. The latter duo ends up in a Keystone Cops chase through the Paris streets, over the tops of cars and through newly laid tar, in which the chase bogs  down into slow motion.

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Olsen & Johnson also appear in Gold Dust Gertie (1931), but the name above the title is Winnie Lightner, a wiseass who specialized in sassy gold digger roles, most famously in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). The opening of the film shows her marrying both Olsen and Johnson, and the film kicks off by her pursuit of their alimony payments. And the only way to get those bums to pay is to get them raises at their bathing suit company (whose conservative “Carrie Nations Fit” is not selling). So Lightner insinuates herself into the company, woos the ancient president Arnold (Claude Gillingwater), and convinces him to produce a more contemporary, risque style of suit. Along the way she runs into a few more ex-husbands from whom she’s still chiseling cash. A money-grubbing dynamo, she is getting what she can while the getting’s good. Lightner has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can flip you off with a sneer. In 1931 Picture Play magazine called her “the only feminine star of rough house comedy”.

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My favorite gag in Gold Dust Gertie, also directed by the industrious Lloyd Bacon, is a moment of bedroom farce. At one point the president invites Lightner, Olsen, and Johnson onto his ship. He has already declared his love for Lightner, unaware that she has already married and divorced every guest on his yacht. Eventually Olsen & Johnson bully their way into her stateroom, hoping to blackmail her with the news of yet another of her ex-husbands, but she neatly twirls them around her little finger with some flirtation and a bottle of booze. But then the president knocks on the door, and Olsen & Johnson are thrust outside the porthole window (after some requisite pottery smashing), getting thrashed by the waves while Lightner continues her seduction of the president. It is a perfectly tuned and timed bit of humiliation, and one of her multiple triumphs of male manipulation.

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Her Majesty, Love, is the most polished film of the three, directed with a roving energy by William Dieterle. This was the second feature Dieterle directed in Hollywood after being imported from Germany (the first: The Last Flight (1931)). It is an adaptation of the German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, directed by Joe May earlier in ’31. It takes place in Berlin and follows Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon), heir to his family’s ball bearing factory fortune. Instead of cultivating the board of directors’ favor, he spends his time in a nightclub, becoming smitten with bartender Lia (Marilyn Miller). His family forbids their marriage, and will only give him the reigns to the company if he agrees to break off their union.

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The central drama is stilted, but there are pleasures at the margins. Dieterle and his DP Robert Kurrle use a circling camera in the nightclub sequences, creating an air of drunken revelry, where everything is spinning in a joyful blur. This is Broadway star Marilyn Miller’s third and final film appearance (she would die in 1937 from a botched nasal surgery), and you get an inkling of what made her so beloved on the stage. She has a relaxed, insouciant charm that makes it believable that her father in the film is played by W.C. Fields. Fields plays a barber and indulgent father who is a born entertainer. At Fred and Lia’s engagement dinner, he can’t sit still for a few seconds before he’s catapulting with his spoon or juggling dishes to the gasps of his table mates. It is his first sound feature, and his movie voice is not fully formed, that plummy nasal whine not fully ripened. And yet he is the clear star of the movie, despite his truncated screen time. One wishes for Fred to disappear and for Lia and her father to put on a show of their own.

GIRLHOOD: ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (1934)

January 19, 2016

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The books of my childhood have no hold on me, no permanent perch in my imagination. I was immersed in the boys-solving-crimes genre of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as a lad, and today I couldn’t dredge up a single plot point from the dozens I read. My wife, however, is continually revisiting the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery, with Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables deepening for her over time. They evoke a rambunctious, adventurous girlhood as well as a very tactile sense of place. The forbidding tundra of Little House’s upper midwest and idyllic Prince Edward Island of Anne are landscapes that she has incorporated into her being. If she ever goes starry eyed, she has probably escaped to the Ingalls cabin in her mind. As a selfish male, I desired access to this secret girls club. But as a lazy one, I haven’t had time to read the novels. So instead I viewed the 1934 adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, newly on DVD from the Warner Archive. It’s a polished RKO production that softens the book’s tragedies, but still captures the stumbling energies of Anne’s incorrigible youth.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery’s mother died when she was two, and she was raised by her strict Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, where, according to her biographers, she never felt truly wanted. Anne of Green Gables was written by Montgomery and first published in 1908, becoming an instant success. Soon after its release Mark Twain wrote Montgomery, saying that Anne was, “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” Anne Shirley is a flame-haired orphan who is taken in by the brother and sister spinsters Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island. The Cuthberts requested a boy from the orphanage to help out around the house, but Anne’s creativity and klutziness endears her to them, and they keep her around. She then embarks on a series of episodic misadventures, motivated by cute schoolboy Gilbert Blythe’s chaotic pursuit of her affections. It is something of a picaresque adventure, at least until the melancholy close. Margaret Atwood, in the Guardian, wrote that “Montgomery was an orphan sent to live with two old people, but, unlike Anne, she never did win them over. Marilla and Matthew are what Montgomery wished for, not what she got.”

