Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Snapshot # 8 - The Savage Girl (1932)


What is it about?: An eccentric millionaire hires an intrepid jungle explorer to go to Africa to catch him some wild animals for his new zoo. While there they encounter the legend of the White Goddess – a savage girl who lives wild in the jungle.

The Call Sheet: Rochelle Hudson, Walter Byron, Harry Myers, Adolph Milar, Ted Adams and Floyd Shackleford

Behind the Camera: Directed by Harry L. Fraser, Written by Brewster Morse, Cinematography by Edward A. Kull.

Snapshot Thoughts: I’ve seen plenty Poverty Row movies in my time, and for the most part they pass the time of day and rarely make an impression. Using faded stars and journeymen directors, they are simple tales giving simple thrills, cranked out for an audience that really only came to see the main feature. In this environment it seems that there was little need to stand out from the crowd, but against all odds The Savage Girl does just that. Made by the tiny Monarch Pictures, with a veteran cast and crew, the movie manages to be both funny and entertaining. Unfortunately the print currently circulating derives from the Commonwealth Pictures 1948 reissue and includes a lengthy disclaimer encouraging the audience to see the movie for the childish fantasy that it supposedly is. It’s as if by the late 40s such whimsical jungle adventures were considered a minor embarrassment, despite the fact that much worse examples of the genre were continuing to be churned out by even the major studios. I guess it shows that people have always thought that current movies were the best and that anything old was dated and silly.

Given that the movie is essentially just a standard jungle adventure, all the usual clichés we would come to expect are ready and present – stock footage, pith helmets, ferocious animals, jungle drums and spear wielding natives all make an appearance (not to mention colonialism and casual racism but sadly that’s to be expected). The difference here is that The Savage Girl has a collection of interesting characters, a couple of truly inspired and ridiculous ideas and a script that is at least trying to overachieve. The result is as good example of a fun and entertaining low budget movie this side of the Hal Roach lot. 

The story starts with veteran explorer Jim Franklin (played by Walter Byron) giving a lecture to a bunch of well to do gentlemen about his adventures in the jungle. Franklin confesses that despite his brushes with wild animals (which he proudly boasts, he only kills in self-defence) he feels he is “safer in Darkest Africa than in many a speakeasy or nightclub in this city”. His speech so inspires one of his listeners, a certain Amos P. Stitch (Harry Myers) that he decides there and then that he wants to open his own zoo and needs Franklin to stock it with animals. When asked why he replies “I want to be different!” It should also be noted that Stitch is very, very drunk, to the point that he thinks a stuffed animal head on the wall is talking to him. Franklin, though initially uncomfortable, agrees to his proposal and before you can say “So this is Africa!” they are in the jungle and saying “So this is Africa!”. Along the way Stitch manages to bring a taxi driver and his taxi as well as a collection of mice for his grand experiment – to see if elephants are actually afraid of mice. At this point you realise that the character of Amos Stitch wasn’t just drunk in the opening scene, he’s drunk 24 hours a day (in fact later on when he gets up first thing in the morning from his tent, he’s still drunk – that must be some powerful moonshine!)


Once there, they learn from Dutch explorer Alec Bernouth (Stitch: “Did you say Vermouth?”) the legend of the White Goddess, a figure of mystery worshiped by the native tribes. Before long we meet our Savage Girl, only to discover that she’s actually fairly tame. She’s pretty, very well dressed (by jungle loincloth standards) and kind to animals (she can talk to them too it seems). This proves to be her undoing as she is tricked into falling down a hole while attempting to free some of her captured jungle friends from their safari cages.

Once apprehended, it doesn’t take long for her to catch the eye of the men on the expedition, and she soon finds herself fighting off the unwanted attentions of a drunken and lecherous Bernouth (“She’s white, she’s beautiful, she’s warm, she’s smooth” he intones creepily). Luckily heroic Jim Franklin appears in time to save the day but even he has to muster all the stiff upper lip he can to resist her charms. In the end he sets her free and she runs off, pausing to look back in a sultry manner before climbing a tree and swinging off on a vine (and if you’re going to make a memorable exit, that’s the way to go). Later they meet again and she tries to kiss him, which elicits the classic line (deadpanned perfectly by Walter Byron) “You can’t do this you know - what would Walter Winchell say if he heard about it!” It’s quite interesting watching Byron in his scenes with Rochelle Hudson as he often seems quite flustered and in fact stumbles over his lines on more than one occasion. It’s doubtful that this is a reflection of his acting skills (which are admittedly fairly average) but instead I’d like to think more likely a commentary on how tongue tied one could get doing a love scene with the delectable Miss Hudson!

The rest of the movie is spent dealing with Amos Stitch’s historic mouse and elephant experiment. Once again, the fact that Stich is drunk and staggering around while attempting it just makes an already bizarre scene even stranger. Afterwards, fully vindicated he gleefully declares “Get mousie a steak when we get back to the hotel!” Truly, that mouse deserves to be recognised by science as much as Pavlov’s dog. The whole yarn enters its final reel when Bernouth starts to rabble rouse the natives and our hero is (predictably) tied to a stake awaiting sacrifice while the tribe does its war dance. The end arrives in lightning fast fashion and involves a taxi ride through the jungle, natives frightened by loud noises and a man being suddenly dragged through a window by a gorilla. The Girl finally embraces Jim and is tamed – a savage no more!


Star Performances: The cast across the board give energetic performances and all look like they are enjoying themselves and making the most of the action. Rochelle Hudson naturally gets most of the attention as she is suitably alluring and mysterious in a way that belies her young age (it’s quite incredible to think she’s only 16 in the movie as her looks and screen presence tell an entirely different story). She manages to convey the innocent and feral nature of her character quite well and uses her body language (I’m guessing she had a background in dance given the graceful and fluid way she moves) to suggest a life spent with the jungle animals. She doesn’t have many lines but her hesitant understanding of English is quite endearing, showing her naivety having lived apart from other humans. Far from being a mere Tarzan knock off (which unashamedly the movie attempts to be), Rochelle Hudson has a charm and poise that gives the movie another reason to shine brighter than the average Poverty Row filler.

Rochelle Hudson may be the most attractive element of the movie but mention needs to be made of the comical performance of Harry Myers as Amos P. Stitch. Myers made the movie relatively fresh from his memorable appearance in 1931 as the eccentric millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights (though he filmed his part in 1929) and here riffs on that role. Sadly, in 1932 Myers' career was beginning to slow down and he was generally finding only smaller, often uncredited parts (despite a respectable career as a star comedian and director in the early silent era) In The Savage Girl he clearly relishes the chance to have a starring role and makes the most of it. It’s one of those performances that is so assured and so full of great comic timing that it makes you wonder why he never got more work. I suppose his plight is similar to that of any number of veteran comic players from the silent era who never got to fully show what they could do on a big stage (for example most of the Hal Roach stock company or perennial comic foils such as Vernon Dent or Stanley Blystone). Here he plays the sort of role that a man of his experience could do in his sleep, and like a true pro makes it hilarious and appealing, milking the full comic potential out of every situation.
  

Technical Excellences: As would be expected, there’s not a lot of 'High Art' going on in The Savage Girl but what does make the screen is filmed competently and edited to make the 60 minute duration fly swiftly. The director Harry L. Fraser was a veteran of many westerns but had tried his hand at most genres. He would go on to direct and write a number of movie serials and seemed to have a talent for scripting them, since a lot of the better ones are from his pen. A great advantage of The Savage Girl is its use of primarily real location rather than being studio bound like many low budget jungle capers. Obviously the African jungle looks more like a park somewhere in New York but the locations are chosen well enough not to completely lose credibility. Even the use of stock footage works pretty well and integrates into the action better than most.

