Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Monday, 23 August 2010

Remembering Rudolph Valentino

Today marks the 84th anniversary of Valentino's passing and though I can't profess to be his biggest or most fervent fan, I've always had a certain fascination for the man in both life and in death. While he wasn't the first big movie star to die before his time, the sudden nature of his death provided the burgeoning movie fan scene with an icon to mourn over in a scale not seen since the days of the romantic poets. The chaos that his death provoked alone should have been enough to make him a legendary figure but with an already fully cultivated air of mystery around him Hollywood, not surprisingly went into fan meltdown. If it had existed then, today in 1926 the internet would have ground to a halt.

That his mystique has endured despite the advancement of film technology and our short attention span culture is a credit to his appeal and to the magnetism he exudes on the screen. He is one of a select group of cultural figures that only require to be known by a one word name and for which that name has become a byword for a whole set of behaviours and characteristics.

Like most people I grew up as a film fan fully aware who Rudolph Valentino was, but it wasn't until I saw him on the big screen in Blood and Sand that I realised what all the fuss was about. Of course with hindsight it is easy to ascribe his posthumous mystique and cult to his screen performances but I have to admit that there is an indefinable spark of magic in the way he interacts with the camera (the male equivalent of the "Garbo stare" perhaps). I even find it difficult to describe, but he exhibits at his best a sort of supremely animal like charisma that few have ever replicated. I greatly enjoy the work of his contemporaries such as Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid or Ramon Navarro but while many were better actors, none matched him for innate cinematic sparkle. As I said, a lot of this must be due to hindsight, as it is when judging any celebrity that dies young. With Valentino the cult is strong and at times difficult to overcome. Sadly, his death is just such an important part of his story.

I remember when I was a bit younger I was at a book sale and bought an almost complete run of Anthony Slide's silent movie fanzine of the late '60s and early '70s, The Silent Picture. It was a great magazine as he tracked down all sorts of still living silent artistes for correspondence and short interviews. He also received communications from the still running silent star fan clubs such as the one for Valentino, proudly proclaiming 40 plus years of service to his memory. I imagined a group of elderly women with tear stained photographs of the late star, determined to keep going through their eternal grief. I'd like to hope that somewhere the fan club is still running despite the lack of people still around who saw him in his prime.

If not, I can guarantee that there will be a veritable swarm of Women in Black today tripping over each other to place a rose on his crypt in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Despite the circus that the ceremony has descended into, it shows that he continues to remain a living part of our film culture and memory. The first time I visited Los Angeles, the first thing I wanted to do was to see Valentino's grave. I don't really know why but I felt a compulsive urge to see it. Eighty years after his death I travelled half way round the world to see some engraved marble. I guess that's the sort of pull he has on people.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Three Men on a Horse (1936) - '30s Dialogue and the Decline of Joan Blondell

Three Men on a Horse seems to be a fairly well regarded film but I found it on the whole, a bit puzzling. Not really for anything contained within the film itself but for the things it made me think about while I was watching it. The movie is an adaptation of a popular play and stars Frank McHugh, in a rare starring role as the hapless Erwin Trowbridge, a simple man with a knack of picking winning racehorses. The only problem being that he does it for fun and doesn’t believe in betting. When he falls in with some gamblers they try to befriend him in order to make their fortunes. This snappy premise is ably milked by the talented cast of character actors to showcase their considerable, and usually overlooked wares. And in the middle of it all, in a secondary role is one Joan Blondell, who at this point in her career definitely is not a character actor, and whose presence is, well…a bit odd.

From the beginning you can tell that the movie is essentially a filmed stage play. The sets are sparsely decorated and large, the cast is small, the script is dialogue heavy, there is virtually no location work and much of the action happens off screen. Of course there is nothing wrong with this approach, and despite the fact that the production screams “B-picture” the basic set up allows the experienced cast to flex their acting muscles in ways that I’d imagine many of them had rarely had the opportunity to do.