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The movie was filmed by RKO in 1934, and marketed as “A Picture for the Millions who Loved Little Women.” George Cukor’s Little Women was a hit in 1933 for the studio, so they quickly turned around the similarly themed Anne. It had been filmed as a silent in 1919 by William Desmond Taylor, but this would be the first sound version. According to the AFI Catalog, Alfred Santell was initially slated to direct – he had helmed the girl-focused Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1932 – but was removed upon insisting he shoot on location in Santa Cruz. RKO replaced him with George Nicholls, Jr., who used the rear projection shots they preferred, doing Prince Edward Island on the cheap.  The whole production has a rushed feel about it, with the screenplay collapsing entire arcs into a few scenes, such as Anne’s romance with Gilbert or Matthew’s illness. So much has been removed from the book that Montgomery described the film’s third act in her journals as, “a silly sentimental commonplace end tacked on for the sake of rounding it up as a love story.”  All of the book’s melancholy is replaced with false uplift, which betrays the pain Montgomery poured into her novel.

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It is a compromised film, but it holds wonderful performances. Child actor Dawn O’Day won the role of Anne Shirley, and in a publicity stunt legally changed her name to that of her character. She is credited as “Anne Shirley” in the film’s credits, and she sustained the stunt through the rest of her career, which included parts in Stella Dallas (’37, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) and Murder My Sweet (1944), her final film before retiring at the age of 26. Shirley plays Anne as wide-eyed and spazzy, a destabilizing force in the Cuthbert home. Matthew (O.P. Heggie) is a pushover, immediately charmed by Annie’s awkwardness. The Australian Heggie has a ready-made bemused twinkle in his eyes for all situations, and eases into each scene with a sideways lope, fingers locked under an overall strap. He is the picture of laid-back fatherliness. It is Marilla (Helen Westley) who is the harder nut to crack. Westley was a Brooklyn actress with extensive stage experience, and she inhabits Marilla as a starchy spinster all tucked into herself. Her hair is always pulled tightly back, with no loose ends detectable on her body. She is perpetually on guard against Anne’s cuteness. So she immediately suspects Anne of stealing her amethyst brooch when it goes missing. But when it turns up attached to her shawl, revealing Marilla to be a bit of a scatterbrain herself, the barriers fall, and Marilla admits that she loves the kooky girl.

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It is a movie of great warmth and tenderness thanks to these performances, but it is missing the melancholy that makes the books endure. Atwood claims that, “the thing that distinguishes Anne from so many ‘girls’ books’ of the first half of the 20th century is its dark underside: this is what gives Anne its frenetic, sometimes quasi-hallucinatory energy, and what makes its heroine’s idealism and indignation so poignantly convincing.” This energy is missing from the film, hacked away in the hurried attempt to put it on the screen. In its place is a corny heart-tugger that resolves all of Anne’s problems at the end of  78 minutes. It is closed off where the book runs loose, unafraid to present children with images of irrevocable loss. But Anne will live on, in the books and in the imaginations of women like my wife, entranced with the image of that wild, lovable girl, who could wrap an entire island around her little finger due to the force of her untamed intellect.

GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS

December 22, 2015

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There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails.” – Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)

Late in the night on Christmas Eve from 1971 to 1978, the BBC would air an adaptation of a classic ghost story, dark tales of cursed crowns, spider babies, and heart-eaters preceding the broadcast of midnight mass. It is a tradition that goes back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the dean of English ghost stories, M.R. James, would gather friends and colleagues to debut his latest chilling yarn after Christmas Eve revelries. The first five BBC productions adapt James’ work, and do justice to his clammy atmospheres. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark shot on location and on 16mm, able to conjure the fog-choked isolation of James’ doomed protagonists. All eight of BBC’s original Ghost Stories For Christmas, as well four from the series’ 2005 revival, are available in a haunting six-DVD set from the BFI (for those with Region 2 capable players).

