Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Erich von Stroheim - The Man You Love to Hate

Erich von Stroheim is a man of many myths. From the myth of his aristocratic background to the myth surrounding his lost movies, he has certainly had his ups and downs at the hands of critics, writers and historians. It’s been interesting to watch over the years as his reputation rose, primarily based on the tantalizing thought of those just out of reach missing masterpieces, only to dip as the restored (or as near restored as possible) versions of his films became more easily viewable. Tastes change also, and his seemingly adult viewpoint in the twenties seemed starkly realistic to sixties critics, but those same viewpoints have been overtaken by the supposed deeper sophistication of contemporaries such as Lubitsch and Murnau. In fact, the consensus thought as far as I can gather these days is that he was an arrogant and foolish man with dreams bigger than his abilities and who was quite possibly a bit mad.

Though I run the risk of being thought a simpleton for my views and I fully understand any objections, I firmly believe that Erich von Stroheim was quite simply the greatest director that ever lived. Better than Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Lubitsch and all those other ones who currently find favour with the smart set. Though undoubtedly in terms of consistency, longevity or popularity he cannot stand up to any comparison, in terms of his passion, obsession, vision and forward thinking he stands head and shoulders from the crowd. Of all his contemporaries he is the most modern, both aesthetically and philosophically.

Like all great directors, he really only has a handful of things to say. Indeed, his pictures are littered with the same symbols, characters, times and places. What sets him out from his contemporaries is his incredibly adult approach to his material. While Cecil B. DeMille undoubtedly started the cycle of social realism in silent cinema, it is Stroheim that takes the concept and shows it in all its harsh, grotesque glory. His oft quoted comparison of himself with Ernst Lubitsch that, “he (Lubitsch) shows you the king on his throne and then he shows the king in his bedroom. I show the king in his bedroom first. In that way, when you see him on the throne, you’ve no illusions about him” holds true and perfectly highlights his thinking about the inner corruption and depravity that exist in the world as he saw it.

I could go on to give endless examples of this in his films but the point is that no one else in the twenties was thinking this way. No one else was so actively defying the morals of the time in the name of art and no one else thought to attempt to expose not just the seedier side of life and social classes, but while doing so to expose the corruption and disintegration of the post war society around him. By cleverly transplanting most of these situations to post or pre war aristocratic Europe, Stroheim was given free will to shape a world of his own choosing and to strip away the artifice of the very people around him in Hollywood.

However, what marks Stroheim, as a director of the very highest caliber is his all encompassing, obsessive worldview. On one hand this exhibits itself in all aspects of the film making process, not just in writing, directing and starring in his own productions but to his minute, compulsive attention to the details of set dressing, costuming and even the casting of extras. To some, the stories of footwear being bought at great cost for banquet scenes in which they are never even seen may seem ridiculous and unnecessary, but to me they strike me as the work of a man driven by his art. Stroheim also pioneered the use of real locations for films, used character actors in starring roles and used untrained extras in an attempt to put the microscope of the camera up as close to real life as was possible with scant regard to commerce. Others doing this would be applauded but it seems Stroheim isn’t in that select club.

Of course, as a director Stroheim is famous for two things. Firstly it is as the blueprint for every parody of the mad, tyrannical and aristocratic film director. This is perhaps justified, due to his habit of putting his cast and crew in danger in the name of a good take. From the swelteringly dangerous heat of Death Valley in Greed where he almost killed his actors in an attempt to get them to convey pure hatred and blood lust, to the use of real prostitutes to play prostitutes in orgy scenes (not to mention getting his extras drunk and filming it), his quest for the realest of the real was at the expense of all else. Once again, others (for example Werner Herzog) are mostly lauded for this life or death obsession with art, but Stroheim, it seems is just labeled crazy.

The second thing that he is famous for as a director is for probably being the only person that Hollywood effectively “banned” from directing films. In 1933, after being pulled from what would have been his first sound feature, Walking Down Broadway, Stroheim was never to direct again. His arrogance and excess finally ensured that no one wanted to work with him or employ him to be in charge of a film. In the space of a year, Stroheim went from being the infamous director of scandalous films, to being the subject of a begging letter sent round the MGM stars by a friend so that he and his family could eat at Christmas. In the end the money was raised but Stroheim was so ashamed that he threatened to kill himself that Christmas Eve. He was the living embodiment of the phrase “You’re only as good as your last picture”

I think only Buster Keaton had a similarly spectacular fall from grace. Of course both their declines involve Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg and highlight the then growing power of the producer in Hollywood over the artist. Those that couldn’t play ball with the big studios just had to find somewhere else to work. In the cases of both Keaton and Stoheim, they had families to feed so just had to take whatever work was available. Both ended up playing bit parts in poor films and having a stint in the MGM script department brushing up scripts unworthy of their talents. Similarly, both would eventually find their reputations restored in Europe before the end of their lives.