The Sublime: The best thing about the movie is its silly ideas. It’s as if the writer said to himself “What would happen if one of our central characters was drunk…all the time?”. From that revolutionary brainwave sprung the peculiar sort of madness and whimsy that the movie exudes in which every basic action can be rewritten with the question “Now what would that be like if our hero was drunk?”. It could be quite a fun game – take the plot of any well known film and rewrite the script following the logic of a pie-eyed protagonist. Some movies would actually benefit from this approach! Everything that Amos P. Stich does is off the cuff and a result of his constant inebriation. He hears a lecture about African safaris, and immediately leaves on the next boat to Africa. His taxi driver says he wants to go to Africa, and so he takes the driver and his taxi on the boat with him. Best of all he suddenly decides that he needs to discover if elephants are afraid of mice, and goes about it like it is going to be the scientific discovery of the century (“The National Geographic will hear from you!” he triumphantly tells one of his mice). The inclusion of the character and his silly schemes is what lifts the movie from the less than ordinary to the slightly above ordinary, and the fact that the cast and director manage to deal with such preposterous material in a relatively straight faced (or sober, if you will) manner just adds to the overall fun of the movie.

The Ridiculous: The whole film is ridiculous, but in a good way that adds to the enjoyment. However, from a logic point of view (and with a movie like The Savage Girl, logic very rarely enters into the equation so I don’t know why I even bring it up) some things are more ridiculous than others. First and foremost is the titular ‘Savage Girl’. Now, sadly I was not raised in the jungle Tarzan style but I know that even in a movie jungle I wouldn’t last long. Quite how Rochelle Hudson made it five minutes in the green hell is a mystery. When we first see her, she is cuddling some leopard cubs and seems to understand monkey language, which are both great jungle goddess skills to have (she also seems to have great jungle goddess skills in makeup and hair considering she is immaculately turned out despite probably living full time in a tree). However, some of her other survival abilities are a bit lacking. She screams at a leopard as if she has never seen one before (maybe it wanted its cubs back?) and thus gives herself away to the party of explorers. What’s more she is eventually trapped by being attracted to a shiny thing (aka a mirror) attached to a branch, which causes her to fall into a freshly dug hole. One would think that she would be fully acquainted with shiny things given the obvious amount of time she spends applying her foundation every morning in the mirror, but perhaps her jungle compact had become worn and dull from so much use. Anyway, as ridiculous as the movie is, the idea that somehow she is the mythical White Goddess that inspires awe and fear in the local tribesmen is a bit farfetched since she seems scared of the (fully grown ) animals and can’t see a large trap staring her in the face. In fact, her character brings up more questions than answers. Sadly, and not unexpectedly the movie spends absolutely no effort in answering any of them.

Is it worth watching?: If you like low budget jungle adventures (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then this is a superior example of the genre and about as good as you are going to get until the advent Monogram a decade later, The Savage Girl has a rather charming touch of whimsy that is highly unusual for a Poverty Row picture and this combined with a frisson of Pre Code raunch, a solid cast of character actors and the delectable Rochelle Hudson in a leopard skin, the whole affair is an overachieving delight. There are certainly worse ways involving gorillas to spend 60 minutes of your time.

Random Quote: “Keep away from men. We’ve all got a little of the tramp in us”

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mary Brian - The Real Talent of "The Sweetest Girl in Pictures"


Given the moniker of “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”, lovely Mary Brian was the perfect 20s ingénue with her long dark hair, adorable good looks and graceful manner. She was girlish and innocent when that was the fashion, and smart and sophisticated when tastes matured.  Yet she remains a difficult actress to truly define as she was never quite a leading actress, far more than a juvenile lead and never tied herself to one particular style or genre. As the film historian Anthony Slide put it, she was a “competent, intelligent, and compliant actress who exudes a natural charm and personality” Slide, a close friend of Brian in her later years meant it as the highest compliment, yet this summation of her career seems lacking in the usual hyperbole and platitudes typically given to stars of the Golden Age.
Make no mistake about it, Mary Brian was a very big star with a extremely successful career as a marquee headliner from 1925 through to the mid 30s and unlike many of her contemporaries transitioned from silent to talking pictures with an enviable ease. During her career she starred with acting heavyweights like Wallace Beery, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, James Cagney and W.C. Fields and worked with top level directors such as Lewis Milestone, Gregory La Cava, William Wellman and George Cukor. She even had a leading role in an Oscar nominated movie but despite these stellar accomplishments, like so many others, she is sadly still often overlooked and underappreciated.

Mary Brian was born Louise Datzler on February 17 1906 in Corsicana, Texas, the daughter of an oculist. Her father died in an accident when she was one month old and the family then moved to live with her aunt, eventually following her from the prairies of Texas to Long Beach, California in the early 20s. Mary received her big break into the movies when she was spotted by silent star Esther Ralston at a Bathing Beauty contest and through that connection managed to get an audition with the director Herbert Brenon. Despite having little to no experience in acting, Brenon asked her to play Wendy in his forthcoming adaption of 'Peter Pan'. Soon Louise Datzler was signed to a five year Paramount deal and rechristened Mary Brian and a new star was born.


From the very beginning in her successful 1925 debut in Peter Pan, Mary Brian was a popular young leading lady in Hollywood. Her status as a rising star was cemented when she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 alongside future greats such as Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. Sadly, very few of her silent films still exist today which is perhaps one of the reasons why she is primarily remembered for her 30s work despite making more than 20 silent movies as a leading actress. Among her most popular movies in the silent era were the football comedy Brown of Harvard with William Haines, adventure epic Beau Geste with Ronald Colman and William Powell and Behind the Front with Wallace Beery, the first of four pictures she made with him. She also become a trusted friend of W. C. Fields and starred with him in two of his silent movies, Two Flaming Youths (sadly lost) and Running Wild.
By the time sound came in, Mary Brian was a mainstay at Paramount and was soon rushed into making a talking picture. Her first, a part talkie, was Varsity (also now lost) with her friend and frequent co-star Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in 1928. She soon followed it up with a well received turn in The Virginian with Gary Cooper that proved to be a break out role establishing her as a successful sound actress (it didn't do too badly for Cooper's career either). In the early sound era she also lit up the screen in The Royal Family of Broadway (a not so subtle poke at the Barrymore acting clan) and the Oscar nominated fast talker The Front Page. Both roles continue to be fondly remembered today and show her to be a talented and resourceful actress. Despite these triumphs, in 1932 Paramount decided not to renew her contract, choosing instead to move away from the sort of ingénue roles she played to more ‘sophisticated’ fare. Since playing the sort of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich roles preferred by the studio was not her scene, Mary freelanced for the rest of her career.

This post 1932 period brought some memorable roles but the good parts began to slowly dry up. Nevertheless she still made some great films in this time such as Blessed Event with Lee Tracy, Girl Missing with Ben Lyon and Glenda Farrell and Hard to Handle with James Cagney, perhaps her last great film (though she sports atypical platinum blonde hair which doesn't really suit her natural beauty). However, B pictures started to appear more and more on her resume and the A list co-stars became replaced more often than not by the likes of Leo Carrillo, Dick Purcell, Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen (though in the end Arlen became her most frequent co-star, they made an astonishing 11 films together between 1926 and 1933). After that Mary worked in theatre and then during the Second World War tirelessly devoted her time to entertaining the troops with the USO. Her last movie appearance was in the Poverty Row crime drama Dragnet in 1947, and save for a brief television comeback in the 50s Mary then retired to devote herself to her family and her painting.


I’ve always likes Mary Brian immensely since she first caught my eye in The Marriage Playground. There she plays the oldest of a large group of children living with their rich, disinterested parents. Despite being incredibly pretty and the camera simply loving her, she was still overshadowed by her co-stars Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and particularly Mitzi Green. Next up was Blessed Event, a newspaper caper where she generally stands around while Lee Tracy blitzes the screen with his incendiary delivery and presence. She still looks incredibly pretty though. More recently I watched her in Girl Missing where she plays one half of a crime solving team of gold diggers with Glenda Farrell. The movie has a tour de force performance from Farrell, who commands the screen and gets all the best lines. Mary gamely hangs in there and gives capable support but is really only there to provide a romantic subplot with Ben Lyon. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I watched Charlie Chan in Paris. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she did in the movie and in fact I have no memory of her even being in it. It appears that by that time (1935) she had almost disappeared into the background entirely. 