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The English tradition of Christmas Ghosts emerged due to the boom in periodical publishing in the mid-19th century, after the repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855. The holidays were the best-selling season, so publishers would release year-end round-ups with the year’s most popular stories, many of which were supernatural. Charles Dickens was pivotal in pushing the ghostly, from his Christmas Carol in 1843 to his publishing scads of scary stories in the Christmas edition of his All the Year Round magazine. M.R. James would continue the tradition at Cambridge, where the scholar would debut one ghost story a year at his Christmas Eve party.

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The idea for the BBC series was conceived following the success of Whistle And I’ll Come to You (’68), an M.R. James adaptation filmed for BBC’s Omnibus. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark and DP John McGlashan were plucked from the BFI’s stable of talent and assigned to the new ghostly initiative. The first “Ghost Story for Christmas” was of M.R. James’ The Stalls of Barchester in 1971, concerning a cursed rural cathedral, and followed by A Warning to the Curious in ’72. The latter is a particularly haunting bit of antiquarian superstition come to life. James was once an assistant in archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and he used this background to concoct a bit of flim flammery surrounding the three Saxon crowns of East Anglia. James proposes that the crowns were buried along the coastline, and held powers that kept the country from harm. One neurasthenic  stumbles upon the remaining crown, and is stalked by the spirit of its protector. The story is a mournful piece, first published in 1925, that yearns for the age before WWI. James saw many of his students depart and die in that conflagration, and the story reads as something of a lament for the loss of an entire culture.

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The BBC adaptation streamlines the story, dropping the nested flashback framework and also adds motivation to the man who finds the crown. Instead of stumbling upon it, he seeks it out, having just been laid off from his clerking position. This makes for an easier to follow narrative, but also robs the story of much of its allegorical power. Instead of standing in for a nation, in the TV episode the treasure hunting crown-stealer is only in it for himself. McGlashan’s cinematography of the Norfolk coastline still finds an analogue to James’ text, capturing the malevolent glow of an emptied out beach in the off-season.

A Ghost Story For Christmas: Lost Hearts

The 1973 entry, Lost Hearts, is one of my favorites, anchored by the jubilant sadism of  Joseph O’Conor as aspirant warlock Mr. Abney. Mr. Abney is a solitary “researcher” who lives with his maid (Susan Richards) and butler (James Mellor) on an isolated villa. With his shock of white hair and wide eyes he looks like Alastair Sim’s Scrooge from the ’51 Christmas Carol. But instead of parsimony, Abney has a penchant for eating children’s hearts to attain immortality. His first two victims, a carefree young girl and a wispy Italian hurdy-gurdy player, begin to haunt his home, scarring the walls with their elongated nails. Using nothing but practical effects: some makeup, fake nails and an elegiac hurdy-gurdy tune, Lost Hearts slow-burns Abney to a crisp.

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Sound is used smartly throughout the series. There are no insistent scores informing the viewers what to feel, but instead snippets of music are introduced that gain meaning in context. In A Warning to the Curious it is a breathy laugh that jumps out of the quiet soundtrack, shaking the treasure hunter to his core. In The Ash Tree (’75) Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) channels scenes from the life of his murdered cousin Sir Matthew (also Petherbridge), his voice a doomed chorus pushing Richard to his inevitable fate. See, Richard makes the mistake of moving the grave of an executed witch, and pays the price in an attack of grotesque monster-spiders with baby heads.

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The Signalman (1976) is the most attentive to sound, as it follows a train track operator whose job is to respond to the bells and rings that inform him of the status up and down the line. When a specter appears at the tunnel and gestures wildly for danger, the signalman is at a loss. This is beyond the proscribed routine of his day, and the dangers beyond his ability to convey. Adapted from the Charles Dickens story, one he wrote after a near-death experience in a train crash, it’s a diabolical chamber piece whose tone of quiet dread is perfectly captured in the BBC film. The film stars Denholm Elliott as the lonely signalman, his monotony interrupted by a curious traveler (Bernard Lloyd) who takes breaks from his vacation to hear the train worker’s troubles.