One of the most admirable traits of Stroheim was his inability to entirely give up on his art. Even though he spent the remainder of his life as a jobbing actor he still had the strength of will to impose his unique character and obsessions on each of his parts. Sometimes this meant subtle rewriting of scripts and sometimes it meant challenging the director to a battle of wills but in each time his part and usually the film benefited greatly from his input. His acting appearances are littered with aristocrats, disability, deformity, orthopedic braces, white gloves, religious imagery (Christian and voodoo), insanely detailed set dressing and sly references to Christmas and geraniums (a Stroheim signature). He even wrote a couple of pot boiling novels that neatly synthesized all his obsessions into pulpy, trashy episodes. In short, his dreams had been taken from him but he never gave up.

In the end the myths endure. Stroheim is a director who only made ten films, the vast majority of which were never released as he intended and which now exist (if they exist at all) in mutilated versions. What other director is held in such high regard with such little evidence available? I believe that his reputation goes beyond tales of the grail-like uncut version of Greed, or the anecdotes of insane extravagance and is due to his unique understanding of the motion picture as a medium of boundless potential, one that has no need to justify itself as art and which can and should peek behind the veil of lies that life presents. His obsessional need to explore this world, crumbling as it was, in any medium that would have him, marks him out as not only a great director but as an exceptional artist. That petty minded studio bosses ultimately curtailed the reputation, genius and development of such a dynamic and unusual talent is one of the great tragedies in film history.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Locked Door (1929) - Barbara Stanwyck's Secret Shame

Barbara Stanwyck is probably my 4th favourite actress. Her charm, beauty and intelligence shine through in each of her performances and she is undoubtedly a star in the upper echelon of Hollywood with a resume filled full of movie classics. Unfortunately, and I realize that to some people merely admitting this is utter heresy, I kind of lose interest in her work around 1936. For the rest of the 30s there are many films of hers that I really enjoy watching, but for the most part the magic of the early years is gone. Going into the 40s and beyond, while always watchable and entertaining, her movies just don’t push my buttons in the same way. Even later team ups with the likes of Errol Flynn and James Cagney leave me kind of cold. And all those westerns in the 50s (and hell, even co-starring with Elvis) don’t do it for me either. For me, the Barbara Stanwyck of Night Nurse, Ten Cents a Dance and Shopworn is the one that I want to watch, and while she arguable evolved into a much better, and certainly more famous actress I still think of her as the plucky Depression era girl trying to make good in a bad world.

Now that I’ve outed myself as a part time Stanwyck fan and earned your eternal distrust and revulsion, I’ll continue. I just needed to get that out in the open. I feel like a weight has lifted off my shoulders…

The Locked Door is yet another example of the stagy melodrama so prevalent in early sound films, and a movie generally considered by most (including Stanwyck herself) as being, well not the best example of the art form. To my alarm, during the first couple of moments I tended to agree with the critics. The opening scene sees Barbara wined and dined by bad boy Rod La Rocque on an illegal drinking cruise. The acting by both of them (but especially La Rocque) is just awful with stagnant dialoque and wooden delivery of the highest order. The horrible scene is only saved by the assured and subtle comedy of Harry Stubbs as a incompetent waiter. His appearance imediately shows both of them up and luckily deflects most of the pain.

From there (and 18 months later) the plot concerns Stanwyck’s attempt to split up the affair her sister-in-law is having with La Rocque while also trying to hide the shame of her own past with him to her new husband. You know, the usual fare for the early sound era: scandalous pasts and secret shames. The locked door of the title is the door behind which Stanwyck hides as her husband (played by William ‘Stage’ Boyd) scuffles with La Rocque and accidentally kills him. She confesses to the murder for the good of the family name and drama ensues, as you would expect.

In Rod La Rocque I thought that I’d finally found a silent star that just couldn’t act in sound if his life depended on it. I’ve no way of knowing if the film was shot in sequence but it certainly seems like it as it’s almost as if you see him grow in confidence as the movie goes on. The terribly wooden actor of the first scene is gradually replaced by a swaggering, slimy lothario played with a good attention to character. He makes you hate him but lets the veil slip every so often to see a cracked soul behind the charade. Rod La Rocque’s career wasn’t exactly stellar in the sound era but from this outing he certainly should have been given more of a chance to play villains as he seems well suited to playing the heel. I think I need to see more of his work.

