Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

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. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Snapshot # 6 - Beauty and the Boss (1932)

What is it about?: Josef, a wealthy Viennese banker with an eye for the ladies has to fire his beautiful secretary for being too much of a diversion at work. He then hires Susie, a plain ‘church mouse’ of a girl who quickly organises his affairs and keeps him focused on his business. However, things change when Susie falls for her boss and begins to transform her appearance and use her womanly ways to catch his eye.

The Call Sheet: Marian Marsh, Warren William, David Manners, Charles Butterworth, Frederick Kerr, Mary Doran, Lillian Bond, Yola d’Avril.

Behind the Camera: Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Screenplay by Joseph Jackson from a play by Ladislas Fodor, Cinematography by Barney McGill, Art Direction by Anton Grot

Snapshot Thoughts: Adapted from the popular stage play A Church Mouse, Beauty and the Boss is another of the many Hollywood films of the 30s concerned with the lives and loves of the rich in Europe. In this case the action revolves around the affairs of the wealthy Viennese banker Baron Josef von Ullrich (Warren William), as he struggles to balance his work life with his love life. It is interesting to note that despite most of the protagonists being the titled rich or ladies of leisure, no hint of financial trouble either at home or abroad is mentioned. Instead, all the Baron’s problems are caused by his own actions, for the Baron’s Achilles heel is women, and when he carouses with the fair sex, he loses money. To this end, he cannot have a secretary who will distract him with her good looks, so decides to employ a rather plain girl to help him concentrate on his work. Of course, this being Hollywood, as soon as you can say ‘Ugly Duckling’, our plain Jane transforms herself into a ravishing beauty and the Baron is back where he started.

It’s perhaps best to gloss over the inherent chauvinism of the story, with its ideas of a woman’s place (either by day or by night). Luckily the script skirts these issues with such a light touch, and the cast perform it with such aplomb that it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the movie’s charms. Despite its outdated gender politics, the film is essentially a fairy tale wrapped up in a romantic, far off land of make believe (ie Europe), and that is all it is ever meant to be. While lacking the witty continental touch of a Lubitsch or Mamoulian, the movie does have a certain sophistication, and this is all down to the very capable presence of Warren William, as Baron Josef. He stamps the picture with his imposing presence, rattling off his lines in a gruff, confident manner as if he was born to be the head of a Viennese bank. Yet, between the lines William’s quick delivery and raised eyebrows belie a charming, rakish side. Despite playing such a patrician, sexist character he makes Josef immensely likable. He may be the head of a large bank but at heart all he wants to do is whisper sweet nothings to a beautiful woman. His first reaction upon seeing Susie all dressed up in a ball gown is to notice how smooth her “pretty little arms” are, which is a bit strange, but is endearing none the less. It’s a wonderful performance from Warren William, to the point that you can’t imagine any other actor taking the part and making it work so well. However, perhaps the strangest thing of all is that Warren William was only 37 when he made the film. That man was born middle aged!

At its heart though, Beauty and the Boss is a battle of the sexes tale crossed with an ugly duckling story, and the bulk of the action and dialogue concerns those two themes. While not quite subversive or loud enough to be considered ‘screwball’ the film is essentially a comedy of manners, and with its sophisticated European setting and clash of cultures and social classes it plays out exactly the way you’d expect, and is reassuringly all the better for it.

Star Performances: In a movie awash with talented players such as Warren William and Charles Butterworth it’s perhaps surprising that hands down, the star performance goes to sixth on the bill Mary Doran as the Baron’s jilted ex secretary Olive Frey. She is a breath of fresh air in a film that all too easily could have been static and stage bound, and her worldly wise yet peppy character is a delight. She displays a great deal of confidence in her scenes and has good chemistry with Warren William. In contrast, Marian Marsh, though generally quite appealing in her role as Susie, is given an overly verbose script which results in some stilted delivery on her part. The two actresses share a key scene and while Doran is sassy and relaxed, Marsh is stiff and laboured. Some of this is due to their respective characters but most of it seems a matter of screen presence and confidence. Doran goes on to have perhaps her best scene in the film where she tries to explain to Marsh that she doesn’t know how to use her womanly charms. She goes on to breathlessly explain how exhilarating it is to be a real woman then acts out the routine she uses to attract the attention of her suitors. The whole speech is wonderful, and acted with conviction and gusto. It’s definitely one for the audition show reel. All the while, Marian Marsh looks like she is reading from an auto cue, and the quality of her lines doesn’t help with gems like “How vulgar you are!” making her seem stiff and wooden.