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The specter has appeared three times – after the first there was a horrific crash in the tunnel, following the second a bride fell off and was killed upon landing. Now the signalman patiently awaits the third tragedy. Elliott plays him with quiet paranoia, seething beneath his professional surface. Everything on the screen becomes part of the orchestrated tension, each bell and innocent gesture a mark of death. The traveller’s first introduction, a hearty “Hello, down there!”, is revealed to be part of the final goodbye.

What better way to prepare for the joys of Christmas morning than to contemplate your own mortality on Christmas Eve? These are stories of vanity, loneliness, and death after which no present will disappoint you. Socks will seem like a gift from God. So this Christmas Eve put on BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, it has enough fear for the whole family.

I AM ALSO A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG: HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932)

November 3, 2015

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In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued overPrizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and Sell Anything).

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The sole reason for Hell Highway’s being was to beat Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang into theaters, regardless how it accomplished that goal. Producer David O. Selznick and writers Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, and Rowland Brown cobbled together a script culled from the Burns novel, the Maillefert story, and Agnes Christine Johnson’s Freedom, another book about chain gangs. Then Selznick cut out anything he thought might get them sued. This “original” tale focused on Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), a prisoner on a chain gang continually looking for an escape. He nearly breaks loose thanks to a distraction from the fortune-telling bigamist Matthew (Charles Middleton), but had to call it off when he discovers his young brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has been detained in the same camp. After a Maillefert-like prisoner dies in a sweatbox, the inmates start advocating for revolt. Johnny receives word that Duke is about to be extradited to Michigan to serve a life sentence, so Johnny decides to bust Duke loose. The attempted escape triggers an all out riot that burns the prison camp to the ground, and Duke and Johnny try to stumble their way to survival.

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Brown gets a lot of mileage out of symmetrical shots out of chained feet, men lined up at the cafeteria table and trudging to work to build a road. They are effectively dehumanized, herded like cattle and whipped like dogs. Duke is the one who can’t be broken, a hard-bitten cynic who seems to have been raised in jails and resents every authority figure he’s ever met. The warden and all the guards are depicted as ignorant goofs or sadistic fascists, not exceptions but representatives of a violent system. It is missing I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’s  meticulous attention to detail and Laughter in Hell’s death-drive delirium, but it does have dirt and grime and an atmosphere of desperation, ably lensed by DP Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait).

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Martin Scorsese was a fan, and wrote for TCM, “There are moments that you will never forget. There’s a remarkable scene that we included in my documentary on American cinema: the prisoner played by Richard Dix is about to be whipped by a guard, who suddenly flinches when he sees the tattoo on Dix’s back and recognizes that he’s a fellow WWI vet. And there’s another passage that is quite unlike anything else in American cinema of the period, in which the story of a cuckolded guard and his cheating wife is told in an impromptu Frankie and Johnny ballad.” The latter is a bizarre interlude unrelated to the rest of the action. There is a group of black prisoners, segregated from the whites, who sing spirituals in their off hours. But one of them is a talented caricaturist, and sketches out a few cartoon panels of one of the guard’s cheating wife. The story is told through song. It is graphic, funny, and a completely different tone from the quiet desperation of the rest of the feature. It’s hard to say why Selznick did not cut that sequence, when he did so many more, as well as re-shooting the ending. He had John Cromwell come in to shoot an absurdly upbeat ending that inserts a benevolent bureaucrat who punishes the staff and implicitly exonerates the prison-industrial system.

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Director Rowland Brown is one of those great Hollywood enigmas. He only directed three well-regarded films (Quick Millions, Blood Money and Hell’s Highway) before reportedly punching out a producer and never directing again, though he maintained a career as a writer up through the ’50s (he received a story credit on Kansas City Confidential (’52)). He was born in Ohio, and got his start in the arts as an illustrator and sports cartoonist. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and became a day laborer at the studios. According to James Curtis’ Spencer Tracy biography Brown, “turned to screenwriting under the auspices of the late Kenneth Hawks [Howard’s brother], went to Universal for a short while, then sold a grim mob story, “A Handful of Clouds”, to Warner Brothers, shot as The Doorway to Hell (1930, directed by Archie Mayo). Brown was reportedly involved with the mob, and was rumored to have made a living as a bootlegger during prohibition, and was said to have been an acquaintance of Bugsy Siegel. This all lent an air of legitimacy to his gangster films, and perhaps got him the opportunity to direct his script for Quick Millions (1931), a movie about a small time protections racket starring Spencer Tracy. What is remarkable about Brown is how much remains unclear. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows for sure his true relationship to the mob, or who he actually punched at RKO. It was rumored to be David O. Selznick or Frank Davis, the producer on The Devil is a Sissy, from which Brown was fired and replaced by W.S. Van Dyke. Let’s just say I will buy the Rowland Brown biography if it is ever published.

