At the Roxy

At the Roxy

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lewis Milestone’s “Rain”: Tracking the Veranda

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

Although his career extended well into 1962, ending with the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, Lewis Milestone is remembered primarily for his 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front. In the early sound period, he was one of Hollywood’s most successful and prestigious directors, winner of “Oscars” in 1927 for the comic Two Arabian Knights, in 1930 for All Quiet, and nominated in 1931 for The Front Page. In 1932, he was named head of production at United Artists and directed a film adaptation of the 1922 hit play Rain, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson.” Raising issues of sexual repression, the situation of women, and the political heft of religious fundamentalism, the action of Rain is confined to the public room of a general store/hotel on the South Sea island of Pago Pago.

Milestone, renowned for the epic dimensions of the war sequences in All Quiet, and for his mastery of the moving camera, finds strategies to invest an essentially one-set narrative with pertinent movement as well. Staging Rain in depth and in protracted shot durations we associate with the later masterworks of William Wyler and Orson Welles, Milestone avoids the onus of “canned theatre” and engages the viewer in the often circular dynamics of viewpoints that inflect the dialogue and the social context of the piece. With his fluid camera, we follow the itinerary of the prostitute, Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford), desperate for freedom yet, for a while, entrapped in the moral universe of Mr. Davidson (Walter Huston), the religious fanatic.

The long tracking shot occupies a key position in the film’s rhetoric: it immediately precedes the introduction of the star. As they move forward on the ship’s deck, the marine O’Hara (William Gargan) hears Horn (Guy Kibbee), the proprietor of the general store, decry the power of “the professional reformer,” Davidson. The movement is interrupted by Sadie Thompson’s “red-hot mama” raucous theme song, a recording of “St. Louis Blues.” There follows a series of brief closeups: the quartermaster Bates (Walter Catlett), the amazed expressions of the marines, and finally the anatomized body of Sadie: hands, feet, face. For 1932 audiences familiar with Joan Crawford’s MGM face, invariably lit and made-up to flatter her features, the raw impact of her initial exposure in Rain must have come as the shock it was meant to be. Her tartish get-up and her grotesque, starkly outlined eyes and mouth convey the look of a woman who has seen it all.


The contrast with her glamorous Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel, released the same year, is startling.  



Ten minutes later, it is the quartermaster who marks the opening of a protracted shot that emphasizes the privilege of Davidson. As Bates repeatedly bids the missionary’s “goodbye,” he twice circles the grim-faced principal characters, seated at a table. The rotation includes Sadie and her vastly amused marines in the background and ends with Bates exiting the shot and the confines of the action to the open sea.


The unmistakably cinematic trajectory of this tracking shot draws into uncomfortable proximity the stiff-necked Christian rectitude of Davidson and his group and the easy ways of Sadie and her drinking companions.

The film’s longest tracking shot is immediately preceded by deep space staging in Sadie’s room, extending the range through the use of the mirror. The camera then tracks the despairing Sadie and the comforting O’Hara on the veranda, stopping and starting, finally reaching a provisional conclusion. The lens functions as a third presence on the veranda with the two actors and also as an omniscient viewpoint from outside that includes the interior space and the dinner table. The sequence, beginning with the extension of Sadie’s room, then the six-minute walk on the veranda, and the conclusion that takes in the group at the dinner table, collects the private and public tensions that form the narrative.




The visual schemes of movement and stasis centered on the boat deck and the veranda prepare for the dramatic peak of Rain. The reformer has succeeded in converting the prostitute, presiding over her rebirth as a penitent and pious Christian, ready to return to San Francisco and a three-year prison term. The camera lingers on a shot of the dining room and Horn reciting Nietzsche, all the better to set off the agitation of Davidson, pacing the veranda, in and out of pools of light. Sadie appears in her window, calling to him. She has been scrubbed clean of her garish makeup and trashy dress. Punctuated by a swipe-pan, the face that made Joan Crawford a star is highlighted in closeup in the window frame, an image meant to strike us as irresistibly beautiful. His voice filled with desire, Davidson says as much—“radiant, beautiful.” Sadie lifts her face to catch the light and we must concur. A moment later. Davidson enters her room and rapes her.