Although Marian Marsh does have some good scenes, Mary Doran uses her screen time better and consistently outshines the star to the point that it mystifies me as to why her cinematic legacy is not more significant. Doran is perhaps not quite conventionally pretty enough to be a leading lady, though she shines in close ups and has a dazzling smile. However, she’s got the sort of look that would have worked as a featured ‘other woman’ or best friend in a whole host of films (or at the very least, she would have been amazing as a regular in Hal Roach comedy shorts). Sadly, she had an all too brief career, only appearing from 1928 to 1936 generally in minor roles. However, on the strength of her charisma and charm in Beauty and the Boss I feel compelled to track down more of her work. Watch this space!

Technical Excellences: The movie is directed with a sure hand by veteran Roy Del Ruth. While often workmanlike in his approach, Del Ruth always knew how to keep the pace flying along and his movies of the 30s move at a joyous pace, never outstaying their welcome. While there is nothing too interesting to be said about the way the film is shot, mention should be made of the impressive sets. There is a moment in the movie where Warren William chases Marian Marsh around the furniture in his room and the camera lifts up to an overhead crane shot as they frolic. It’s only then that you realise how massive the sets were in many of these movies. The room looks enormous, with every corner dressed the part. Obviously this was done for practical reasons but the sense of design and scale is impressive, especially in a ‘small’ film like this. It goes to show the craftsmanship put into all these movies, even on parts of a set that usually would never be glimpsed.

The Sublime: The best part of the movie is the opening scene between the Baron and his secretary Miss Frey. It’s a really well played scene that sets up the premise of the film perfectly and highlights the talents of Warren William and Mary Doran. Doran’s character exists to set up the entrance of Marian Marsh, the de facto star of the movie but in a way it’s a shame the movie didn’t continue her story as the jilted secretary. The scene starts with The Baron dictating at a terrific pace and Miss Frey struggling to keep up. She crouches slightly, revealing a low cut top and crosses her stocking clad legs (complete with a pan downwards by the camera, subtle as ever). Distracted by what he sees, the Baron chastises her to “Leave your skirt down during office hours”. Miss Frey replies “Well you dictate so fast I never know where my skirt is!” There then follows some cheeky innuendos about low cut tops, bare shoulders and his rapid dictation accompanied by Miss Frey’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, Baron!” (which, the way she says it is perhaps one of the raunchiest pre code things I’ve ever heard, Wheeler and Woolsey would have been proud!).

The Baron then outlines his belief that “No woman should look pretty who works in a bank…the clerks become confused with their columns. It’s dangerous. Invites disaster”. All through this, the pretty Miss Frey gazes on in admiration until he decides it is too much and he fires her on the spot. Her face goes from a picture of happiness to a dejected pout, her little heart broken. Luckily this is just the beginning of a new role for Miss Frey, who the Baron believes was not cut out for secretarial work. He tells her she is “a girl for the evening, who I met unfortunately only in the daytime”. Immediately the truth dawns on her and Miss Frey is a ball of energy and glee once again.

It’s a wonderfully played scene, with Warren William at his haughty patrician best, yet displaying a naughty twinkle in his eye. Mary Doran is a perfect partner for him, acting like a lovesick puppy - all big eyes and smiles and eager to please her man. Despite this she still knows her own worth and the power she can hold over men and so uses those self same big eyes and smiles to be flirtatious and coy to her own advantage. The relationship between the two characters seems warm and real, and while it probably couldn’t have sustained a whole movie, in these bite sized pieces, it’s the high point of the film.

The Ridiculous: When Marian Marsh’s Susie first appears she is poor, plain and nervous, a church mouse in appearance and manner. The only thing that stands out is her outfit, which seems to have been chosen from the costume department at Biograph circa 1912. With a dowdy long skirt, a straw hat complete with feather attachment and an umbrella, she is half Mary Poppins, half Victorian washer woman. Unfortunately she looks ridiculous and totally at odds with the way everyone else in the picture is dressed. I know the movie is set in Vienna, but somehow I doubt she is displaying the working class outfit of the day. To add to her problems her face is given the full pancake treatment to give her the appearance of being tired and plain. She has that weird look that the studios in the 30s and 40s gave to actresses when they wanted to make them appear to be elderly in order to (for example) tell a story in flashback. It’s strange that in order to give the impression she is wearing no make-up that they give her twice as much make up! The effect is disarming to say the least, like a sort of deathly apparition from the workhouse. Thankfully once she cleans herself up, though still tying her hair back severely, she begins to look more recognisable (and she also dispenses with her breathlessly wavering nervous voice). The transformation from church mouse to woman can’t come fast enough.