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Despite it’s beating I Am a Fugitive On a Chain Gang into theaters, the comparatively slim and cheap Hell’s Highway was soon overwhelmed at the box office, and it has disappeared from view aside from the chatter of a few Rowland Brown cultists. It is a strange, tough little film with a grim view of American incarceration, one that was kneecapped by Selznick’s re-shoots, but one that still retains its ability to shock.

DEATH WATCH: JOSEF VON STERNBERG ADAPTS AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

September 8, 2015

In 1931 the Paramount Publix Corporation was eager to film an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, having failed to do so since acquiring the rights soon after its publication in 1925. They got close in 1930, when the visiting Sergei Eisenstein wrote an experimental script that was eventually rejected for being too long and uncommercial. So instead they assigned Josef von Sternberg, who was coming off three hits starring Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Dishonored), and seemed to have the box office touch for artier, offbeat material. The resulting film, now out on DVD from the Universal Vault (the transfer is likely from an old VHS master, soft but watchable), is an oneiric oddity, using dreamlike visuals to illustrate a story of true crime barbarism – murder by drowning. Water imagery abounds, in lap dissolves and superimpositions – it even breaks up Von Sternberg’s name in the opening credits. Von Sternberg turns Dreiser’s indictment of American society, one that created the conditions for murder, into something more subjective and opaque. Dreiser claimed that Paramount had turned his novel into an “ordinary murder story”, and sued to have the movie’s release halted. The New York Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of Paramount, and the film was released. Motion Picture Herald claimed the decision was, “likely to become an important part of legal tradition and precedent in the relation of the art of literature and the art of the motion picture.” So whenever Hollywood takes creative liberties with a novel, for better or worse, it has Paramount’s An American Tragedy to thank.

“I have just finished reading the Eisenstein adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, that it was positively torturing. When I had finished it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle. As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred. …Is it too late to try to persuade the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” – David O. Selznick to B.P. Schulberg, October 8, 1930

In April of 1930 the Vice President of Paramount, Jesse Lasky, signed Eisenstein to a contract – he would receive $900 a week, out of which he would pay his cameraman Eduard Tisse and assistant Grigori Aleksandrov . They all arrived in Hollywood in May, and received the grand tour, visiting Disney, and attending a party at Ernst Lubitsch’s place at which Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg were guests. An American Tragedy was settled upon as the project. Dreiser’s story was based on the real murder of 20-year-old Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in Upstate New York in 1906. They were transposed into the novel and film as farm girl Roberta Alden and son of poverty Clyde Griffiths. Griffiths runs away from his hometown after witnessing a murder, and bounces around menial jobs (bellboy and dishwasher) until he lands a job at a printing and stamping factory. It is there he meets Roberta, and he believes he is in love until he sets his eyes on the upper class charms of Sondra, the hit of the society pages. Clyde will lose his job if his relationship with Roberta comes to light, so thoughts turn to making her disappear. Eisenstein became entranced with the idea of “internal monologue”, which was not simple voiceover but more like stream-of-consciousness audio montage that would ebb and flow with the intensity of the characters’ emotions. A snippet from his script treatment:

“As the boat glides into the darkness of the lake, so Clyde glides into the darkness of his thoughts. Two voice struggle within him — one: ‘Kill — kill!’ the echo of his dark resolve, the frantic cry of all his hopes of Sondra and society; the other: ‘Don’t — don’t kill!’ the expression of his weakness and his fears, of his sadness for Roberta and his shame before her. In the scenes that follow, these voices ripple in the waves that lap from the oars against the boat; they whisper in the beating of his heart; they comment, underscoring, upon the memories and alarums that pass through his mind; each ever struggling with the other for mastery, first one dominating then weakening before the onset of its rival.”

He had more abstract ideas too, in line with the work of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein that he admired: “Then in passionate disconnected speech. nothing but nouns. Or nothing but verbs. Then interjections. With zigzags of aimless shapes, whirling along with these in synchronization.” The script he delivered would run 14 reels (around 154 minutes), and Paramount had no intention of following his whims for such an obvious money losing project. Selznick’s view won out, and Paramount paid Eisenstein $30,000 to end their contract. They turned to von Sternberg to get the film made.