Rain did poorly at the box office in 1932. Reviewers took small account of the director’s inventions; the public was probably put off by the deglamorized Crawford, perhaps even the critique of intolerant morality.

In his subsequent three-decade-long career, Milestone was responsible for some disappointing genre films, but also remarkable titles of a true auteur--The General Died at Dawn, Of Mice and Men, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and a trio of war films, The Purple Heart, A Walk in the Sun, and Pork Chop Hill, worthy of the director of All Quiet on the Western Front. I will return to Milestone in future posts.

Note: the complete film of Rain is available on Youtube.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Durbin Effect

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

Every Sunday (1936), an MGM musical short, is a precious document that introduces two adolescent girls--two remarkable talents--Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin. Head of studio Louis B. Mayer was apparently furious when, after putting Garland under contract, Durbin became such a huge success so quickly, for a rival studio, Universal. Garland, of course, went on to become a screen legend, her films frequently revived. Durbin, fed up with the generally mediocre material in which she was cast, abandoned Hollywood and the movie business, show business in fact, in 1948 when she was only twenty-seven years old.  Both of them have cult followings but Durbin is far less well known today. Contemporary viewers are often puzzled to learn that Deanna Durbin is credited with having saved Universal from bankruptcy with her feisty adolescent nature and her precocious voice. In a series of films directed by Henry Koster, she was, for ten years, sensationally popular in the United States and England.

Co-starring in Durbin’s second feature, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), was Leopold Stokowski. The renowned conductor’s reaction to her rendition of Mozart’s “Allelulia” (from Exsultate, jubilate) mirrored that of amazed moviegoers, particularly those familiar with Mozart and the classically-trained voice. However much expert coaching went into Durbin’s impeccable delivery of the piece, the fifteen-year-old seems to be to the manner born. Of course, what makes her a movie star is the ability to project so palpably her personality, her feelings, her joy in music and in singing. Her pluckiness remains a significant image of America in the late '30's.

Durbin's voice, healthily equalized throughout her range, and her refined musicality take on particular value when she is compared to the "legit" sopranos who attained stardom in the 1940s, Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson. Although Powell and Grayson are technically proficient, capable of the coloratura flexibility that audiences loved, they lack Durbin’s immediately recognizable sweetness. Like Garland, Durbin was a talented actress with an individual, recognizable style. That style, consonant with her musical discipline, is perceived in the fluent, rapid-fire, but utterly clear delivery of dialogue with irresistible impetus and energy, often with a dash of irony that never smacks of bratishness but rather, of real intelligence, and with a warm personality that echoes her singing/speaking voice. This served her ongoing popularity in "grown-up" roles of the 1940s. It Started with Eve (1941) pits her verbal virtuosity against the formidable Charles Laughton—the outcome is a draw. (Alas, I have found no extended excerpt from their scenes together to include in this post).

In this short scene from Spring Parade (1940), Durbin exhibits the charm, the verve, and the spirit that captivated movie audiences. Here, in a variation of the “Little Miss Fix-it” she played through her ‘teens, she promotes the musical career of a young composer. It is with enormous relief that the song, first bellowed by the relentlessly grinning Robert Cummings, finally takes wing when she chimes in.


In Christmas Holiday (1944), directed by a master of film noir, Robert Siodmak, and written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (responsible for the script of Citizen Kane), her dramatic role suggests that at a different studio, with perhaps a higher degree of ambition, she would not have truncated her career so abruptly. The visual context of noir melodrama enhances the final confrontation between the guilt-ridden, distraught Abigail (Durbin) and Robert, her deranged husband (Gene Kelly).