Is it worth watching?: I’d recommend Beauty and Boss highly. It’s fantastic entertainment with a good cast, a sprightly pace and a script full of sharp humour and pithy remarks. Sure, you can see the end coming a mile off and the characters are at times portrayed with a lack of subtlety and the less said the better about the role it assumes of women but the whole production just radiates charm and fun. It’s a perfect pre code afternoon matinee, unassuming, genial and at times surprising. All in the company of a pitch perfect Warren William and a supporting cast of familiar faces and an overachieving starlet. What more could you ask for?

Random Quote: “Don’t squirm. I know you have hips!”

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ronald Colman - 125 Years On, Still the Gentleman of the Screen

Today, one hundred and twenty five years ago, Ronald Colman was born just outside of London, in Richmond, Surrey. It’s another of those impossible numbers when it comes to movie stars. I still have difficulty acknowledging that the actors who are such a large part of my life and thoughts are mainly the product of a long gone era. Film lends its leading lights such immortality that it’s difficult to associate the brightest of stars with a now largely disappeared, unreachable world.

Thoughts of these vanished times are particularly appropriate when recalling of the kind of old world, gentlemanly charm that is associated with Ronald Colman. Lately his brand of worldly sophistication seems to have been overlooked in favour of imitators like David Niven and James Mason (or indeed George Clooney). I remember when I first discovered his films as a teenager, I decided to ask my father what his thoughts were. I knew he wasn’t my dad’s sort of star, he was more of a John Wayne and Gary Cooper person, but his one word reply to me forever stuck in my head: “insipid”. That response has often puzzled me, but I took it to be a criticism of his acting style, often seen as overly mannered. Maybe for many people he is indistinguishable from others in that group of smooth, cricket playing British gentlemen in Hollywood - the likes of Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone and Brian Ahern. Additionally, his distinctive voice and vocal delivery was in its day much parodied, so perhaps in the minds of some, he was so archetypal in his role that he became the archetype.

However, these views do the man a great disservice. When someone becomes so famous that imitations become commonplace, you often lose sight of the qualities and subtleties of the original as all the details become glossed over by a catchphrase in the public consciousness (think the artistry of Frank Sinatra’s immaculate phrasing reduced to ‘do be do be doo’). For make no mistake about it, Ronald Colman is one of the greatest actors and stars the cinema has ever seen, a skilled performer of impeccable judgement, an honourable man who lived a life of integrity off screen and on and a true screen original who managed to make a deep and lasting connection with audiences all over the world.

Ronald Charles Colman was born in Richmond in England on February 9th 1891, the son of a silk merchant, Despite attending boarding school his education was cut short due to a lack of money caused by his father’s sudden death. This led to a spell working as a clerk before joining the London Scottish Regiment of the army where he would see action fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. In October 1914, he received a serious shrapnel wound to his ankle and was invalided out of the army. He would recover from his wounds but walk with a slight limp for the rest of his life. For the 23 year old the war was over but Colman quickly got the acting bug and son started to appear in minor roles on the London stage. By all accounts he wasn’t a natural on stage and it took a number of years before he started to gain any parts of note but he steadily worked away at his craft.

By 1919 Colman’s good looks drew the attention of film makers and he appeared in a number of British silent films. It wasn’t until touring the American stage and co starring with George Arliss in the early 20s that he caught the eye of Hollywood, where director Henry King cast him as the lead in the Lillian Gish feature The White Sister. He was an immediate success and remained in starring roles for the remainder of his career. Colman was a versatile silent screen star, playing the adventurous, dark and handsome romantic leads in such notable movies as Romola, Beau Geste and The Dark Angel. Additionally he proved that he could also turn his hand to comedy with ease, as seen in Ernst Lubitsch’s production of Lady Windermere’s Fan and the bedroom farce of Clarence Brown’s Kiki. Colman co starred with many of the leading actresses of the day such as Lillian Gish, Barbara La Marr, Constance Talmadge and Blanche Sweet and as the silent era began its final years he reached new peaks of popularity for his screen partnership with Vilma Banky,  at times rivalling the similar team of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.

With the coming of sound to movies, Ronald Colman’s career never missed a beat. In fact, it cemented his star status and brought him to greater heights. It is difficult to think of a leading man of the silent era who survived sound better than Ronald Colman. Indeed, outside of Laurel and Hardy there isn’t anyone whose career benefitted more from the coming of the Talkies. Of course, Colman had the one thing so many of his contemporaries lacked, the smooth, velvety speaking voice that would become his trademark. Colman’s first sound film was Bulldog Drummond in 1929, which even today stands up as a fast paced, exciting adventure and showcases him as a natural in front of the microphone. It’s not just that his distinctive mellow tones were finally unleashed on the world, it’s the way he carries himself. He shows no hesitancy in delivering lines, he refrains from theatrical silent film acting and yet neither does he merely stand still and deliver his lines as if in a stage show. He is a flurry of movement, intimate glances and subtle inflections. He hits the ground running in his sound debut, showing a mastery of the new medium and arriving on screen a fully formed cinematic character.

