Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Snapshot # 7 - Hell's Highway (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Ladies of Leisure (1930) - Fat Shaming Marie Prevost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.