Going back to Anthony Slide’s earlier words, what at first seemed like faint praise is actually a perfect summation of her talent. She truly is “competent, intelligent and compliant” – a true professional whose role in movies was to be the featured actress there to support a star impeccably without smothering them. Additionally she definitely has “charm and personality”, yet never to the point that detracts from her afore mentioned purpose. What first struck me about Mary Brian was her everyday fresh faced looks and simple style that lived up to her moniker “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”. She was a girl next door, or a beloved big sister - dependable and gracious, at times streetwise but never brash or rude. This quality, especially when paired up with a larger than life co-star made her believable in her roles and equally trusted by audiences. There is an honestly and charm to Mary Brian that is real and very appealing and could quite easily hold a film together despite being paired with large personalities.


For this reason it’s no wonder that she was so revered by W. C. Fields and was requested by him to play his daughter in one of his best films, The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Throughout the film she is the one person who not only stands by Fields’ character and defends him but who holds together the chaos that he brings. She once said of him “He knew he could count on me to do certain things and never look as if I don’t know what it is. A comedian depends on a straight man…their timing depends on what you feed them” The fact that she could work so easily with a comedian as spontaneous and unpredictable as Fields and not only keep up with him but feed him exactly the reactions he needed speaks volumes about Mary Brian’s talents more than perhaps any one performance. Just like her work with Lee Tracy, Glenda Farrell and James Cagney (and it can’t be a coincidence in her freelancing years that she was hired out to team up with the three fastest talkers in Hollywood) being the straight man is a vastly underrated skill that is essential to the success of the other part of the equation. And if you can do all that and look lovely while you are doing it...well, then that is even better.

Again, when reading reviews of The Front Page, with its constant chatter and cross talk, you very rarely hear anything said about Mary’s performance in the movie. In a way it means she has done her job and let the others shine despite not always getting to show her own skills so prominently. Watching the movie and particularly her performance, she is adept at stunned reactions and timing her feed lines to let the rhythm of the dialogue flow. Of course the problem with being a good straight man is that if the parts across from you are not very well written or performed than your own role is diminished too. Sadly this happened all to often in Mary’s career in its later years where she just turns up and looks pretty (like the afore mentioned Charlie Chan film) or even worse just stands about doing nothing as the nominal romantic interest in a dull picture.


Sometimes in the case of comedy double acts I wonder what would have happened if one of the pair had made solo films or worked as character actor. Would Bud Abbott have managed to show more of his comic range (so tantalisingly hinted at in Little Giant)? George Burns certainly flourished when he went solo though it took him a while to truly find his voice.  In the case of Mary Brian, ever the perfect sounding board for actors and actresses to bounce off, would she have been successful if given Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard level parts? Given her talent and adaptability I have no doubt that she would have been wonderful but in cinema, just like in life we each have a role to play and Mary Brian’s role seemingly was to help others shine. It was often became a thankless job but one that she was supremely gifted at. At her best, Mary Brian was a radiant, charming talent that had a likeability and connection with audiences that made her a popular favourite for over a decade.  Despite sharing the screen with bigger personalities or nearly disappearing into the background with sub par scripts, Mary Brian with charm and grace always gave it her all and made us believe in her, and for me will always be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Happy birthday Mary!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Look of Oliver Hardy - Happy 125th Birthday Babe!



A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on the occasion of Stan Laurel's 120th birthday. I mentioned my eternal gratitude to him for all the laughs he has given me and that if it were not for him, I would not be the film fan (or the person) I am today. Of course, Stan deserves every plaudit he receives, but he would be the first to admit that all those accolades need to be equally given out to Oliver Hardy. When I was a child, Stan was my favourite and he made me laugh until I was sick with his clowning. My dad would always tell me that Ollie was his favourite and he would try unsuccessfully to convince me that Hardy was the real funny one, not Stan. Of course, we were both right and wrong. Stan and Ollie can't be viewed separately, they are entwined forever, parts of an infinitely funnier whole. However, one thing has changed as I have gotten older - I have taken my father's advice and now spend most of my time (as Stan did), just watching Oliver Hardy and his pitch perfect comic timing. His expressions, body language and mannerisms are an exquisite thing of beauty, a talent so expertly judged that it is at times breath taking how good Hardy is as a comic actor. He is the glue that holds the partnership together, and in his soulful eyes and gentle voice is the heart and soul of the duo.

Yet despite all this, what really makes Oliver Hardy a true screen immortal is 'the look'. It's often just a simple, incredibly brief raising of the eye and the tiniest glance at the audience but it's enough to make all the difference. Once you catch it the connection is made and throughout the Laurel and Hardy movies, Ollie will forever become your guide through the many trials and pitfalls of life with the two friends. Hardy’s glances at the camera probably started in an effort to highlight the roles each of them often play – that of Stan the child and Ollie the exasperated parent but they ended up becoming so much more. Of course their actual roles are more complex but it’s interesting (and perhaps a reason for their longevity) that children watching tend to identify strongly with Stan then grow up to be adults their own responsibilities that Ollie represents. Whereas Stan wanders through life aimlessly, following in the footsteps of his pal, it is Ollie who tries to better himself by his misguided attempts to integrate with everyday society, whether it be marriage, a job or a new skill. Ollie tries to be a successful adult but due to a combination of Stan’s ineptness and his own ego, he always fails. And that is where his look makes all the difference.


Surely there is no one in screen history that can cause accidental destruction on a scale with Ollie (of course all triggered by Stan first). Ollie doesn't merely slip on a bar of soap and fall over, he slips, stumbles and falls on to a bed which violently collapses causing a tremor which brings down all the fittings in the room with a near explosion of chaos. Ollie doesn't merely get his feet wet in a puddle, he falls down a six foot hole that the puddle disguises (Stan walks though undisturbed, obviously). And when Ollie falls down a chimney, there's always an endless supply of bricks waiting to fall on his head, seemingly suspending the laws of physics especially in order to extend his suffering (and there's always one last brick when he thinks it all over). Simply put, often through little fault of his own Ollie is a walking disaster of epic proportions. It's cruel but his plight makes us laugh, such is the way of slapstick. However, as we watch him flounder, Hardy pulls one of the most singularly brilliant and audacious comic touches in motion picture history, he looks back at us.

Better writers than me could probably wax eloquently all day about the emotions contained in one of Ollie's looks to camera. Suffice to say, there is a lot of variety in his looks - he uses different ones for different situations (one of the best is after Stan says something nonsensical, he tends to do the briefest of double takes, with his eyes! Try doing that in front of a mirror). The most affecting though, happen after one of his frequent falls down a chimney/out a window/out the side of a boat/ down a large flight of stairs etc. He stares at the camera, and in that brief intimate moment we truly feel his pain, his frustration and most of all his essential goodness. It's a wonderful connection that just extends the field of goodwill that Laurel and Hardy endlessly project and makes me love them even more. Ollie's desperate glances may convey momentary exasperation with Stan, but we know that it is temporary and their friendship will be repaired in no time (or until the next mishap).


It's been said many times how the humanity of Laurel and Hardy is what sets them apart from all other comedy teams. There is a graciousness, a respect and a real affection between the two friends, and as someone once said (it may have been John McCabe), they really are two gentlemen and 'gentle men'. A huge part of the believability of this relationship was of course the real life relationship between the pair, but to me it's always been Ollie and his weary looks to the audience that made me truly understand their humanity. They transcend the decades, and bring us closer to these two funny men from a time before any of us were born. And as I mentioned earlier, this is all a testament to Hardy's beautiful timing and unparalleled ability as an actor.

As Kurt Vonnegut once remarked "There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These two men are too sweet to survive in this world". This could be true but Ollie takes the burden of worry from us, looks back at us for a brief moment, then gets back up, puts on his battered bowler hat and starts all over again. He is reassuring us that things are alright, and indeed we all feel better for it. His look is a beautiful, sincere gesture from a talented comic master. For all that Stan Laurel means to me, Oliver Hardy means just as much. Comedy, tragedy and humanity are hard skills for most actors to master but Ollie can do it with a look. Just watch for that final brick though... 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Snapshot # 7 - Hell's Highway (1932)


What is it about?: Confined to a prison camp and forced to do the back breaking work of construction for the ‘Liberty Highway’, convicted bank robber Duke Ellis looks for a way to escape the brutal conditions of the chain gang .However, his plans are complicated by the arrival of his cocky yet naïve younger brother, who looks up to Duke and wants to follow in his footsteps.