Colman, who had a long term contract with Samuel Goldwyn, continued to make films regularly throughout the early 1930s. He starred with the likes of Kay Francis in Raffles and Cynara, Loretta Young in The Devil to Pay! and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back and Helen Hayes and Myrna Loy in Arrowsmith to name a few. These films are great examples of 1930s Anglophile Hollywood at its best with their tales of honour and sacrifice, exiled nobility and gentlemen adventurers, and all delivered with the clipped, cultured tones that were a million miles away from the likes of Warner Brothers Depression era social dramas. Nevertheless, these films provided the right degree of romance and escapism and did much to solidify Ronald Colman’s fame and popularity not only in America but in Britain where he regularly topped the box office rankings. In fact the UK published World Film Encyclopaedia in 1933 called him “probably the most consistently popular actor in American films ”.

With the release of 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, Colman’s career began a new phase. Despite the frequency of his film appearances slowing down to around one a year, the remainder of the 30s was a fruitful time for Colman, producing many of his most iconic roles. In fact, the combination of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Light That Failed (1939) provided Ronald Colman with virtual screen immortality, and an almost mythical celluloid persona. In all four films he plays an everyman character seeking a universal truth despite insurmountable odds. In Lost Horizon he perfectly encapsulates the ideals of the story, of an ordinary man pushed to the limit to discover the eternal unknowable secret of Shangri La and his need to believe that such a place can exist. Colman imbues the part with such humanity that it makes the viewer wish that they too had his sense of idealism and courage. With these four powerhouse performances Colman made his mark on the cinematic consciousness. His career after this point continued to be successful but these years were undoubtedly his most memorable.

The 1940s and beyond resulted in a further slowdown of Colman’s output but still resulted in some well remembered parts in movies such as The Talk of the Town and Random Harvest. Finally, in 1948 his hard work and talent was rewarded for when he won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actor with his stunning performance as a tortured Shakespearian actor in the previous year’s A Double Life. After this triumph he made his last starring role in 1950’s underrated comedy Champagne for Caesar and then made only a couple of appearances in ensemble cast spectaculars after that. He left a cinematic legacy of modest numbers but high quality, with each and every performance full of the conviction and integrity he was renowned for. There simply are no bad performances in his back catalogue

While Ronald Colman was a movie star of the highest order, was also a pioneer of television and a regular voice on radio. Colman frequently lent his soothing tones to drama anthologies such as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater and hosted (and sometimes starred in) a few of his own drama shows like the wartime Everything for the Boys. Later he starred in the popular sitcom The Halls of Ivy, which successfully transferred to television (and how many silent leading men survived not one but two industry shaking changes?). Colman was a natural on radio, and as would be expected his voice alone was enough to charm the vast listening audience. However, the place where Colman shone the brightest on radio was in a most unexpected place – The Jack Benny Program. Ronald Colman and his wife the actress Benita Hume first appeared on the show in 1945 and continued with regular appearances through to 1951 (with an additional appearance on the television version in 1956).

They played Jack’s long suffering neighbours and each week endured the social embarrassment of Jack's oafish attempts to befriend them. Jack was the neighbour from hell, selfishly inviting himself over for dinner or borrowing things without asking, and blissfully unaware of the trauma he caused the Colmans (who would usually try to hide when they saw him). Of course, being terribly British about it all the couple tried to be polite and the resulting predicament showed Colman’s flustered yet pained and witheringly dry comic abilities at their best. If you know little of Ronald Colman past his movies, the Jack Benny appearances are a revelation. In one memorable storyline, Jack borrows Ronnie’s Oscar then promptly gets it stolen and the ensuing attempts to get it back before he realises are some of the funniest radio shows of all time. And each step of the way Ronald Colman (and Benita) match Benny gag for gag (though Benny had a habit of giving the best lines to his guest stars).

Whatever medium he appeared in, the appeal of Ronald Colman was in what he represented. His characters were invariably courageous, charming, kind, romantic, dignified and yet driven by a steely eyed determination to find truth. Yet, in all these parts and in real life he was never anything less than a gentleman. In her autobiography Myrna Loy has a charming story about working with him on The Devil to Pay! in 1930 :

"At one point I became nervous about a scene we were doing. "Courage, my sweet," he kept saying in that beautiful voice of his. "Courage, my sweet." I liked him very much then, and later on, when we used to see quite a bit of him socially. But he was an Englishman, you know, in every sense of the word."

