Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Snapshot # 8 - The Savage Girl (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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