Despite all this, as the dialogue went whizzing by between the fast talking characters, all I could think was that in the last few years my mind had really become subconsciously attuned to Pre-Code movies. The dialogue in Three Men on a Horse is sharp and frequently amusing, but I think I’ve just become accustomed to there being a bit more bite in my ‘30s wordplay. It made me realize that the Hays Code for the most part really delayed the progress of movies as a form of entertainment to be enjoyed by adults. A lot of people hear so much about Pre-Code movies that when they finally see some examples they are vaguely disappointed by a perceived lack of scandal or overt sexuality. For me this is missing the point. Early sound films are so enjoyable because of their sense of freedom. The lack of any heavy censorship wasn’t a free pass to push taste boundaries, rather it made sure that dialogue could be written to not only better reflect life but to represent the viewers’ and the writers’ often varied tastes.

In contrast, late '30s movies like Three Men on a Horse seemed to develop a ‘wise guy’ patter that gives the impression of street level talk in its pitch, speed and rhythm, but in actual fact ends up saying nothing. Of course, this in itself was all part of Hollywood’s ‘re-branding’ in the post-Depression years, as the studio product got slicker and the stars became vehicles to push the glamour and prestige of film making. The point is, despite the witty script, it gets to a point where it’s just a group of men loudly talking at each other. In 1931, it would have been a different story. Perhaps not as well filmed and acted, but certainly a different story.

The cast in itself is mostly excellent. Frank McHugh is mesmerizing in the lead, tripping through the movie in a sort of na├»ve daze. His bleary eyed look gives the impression of a man out of step with the world and who has to put up with suburbia and a nagging wife in order to have a hobby that gives him enjoyment. The gamblers, played by Allen Jenkins, Teddy Hart and Sam Levene are impressive in that typical Warners way and hugely energetic but sadly hampered by really stagey accents. In fact everyone in the movie seems to have a really annoying thick Brooklyn accent of the ’I’ll moider ya’ and ‘you goys got a noive' variety. In fact Sam Levene’s accent as the dimmest of the three hoodlums doesn’t just verge on caricature, it practically throws caricature off the cliff then sets fire to it. Now, if all this is meant as some warped parody of the Warner Brothers gangster cycle then all is well and good, but I really doubt that was the intention. It may be a result of the script’s stage bound beginnings giving it a sense of heightened reality, but for a mostly stage bound movie it just becomes distracting. At times (and especially in the bar scenes) it really is as if the director Mervyn LeRoy just decided to do a performance of the play and film it for posterity.

Of course all this criticism is overlooking the good points of the film. The rest of the cast is really excellent, with Edgar Kennedy restraining the slow burn as a bartender, Carol Hughes (a childhood favourite of mine for her turn as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) as Mc Hugh’s eternally crying wife, Guy Kibbee as McHugh’s blustering boss and a brief, funny appearance from a pre-Jack Benny Eddie Anderson. As noted, it’s an excellent cast, but the approach just doesn’t work as a film and the accents are exactly what you hear in modern dramas when they do some awful pastiche of 1930s Broadway. Which brings us to Joan Blondell…

Unfortunately Joan Blondell succumbs to the theatrics of the play and sports a heavy, heavy Brooklyn accent, a la Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday but with none of the subtlety and charm. The accent is so thick that her character, the girlfriend of gambler Teddy Hart who has pretensions of a quiet life in the suburbs, can't avoid becoming caricature rather than character. Strangely enough I’ve just listened to a Lux Radio Theater production of She Loves Me Not from 1937 where she does exactly the same accent and it’s equally distracting and ridiculous (kind of like a lower pitched and more worldly wise Dorothy Lee). So the accent must have been her idea and a favourite to boot. Anyway, accent aside she really doesn’t do enough to merit her second from top billing, which begs the question, what was she doing in the picture in the first place? It’s clearly a B picture populated with character actors in featured roles, so why is she, the biggest star in the film, reduced to a minor supporting part?

Part of the answer may be down to Joan’s own lack of ambition and her then recent marriage to Dick Powell. She was known to just want to keep working and looking after her family rather than play studio politics so it’s likely that she was offered the script and chose to do it based on the strength of the writing and relative fame of the play. However, her appearance in the movie could also be a sign that her star was beginning to slip. Her screen appearances in 1936 give some hints as to this, despite three pictures teaming her with Dick Powell. In Sons O’ Guns she is lumbered with (and smothered by) Joe E. Brown as a leading man, and while Bullets for Ballots gives her a choice role with Edward G. Robinson, it is really just as the featured female lead in a 100% Robinson movie.