Ronald Colman died in 1958 aged just 67 and with him died a particular type of old world charm and values. It’s no coincidence that Colman’s cameo on Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days in 1956 was as a Railway Official stationed at the furthest reaches of the Indian rail system. As the train reaches the end of its long journey and the steam subsides by the platform the dapper figure of Ronald Colman appears – the reassuringly familiar face in a hostile environment and the personification of the British Empire at the edge of the globe, clinging to decency as the world around him changes forever. It’s a highly symbolic appearance, a summation of a career and the celebration of an ideal that was beginning to fade away as the 1950s drew to a close.

It’s perhaps what he represents that has made Ronald Colman less well remembered than many of his contemporaries today. In this day and age all too often common decency and quiet determination are overlooked in favour of the brash and the loud. When I was younger I idolised Cary Grant for this suave sophistication but later when I became a fan of Ronald Colman, Grant’s manner seemed irritatingly hyperactive and borderline rude compared to the understated appeal of Colman. Just a glance, a twinkle in his eye and few words in that reassuring voice could convey so much about what is good in the world, and more importantly, what could be good. Off screen and on, Ronald Colman embodied a sense of decency, of unwavering determination and of easy going, wryly self effacing charm that made him so beloved and respected for generations. Perhaps more than any other movie star he’s the man I choose to live vicariously through, and the man whose ideals I strive to achieve. Like Shangri La it’s an unreachable goal, but definitely one worth trying for.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

God's Gift to Women (1931) - Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell and Laura La Plante: Three Women Fight Over Frank Fay, One Wins

Frank Fay was a fast talking Broadway star who was snapped up by Warner Brothers for a string of talkies at the dawn of sound. The hope was that with his immense stage popularity and gift of the gab the studio could make him into an attractive new star to give a boost to the fledgling technology. Sadly, his personality didn’t catch on big with the movie going public and by the time he made God’s Gift to Women in 1931 we find him near the end of his contract, looking tired and exhausted after a rough couple of years in Hollywood. By all accounts Fay wasn’t the easiest of men to like, as he was known to be incredibly egotistical and his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was a tumultuous affair which did his standing no favours. A lot of his early films miscast him as a ladies’ man, and God’s Gift to Women is no different. Here he plays Toto, a modern day Don Juan, with an insatiable eye for the ladies and a reputation as an incorrigible rake. Despite this he somehow manages to fall in love with demure society girl Diane (Laura La Plante) and he resolves to mend his ways. A sudden life threatening heart ailment appears to seal the deal, but unfortunately his many previous girlfriends have other plans and continue to fight over him (well, he is God’s gift to women…)

So there you have it, the set up for an entertaining Pre Code bedroom farce, full of knockabout comedy, racy one liners, daring fashions and familiar faces. However, in reality the movie just doesn’t quite work. It may be the fact that Frank Fay just doesn’t suit the role, or that he talks incessantly to the point of distraction, or that the whole set up is just too preposterous to take seriously. It’s a fun, diverting movie but nothing to write home about (or in a blog for that matter). Based on that, the movie would probably deserve to be largely forgotten and consigned to gather dust in a darkened vault surrounded by Frank Fay’s other pictures.

And that would be its fate if not for, in hindsight a very interesting bit of casting that keeps the film alive in the minds of film fans. For not only does God’s Gift to Women contain one of the few featured sound roles of Louise Brooks, but it also has Joan Blondell in her sixth feature film appearance. And to make it even more interesting, they appear together! And they wrestle each other on a bed! Sometimes the random cast lists thrown together in the days of the contract studio players result in some very odd and interesting pairings. Often, when past and present collide you get to see stars of different eras or on different career trajectories briefly work together. Vilma Banky and Edward G. Robinson in A Lady to Love, Al Jolson and Harry Langdon in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, Clara Bow and Jean Arthur in The Saturday Night Kid or even John Gilbert and the Three Stooges in The Captain Hates the Sea are examples of this intriguing clash of eras that spring to mind but there are surely many more.

In God’s Gift to Women we have the effervescent spirit of the Flaming Youth meeting the epitome of Depression era sass, and stuck in the middle is pretty but dull Laura La Plante. The result is a film with three actresses all at different stages of their careers and going in three entirely different directions. Here the past, the present and the future co-exist in the movie in the forms of Louise Brookes, Laura La Plante and Joan Blondell respectively.

