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

September 8, 2015

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

COMEDY OF REMARRIAGE: THE MOON’S OUR HOME (1936)

January 20, 2015

Moon00004Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.

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The Moon’s Our Home was adapted from a serialized novel by Faith Baldwin first published in Hearst’s International Cosmopolitan magazine. Walter Wanger Productions optioned the film rights, and included it in their distribution deal with Paramount. Wanger had also produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine earlier in 1936, a Technicolor Western directed by Henry Hathaway that began the process of etching Henry Fonda into American history. Wanger brought Fonda back for The Moon’s Our Home, here playing an urbane travel writer with the pen name Anthony Amberton (real name John Smith), something of a hippie free spirit who’d rather commune with nature than with his growing legion of fans. But he is forced into city life to promote his new book (the macho “Astride the Himalayas”), and ends up on the same train as “Cherry Chester”, real name Sarah Brown (Sullavan), the young Hollywood ingenue of the moment. She is on her way to visit her supposedly sick grandmother back East in New York City, and is about to be roped into a relationship with her mewling cousin Horace (Charles Butterworth). The two celebrities never meet, but imagine the other to be a pompous airhead. Seiter splits the screen open diorama style and shows them in their adjacent rooms, their nighttime rituals choreographed as a dance. From brushing teeth to that last cigarette, every motion of theirs is in sync. It is a lyrical, economical way to convey that these two are made for each other, though they are a long way from realizing it. In his room, Amberton disgustedly states that “marshmallow-faced movie stars make me sick.”

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During a book signing in NYC, Amberton gets woozy from perfume that makes him nauseous, evades his marauding admirers, escapes the department store and jumps into a horse-and-carriage, one which Cherry happens to be riding in. She is running away from her grandmother’s matchmaking mania. Neither recognizes the other, and so they flirt. Amberton says, “You’re rather attractive in an elementary sort of way”,  in between complaints about city life and dreams of wooded isolation. Amberton/Smith drops off the business card of the secluded New Hampshire guest home he is staying at, and Chester/Brown cannot resist the impulse to disappear. She runs away from her grandmother and Horace, her vanishing causing headline news. The couple falls in love through their disasters: ski crashes, wild horses and the tensed up paranoia of the guest house manager, the Wicked Witch herself Margaret Hamilton. They get married (by a deaf Walter Brennan), without knowing the other’s true identity. After another waft of perfume, the truth begins to leak out, they break up, and the hard work of re-building their marriage has to begin.

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Prone to vase-smashing tantrums back home, Sarah seeks the easing of pressure that comes with anonymity. Sullavan, who Fonda described as “cream and sugar on a plate of hot ashes”, flashes all of her cuteness, innocence and wrath. Early on, a telegram from her grandmother has her tossing dishes at her servants, while the conclusion of the sequence finds her wrapped in white furs, her voice softened to a purr, as she delicately speaks to a reporter about love. She has the ability to fold up her body like an accordion when she wants to disarm you, shrinking herself into a dot that contains only her heart-shaped face. Once you are in her thrall she can expand into her knife-sharp, almost stabbing, form. It was this aggressiveness that initially attracted Fonda to her.

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Devin McKinney describes their first encounter in his beautifully written biography of Fonda, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: “Henry meets Margaret Sullavan in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1929, when they both appear in a musical comedy revue and she, as part of a synchronized production number, slaps him silly. ‘She intrigued me,’ he [Fonda] says.” The tabloids pegged their breakup to Sullavan’s rapid ascent and Fonda’s concurrent struggles. In 1936 Screenland phrased it as, “The old story of the rich, successful wife and the poor, unappreciated husband, and of course two such screwy people didn’t wait long to get a divorce.”

The Moon’s Our Home is a knowing re-enactment of their relationship, this time tagged with a “happy” ending. They get back together, but in a particularly cruel way, perhaps befitting their tumultuously brief time together. McKinney quotes a witness to one of their married bouts, who said, “They fought so terribly that you’d have to get out of the room.” From the courting to the break-up to their reunion, everything is borne out of violence and humiliation. Brown agrees to marry Amberton only after losing a bet – that she wouldn’t be able to stand up after crashing on her skis. During a grueling and very funny few minutes of screen time, Sullavan splays and slips and folds in half, but can never get upright. The marriage ceremony itself is an argument — Walter Brennan mishears their tiff “-Do you want to call the whole thing off? -I certainly do” as a confirmation of their vows. It ends in a brutal fashion. Sullavan is attempting to fly back to Hollywood to continue her career. Instead Fonda tracks her down, throws her into a straitjacket, and drives back into the city. It is a sequence of brutal patriarchal privilege, as Molly Haskell pointed out in From Reverence to Rape, but it is impossible to imagine Sullavan being kept tied up for long. As McKinney wrote, “Soon the jacket will come off, and this twister will fly again.”

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When production began Sullavan was married to William Wyler, who directed her in The Good Fairy (1935). They were divorced in March of 1936, a few months after The Moon’s Our Home opened to middling box office. There was talk that Fonda and Sullavan were getting back together, but it never happened, it was probably just publicist fodder to drum up interest in the film. But the movie is enough to make you believe. That same Screenland article paints an irresistible portrait of the old couple settling into their old wedded roles, two beautiful, prickly pranksters who know who to get on every last nerve:

The director and people on the set tell me that for the first few days of production Margaret and Henry never spoke to each other but at the end of each “take” would go to opposite corners of the stage like a couple of wrestlers when the gong rings. …The first day on location in the snow Henry persuaded the sound technician to let him handle the “mike” boom for one scene in which Margaret was supposed to rant all over the place. And he purposely did such a bad job of handling it that the scene had to be taken over three times. By the third “take” Margaret was really ranting and Henry made a dirty crack to the effect that it sounded just like Old Home week. Late that afternoon Margaret got even with him. She was on top of a small slippery incline and extended a helping hand to Henry as he scrambled up. Just as he reached the top she pushed his face down in the snow and then sat on him. Well, you can’t be aloof to a man after you’ve sat on him, now can you?