The Call Sheet: Richard Dix, Tom Brown, C. Henry Gordon, Stanley Fields, Charles Middleton and Clarence Muse

Behind the Camera: Directed by Rowland Brown, Written by Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker and Rowland Brown, Cinematography by Edward Cronjager, Art direction by Carroll Clark.

Snapshot Thoughts: Hell’s Highway is a prime example of Pre Code exploitation cinema, coming as it did hot on the heels of the hype surrounding Warners' I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Though both films were made at around the same time, Hell’s Highway sneaked into cinemas a couple of months before its legendary cousin, but like all imitators quickly faded into obscurity. However, it is an unjustly forgotten film that naturally suffers in comparison to the Paul Muni epic yet deserves serious consideration on its own merits. Although there is a powerful message contained in the story, it takes a back seat to a parade of human drama and suffering. The movie refrains from offering a clear moral stance, instead opting to view events from a detached cynical distance. An opening title card makes the audience perhaps believe that this is another movie with a conscience, offering a solemn plea for justice and an end to the “conditions portrayed herein – which though a throw-back to the Middle Ages, actually exist today”. Yet the accompanying newspaper headlines flashed before the screen quickly betray these good intentions with their sensationalism (“Naked Boy Was Chained By Throat To Overhead Rafters, Convicts Declare”). For here we have not the powerful sermonising for change of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but the lurid desire to show the abuses of the penal system in all its sordid glory, under the pretence of social betterment. With a cast of grotesques, a gritty, nihilistic worldview and a brisk pace, Hell’s Highway is tabloid film making at its finest, and is all the better for it.

For rather than being a film with a social purpose, the chain gang setting acts as a situation to hang two things – firstly that of the relationship between two brothers and secondly a near fetishism for prison brutality. All else is just window dressing, and incidental to the melodrama. The director, Rowland Brown was a singular talent who really deserved to achieve more in the movie industry (he also wrote and directed the excellent Quick Millions and the cult classic Blood Money) but personal and issues and creative conflicts derailed his directorial career, Always a man to fight the system, explore unusual ideas or just get kicked of a movie set, his films contain a quirky non conformity that could never realistically result in a long career in Hollywood. Hell’s Highway bears all his hallmarks and proves that perhaps he came along too early in film’s history. His ideas seem more in tune with the potent low budget exploitation cinema of the 50s and 60s and once the Production Code was enforced in 1934 a lot of his edge was lost.

Here he assembles a fine cast of character actors to portray the convicts and despite many not getting much screen time each character is memorable, and imbued with a semblance of an inner life. These include a bigamist (Charles Middleton) who prefers being in prison than being back with his three wives, a gullible prison guard who suspects his wife is cheating on him and takes lethal action (Warner Richmond), a cruel warden who in his spare time finds pleasure in playing the violin badly (C. Henry Gordon), a gay cook (Eddie Hart) who loves funerals (“The casket was all covered with a great big blanket of pansies!”), an African American prisoner (Clarence Muse) who misses his wife’s sweet charms (“…you don’t know tired a man does get when he don’t get no lovin’”) and a ladies’ man (Jed Kiley) who has signed photos from a variety of movie stars (all signed in the same handwriting) and who jumps back into his burning cell to retrieve them rather than escape. All these little sketches add so much to the supporting cast and flesh out the movie with all manner of fascinating details. When added to the carefully mapped out plot, the shocking representation of the misery and brutality of prison life and the distanced and non judgemental morality, Hell’s Highway is an intense mix of Pre Code crowd pleasing thrills.


Star Performances: Richard Dix brings a rugged menace to the role of Duke Ellis and shines in what on paper is a largely unsympathetic role. He is a tough career criminal yet heavily principled when it comes to how his brother sees him. Typically for the tone of the movie, there is no doubt about whether Duke is actually innocent of his crimes and it makes for a morally interesting choice of leading character. With his dark hair and manly good looks, there is an element of Clark Gable to Dix’s screen persona, yet without Gable’s twinkling charms and broad smile. In a sense, Dix is an unfiltered Gable, an alpha male in the prison yard and full of seething righteous anger at authority, yet without a measure of accountability for his own actions. In reality this is because Richard Dix lacks the acting range and charisma of Gable but nonetheless there is something magnetic about his performance in Hell’s Highway. It’s a stripped down role in a brutal environment and it suits his skills perfectly. Dix is an actor who had a very respectable career but who could have benefitted immensely from more of these sweat stained, gritty roles to flex his muscles to. There’s a great scene where he talks to Charles Middleton’s character while brushing his teeth in the morning, and spits out the contents of his mouth mid way through his line. It’s a small moment but refreshingly unrefined for a Hollywood production and works perfectly for his brutish character.

Speaking of Charles Middleton, he is superb as the gaunt pseudo mystical bigamist Matthew. Usually Middleton excels in high melodrama (see for example his iconic roles in the Flash Gordon serials or Laurel and Hardy films) but here he brings a real depth to his usual character. For the first time I can remember, he appeared to be a real person rather than merely a sonorous voice and grave demeanour. Unshaven and dishevelled, he stands by the sidelines watching for information then uses his new found knowledge to his advantage, disguised as mystical prophecy. With proclamations like “There is blood on the stars” he strikes an otherworldly presence. I always think that Charles Middleton usually has a certain impenetrable manner to him, like a stern Victorian father (to the point that I can’t actually image what he could be like in real life), but here given a real character and motivation he uses his considerable ability to create a memorably real persona, or at least as real as it gets with Charles Middleton.


Technical Excellences: Rowland Brown’s direction is solid and concentrates on the drama with a pared down, ground level focus that lets the action speak for itself. Where the movie really shines is in its creation of an atmosphere of confinement, routine and misery. The camera moves slowly through the prisoners' cages (essentially train compartments with bars) as we see rows upon rows of shackles and chains. Before long the clanking of the chains being locked and unlocked and the rattling of metal as it is pulled through each shackle signalling the start and end of each day become part of the background noise of the movie.. Added to this is also the ever present lilt of the Spiritual songs echoing through the encampment. It starts from the opening credits, continues during the hard labour of rock breaking and surrounds the relative calm of the evening as prisoners sit together chained up. The eerie and haunting music frames and highlights the narrative like a Greek chorus (and expertly sung by the Etude Ethiopian Chorus). Brown uses this dreamlike atmosphere as an ethereal contrast to the horrors of the sweatbox, the brutal method of torture used for straightening out an unruly prisoner, with one memorable moment where the singing is suddenly interrupted by the howl of a dog, signifying the death of a prisoner.

The Sublime: In many ways the most impressive parts of the movie are the minor details. It’s a cleverly written script wherein seemingly inconsequential moments slowly snowball into becoming life changing events and where small character details leave a lasting impression. Examples of this include the deaf prisoner who doesn’t hear the bullet that kills him, and his plaintive moans to a higher power as her dies or the group of young posse members who shoot Duke’s brother from behind and who cry and run away once they realise the reality of what they’ve done. These moments of despair and poignancy appear when least expected and make a lasting impression, hinting at inner stories that will forever remain untold.

However, best of all is a particularly brilliant subplot involving a missing spoon, grabbed by an inmate at meal time. We catch up on the progress of the stolen cutlery throughout the film in various inserts as it is whittled down to a shiv and used ultimately for a deadly purpose. From the moment the spoon is announced as missing, the audience can guess what the end result will be, and the sense of grim foreboding builds slowly and inexorably. What is striking about the subplot is that we never get a good look at the inmate’s face. He’s just a face in the crowd, a menacing silent killer blending into the background and waiting for the right moment to strike. He’s not a featured character, has no influence on the story, and has no real motivation. As a result the episode has a chilling, anonymity that underlines the randomness of the violence in the chain gang


The Ridiculous: Not surprisingly, everything is played straight in the movie and in the name of gritty realism there is little to detract from the on screen misery. However one brief scene raises an unintentional laugh. Duke is being punished for punching out a guard and the sadistic warden decides to give him a taste of his whip. He pulls off Duke's shirt to reveal his Army regiment tattoo (42nd Infantry, 167th Regiment – a real division that served in the trenches during the First World War). He sees the tattoo and hesitates before using the lash. It’s just a silly moment, firstly due to the inference that even a vile and sadistic prison warden would hesitate to punish a troublemaking career criminal because he served his country. Even sillier is the fact that the centrepiece of Duke’s tattoo is an enormous American flag. Other than the fact it’s a clumsy and awkward visual motif, you’re telling me no one noticed it before? You can’t miss it!