There’s a quite charming relationship played out throughout the film between La Rocque and his butler, played by George Bunny. The implication is that many secrets have been shared (and covered up) between the two and although of differing characters and backgrounds, there emerges some real but unspoken affection for each other. As La Rocque sits idly in his room he puts away the photo of a woman on his desk and replaces it with the new flame, mentioning the oncoming “fresh flower” to his life. Bunny wistfully says to him “You’d be such a nice man if there weren’t any ladies in the world”, to which La Rocque’s equally wistful reply is “But it wouldn’t be such a nice world…” He may be a serial womanizer, wrecker of marriages and all round cad, but underneath it all perhaps he just wants to be loved. Or perhaps he just has fun doing it.

With the high melodrama of the murder comes one of the film’s other highlights in the shape of the wonderful Zasu Pitts. She plays the bored telephone operator at the apartment block where La Rocque lives. As the police arrive she gets more and more excited until she pleads with her boss (played by Keystone great Mack Swain) to be allowed to go up and watch the action, saying, “Oh let me go up, I may never see a murder!” Later, the police call for her to give evidence. As they open the door she falls in, having obviously been listening. She totters around, almost falls over then regains her balance all in one swift movement with a triumphant cry of “I’m in!” It’s a simple but beautifully played piece of comic business and is in fact the highlight of the whole movie. More movies need Zasu Pitts to liven them up.

Of course, none of the aforementioned chatter has really mentioned Miss Stanwyck and her performance. Well, she’s really not too bad. In fact, for her first sound appearance she gives the impression that she’d been at it for years, She has a tendency to shout a little too loud but having just listened to her reprise Stella Dallas on the Lux Radio Theater, that’s not something she got over very quickly (my advice: turn the volume down for that episode). With some minor tweaking, it’s almost as if she arrives on the screen fully formed as the (early) Barbara Stanwyck we all know and love. Her pairing with La Rocque, though starting off on shaky ground, develops into a confident showing for both of them despite the creaky melodrama of the plot and its characters.

And you know what? I’ve just realized that I started out wanting to talk about Barbara Stanwyck and ended up becoming a new fan of Rod La Rocque (my Stanwyck fan credentials just slipped even lower). I think really that says it all about The Locked Door. Barbara Stanwyck is good but she’s far from the most interesting thing on show. However, she’d have her day. Well, until 1936 if you're me.

Monday, 6 September 2010

A Notorious Affair (1930) - Kay Francis, Man-eater!!

A Notorious Affair is another of those films dealing with the lives and loves of the English aristocracy, a common subject in the early 30s for some reason. This time it is all about pretty English rose Billie Dove and her ill-fated marriage to Italian violinist Basil Rathbone. On one hand this is due to that eternal problem of the ruling classes, that she married beneath her station (I mean, a musician? What would the neighbours say?), and on the other hand that the aforementioned husband has the bad fortune to fall into the man-hungry gaze of a certain Countess Olga Balakireff, played here with relish by Kay Francis.

To say that Kay Francis steals the film would be a vast Titanic sized understatement to say the least. She gets the best lines, the most striking close ups, the most shimmering lighting and the swankiest of fashions. Best of all, you can tell that she knows she has a choice role as she is absolutely, jaw-droppingly outrageous in the movie. As a vamp, she about the closest to a hungry eyed, drooling she-wolf you are ever likely to see. Despite not really being in much of the film, she completely eclipses our nominal star, the rather lovely Billie Dove. It’s not that Dove isn’t good, because she does very well but her saintly heroine just can’t compete against Francis’ vulpine sexual predator.

The movie starts by showing a fox hunting expedition returning to the stables. A group of aristocratic gents with moustaches immediately let us know we are in jolly old England by saying “Wonderful!”, “Topping!” and “Rather!” to each other. No seriously, they actually say this. And what exactly is the object of their upper class clich├ęs? Why, it’s Kay Francis, returning from the hunt and resplendent in top hat (we later find out that she’s “London’s most daring horsewoman”).

Upon dismounting her horse, she suddenly stops in her tracks having spied a youthful stable hand. We get a shot of her face with the most unbelievable look of lust in her eyes. She then checks that the coast is clear, and we see the stable door slowly close. There is a brief pause then the door reopens. Kay and the stable boy are readjusting themselves as she asks his age. He is 28. She replies, “I thought you were a lot older”, as he wipes the lipstick from his face. Satisfied, she walks out and immediately spies the kennel boy. There is another look of predatory lust, this time with a callous smirk. New conquests!