Christmas Holiday is the sole melodrama in Durbin’s filmography. The “Western” musical Can’t Help Singing (1944), another rare effort to vary the formula, is her only feature shot in Technicolor. The film features musical numbers (Jerome Kern’s last score) staged on location. I end this post with Durbin singing “Any Moment Now” in scenery that matches the “wonderland” of E. Y. Harburg’s lyrics.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

“Pépé le Moko” in “Algiers”



Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

Remakes have been coin of the realm as long as cinema has been a commercial enterprise. A proven success is somewhat of a guarantee that its subsequent refashioning will also attract audiences. The new version may be updated, relocated, reconceived. It may take advantage of newer technologies, as was the case when silent films were remade as talkies. And at the dawn of the talkies, the late 1920s and early 1930s, the major U.S. studios made it a practice to reshoot their films for foreign markets nearly simultaneously, utilizing the same sets and stagings, in French, Spanish, and German. The mirror-imaging of one culture’s product, albeit in a different language, soon proved unsatisfactory. But the significant refashioning of a property in the same language, or in another, has inspired some directors to re-create major works. Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), based on Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), immediately comes to mind. And Hitchcock topped his own 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much with his own remake in 1956.

The case of Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko and John Cromwell’s Algiers is unusual in that the Hollywood remake of the French-language film, more a throwback to the simultaneous copy of the early sound era than a recasting of the original, enjoyed enormous success. As I mentioned in my previous post, producer Walter Wanger was determined to recycle as much of Pépé le moko as he could--musical score, the location shots of Algiers, the set design, the staging. Great swaths of the dialogue are literal translations from the French. There are subtle differences between the two pictures, mostly in the loss of texture and the depiction of the denizens of the Casbah, the women, in particular, whose presentation more clearly identifies them as prostitutes in the French version. Again, as I mentioned in my last post, the individualities of the stars, Jean Gabin and Charles Boyer are pronounced. And the leading actresses, Mireille Ballin and Hedy Lamarr in addition to their physical difference, supply distinctive tones to their roles, Ballin brittle, quick with repartee, a woman who knows her way around and has no illusions, Lamarr, more languorous, yielding, sadder.
Take a look at the final scene in each film. The similarities are striking. Yes, the U.S. version is less detailed than the French, but the positioning of the characters creates the same effect in each. More interesting is the obvious difference. First, the French version. (I was unable to find a copy of this excerpt in French. This clip is from the Italian language version. The sequence has very little dialogue.)


Now, the Hollywood version.


Pépé’s death becomes a suicide by cop. Since the U.S. production code frowned on suicide, this became the solution to the problem. The elimination of the much of Inès’ anguished participation and the addition of the hero’s words as he dies, achieves a less bleak resolution.

John Cromwell had the unenviable task of simulating the work of Julien Duvivier, a director at the peak of his career, and of tailoring a picture to the expectations of the Catholic Legion of Decency and the U. S. moviegoing public. And in the spirit of maintaining an urgent narrative rhythm, he eliminated Tania’s song, one of the most memorable scenes of Pépé le Moko. Tightly woven into the rich atmosphere of the original movie, Tania, a minor character, the “woman” of a member of Pépé’s band of thieves, sits with the despondent Pépé. The disappointed lover believes that Gaby has stood him up. And with the loss of Gaby he has lost his dream of Paris, the city and the life she represents. Played by beloved music-hall singer Fréhel, the blowsy Tania expresses the despair she shares with Pépé, her yearning for Paris and the memory of her former self, when she was a star. She cranks a turntable and places the needle on the record. The camera pivots to a photo of the pretty, young Fréhel and lingers a long moment before pivoting back to the singer who at first listens to her own voice, then joins in the nostalgic song, recalling the particular square, the Place Blanche in Paris, that linked Pépé and Gaby as they fell in love in the Casbah of Algiers. Fréhel/Tania sings “Où sont-ils?” (Where have they gone). The distance between the two images and the two voices of Fréhel is an indelible evocation of the spatial and temporal alienation that supply the movie’s pulse.


One final word about Tania. In Algiers she is played by Nina Koshetz, a renowned and highly regarded opera and concert singer. We can only conjecture that she was cast in the role because there was to be a song for her, and we can only regret that we do not get to hear it.