Sternberg claims to have seen nothing of Eisenstein’s treatment, and considered him a friend from their evenings together. In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, he recalls, “I was approached by Adolph Zukor. He told me that the company had a dormant investment of half a million dollars in An American Tragedy, and pleaded with me to undertake to salvage this by making an inexpensive version of it. I eliminated the sociological elements [with screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein], which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself.” So gone was the precise detailing of Clyde’s social class, and, so, according to Dreiser, “instead of an indictment of society, the picture is a justification of society and an indictment of Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes).” I would say the film does not justify society as much as ignore it, and it is not an indictment of Griffiths but an attempt to understand him. The film tries to get into his head through the atmospherics provided by DP Lee Garmes and sound recordist Harry D. Mills, who had both worked on Morocco and Dishonored. Though limited by the close attention being paid the project by the censors (Roberta’s (Sylvia Sidney) attempted abortion is implied rather than stated in the film), it tries to sketch out Clyde’s fantasy life.

The first we glimpse of Clyde’s factory job, he is overseeing his young female clientele, and Garmes’ camera tracks to the right, pausing when Clyde pauses, as the women stare up at him with theatrical flirtations. After Clyde returns to his Spartan office, the floor covered in rejected collars, there is an unusual cut to an extreme close-up underneath the factory tables, of women’s feet and ribbon. It is the only insert in the entire sequence — a peek inside his head, into his limited interests of his erotic imagination. Water is the overarching trigger for Clyde’s desires, however. His first date with Roberta is a canoe ride down a stream, and Von Sternberg utilizes long lap dissolves of water, with scenes melting into and layering on top of each other. In Spring time, the blossom of his love for Roberta, a close-up of the shimmering river is superimposed on top of a long-shot of the same river, creating an abstract image of glimmer, something of the sensorium exploding in Clyde’s head. Later when he hears the newsboy haranguing passersby with headlines of a drowned woman, murder arrives on the horizon of possibilities. Clyde’s hand hovering over a map is then dissolved over an image of a lake, as he begins to assert control over his own violent desires, starts to put them into action.

This intimate dreamscape, some of Von Sternberg’s most discomfiting work, asking the audience to identify with a fetishistic killer, ends abruptly in the extended courtroom sequence that ends the film, a marathon of stilted exposition. The slow, drowsy build into Clyde’s paranoid mindset turns flat and realist, the fog of mystery lifted in favor of legibility and half-hearted redemption. But a film with as complex a production history as this one couldn’t help but being compromised in the end, with so many demands coming from Paramount, the censors, and Dreiser’s lawsuit. It is two-thirds of a great film.

BAYOU BREAKOUT: CRY OF THE HUNTED (1953)

October 27, 2015

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After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.

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Cry of the Hunted was shot in September of 1952 in Los Angeles and the Louisiana bayou, an ambitious schedule for a B picture. But even MGM’s B films were done at budgets higher than Lewis was used to. He recalled to Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It:  “At Metro, I found when I had a sequence to shoot with fog in it, they wanted to give me two huge stages and build a whole swamp set, put a boat in there and everything. I knew what that meant: you’d fog up the scene and after you made a shot, you’d have to wait for a half hour of forty-five minutes until the huge fans blew out all the old smoke. Right? Well, that was the Metro way. I wasn’t about to do that – I wanted to do it on the outside, which we did eventually.” Lewis was always trying to get outside and onto the streets and the dirt – thinking it was cheaper to find something ready-made than have it constructed. This was not quite the MGM way, and this made him an odd fit at the company, and he often regretted signing the deal.

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The screenplay by Jack Leonard is fairly elemental. Jory (Vittorio Gassman), a petty Cajun criminal, has been imprisoned for driving the getaway car at a robbery. Lt. Tunner (Barry Sullivan) had been tasked with getting Jory to talk and incriminate his heist-mates. When Jory busts out of jail, he lams it for Louisiana. It is up to Tunner and his rotund partner Goodwin (a sardonic William Conrad) to wade through the swamps and the quicksand to find Jory and bring him back to justice.