Is it worth watching?: Hell’s Highway may be the unloved cousin of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but what it lacks in artistry, powerhouse acting and searing social comment, it makes up by being wildly entertaining and lurid in equal parts. It never sermonises like its famous cousin and crackles with a raw vitality and earthiness that makes its point coolly and directly. It may be exploitative but in many ways it’s the tabloid fodder that really ingrains a message into the minds of the general public. The movie speaks to its audience on their own level, giving them a cast of recognisable characters, a compelling and violent plot that simmers slowing until exploding in a fiery climax and a leading man that delivers a square jawed, rugged performance. Hell’s Highway is great entertainment, both shocking and enlightening and deserves to be reappraised as a compelling and valid companion piece to its more famous competitor.

Random Quote: “Whosoever betrayeth his brother is in danger of brimstone, and stomach trouble”

Friday, 11 November 2016

Remembering "Mary's Six Hundred" - Mary Pickford Helps the War Effort

The oldest movie magazine I own is a copy of Motion Picture Classic dated December 1917 and the other day I decided to give it a read (whilst marvelling that the magazine and its contents were almost a hundred years old - how did that happen?) . In amongst stories about long forgotten stars (such as Virginia Pearson, Ethel Clayton and the charming June Caprice) and reviews of films that I can guarantee have tragically crumbled to dust or burst into flames many years ago, there were quite a few interesting titbits of information about life in Hollywood in that far flung year of 1917.

The one that really caught my eye was a brief story about Mary Pickford and her continuing efforts to raise funds and morale for the war drive. I thought that it would be interesting to share it on this, Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice to end the First World War in 1918.

From the "Via Camera, Wire and Telephone" news column: -

"Mary's Six Hundred" is the name they have proudly adopted. We refer to the six hundred stalwart boys in khaki composing of the Second Battalion if the First Regiment of California Field Artillery. These boys hail from Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. When they go "somewhere over there," each man in "Mary's Six Hundred" will wear a locket round his neck containing a miniature of his little protector. It was characteristic of Mary Pickford to adopt every mother's son of these "motherless sons." "I have taken each one of my six hundred  under my wing," the little mother stoutly declares, "and I'm going to see to it that my boys receive plenty of tobacco and candy."
That sounded rather intriguing, and I must admit, through modern eyes smelt somewhat of a publicity stunt. In reality the story behind "Mary's Six Hundred" was anything but, and is a fascinating episode in the life of Miss Pickford and one which highlights the strong relationships the silent stars had with their audiences. I think it's actually a fairly well known tale but I feel it bears repeating  on this day more than most, as it illustrates the level of commitment Mary gave to her war work and her community.


When America entered the First World War in 1917, Hollywood stepped up to the plate and rallied the troops. For the first time the world realised the true power of the movies and movie stars not only for wartime propaganda but for raising funds, home front education and the recruiting of new soldiers. Mary Pickford, alongside Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and many others travelled coast to coast promoting Liberty Bonds to immense success and the role of the humble picture player was never the same again. However, before that happened, Mary as "America's Sweetheart" had already been declared the Navy's "Little Sister", and not to be outdone the Army went one further and formally adopted her.

The regiment in question was the 143rd Field Artillery of California, based at the time at Camp Arcadia. By 1918 the regiment had named her an honorary Colonel and she visited the camp and accompanied them on long hikes throughout the local hills and trails, all of which she approached with her usual tireless enthusiasm. She took her new adoption seriously and became a vocal and outspoken supporter of the troops and the victory drive, and rallied other stars to follow suit.  Pickford came through on her promise to keep the soldiers supplied with smokes (no mention of the candy though) and she spent much of her spare time pestering her fellow movie stars to donate their money or cigarettes to the cause. Incidentally, she wasn't the only one, as seen in an advert in the Motion Picture Classic for "The Francis X. Bushman Tobacco Fund" which asks "Do you know that our boys abroad are actually suffering for want of a smoke?".


The regiment continued their association with honorary Colonel Pickford when they were featured heavily in Mary's 1918 army comedy Johanna Enlists. In the final moments of the film a title card informs the audience that the 143rd are now "over there", mentioning that Mary Pickford is their godmother and ending "God bless them and send them safely back to us". We then see a shot of a uniformed Mary on horseback leading some soldiers then ends with Colonels Faneuf (their commanding officer) and Pickford proudly saluting the camera.

As a trivia note, serving in the 143rd at that time was future western star Fred Thomson. Thomson met Pickford after he broke his leg playing football while in the army and she visited him in hospital. Through his friendship with her, Thomson would gain an entry into the movie world and even meet his wife, the screenwriter Frances Marion. Thomson was a big star, mostly in western pictures from 1921 until his untimely and tragic death in 1928.

The regiment were sent "over there" to France in August 1918 and their story next is picked up in the Los Angeles Herald dated November 27th 1918 in a column stating that "a Christmas present of 70,000 cigarettes and 250 cigars was today started on it's way" to her now 1400 "godsons" stationed in Bordeaux, France. It continues, "The shipment, made through the Salvation Army (who) agreed to present to Col. R. J. Faneuf, commanding officer, on or before Christmas". The article doesn't say whether he planned to keep them to himself or give them to the boys, but we'll just have to hope he was both an officer and a gentleman! The article ends with the disappointing fact that though the regiment was designated for early return to the United States, "Ajdt.Gen. Harris informed Miss Pickford however, that the boys will not come home before Christmas". However, it seems like all went well for the 143rd Field Artillery and their 70,000 cigarettes, as the war ended before they saw any action.


On November 11th 1918, the war was over and soon the tired soldiers would be returning home to civilian life. They had done their job, and so had Mary. Mary Pickford's relationship with the 143rd Field Artillery highlighted the real and honest commitment she had to the troops, and more importantly with the ordinary young men who served their country. For Mary it was the start of a life of charity and philanthropy in both war and peace time. Even to these cynical, modern eyes it plain to see how much Mary threw herself into her work and how much it meant to her. On this Remembrance Day as I think about all the soldiers who fought for our freedom in wars since 1918, I salute the gallant 143rd Field Artillery, and I salute "America's Sweetheart", Miss Mary Pickford!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Mask of Diijon (1946) - Erich von Stroheim is No Longer Interested in Hollywood's Gags, Tricks and Illusions

The Mask of Diijon was Erich von Stroheim’s last American film before departing for France in 1946, where he would spend the rest of his career (except from a brief return to Hollywood for Sunset Boulevard in 1949). He had been anxiously waiting for the French film industry to get back on its feet after the Second World War as he felt his talents were better appreciated in Europe and he would be finally spared the constant humiliation he had endured in Hollywood since the early 30s and the end of his career as a director. The Mask of Diijon was acknowledged by Stroheim as beneath his talents (he referred to it as a "stinko") but as usual he needed the money so accepted the work. Luckily, the Poverty Row picture by PRC (Producer's Releasing Corporation) with its swift pace, moody visuals and frequent close ups is a cut above their usual fare and one of their better efforts. In fact, with a few tweaks and bit more gloss it could easily pass for a B picture from the likes of Universal or RKO, and Stroheim more than compensates for any budgetary limitations with his steely star power.