By the time she filmed God’s Gift to Women, Laura La Plante had enjoyed a film career for over a decade, attaining great success as a silent leading lady for Universal. She is perhaps best remembered in silent pictures for the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary, directed by Paul Leni. When sound arrived she made a fairly seamless transition, first starring in the popular part talkie Show Boat. She continued making films for Universal, but after leaving them in 1930 she bounced around the studios for a couple of years before retiring in 1935. In God’s Gift to Women she is still a top billed star and a leading lady, but there is the distinct feeling that time and the competition is catching up with her. A lot of silent stars seem to have been given a run of sound films as a sort of courtesy since they were stars (providing their voice was good enough). Actresses like Olive Borden and Billie Dove made a string of sound films as headline attractions then either moved down the playbill or disappeared altogether. Laura La Plante lasted a bit longer than many other silent stars but on the strength of God’s Gift to Women it’s clear that she was on borrowed time. She’s perfectly acceptable in her role as society girl Diane but she lacks that certain something to make her special. Her voice is good, apart from a tendency to over enunciate her lines, and she handles the comedy fairly well but nothing about her stands out. She is one of many leading ladies of the Pre Code era whose pretty, aristocratic and virtuous nature began to look a bit old fashioned once the Depression fully kicked in. When you consider the new talent coming up in 1931 as competition it’s easy to understand why early retirement was a sensible and dignified option for Laura La Plante and many like her.

On the other hand, Louise Brooks’ career was on the downward spiral by 1931 having returned from Europe to the Hollywood scene she loathed so much. I must admit at this point that whilst I understand Brooks’ importance as an icon of style and independent spirit, as an actress I don’t see what all the fuss is about. When she’s lit and filmed correctly she does have a transcendent beauty but out of this gaze she has little else going for her compared to many of her contemporaries (especially someone like Colleen Moore). A great star is a star wherever they go but in Louise Brooks’ case, she is only good when handled correctly and that to me is a limiting factor in her legacy. Additionally I always get the feeling that making films in Hollywood was such a chore to her and there are certainly times in God’s Gift to Women where she looks positively embarrassed to be slumming it in such nonsense. She plays Florine, one of Toto’s many girlfriends and she really only has one notable scene. Under doctor’s orders Toto is to stay away from women in order to stop him having an aneurism. She arrives to find that her rivals are also there and ends up having a cat fight with Joan Blondell and Yola d’Avril. Her initial appearance is filmed in profile, with her face almost turned away from the camera and her famous bob covered by a hat. It’s in these scenes, her signature look obscured, that you realise that if you didn’t know who she was she wouldn’t be making as much of an impression. She certainly has some charms but whether she truly thought the whole enterprise was beneath her or she was just tired of the Hollywood rat race, it’s clear her heart isn’t in it. However there is a reaction shot at the end of the scene of just her face in close up that is filmed perfectly and for a few seconds the familiar Louise Brookes look emerges. However, it’s a fleeting glimpse of a star whose best work was firmly behind her.

Lastly we have Joan Blondell playing Fifi, another in Toto’s harem of beautiful women. The film finds Blondell less than a year into her movie career and in her highest placing so far on the playbill (3rd). She was still eight months away from her breakout performance in Blonde Crazy but was steadily climbing up the ladder as a fresh young face. Whereas Laura La Plante represented the typically conservative and virtuous leading ladies of the mainstream cinema thus far, and Louise Brooks a reflection of the high living Jazz Age flapper that was extinguished by the Wall Street crash, Joan Blondell gives us a glimpse of the modern woman of the 1930s. Although Frank Fay is fast talking and fairly animated throughout the film, he looks too middle aged and brings a tired vaudeville sensibility to the movie. In contrast, Joan Blondell is bursting with a fresh, new type of energy. In her first scene she lights up the screen with her big eyes, short blonde hair, wide smile and snappy delivery, and her pep and effervescence prove to be a lively interruption to the creaky old bedroom farce. She looks modern, talks modern and acts modern and seems at this early stage of her career to be well on the way to finding the screen persona that would define her in Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s actually amazing how charismatic she is despite such a lack of film experience and screen time. Just like Louise Brooks’ character, she visits Toto to nurse him back to health and bursts in wearing a patterned, figure hugging dress and throwing herself on him. Compared to Brooks and Yola d’Avril, who make the same sort of entrance, hers is the most memorable and energetic. She then shows an excellent grasp of comic timing (something Laura La Plante struggles with at times) saying that her husband “is ferocious when he’s jealous. He kills people” The pause and the delivery of the punchline combined with a wide eyed look towards Fay at just the right moment is a brilliant piece of business and far more skilful than much of the stilted delivery and hammy acting throughout most of the film. The point is, that fledgling star Blondell is a real breath of fresh air in the movie and has future star written all over her.

Of course all this is with the benefit of hindsight. Contemporary audiences watching the movie would have accepted La Plante as a proper star player, may have remembered Louise Brooks as a star from the past and would have thought Joan Blondell was one of many up and coming young actresses that were regularly appearing on the screen. However, knowing what we know now, we see the three stars in a considerably different light. Joan Blondell obviously has charisma and star quality in spades and her appearance fits into the story of her hard working rise to the top of 30s cinema. Laura La Plante’s career has sadly now been largely forgotten and if she is remembered at all it is for her silent work, not her polite but dull sound roles. And Louise Brooks is an eternal icon, far more famous than her actual screen career ever deserved, but her story and life as a Hollywood free spirit continues to strike a chord with successive generations. Her appearance in God’s Gift to Women is a footnote in her career, though due to her fame reviews of the movie nowadays seem to centre on her performance, uneventful though it is.