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The energy lags anytime there is a scene indoors, whether it’s at the prison Warden’s office handing Tunner his detail or it’s the Lieutenant at home, making nice with his improbably perky wife (she mixes him martinis for his manhunt picnic basket). These are script pages to plow through, an assignment to complete. But the film comes alive outside. The first galvanic scene is Jory’s escape, which happens during a car accident when they are transferring him back to jail. After being harangued in the backseat by Goodwin’s threatening banter (William Conrad plays his cop as a smiling sociopath), he springs loose on a Los Angeles street following a head on collision. Lewis seems to feel as suddenly free  as Jory, capturing Gassman hoofing it towards the Angels Flight funicular with the piston-like form of Tom Cruise. The funicular was a transport from Downtown to the working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill. The history and various incarnations of Angels Flight were dissected in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a history of the city on-screen. This instance is particularly notable, for Lewis jams a camera into one of the cars as it travels up, and shots Conrad (or his stand-in) as they race up a staircase across the way.

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The scenes shot on the Louisiana Bayou are less urgent and more atmospheric – sweaty, sticky sequences where everything seems to be sinking into a bog. Lewis’s use of extreme close-ups becomes even more prominent, pushing his camera straight into the sweat ridges on male foreheads. Forward motion becomes impossible through the thick swamp, dotted as it is by quicksand, crocs, and disfigured Cajun soothsayers who scream for their lost loved ones (“Raul! Raul!”, she yells, to no response). Tunner even hallucinates being choked by the fog (and by Jory), a fever dream of elongated giant shadows towering over him and his hospital bed – it’s an impossibly strange bit of surrealist cinema for a MGM programmer.  With all of this insanity, the easy thing for Tunner and Jory to do would be to sink and disappear, but they keep fighting until the swamps threaten to consume them. They are ready to be devoured until a miraculous last act of heroism by the previously self-serving Goodwin. It’s an improbable end to a story that seemed destined to dissolve in the muck, but that’s Hollywood for you. And that’s Joseph H. Lewis for you as well, finding visual intensities from script inanities.

PULLING THE STRINGS: WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS (1934)

October 20, 2015

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When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.

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Hayes may have first become wary of cinema during that initial Broadway run of What Every Woman Knows at the Bijou Theater in 1926. As she was performing,  MGM’s epic WWI movie The Big Parade was screening next door at the Astor, and the live accompaniment was so loud it would reportedly startle the Bijou performers (per Ken Bloom’s BroadwayAn Encyclopedia). She would recover enough to take MGM’s money and immediately win a Best Actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and was radiantly innocent in Frank Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (’32).

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What Every Woman Knows had already been filmed in a 1917 British version and a 1921 Paramount Production starring Lois Wilson. But enough time had passed for MGM to take their shot, and they had the definitive “Maggie” to go with it, so they paid Paramount $65,000 for the rights to J.A. Barrie’s play. It is set in the village of Kilburne, Scotland and concerns Maggie Wylie (Hayes), a plain, rather brilliant 26-year-old whose family fears she will become a spinster. With her mother passed on, she is surrounded by her father Alick (David Torrence), and her two brothers James (a delightfully dopey Dudley Digges) and David (a starchy Donald Crisp). A few betrothals have fallen apart, and the male Wylies become desperate to marry her off, while Maggie endures them with a twinkle in her eye. The family sees an opportunity in John Shand (Brian Aherne) when they catch him breaking into their library to study, for he’s too poor to attend school. So the Wylies propose to pay for his schooling if he signs a contract promising to marry Maggie after his graduation in five years. The contract is adhered to, and suddenly John is thrust into a race to become MP. Maggie is by his side, and his ear, guiding him to higher positions. The only threat to her ascent is the beautiful socialite and political operator Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), who has her own designs on John, but Maggie has a plan for her too.

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Maggie operates in a suffocating patriarchy in which her only value to her family is through marriage, so while they love and adore her, they are desperate to get her out of the house. The early scenes are fascinating for how lightly Hayes plays them as her fate is decided by men sitting around a table. She blames her lack of “charm” for not getting a husband, and continues to flit around the house seemingly oblivious to the monumental changes her life is about to undertake. Whether she is accepting a present or a husband, her reaction is the same, with a benign, half-smiled acceptance. This false “lightness” is conveyed through her lilting Scotch burr as well as her walk. The one aspect of her that can’t lie is her eyes, and director Gregory La Cava, a wonderful director of actresses (Bebe Daniels in Feel My Pulse, Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses), has the blocking in the frame dictated by her gaze. Men are the filaments to her magnet, shifting around her as she tilts her head. While she cannot run for political office due to her sex, she can control their actions from her boudoir.

