June 30, 2015
When I have an empty afternoon to kill, I go to the movies. This past Saturday my hours were filled to bursting with the “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” series at MoMA, which runs through August 5th. The way the schedule fell, my matinees were made up of MGM’s frothy swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952) and the kindly circus folk of 20th Century Fox’s Chad Hanna (1940), with the prime evening slot held by the dark, violent Universal-International Western, Apache Drums (1952). This is a series after my own heart, a 60+ feature cavalcade of movies classic and obscure from 1922 – 1955, all exhibited on film (a rarer and rarer pleasure). My random sampling spanned two decades, three genres, and a variety of approaches to Technicolor. Scaramouche is all gleaming candy colors — you are almost invited to go up and lick the screen. Chad Hanna and Apache Drums are more subdued in their palettes, both making use of darkness and chiaroscuro to capture folds in upstate New York circus tents and candlelight in a Southwestern church under siege, respectively.
Even in 1952, Scaramouche was something of a throwback. It is an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, which had been adapted into a 1923 feature by Rex Ingram. Sabatini also provided the source material for Captain Blood (1924 and 1935), and it is the elegant ease of Errol Flynn’s ’35 swashbuckling that the film is trying to channel. It is resoundingly successful at doing so, a buoyant identity-swapping tale set in 18th century France, in which gentleman lover Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) gets on the wrong side of Queen Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) because his pal Philippe is spreading pseudonymous pamphlets advocating revolution (Richard Anderson). Moreau is a dashing man on the run, and hides out with a Parisian commedia dell’arte troupe along with his sometime girlfriend Lenore (Eleanor Parker). Moreau also has his eyes on Aline (Janet Leigh, garbed in Easter egg pastels), who is set to marry the Queen’s cousin Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), a master swordsman and sadist who Moreau is hell-bent on extracting revenge from.
It all moves swiftly under George Sidney’s direction and Charles Rosher’s camera, who mount a number of rousing fight sequences. The capper is a near-7-minute bout inside of a crowded theater. Ferrer and Granger start on a balcony and parry down the lobby staircases and into the still-crowded seats, until they tumble through backstage matte paintings. The fight choreography is superb, and has been built up throughout. Ferrer is the more nimble, more experienced swordsman, and he uses his speed and intelligence to evade Granger’s clumsy lunges. Granger is built like a circus strongman, a double-barreled chest tottering over two spindly legs, while Ferrer moves like a dancer, the sword an extension of himself. All the seats and curtains are deep red, while Granger and Ferrer are costumed by Gile Steele in white and black. Ferrer is white hair/black vest/black pants, while Granger has black hair (with saucy ponytail) with white cape and white pants (with black trim). They are inverses of each other in a carpet of red.
Granger spends the whole movie reining in his aggressiveness until the final duel in the middle of the stage, where he declines to deliver the fatal blow, gaining power in their relationship for the first time. The whole cast sparkles, especially the ferocious Eleanor Parker (a blonde in a gorgeous red wig, dressed in “hot” colors to contrast with Leigh’s cool pastels), who battles Granger up and down the commedia dell’arte stage. There are some wonderful pratfalls in the extended theatre sequences, which taught me the lesson that 18th century French comedy was closer to the Three Stooges than I ever imagined.
Chad Hanna (1940) is more expressly about a performing troupe, this time a traveling circus in upstate New York in the mid-to-late 1800s. It was adapted from the Walter D. Edmonds novel of the same name, and followed the fluctuating fortunes of the troupe as two runaways, Chad Hanna (Henry Fonda) and Caroline Tridd (Linda Darnell), find their way in the world of ballyhoo. This would be the third Edmonds adaptation that Fonda would star in, following The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935, based on the novel Rome Haul) and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It’s a strange little coming-of-age tale with lots of local color, as Fonda is supported by Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Lamour and John Carradine. I savor upstate New York town names like Canastota, the backwater town that Chad and Caroline join the circus to get away from. The film follows their tumble into love (and jealousies over Chad’s attraction to Dorothy Lamour’s bareback rider), battles against competing circus thugs, and the joys of owning an elephant. Shot in a nostalgic golden hue by Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, faces are plucked out and framed like portraits in cameo necklaces, especially in the luminous close-ups of Darnell and Lamour. But Palmer and Rennahan also provide pockets of darkness. Where Scaramouche is entirely visible, Chad Hanna keeps some things hidden.
Apache Drums (1951) is a troubling Western that is shot like a horror movie, where American nightmares emerge from the dark. It is the final film produced by Val Lewton, and exhibits his talent for wrenching scares on the cheap, along with his collaborators, director Hugo Fregonese and DP Charles P. Boyle. At the beginning an off-screen narrator states: “The hunger wolf chews on our strengths. Soon the warriors will be too weak to fight. Then the white man will thrust us away from the earth, and only the empty sky will know the voices of the Mescalero.” Then the scene shifts to the New Mexico town of “Spanish Boot”, where strapping blonde mayor Joe Madden (Willard Parker) is cleaning out the disreputable elements. This means buying out the dance hall and giving card sharp Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) an ultimatum to get lost. But Leeds is a stubborn sort and in love with local waitress Sally (Coleen Gray). For the Whites in town the Apache tribe that lives outside their county lines is only a rumor, a spectre. But they are dying out there, starving to death, and in their desperation have started attacking stagecoaches running in and out of Spanish Boot, and are working their way towards the town itself. Much like Lewton’s monster movies (The Leopard Man for one), the Apache are kept mostly offscreen, shown only as hands banging drums or arrows hitting burlap. This dehumanizes them, turns them into monsters. In the siege finale, with the villagers cowering inside a church, all the lights out except for a few candles, the Apache, in their war pain, appear out of the gloom like The Leopard Man or The Cat People. They are robbed of their individuality to become ghosts of a lost civilization. The final siege is oneiric, upsetting and unbearably suspenseful. Taking place almost entirely in the dark, with low-light outlining the square openings near the roof, the Apaches clamber through in waves, shot down by the dwindling villagers, made up of Leeds, Madden, a racist Reverend (Arthur Shields) and a sympathetic Lieutenant (James Griffith). It is a sequence of undeniable racism that acknowledges that racism, unspooling like America’s fever dream, trying to snuff out the unending army of its victims.