The film opens with a clever piece of misdirection as we are shown a girl being dragged to the guillotine in Revolutionary France. The blade falls and we see the disembodied head sitting in the wicker basket. The head then gives a wide grin as the camera pulls back to reveal the tableau as an elaborate piece of stage magic. The trick was orchestrated in an effort to coax retired magician Diijon (Stroheim) out of retirement but he remains stone faced and unimpressed. His friend then asks incredulously, “What is the matter with you Diijon? Less than a year ago you were one of the top magicians in vaudeville”. As with similar roles in The Great Gabbo and The Great Flamarion, Stroheim plays a cheap music hall turn, and one who has seen better days. This fact was probably not lost on Stroheim whose life and career had remained under a cloud of failure since his fall from grace in the late 20s. Diijon snaps back, probably echoing conversations he had endured many times over, “Stop it! I’m no longer interested in gags, tricks and illusions…I can stand on my own feet. I need no help from you, nor anyone else”. At that point another character remarks, “He’s a stubborn egomaniac”. Once again, the troubled biography of Erich von Stroheim bleeds into his fictional life. Diijon and his failures have become indistinguishable from Stroheim’s own.

The first half of the movie concerns Diijon’s continued obsession with the art of hypnotism (which is equated with the occult for some reason) and the concern felt from his wife (played by Jeanne Bates) about his mental and financial health. Diijon refuses help from his friends and becomes increasingly withdrawn from society, stubbornly refusing offers of employment and friendship and as in real life refusing to compromise his beliefs. The strange thing is, for all the talk of the dark occult world Diijon is dabbling in, his desire to develop and discipline his mind in an effort to ‘touch the infinite’ is actually rather admirable. However, he blames his wife (amongst others) for his problems spitting back at her almost poignantly, “You couldn’t hurt me anymore, nobody can”. Again, lines like these must have given Stroheim a delicious thrill given his propensity for self flagellation in his movie roles. Diijon’s real downfall begins when he is convinced to return to his stage act to earn some money and the trick goes disastrously wrong. His levitating woman abruptly stops levitating and he is humiliated and exposed in front of a nightclub audience. As ever he refuses to take the blame for his failure, and in a line of dialogue that strikes slightly too close to the bone it is declared that “The mastermind is nothing but a stupid charlatan”.


The rest of the film is pure hokum, a dazzling yet gaudy tale of mesmerism, murder and jealous rage ending in a delirious shoot out and an audaciously deranged ending that literally no one can see coming. In fact if there is any reason to watch the movie other than for Erich von Stroheim it is the ending. I can’t spoil it but it is truly jaw dropping in its sudden left turn into incongruity. It truly has to be seen to be believed! Other than that the production has some beautifully cinematic moments from director Lew Landers, with one memorable scene where Diijon walks the night streets, his hat, cane and cape masked by the darkness and swirling fog and his fragile mental state heightened by obtuse camera angles. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh at times attempts to give the movie a dreamlike, hypnotic atmosphere to echo the tormented mind of Diijon and this in itself lifts the picture up far higher than the average PRC or Poverty Row fare. Though talky at times, often preposterous in its subject matter (there is an awful lot of the “You will do exactly as I say” school of filmic hypnosis on show) and quite blandly staged, the good definitely outweighs the bad. The camera is clearly drawn to its charismatic yet damaged star and reacts accordingly. 

I’ve always been fascinated by Stroheim’s acting style and screen persona. Based on his reputation as a fearsome and intimidating presence both on and off screen in the silent era, it’s initially quite surprising what a soft voice he has. He has a clipped European accent that is difficult to pin down (I’d guess it’s his natural Austrian accent softened by years spent in America) and a delivery that is disarmingly pleasant yet hints at a cultured cruelty and menace. Perhaps the mere fact that his voice doesn’t immediately match the myth of Stroheim in the popular consciousness meant that he lost out on a lot of potentially juicy roles in the sound era, but he is too good an actor to be saddled with such nonsense. With his relatively small stature and his always elegantly tailored apparel (including all manner of props such as canes, monocles and cigarettes) he has an imposing and spellbinding presence. Nonetheless, his voice and acting style lend themselves to the creation of a nuanced and complex screen character that was often wasted in turgid melodrama playing mad doctors and hypnotists.

It’s been well documented (such as in Arthur Lennig‘s superlative biography Stroheim) that, denied the opportunity to direct motion pictures Erich von Stroheim found ways to incorporate his filmic world into his acting roles. He took an intense interest in the details of every script, every costume and every set design. And despite often causing many arguments with directors, writers and fellow actors he managed to win various concessions to his own private narrative and obsessions. This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Stroheim the actor and unpicking his performances to discover the layers of meaning he has placed into the added lines of dialogue, the random character traits given to his roles and the minute details of his costuming and set dressing give a tantalising piece of the puzzle. More importantly they gave Stroheim an outlet for his creative urges and a way to feel, even fleetingly, in control of his career and art. 


In The Mask of Diijon, Stroheim must have had very low expectations going in as there are apparently no known script additions, and Diijon has none of the familiar disabilities or deformities so favoured by the master. In fact, though Stroheim gives a very good performance which as ever blurs the lines between myth, reality and fiction in his life, he falls back on his standard acting trick to get by – smoking. There is no one in film history who smokes better than Erich von Stroheim. Not Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis or Greta Garbo. Stroheim looks like he was born with a cigarette in his mouth and born to smoke it and he masterfully uses a cigarette as a prop to convey all manner of emotions and character traits. Whether holding it proudly in his mouth while swaggering down the stairs in a defiant moment or lowering it downwards and close to his body when feeling defensive, the cigarette is ever present and always adding to his performance. It’s the brief moments that would be lost on most viewers that are the most revealing: the way he flicks his ash arrogantly while talking to his friends, or discarding it carelessly while engrossed in his book “The Power of Suggestion”. This is contrasted by a scene in a café after he has endured the humiliation of this magic act going wrong where he sits down at the counter and immediately reaches for an ashtray to nervously tap the ash into, his former confident state shattered.

Yet more than anything it’s the stench of failure that hangs over Stroheim in roles like these. There is a constant referral back to the greater glories of the past as he toils away in the tawdry present of parlour tricks and vaudeville. Every success is counteracted by a disaster of his own making, bringing to mind the self destructive reflex in Stroheim's nature. At some point, the deeply wounded Stroheim must have got a wry chuckle from these parts, as he plays them so often as to become typecast as a has been. Either Hollywood was playing a cruel joke on him, or Stroheim decided to offer himself up for regular humiliation as a kind of perverse penance to the machine. Despite this there is an embattled dignity in Erich von Stroheim’s acting in these Poverty Row potboilers. Even when a playing bitter, stubborn egomaniac like Diijon there is a sense of vulnerability and pain at the centre of his performance. As in life, the on screen Stroheim is a proud, driven man pushed to the edge of his wits but remaining unbroken and true to his values. Even without props and set dressing Stroheim embodies the old world chivalry of his native lands, in all its tattered, hypocritical and outdated glory and rightly or wrongly he refuses to bend to the will of his tormentors.


After The Mask of Diijon, Stroheim’s time in Hollywood was at an end. There would be no more insignificant parts in insignificant films to torment him. He thought that the movie industry in France would welcome him with open arms but sadly though acknowledged as a true artist in France, their industry in 1946 had neither the money nor the creative ability to give him what he wanted. However, it was better than the purgatory of Hollywood, and Stroheim made some good (and some not so good) films in his final years, and found many more ways to interfere with scripts and to incorporate all his peculiar interests into his cinematic characters. He even wrote an couple of novels that synthesized all his obsessions into grim, unreadable pulp fiction. His lone return to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard was not without its uncomfortably cathartic problems, but in hindsight became a major triumph and perhaps the film he is most known for today (as much as this would have wounded him). Strangely, it didn’t result in any further work for him. Stroheim's burned bridges in Hollywood remained firmly burned.

As it is, The Mask of Diijon is a decent ending to a disappointing chapter in Stroheim’s life. It’s a better than average and fairly entertaining production with suitably bizarre and ridiculous moments and gives its star a chance to breeze through a picture with minimum effort and stress and pick up a much needed paycheck. Stroheim conveys the air of a once broken man who stubbornly refuses to accept his current reality and instead seeks to reach beyond the veil and achieve something far larger and more important than his previous life of parlour tricks. As Diijon, Erich von Stroheim manages to encapsulate his struggle with the system, his refusal to bend to the whims of inferior talents and his own self destructive urge to destroy his own success. Right up to the end he remains forever, that "stubborn egomaniac".