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After a poor test screening in Los Angeles, La Cava brought the cast and crew back into the studio for retakes, saying, “every Joe Miller Scotch joke ever written” would be thrown in to please the audience (Joe Miller’s Jests was an English joke book from 1739), though Hayes recalled that none of the 18th century bon mots made it into the film. She was unhappy with the production, though it received decent reviews (the NY Times called it “heart-warming and decidedly effective”. She threatened to no-show her next assignment, Vanessa: Her Love Story (’35), but did the job to avoid getting sued. Through with Hollywood, she would devote the rest of her career to the stage, returning to TV and film intermittently (memorably so in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952)). What Every Woman Knows was a project La Cava and Hayes would both like to forget, but my job is to keep people from forgetting. It is a loose and amiable film with an alert, masterful performance at its center.

PASSING FASHION: KAY FRANCIS AT WARNER BROTHERS

September 15, 2015

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In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but contain the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

I Found Stella Parish, directed by studio stalwart Mervyn Leroy (I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang) was such a success on its New York opening that WB extended Francis’ contract well before it was to expire. Based on a John Monk Saunders story called “The Judas Tree”, it is the story of London stage sensation Stella Parish (Francis), who disappears right after another smash hit debuts. A shadowy figure from her past appears in her dressing room, threatening to reveal a violent secret. In order to protect her daughter, Parish flees home to the US, and is trailed by a reporter, who reveals her past involvement in a murder case. Fashion is closely tied to identity. On the ship from London to the US,Francis hides her identity as a gray-haired granny in what looks like conservative mourning clothes. When she takes off the wig and returns to her natural age, reality sets in, the past still on her trail.

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Parish abandons her daughter to keep her free of scandal, and hits the stage to cash in on her newfound fame. Francis goes from grand dame lead in London to vaudeville circuit curiosity, her wardrobe getting tawdry, her language salty. There are no surprises in the film, but it hits its marks, and Francis is reliably stunning in Orrin-Kelly’s draping, backless gowns, and she positively glows with mother-love:

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The White Angel is something else entirely, a drab biopic of Florence Nightingale’s reformation of England’s nursing corps during WWI. Director William Dieterle, who had directed Francis before in the fast-paced screwball heist film Jewel Robbery (’32), seems bored with the material, as does most of the cast and crew, although there are a few nice tracking shots of Nightingale checking on wounded veterans, lit only by a lantern. But Francis wasn’t right for the role, and she knew it: “I shudder to think of that one”, she said in 1938:

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More importantly, the studio was displeased. Producer Hal Wallis:  “In scene after scene, reacting to the sight of the injured…she looked completely blank. We weren’t too happy with the picture. The White Angel was well directed, but miscast, and Kay Francis had lost the box office she once had. It was one of our box office failures.” Though he overstated the financial failure (it made $886,000 domestically on a $506,00 budget), the perception was something of a disaster. And once she lost that shine, she had trouble getting it back, not that WB was giving her great opportunities to succeed.

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Confession (1937) is the most fascinating film of the three (and the least successful at the box office), directed by German expat Joe May (Asphalt). The film was a remake of the Pola Negri movie Mazurka (1935), and reportedly May was militant about copying the film down to the second, showing up to the set with a stopwatch to make sure the shot length matched exactly. The movie has a complex flashback structure, delving into the past of Vera (Francis), as she is being tried for murder. A one-time actress in operettas for Michael Michailow (Basil Rathbone), she had later married, divorced, and lost her daughter in the split. Each phase of her life brings a different haircut and wardrobe, from the chin-length blonde locks of her court date, to a curly golden wig of her nightclub routine, back to her days as a happy-go-lucky brunette. Francis doesn’t even appear in the film for the first twenty minutes, a bold narrative strategy that focuses on secondary characters in elaborate tracking shot sequences, in and around a transit station, and then up and through a dinner theater. The lengthy prologue ends with Francis in a tacky patterned dress and wig, desperate to end that segment of her life. And so she does, with a gunshot to her male tormentor’s torso. The film has a strong sense of female solidarity, as Vera finds sympathy and tenderness from the second wife of her husband  and the estranged daughter who was the cause of it all. The intensity of that bond is terribly moving, and May’s roving camera and cluttered mise-en-scene provides a background of  a life in disarray. After the disappointing returns on The White Angel and Confession, WB started giving her cheaper projects, eventually shunting her off to their B unit, until they terminated her contract in 1939.

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