When all is said and done, of the three women, Joan Blondell owns the movie. Hers is a dynamic, sarcastic and peppy character that would highlight the way for a decade of hard working chorus girls, quick witted screwball heroines and down of their luck ladies of ill repute. She is effortlessly of her time, and the other two would quickly be left behind as tastes changed. One star fell because she couldn’t keep up with the new generation, and the other because she didn’t want to. In the middle of these women was Frank Fay, whose own career was on borrowed time (for about twenty years at least).

God’s Gift to Women is, like I said, a nice little diversion highlighted by some dream casting. It’s not often you get to see Louise Brooks and Joan Blondell wrestle on a bed in nurses' uniforms, but it happened, and the world is a better place for it. Watching the scene it’s interesting to note that Joan Blondell really puts her heart into the catfight and appears far more animated (and possibly violent) than her co-stars. Louise Brooks looks awkward and embarrassed and Laura La Plante isn't even in the scene (she's far to well mannered). And in a way that works as a representation of their respective careers by 1931 (of course, in the long run Louise Brooks' fame outshone everyone but that’s another story). The lesson to be learned is that when the old stars start to fade, there's always a fresh and eager new face to take their place. Sometimes it’s survival of the fittest, and in 1931 Joan Blondell was the new breed clawing her way up, and Louise Brooks, Laura La Plante and Frank Fay, in the cruel jungle of Hollywood with its fickle and precarious ladder of fame were about to run out of time.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Snapshot # 5 - Ladies' Man (1931)

What is it about?: A notorious society gigolo wines, dines and beds a wealthy socialite and then her daughter but finds it difficult to escape the consequences of his lifestyle when he meets someone he really loves.

The Call Sheet: William Powell, Kay Francis, Carole Lombard, Olive Tell, Gilbert Emery

Behind the Camera: Directed by Lothar Mendes, Screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz from a story by Rupert Hughes, Cinematography by Victor Milner

Snapshot Thoughts: Ladies’ Man is a fairly routine and static melodrama whose main selling point is its rather sordid story of Pre Code loose morals. William Powell plays Jamie Darricott, the titular ‘Ladies’ Man’ (the film’s euphemism for gigolo) who is the escort of choice for middle aged socialite Mrs. Fendley (played by Olive Tell). Mrs. Fendley is rich and bored, as her husband is too busy making money to take her to the opera and go to parties with her. The perpetually jaded looking Jamie fulfils his position with a resigned stoicism due to the fact that it provides him with money to keep up the pretence that he is a gentleman. A complication arises when Mrs. Fendley’s young daughter Rachel (Carole Lombard) falls for Jamie and he obliges to her overtures, creating an odd ménage a trios between mother, daughter and gigolo that is mildly distasteful even in the context of Pre Code bad behaviour. Jamie eventually meets Norma Page (Kay Francis), a fairly normal woman and they start a relationship while Jamie attempts to extricate himself from the entanglements of his profession and start a new life with Norma.

From that brief synopsis we find a movie shrouded in a bleak air of tragedy where death constantly lurks. William Powell plays the part of Jamie in the restrained manner of a man married to his fate and tired of life. In Mrs. Fendley’s home he admires portraits of Catherine the Great and her lover the statesman Grigory Potemkin (I love how 30s films continually throw in these historical references assuming their audience knew full well that they were talking about. I wonder how many did? I had to look it up). They talk about how Potemkin ‘had to die’ for loving Catherine but that it was ‘a glorious death’ for such a love. The relationship is brought up several times throughout the film to remind us that following your heart results in death.

Jamie finds something to really live for when he meets Norma, but we know full well it is doomed (and if we didn’t, the fact that Mrs. Fendley and her daughter both proclaim that if Jamie doesn’t marry them they will kill him kind of gives it away). At this point we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Jamie’s dilemma, but it’s really difficult not to think he has willingly and selfishly brought it all on himself. Meeting Norma may have made him see the light and experience real love but he is still unrepentant for his lifestyle and prefers to blame busy husbands for creating the bored wives that provide a living for him. It’s a testament to the screen persona of William Powell that we feel anything at all for the cad.