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Ladies of Leisure (1930) - Fat Shaming Marie Prevost

Hollywood can be a cruel place. One minute you are the toast of the town, the next you are out on your ear. You’ve doubtless heard all the clichés about the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’; all the scandals, the self destruction and the casualties of early Hollywood, from Peg Entwistle to Fatty Arbuckle to Carole Landis. Add to this the crushed dreams of fallen stars such as John Gilbert or the artistic humiliations experienced by Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim and you have yourself a deceptively dark underbelly to the enchantment of the movies. In time, Hollywood itself began to perpetuate and even glamorise the dangers and pitfalls of Tinseltown in its own movies such as What Price Hollywood?A Star is Born and Sunset Boulevard. This in itself has become part of the lore and the lure of Hollywood, the dangerous appeal of a magical land when you enter not only at your own peril, but at the risk of sacrificing your own soul for fame and fortune.

When the silent era ended and talking pictures began, a seismic shift began in the ranks of the movie players as everyone, from major star to bit player wondered if they had what it took to adapt and change in the new environment. Countless silent stars fell by the wayside, either forced out of the movie industry or pushed down the playbill to minor parts. The humiliation felt by stars used to being gods and goddesses in the Jazz Age was acutely felt, and many of them had to readjust to lives of anonymity. This in itself was tragic enough, but for those who hung on and tried to make a living in movies, life could be tough with a new technology to adapt to and a fresh crop of stars hungry to take their place. And if there wasn’t enough pressure, occasionally the studios themselves used their influence to direct some older stars right out the door to the unemployment line. Sometimes, it was just the evolution of the industry and survival of the fittest, but other times such as in Ladies of Leisure it’s just unnecessary bullying that ultimately had a human cost.

Ladies of Leisure was directed by Frank Capra for Columbia and is primarily known for being the movie that made a star out of Barbara Stanwyck and which propelled her on a rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood, a position she remained at for the bulk of her career. The plot deals with the usual story of love on the wrong side of the tracks as Stanwyck’s “lady of leisure” falls for Ralph Graves’ wealthy artist despite the protestations of his haughty family. It’s a story told many times before and since and filmed with a decent amount of care. It’s certainly by no means a classic Capra work, but it does prove that right from the start Barbara Stanwyck had the ability and poise to be a major star. While lacking believability when trying to be the hard bitten party girl (she would pick this up in no time luckily), she handles her emotional scenes superbly and easily overcomes much of the hackneyed material in the script. Though the film is massively overlong at 100 minutes and all too often dips into the sort of turgid melodrama so ubiquitous in the early 30s, it’s undoubtedly a star making performance from Stanwyck and sets the tone nicely for this stage in her career.


The movie co stars Marie Prevost as Barbara’s best friend but sadly she doesn’t fare nearly so well and Ladies of Leisure is another textbook example of a movie with two actresses of equal talent whom the studio saw going on very different career trajectories. Miss Prevost became a big star in silent pictures, although her personal life was beset by scandal and despite strong performances in films such as The Beautiful and Damned and The Marriage Circle, by 1926 her career had peaked. The late silent era saw a series of tragedies befall Marie, starting with the loss of her contract with Warner Brothers (due in part to the aforementioned scandals), followed by the death of her mother in an automobile accident and the end of her marriage. These events took their toll and by the start of the sound era Marie Provost was addicted to alcohol, suffering from depression and binge eating. Despite her problems she adapted admirably to the demands of sound and still maintained steady work as a supporting actress.

In Ladies of Leisure, Marie Prevost plays Dot, the roommate and best friend of Barbara Stanwyck’s Kay. She is a fellow good time girl, but she has far more fun doing it, openly talking about her need to marry a rich man and to get as much as possible from them. She has an effervescent, impish charm about her with her cheeky smile and giggling looks. She certainly brightens up a movie which at times has a gravely serious tone and depending on how you want to look at it, you could say she almost steals the picture. Sadly, there’s a dark shadow looming over Marie Prevost’s performance in Ladies of Leisure and it comes in the form of a peculiar type of onscreen harassment. I’ve always thought that being a star in the Golden Age of Hollywood required talent and timing but it also required good presentation. At the end of the day the studio could make or break a star, and here the presentation of Marie Prevost is intended to give you one single impression – she needs to lose weight.


All the way through the movie we are reminded that Marie Prevost is too fat. While it is mostly played for laughs, by the fourth or fifth time it is brought up the joke starts to wear a little thin (if you pardon the expression). When we first meet her character Dot, she is proclaiming to Kay (Stanwyck) that she is going up in the world and is “..a lady who is gonna eat caviar”. Stanwyck’s retort is that “Well don’t eat too much just because it’s free…another 10 pounds and they won’t be calling you up again!”. Even though Prevost gets in the funny punchline of “You can’t weigh sex appeal!”, it’s an unusual way to introduce her character. It seems her defining characteristic isn’t that she is the protagonist’s loyal friend or that she's funny, it’s that she likes to eat.

Later, while reclining in bed (and very artfully smoking a cigarette), Kay stomps in and says “You sleep too much, you’re getting awful fat”. Dot replies that if she gets too fat she’ll just get married and retire. Her alleged best friend then says “Married? Who’s gonna marry you?”. Later in the movie, Dot is on a date and (while stuffing her face with food) asks her beau, “Do you think I’m too fat?” Her date (played by a permanently pie eyed Lowell Sherman) replies dryly, “There couldn’t be too much of you”. He then looks pained as Dot then proceeds to order the whole menu, because of course she’s fat and that’s funny.


The constant attention to Marie Prevost’s weight reaches its height in a bizarre scene where we see her using one of those old fashioned vibrating belt machines used to lose weight. The camera starts on the back of her thighs and works up, as we see every bit of her wobbling and jiggling derriere in all its glory. I’m so pleased that high definition didn’t exist back then, as the scene is so terribly unfair to an actress who was struggling with her weight, among other things. To make things worse, she inexplicably is wearing a sweater that is several sizes too large, giving the impression she is enormous. As with all the scenes where her weight is callously pointed out, Marie makes the most of it and does some very funny pantomime as she attempts to extricate herself from the belt to answer the door. However, comedy aside, these moments in the movie leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

The main problem with all the references to weight is that she’s not really that fat. Sure, she’s a little chubby compared to Barbara Stanwyck, but who isn’t? She is short and sweet, and looks a darn sight more appealing than most of her waif like contemporaries. It's notable that another petite and curvy silent star, Clara Bow was going through similar studio problems at the time. I don’t think anyone other than a Hollywood executive would look at her and think she was in any way overweight. Despite this, her supposed fatness is used in such an unnecessarily cruel way. If you think about someone like Patsy Kelly, a comedienne frequently used as a sort of female Oliver Hardy by Hal Roach, her comedy comes out of the physical contrast to her co stars such as Zasu Pitts, She may be (slightly) larger but like Hardy the comedy derives from the situations she gets into and the way she reacts to them rather than having people pointing out to her “Ha ha! You fell over because you’re fat!”. Kelly, doesn’t have to eat a big cake to make her point, and she doesn’t have to be reminded of her size as if it’s a bad thing, it’s just who she is and it’s made to work for her. 


This treatment is all so unnecessary for an attractive woman who looks perfectly fine and was funny and talented enough to make the material work without the need for fat based gags. As mentioned earlier, there definitely seems to be a message being sent here by the studio. Somebody, somewhere wasn’t happy about her weight and an on screen example to others was made. That this could happen isn’t out of the question when one sees how Kay Francis would be treated by Warner Brothers a few years later when she was given lines full of ‘r’s to lisp her way through. It’s so petty but in the mean world of Hollywood, a world then as now very much living in its own self created bubble and obsessed by looks, it’s sadly not unexpected.