Although the scene is far from subtle (returning from the hunt, now where could we find a metaphor in that?) in a mere minute or two of audacious behaviour Kay Francis has already stolen the picture. In the next scene, Billie Dove declares that she doesn’t hunt foxes but “hunts ideals”. Bah! Who wants that? Miss Dove, you may be pretty with your big eyes but what we really want to see is Kay Francis having her wicked way with a succession of servants and orderlies. In a top hat.

Later, Billie Dove introduces polite society to her new husband, played by an impossibly young Basil Rathbone. Though he plays the part very well, he is lumbered with a ridiculous accent. I think it’s meant to be Italian but it could equally be French or Dutch. I suppose he was just starting out in pictures but it seems utterly mind-boggling to take away one of his biggest assets, his wonderfully rich voice. However, it speaks well for his ability as an actor that he gives a decent amount of depth to the role despite this handicap. Despite the having vocal stylings of Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man (he has an absurd speech about pushing a horse in a canal “before he bite me”), he is a solid and pleasingly unsympathetic lead.

As for Billie Dove, I refuse to adhere to the received wisdom that a large percentage of successful silent stars were unsuited to sound pictures. In fact I’ve yet to see the sound films of any big silent star that would give that impression regardless of their eventual success or failure in sound (but that’s a subject for another day). Dove is really very good in the film considering the competition she had on screen. In the few close ups that she is given (and this is a problem as Kay Francis is given all the important close ups), she shows much of the charisma she exuded in silent pictures, with her big eyes aglow. Despite working so much better as an actress in scenes needing facial emotions over dialogue, her voice and delivery are fine and she certainly looks lovely. It’s just that in this film, it’s so difficult to cheer on the hero…

Speaking of which, we next see Kay at the party where Basil Rathbone and his accent make their social debut. She looks stunning in a figure hugging sparkly dress, fashionably short cropped hair and long cigarette. Once again her eyes light up when she sees a man (Rathbone) and we know straight away that poor Billie Dove’s marriage is going to be ruined. He tells her about his occupation as a violinist, which gets the sharp retort of “Oh, how awful!” This gets him under her spell, and they part with her promise that “I hope to see you again…very soon”. This line is delivered with a cool puff on her cigarette, and in such a blatantly evil way that frankly all she needs is a velvet cape and a moustache to twirl and we’ve wandered into a Tod Slaughter film. Rathbone remarks that he expected the Countess to talk about horse riding but she talked of nothing but music. Billie Dove’s character retorts that it’s not surprising as “The Countess is very…versatile”. Well, that’s a word for it, I suppose.

Probably the apex of the man-eating comes shortly after the party scene, where we find her in her boudoir after a liaison with her latest conquest, the kennel hand from the start of the film, Higgins. As she (once again) starts to readjust herself after some bedroom gymnastics she looks at the poor man and says, “Higgins, I never knew you had pale blue eyes. I hate pale blue eyes. I never noticed it before…I think I’ll send you back to the kennels where you belong, Higgins” It’s all said with such detached arrogance that right there and then she just invents every single soap opera uber-bitch that would follow. Poor Higgins, he never really had a chance. He replies “Thank you, madame” and it’s back to the kennels for him.

She then moves onto Rathbone’s character and so begins their notorious affair, the details of which I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say it all works out okay in the end (Kay gets annoyed with his violin playing, he gets tired of her constant nymphomania. Well you would, wouldn’t you?). Kay Francis only has a few more scenes but she makes the best of them and the sheer outrageousness of her performance lights up the screen with its incendiary sexuality . It’s a scene-stealing, star making performance on a par with Myrna Loy in Love Me Tonight.

A Notorious Affair is typical of early sound films in that it’s essentially a creaky old melodrama, spiced up with some hints of moral indiscretion. If you take Kay Francis’ Countess character out of the script, then it’s a well-played but rather ordinary film. However, the combination of Francis’ sheer gusto in delivering the most audacious of lines and the director Lloyd Bacon’s obvious interest in shining the spotlight on a rising star lifts the film out of the average. Of course, Kay Francis would go on to become a bigger star and create a believable and popular screen persona but it’s really a shame that she didn’t go on to do more villainous roles. Her aloof, effortless glamour matched with her strikingly dark good looks mark her out as a natural vamp. I don’t think anyone can hold a cigarette holder with as much disdain as Kay Francis. Her early films, much like those of Myrna Loy show a window into a path not taken. And while commercially it was for the best, the occasional dress-up in the top hat would have been a rather fun and diverting change for her and the viewer.