This was a pattern she would fall into more often than not in the years to come: the bright dependable leading lady to be paired up with A-list featured male stars (with Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen, Leslie Howard in Stand In and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven to name a few). In the late ‘30s and beyond there seemed to fewer and fewer opportunities for an equal pairing with her co-stars, with Dick Powell and Pat O’Brien being notable exceptions. Three Men on a Horse, silly accent aside may be one of the first indications that Joan was an actress to be slotted in to brighten up a movie, rather than a featured star in her own right. Of course, Joan being Joan, she didn’t fight it, choosing rather to get on with the work at hand. Perhaps if, like Bette Davis and Myrna Loy she had stood up against the quality of her parts it would have made a difference to her career. On the other hand, perhaps the example of the then fading Kay Francis at Warners was enough to make anyone forget such ideas.

I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that Joan Blondell is wasted in Three Men on a Horse, though ultimately she lends some class and real star power to a pretty cheap B-picture (Paul Harvey even fluffs a line and it stays in the film!). It’s not a perfect movie by any means but it is entertaining (in a 1936 sort of way) and features a generous spotlight on a number of actors more used to smaller roles. For my tastes however, it raises too many problems to make it a classic. And those accents…ugh. Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Lux Radio Theater # 2 - So You Want to Be a Movie Star?

Make Me a Star (1932)
One of the underlying themes of the Lux Radio Theater is that of Hollywood as a shaper of dreams. As well as selling cakes of soap, the program makers are also selling the idea of Hollywood as the place to look towards for glamour, fashion, fame and fortune. Even the adverts for Lux throughout the show take the form of the weekly adventures of some unnamed starlets on the studio back lot discussing why they don’t have skin as smooth as Carole Lombard’s (Hint: it’s got something to do with Lux). The various Hollywood experts and insiders that appear on the show not only give a glimpse behind the curtain but also give advice, on everything from next season’s fashions to, in this case how to break into acting. So, if you’ve ever wanted to find out whether you would have had what it took to become a star in the Hollywood of 1936, here’s your chance… On the July 27th episode (Chained starring Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone), host Cecil B. DeMille interviews the dramatic coach for MGM studios, Oliver Hinsdale and asks the immortal question, “How can I get into the movies?” Mr Hinsdale starts off by advising the prospective starlet to get some theater experience and to “live without food” in the quest to give your all to the dramatic arts. He then gives his formula for success in movie acting: An actor should have “imagination, idealism, sincerity, knowledge of life, a true love of mankind and a good appearance”. He goes on: “The aspiring actor must have a broad vision and understanding, a cultivated mind, he should know of history, literature, painting, sculpture, music. He should know his Bible. His body must be healthy, active and respond to his bidding. (He should have) a fine clear complexion which denotes health and vitality.” He then plugs Lux (well, it was in his contract) then continues: “You do not need to be beautiful. Marie Dressler and Wally Beery never won beauty contests. If you are beautiful don’t be misled into thinking that is all that is required to get into movies. The ranks of Hollywood’s unemployed are full of those with nothing but beauty. I’ve tested at least 100,000 young men and women for the screen…of these only 17 made the grade. Among them are Jean Parker, Robert Taylor, Irene Hervey, Martha Sleeper, Mary Carlisle, Robert Young, Betty Furness, Michael Whalen and Virginia Bruce.” He ends by apologizing if his advice has been overly negative but adds, “We always need talent. Your chance will come when you are ready and only then. Good luck” And with that the hopes and dreams of thousands of aspiring stars where forever crushed. The cries of “What, you mean it involves hard work!?” were at that moment heard throughout America and the collective youth of 1936 heaved a resigned sigh and went back to reading the stories about how Kay Francis wears her hats in Photoplay. It's interesting to think of how many actual stars in 1936 fitted the description given. I doubt John Barrymore or Errol Flynn had healthy bodies that responded to their bidding. And as for being well versed in the arts, well... So if you think you’ve got the qualifications to make in mid ‘30s Hollywood and have a time machine handy, be sure to read these words, and for goodness sake make sure you pack some Lux!