Marie Prevost died, alone, in 1937 after years of alcohol abuse, depression and binge eating. Her problems may have been caused by tragedies in her life, but I can’t help feeling that appearing in movies like Ladies of Leisure didn’t help her fragile mental state. For that reason, while Ladies of Leisure gave Barbara Stanwyck her break out role and is an enjoyable, well made melodrama, there is an ugliness at its core that is slightly less palatable.  Hollywood didn't owe her a living, but it did owe her a bit more dignity.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) - Mantan Moreland Gives Another Masterclass in Scene Stealing

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is a decidedly lesser entry in the Universal horror and mystery cycle and one which pretty much deserves its obscurity. It’s a tale of avenging justice gone wrong, as our titular doctor embarks on a gruesome killing spree of recently acquitted criminals. As the bodies pile up, the police and private detective Jerry Church race against time to find the culprit’s true identity. As a brief plot synopsis the story sounds fairly interesting, but in execution the movie is anything but. What could have been an engaging whodunit is marred by the inclusion of far too many characters, a romantic subplot that descends into endless quarrelling, an all too obvious red herring and generally just far too much talking to pad out the film’s paltry 62 minutes.

By the time the mystery is solved, it’s difficult to care who Doctor Rx really is, let alone why he has been bumping off criminals. In fact there is instead a lingering resentment that he didn’t get his act together and kill off most of the cast to spare us the endless talking and bickering. So, you may ask, why am I bothering to write about such an average and uninspiring little pot boiler of a movie? The answer is simple - the inclusion in the cast of a certain actor who singlehandedly makes the movie worth watching, one Mantan Moreland. It’s been a while since I’ve had cause to write about Mantan but if ever there was an example of his unique charisma and innate ability to rise above mediocre material, it’s his performance in The Strange Case of Doctor Rx.

Here, Mantan Moreland is billed ninth and not even included in the opening credits, only the closing ones. Yet despite this he has more screen time than practically any character other than the two leads, Patric Knowles and Anne Gwynne. Sadly, one can only draw an obvious and disappointing conclusion as to why this is, and it is certainly a far cry from his featured billing while working at Monogram. Moreland, true to form for black actors in Hollywood in the 40s, plays the lead character’s manservant, but thankfully this time his role is extended beyond mere (ahem) stepping and fetching. His character, Horatio B. Fitz Washington is an interesting precursor to the role he would become most famous for, that of Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movies starting in 1944. Here he is somewhat braver than the usual stock African American servant character, and despite being loyal to his ‘boss’ still gets a few good one liners in response to Patric Knowles’ at times obnoxious and unlikable character. There’s an obvious influence in the development of these sort of roles in the popularity of Eddie Anderson as Rochester in the Jack Benny Program on radio, though I don’t doubt for a minute that Mantan Moreland getting this kind of part has just as much, if not more to do with Moreland’s own  comic gifts. Nevertheless, it’s always good to see him get a lot of screen time, even if this was only ever to happen in B movies.

 
As mentioned, the film itself isn’t particularly memorable, and the script is fairly dull, but more than any other cast member Mantan Moreland wrings out every drop of potential in the bland words. It’s no exaggeration to say he steals every scene he is in and makes tired old situations at least vaguely amusing. He expertly manages to give his stock character a glimmer of an inner life just by his reactions and the small movements he makes. This is evident from his first scene where he answers the door carrying a radio (helpfully tuned to a news broadcast and filling us in on the plot) to get a telegram. The delivery boy asks whether Washington is a place or a name and Mantan snaps back “Ain’t you never heard of Washington? Ain’t you studied your history? You don’t know nothin’” , then proudly declares “That’s the greatest name there is!”. His indignant eye rolls and incredulity at the question show him to be a man of pride and despite being a valet, knows that even he is better than a no nothing delivery boy. As the scene goes on there’s a lovely bit of business as he stares at the delivery boy then makes out that the boy is looking at the radio, which he then protectively tucks under his arm. Moments like that can’t possibly be in the script but are the little details that Mantan adds to his performance which enable him to stand out in an otherwise run of the mill movie.
 
It really is the small details that make the difference all throughout the picture. For example, at one point he rushes to answer the phone then realises the receiver is upside down. It’s a quick moment filmed in a long shot so is not meant to ever be noticed but Mantan, ever the trouper, just adds it in to get a brief laugh. Similarly in a scene where he is talking to the police and realises there is a microphone in a nearby lamp, he tilts the lamp in their direction as they speak, but does it in a hilariously understated way that manages to be restrained yet outrageous. His method is to tilt the lamp in an exaggerated manner towards the talking cops while staring blank eyed and nonchalantly into middle distance. It makes a brief yet memorably odd visual and once again gets far more laughs that the script could possibly have managed as written.

 
Possibly the highlight of the movie is the chance to experience a great bit of comedy dream casting as Mantan Moreland shares a short scene with the one and only Shemp Howard. Shemp, at the time firmly established as a reliable comic heavy and sidekick plays a dim witted police officer. Sadly all the potential in his casting is largely wasted as he is reduced to little more than reaction shots as others talk over him. However, in a brief comic interlude the two titans of character comedy finally meet and their timing and chemistry is a treat. The scene takes place in a kitchen and Shemp, seeing a bottle of booze asks for some (the only discernible character trait he has in the movie is that he likes a drink) but Mantan wants some money for it. Eventually he offers to roll dice for it, but Mantan firmly states that he doesn’t gamble. Shemp then pulls out the dice and Mantan gives a little high pitched wince and says “Oooh, on second thought maybe I might”. Again, while not particularly funny on paper, the scene has great energy from the two, with the rapid fire delivery and timing pitch perfect. Moreland’s pacing here is reminiscent of his cadence in filmed versions of his famous ‘incomplete sentences’ routine with Ben Carter in vaudeville. What’s interesting about both the performers is that they alternate at being the straight man and take turns to attempting to one-up the other. It’s one of those moments when you get to marvel at the ability and versatility of two seasoned comedians who know their own characters so well, just going out there and trying to get some laughs out of virtually nothing.

The end of the movie is its highlight (and not because it is finally over), as Mantan is kidnapped by the evil Doctor Rx to lure Jerry into his lair. At this point the film just suddenly throws everything it has at the screen and the now hooded doctor chains our hero to a gurney while attempting to transfer his brain into that of a large caged gorilla he happens to have as a pet. The fact that none of this is even hinted at throughout the preceding 50 minutes just makes it all the more mystifying, but at least it all goes out with a bang. Throughout this part of the movie Mantan Moreland does a commendably good job of playing it straight. His tired, sweating face and monotone voice make him look like he has been on the receiving end of some sort of torture and elicits genuine sympathy. His solemn phone call to Jerry under duress is perfectly judged, with the fact that he eschews the usual laughs making it all the more potent. When he is then forced to watch Jerry face the crazed gorilla, his horrified yet feeble cry of "Don't do that to my boss" immediately sells the seriousness of the situation. It's another testament to his likability that despite any racial connotations to the scene (a white hooded villain torturing a black man) it's more disturbing to see the effects of real violence on such a gentle man.

 
What strikes me after watching The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is that, if it were not already obvious the movie industry missed the boat massively on utilising the talents of Mantan Moreland. While I’m sure that due to racial attitudes of the day, a great many African American actors (and those of other ethnicities) were denied their chance to shine, in the realms of comedy especially, Mantan’s absence hurts the most. In a colour blind world, Mantan Moreland could have easily become a featured solo comedian, or at the very least part of a double act (a series of films with Ben Carter would have had potential). At an absolute minimum he should have had a short subject series for Columbia or RKO but it seems the world wasn't ready for it and our cinematic lives are thus poorer for it.
 
Mantan Moreland may have had expert timing and comic reactions, and years of stage experience to help him but what sets him apart from others so much is that he’s just so darn likable. He had a real and believable everyman persona, standing outside of society (where all good comedians do, regardless of skin colour) yet with an evident sense of self worth and value. He could be cowardly yet loveably pompous, street smart yet gullible and beyond the one liners and comic business was a fully formed comic original. Despite playing secondary roles for a lifetime, Mantan Moreland had the ability to make us root for him, to overcome stereotypes and displace prejudice with laughter. That alone should have been enough to make him one of the great character comedians of his time, but it was not to be. Luckily, movies like The Strange Case of Doctor Rx gave him enough screen time to show what he could do. And what he could do was outshine most of the cast and steal the whole picture from under them. Though, when you steal every scene you are in because you are just better than those around you, it's not really scene stealing, it's just called talent.