Friday, September 9, 2016

Two Pépés: Jean Gabin and Charles Boyer ... and a third


Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, and for many subsequent decades, Jean Gabin was the most popular movie star in France. Starting at about the same time, another French-born actor, Charles Boyer, who had first worked in the United States at the coming of sound, reached the peak of his Hollywood stardom. Both of them enjoyed great international success before the outbreak of World War II, Gabin in the prestigious art films of Jean Renoir (La Grande illusion [1937], La Bête humaine [1938]) and of Marcel Carné (Quai des brumes [1938], Le Jour se lève [1939]), Boyer in movies addressed to mass audiences, the French-made Mayerling (1937) and in Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939). Boyer, the elder by five years, was born in 1899 and died in 1978, two years before Gabin. They made their last films in 1976, crowning professional lives of extraordinary length.

In the U.S., Charles Boyer, marketed as “the Great Lover” in romantic films that called for Continental charm, was also acknowledged as a superb actor (four "Oscar" nominations). His roles tested him in a wide range of roles, mostly as sympathetic characters, attentive to his female co-stars, charming, well-mannered, occasionally tormented (All This and Heaven Too [1940], Confidential Agent [1945]), and once villainous (the murderer in Gaslight [1944]). He was praised for his New York stage appearances in works by Sartre, Shaw, and several sophisticated comedies between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Gabin began singing and dancing in the music hall and found his screen persona in La Bandéra (1935) as the marginalized, idealistic man of the people, quick to anger, a victim of society. Suave Boyer and bad-boy Gabin proved irresistible to women.

The parallel trajectories of these two actors intersect in a single role they both played, first Gabin in 1937, the following year Boyer. The success of Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, the film that made Gabin an international star, prompted American producer Walter Wanger to buy the rights to the film, reuse the score and much of the footage, duplicate the staging and the decor, and translate the dialogue. (My next post will be devoted to a comparison of the two films.) With a new title, Algiers, Wanger’s retread, directed by John Cromwell, served as the American debut of Hedy Lamarr. Pépé cemented Boyer’s stellar rank just as it had Gabin’s. For years, the French actor’s legion of comic impersonators echoed a line never heard in the film—“Come wiz me to the Casbah”—vainly trying to sound Boyer’s inimitably seductive bass timbre.

Despite the similarity of the set-ups in the French film and its Hollywood remake, the individual allure of each Pépé emerges clearly. In the intimacy of the final encounter between the gangster, sheltered in the Casbah of Algiers, eager to break free, to return to Paris with the gorgeous woman with whom he has fallen in love, we hear Gabin’s mixture of bravado and passion. The French dialogue, most of which you will hear translated in the Boyer clip, connects Pépé’s infatuation for Gaby to his obsession for Paris. Gaby is played by Mireille Ballin, his glamorous co-star in Jean Grémillon’s 1937 Gueule d’amour.  





Boyer is smoother, a bit more refined, but no less persuasive of Pépé’s need to be with Gaby, who embodies his escape from Algiers. And as Gaby, Hedy Lamarr is no less entranced by her desire for Pépé than was Mireille Ballin.





The contrasting styles of Boyer and Gabin are more striking in films made at approximately the same time. In Quai des brumes, Gabin, playing Jean, a character similar to Pépé, a deserter with an overwhelming need to to escape--here from France, needs little time and few words to convince Michèle Morgan’s Nelly that he loves her.






In this sequence from Frank Borzage’s breathtakingly romantic History Is Made at Night (1937), Boyer’s Paul moves incrementally from light-hearted banter to a wordless declaration of love in a night-long tango with Jean Arthur’s Irene. Again, the authenticity of the character’s feeling and the candor written in his eyes exert their power over his co-star and the movie spectator.
 












With the title Casbah, Pépé le Moko had yet another Hollywood remake in 1948. Tailored to the prodigious musical talents of Tony Martin, it boasted a Harold Arlen score. Singing “It Was Written in the Stars” to the Gaby of Marta Toren, Martin’s silken timbre is undefeated by the static of this clip.