Star Performances: William Powell is his usual excellent self and without him the movie would be like watching paint dry. He portrays Jamie Darricott as a world weary, fatalistic traveller who is constantly aware that his life can only end with premature death. Unfortunately at times he is often too world weary which hurts the picture when the poor dialogue and somnambulant pace really require a jolt of energy and movement. Powell is good in the film but the restrictions of the part really limit his ability to give his usual warm, assured performance. Kay Francis, still a few films away from stardom gives a rather charming performance as Norma. She is likable and feisty despite her motivation being questionable (why exactly is she with him?). Unfortunately she serves merely as window dressing for many of her scenes, standing or sitting silently while other characters move the plot on. However, it’s definitely a positive appearance for her, and she has future star written all over her. Speaking of which, the third part of the triumvirate of dream casting in the movie, Carole Lombard acquits herself well as the highly strung daughter Rachel. It’s not much of a part and indeed her character disappears two thirds of the way through the movie but she shows poise and charm. The scenes where she is blind drunk and acting alternately silly then threatening are particularly good. Finally, plaudits must also go to Olive Tell as the bored society wife who starts the whole sorry mess. She looks and sounds like the typical middle aged socialite of so many classic movies, yet instead of being shocked at immoral behaviour, she is the one instigating it. It’s an interesting role for her that continually plays against type.

Technical Excellences: There’s not much to report here sadly. The direction by Lothar Mendes, is flat and uninspiring. The fact that he had previously worked with William Powell and Kay Francis several times seems to made no difference to the quality of their performances and the generally static visual style. Looking at his other directorial efforts of the period, this seems to be his characteristic style and generally his films rise and fall based on the script and the charisma of the actors. Sadly here, neither are particularly inspiring, with Herman Mankiewicz’s script delivering some of the most stilted and dull dialogue imaginable. On the plus side, there are some lovely sets, particularly the hotel lobby set and the various society balls portrayed in the film look like they take place in some suitable grand surroundings. However, the flat direction generally reduces such scenes to vacant wide open spaces.

The Sublime: The best bit of the movie is it’s finale, where Mr. Fendley finally confronts Jamie about his dalliances with his family as a costume ball is about to start. After a brief scuffle, Jamie falls to his death from the hotel balcony and Mr Fendley takes his place leading the procession at the ball. He walks with his wife as it slowly dawns on her what he has done, his eyes glazed over as the police arrive. It’s a really strong ending which in the hands of a better director could have been a powerful scene of celebration slowly descending into tragedy as the truth dawns on all involved. As it is it’s still good, and capped off by Norma crying in the corner if the hall as the dance begins. A policeman says to her “Were you in love with him too?” and in a classic piece of Kay Francis tragedy she tearily replies “You don’t have to feel sorry for me. He loved me. They can’t take that away from me!”. She gives the camera a desperate, hysterical look as the film ends, safely chalking up another entry in the Pre Code book of miserable downbeat endings.

The Ridiculous: Kay Francis’ fashions. I don’t know who was responsible (sensibly the guilty party is left off the credits) but she wears some truly ridiculous outfits in Ladies’ Man. First off she has a hand muff in the hotel lobby that is the size of a baby seal (it may actually be a baby seal). It’s so big it takes up most of a coffee table and provides a useful ice breaker for Jamie to talk to her. Maybe that’s why she was wearing it as it’s really difficult to miss. The film’s designer then strikes again when it come to Kay’s evening wear. She wears a fur coat that looks like a stuffed and mounted poodle lives on her shoulders complete with a collar that even Liberace would say “No, too much” when asked to wear. And after that there is her dress. Wow. It’s a white (I think) number with polka dotted shiny things on it that may or may not be bits of foil taped on, or the entire 1931 supply of rhinestone, it’s difficult to tell. It also seems to have bits that hang off it and move about and basically it is a mess. From a distance it looks like a landing strip for a flying saucer. If you need to see this film, if you really need to, it should be to witness this monstrosity of misplaced glamour. No wonder everyone at the nightclub was drunk - one look at her ensemble and they were three sheets to the wind.

Is it worth watching?: In a word, no. Unless you are a hardcore Pre Code fan and have to see everything, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the sort of film that is interesting as a glimpse of the average filler material thrown out to a public demanding constant product. Not every film was a priority and contracts had to be met so the result is a movie like Ladies' Man. It takes a well known star, a couple of up and coming players and some veterans then throws together a bunch of ‘scandalous’ tropes involving sinful behaviour. Add some melodrama, a contract director and mix. Quite watchable, with hints at greater things but ultimately average and uninspiring. It’s the sort of picture that filled up the bill of an evening’s entertainment and was then instantly forgotten. And let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, with that said, if you are true connoisseur of 30s high fashion and impeccable glamour then Ladies’ Man is one of the greatest films ever made.

Random Quote: “Women are always waiting for someone, and then Mr. Darricott comes along!”